When planning my travels, I like to think beyond the obvious and nothing thrills me more than seeking out uncharted destinations that are yet to experience mass tourism.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY Emma Lavelle | @fieldandnest
I stumbled upon the Azores accidentally, when researching the best destinations for whale watching in Europe, and whilst our cetacean spotting ambitions were thwarted by rough seas, we found ourselves falling for the diverse landscapes of Sao Miguel.
Flying into Sao Miguel, the largest of the nine islands that make up the Azores, is an experience in itself. For two hours, our flight from Lisbon soared over nothing but the waves of the Atlantic, before a mysterious land loomed ahead, its coastline dramatic against miles of nothing but the ocean and its peaks shrouded in cloud. This impenetrable mist would become a constant feature of the five days we spent on the island, rolling around us on mountain passes before allowing us the slightest glimpse of the most incredible views I have ever witnessed.
The island is just 39 miles long and 10 miles wide, filled with mountains, hot springs, rainforests and coastlines just begging to be explored. A day exploring the island could require a swimming costume, hiking boots, sunglasses and jumpers – so the 15L Smith the Roll Pack rucksack was the perfect travelling companion with ample room for supplies for all weather conditions.
Akin to a tropical Iceland, Sao Miguel is rocky and volcanic, dotted with steam vents and hot springs. At Ponta da Ferraria in the west you can cling onto a rope in a thermal rock pool while battling the cold waves that roar in from the ocean. Furnas, in the centre of the island, is a hive of geothermal activity: locals bake traditional stew by burying it in the scorching earth, steam rises from bubbling mud pools and visitors soak in a yellow-hued lake in the midst of a tropical garden. There are several other smaller hot springs for bathing in the town, all of which carry a small cost. Finally, and perhaps the most magical of all, Caldeira Velha is nestled in the middle of a tropical forest, rife with greenery. Sinking into the lower hot pot is akin to enjoying a hot bath, while two-minute walk uphill you will discover a lukewarm spring with its own private waterfall.
I’ve never before been surrounded by so much greenery. Tea plantations (the only ones in Europe), luscious tropical plants, towering palms, vibrant fields and thick vegetation cover the island. As you fly in from above, it feels like you’re landing in the Lost World. Sparkling blue and green lakes nestle inside dormant volcanic craters, roads snaking up the sides to scatterings of miradouros where the views can be enjoyed, mist permitting.
Sete Cicades are perhaps the most famous lakes; two separate bodies of water, one blue and the other green, separated by a short bridge over a straight. Local legend explains the difference in colour to be that the lakes were formed from the tears of a Princess and her lover, a shepherd that her father forbade her from marrying. Her eyes were green and his were blue, hence the colour of the lakes. Legends aside, some of the best views on the island can be seen from the roads that hairpin up to the top of the crater. At Vista do Rei, it is possible to sneak inside a brutalist hotel that was abandoned in the 1980’s, peering down at the lakes from the roof. Higher still, hike to Boca do Inferno through the forest above Lagoa do Canario to witness one of the best natural views in the world. Even shrouded in cloud, the sight of the craters below will take your breath away.
Hiking is practically a national sport here, trails looping along dramatic coastlines in the north east, through tropical forests in the centre of the island and around the circumference of the crater lakes. My Millican rucksack accompanied me on these treks, travelling with me to secret waterfalls, pineapple plantations and vertigo-inducing clifftop vistas. Anyone who loves to walk among natural landscapes will feel at home on this otherworldly island.
Located in the middle of the Atlantic, the Azores are often battered by rain and gale-force winds, but the humid microclimates of the forested areas provide a direct contrast to the weather-worn coastlines. Just a ten-minute drive off the main road, you stumble upon Ribeira dis Caldeiroes, an oasis filled with palm trees and waterfalls. A fifteen minute drive further down the main highway and you’re stood on the edge of a cliff, a bitterly cold Atlantic wind whipping your hair.
This is an island of extremes, a place of diversity. It’s the land that time forgot, that has not yet truly been discovered. I hesitate to share Sao Miguel with those who have not yet felt its allure. In a world so choked up with tourism and commercialisation, this tiny island in the middle of a vast ocean is a breath of fresh air, a relaxing retreat and a dramatic adventure all in one.