10 places to go swimming in São Miguel
After so many baths in thermal waters and natural pools, let’s be real snobs and say, can’t we just swim in the sea? Santa Bárbara Beach, on the island’s northern coast, is the longest stretch of sand in the archipelago: over one kilometer of fine, dark sand, and the most-coveted waves in São Miguel.
If sand is indeed what you like, check out São Miguel’s top 5 beaches: Santa Bárbara (1km), Água de Alto (560m), Milícias (330m), Pópulo (180m) and Moinhos (120m).
At the most westernly point of São Miguel, on a “fajã” (a Portuguese term referring to the flat coastal stretches of land formed by lava that are so typical of the Azores), is a 40ºC thermal spring that flows directly into the Atlantic Ocean - itself a shy 20ºC. This unusual hot saltwater cocktail is served in a little cove a few meters away from the Spa da Ferraria. It is certainly the warmest bath you’ll ever take in the middle of the Atlantic.
If you would rather relax in a spa, follow the locals who, since 1888, have gone down the steep hillside looking for relief in the Ferraria river’s medicinal waters. It was that year that the first “bathhouses” appeared, though these waters may have already been used before then. The Ferreira Spa was inaugurated in 2010 with all the luxuries of modern thermal facilities, as well as two open-air hot-water pools nestled between the volcanic rocks and the sea. A sci-fi setting that becomes even more incredible at the end of the day, when the sun sets right in front of you
Many descriptions of hell mention cauldrons full of boiling water where condemned souls are doomed to spend the rest of their days. Mephistopheles, Satanas or whoever else is in charge of staging the world of darkness should have a look at Caldeira Velha (Old Kettle): there, boiling water runs down the stones and surges from the ground, to the delight of the people sitting in the pools. There are hot waterfalls, a riverside, pools, fumaroles and a garden of endemic native plants, all inside a forest that closely matches the description of another famous garden. What’s its name again? Eden, that’s right. If you want to “punish yourself” with a visit, you just need to pay €2 and bring your swimsuit in your backpack.
Hidden away on a steep hill, right next to a picturesque fishing port, is one of the archipelago’s most beautiful pools: Caloura’s natural swimming hole (Piscina Natural da Caloura). Inside the bay, there is a tiny peninsula where you can take saltwater baths and contemplate the possibility of spending the afternoon on real estate websites to find out how much it costs to buy a house there (spoiler: a lot).
And if swimming makes you hungry, Restaurante Caloura, right next to the pool, serves fresh fish (“peixe do dia”) for €15. The menu changes according to what the sea brings, but you can generally find the likes of tuna, barracuda, mullet, sawfish and blue jack mackerel. The terrace is inviting, if only for the price of beer (€1). Expect a line in the summer.
“Desmoer” is a Portuguese word that officially means “to digest”, but which, culturally, also implies the light exercise done to promote digestion after a big meal: a walk by the sea, a stroll in the garden, an expedition to the ice-cream shop, etc. Terra Nostra Park is the perfect place for this type of post-lunch activity. There’s a garden, there are grottos, there are lakes, a camellia collection and a thermal water lake that is yellow, opaque and between 35ºC and 40ºC. On www.parqueterranostra.com, you’ll find four garden itineraries, one for each season of the year.
Tip: At the end of the day, when the temperature drops, the air fills with a small mist, a sort of steam blanket that a) makes it seem like you’re swimming in pumpkin soup and b) creates the perfect setting for amazing pictures.
The Vila Franca Islet (Ilhéu de Vila Franca), also known as the romantic “Princess’ Ring”, is one of São Miguel’s jewels (we too can be lyrical). The aerial view of this volcanic island has been seen the world over in Azores promotional videos, and is one of the archipelago’s main wow factors. It reached global fame in recent years as the location of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. It can only be visited in the summer, a time of year when hundreds of people flock to the bay, formed by the crater of an underwater volcano: the islet only allows 400 swimmers a day. The crystalline waters are great to swim in, but be very careful with the sun: the island doesn’t have any shade.
How to get to Ilhéu de Vila Franca
In the swimming season, a boat with capacity for 34 people does the journey back and forth. Sporting the pompous name of Cruzeiro do Ilhéu (The Islet’s Cruiseship), it leaves from Vila Franca do Campo’s marina at 10am, and then every hour until 6pm. Return trips all leave 10 minutes past the hour, except the last boat, which departs at 6.30pm. Tickets cost €5 and are usually sold out early in the morning. The ticket booth opens at 9.30am.
Do it carefully and only in the indicated zones. There are algae, rocks, mud and other things under the opaque surface that could make your life difficult. The swimming zone, delimited next to the grey buildings, is watched by a lifeguard in the summer.
Mosteiros is not there just for sunset - it exists during the day, too. This village is located in one of the most western parts of the island, facing the Mosteiros Islet, a real postcard landscape (take a picture and then click “set as background”), which is magnified by the yellow tones of dusk. We suggest a trip to the Banda D’Além corner shop (3, Rua dos Moinhos) to pick up a cold beer first.
Be part of the largest human-infused tea by soaking in one of the three tanks of the renovated D. Beija swimming pool. The water is 39ºC in the pools and 28ºC in the “river” that flows between them, temperatures that make swimming possible all year, and all day long - the pool closes at 11pm and is an even more incredible experience at night time. This is a great way to end a day in São Miguel.
Sometimes, the view of Lagoa do Fogo can seem like wallpaper. Or a huge painting, wonderfully crafted, made with liters and liters of green and blue paint. That’s why a walk to the lake shores is a good opportunity to confirm that all of this is real. The path starts at the Serra da Barrosa viewpoint and takes you to the bottom of the volcanic crater with the least human intervention in the whole island - and it would be good to keep it this way. Being down there gives you the sensation of being one of the first humans that set foot there. “A small step for man…”, oh, you get the idea.
More things to do in the Azores
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There are nine islands and we have 21 suggestions. Sleeping in one of these hotels is in itself an Azores experience not to be missed. Have you already decided where you’re going to sleep after all this walking and swimming?
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If the Azores were an album, São Miguel would be the hit single, the song everyone keeps humming. It is the most famous, largest and most accessible of the nine islands, the one on everybody’s lips - but its dimensions and offering may seem overwhelming. Don’t worry, we’ve done the hard work for you: here are the 10 best things to do in São Miguel.