Zoe Macfarlane | @zoemacnz

1 November 2018

If you’re in Girls Love Travel, you’re likely a travel trendsetter and have heard of the Azores islands in the middle of the Atlantic. Zoe Macfarlane has pegged it as one of the year’s hottest destinations. Find out why as she shares her exploration of the Atlantic playground of Sao Miguel.

I’m told that the Azores are islands with their own time zone and I find this weirdly thrilling. As I write this, it’s the only place in the world where it’s 3pm. Not that the Azores is the kind of destination that needs this kind of gimmick. Here the lush volcanic landscape, multi-colored buildings, and laidback locals can hold their own.

The Azores is a 9-island archipelago that needs pointing out on a map to most. It’s off the coast of Portugal, with the island of Sao Miguel being the most populous. It houses half of the 250,000-strong population. Sao Miguel, where I am, is arguably the fun capital, with a range of natural wonders, adventure activities and exquisite views to seduce.  

Ponta Delgada is the island’s hub. Though where the town’s 60,000 residents are is unclear as you wander the sleepy cobbled streets, explore historical buildings or walk the promenade alongside the Atlantic’s rough ocean waters. Explore on a Sunday in November and you wonder if there are any inhabitants at all.

Photograph by Zoe Macfarlane

Ponta Delgada is a popular base but, aside from the comprehensive dining options, there are more alluring ones to consider. Head 10 minutes down the road and you’ll find the sleepy village of Lagoa. Here the black sand beaches and craggy granite rocks provide a stunning coastline frame.

It’s in Lagoa that the recently opened WHITE is located. The imposing high walls of this boutique property belie the inviting vibes inside. Cross the threshold to discover a cavernous building that was once a manor and wine storage area. The whitewashed walls and clean architecture work in harmony with the Atlantic, a few metres below. Each of the 10 rooms opens out to ocean views, with carefully designed hangout spots to watch the sunset. Or opt to swim in the opposing calm waters of the heated salt-water infinity pool. I feel almost disappointed that I’ve booked day tours that will take me away from this heavenly hotel.  

While I could live out my days at WHITE, I decide to split my time on the island, spending the second half on the north side at the Santa Barbara Eco-Beach Resort, just 4km from the charming town of Ribeira Grande. One- and two-bedroom sustainably-built villas stand sentry over the famed Santa Barbara surf beach. At this time of year, you’d be a fool to even dip your toe in the raging waves.

Photograph by Zoe Macfarlane

While I could live out my days at WHITE, I decide to split my time on the island, spending the second half on the north side at the charming town of Ribeira Grande.

Photograph by Zoe Macfarlane

I was fortunate. The Azores have a saying that they have not four, but five seasons in one day but I was blessed with unseasonably good weather. My view of the iconic Sete Cidades was uninterrupted by both clouds and tourists. These seven volcanic lakes are picture-perfect, with hues ranging from emerald green to malachite. Opt to walk to the lookout, or take a 12km rim hike. Save some energy for a short hike down to crisp chill of the waters at Lagoa do Fogo.

Adventure tourism is growing to be big business in the Azores. A cold meant I couldn’t enjoy scuba diving with Best SpotInstead I threw my hand up for a day of canyoning with Fun Activities Adventures.

Guides and owners Paolo and Joao have the right balance of humor and leadership that all great adventure guides seem to have. Geared up in wetsuits, boots, and helmets, we were driven up a steep hill to begin our adventure rappelling Salto do Cabrito waterfall.

It didn’t take long to find the rhythm required to walk the streams, scale the rocks and launch into the big falls. On the third, I bravely lead the group. At the bottom, I turned the corner and was greeted with strewn moss-covered logs, sheer cliffs rising high above and the water pooling gently. It was a scene from Jurassic Park, minus the raging dinosaurs. Plunging into the thick rapids of Saido do Cabrito, I was reminded why I love travel and adventure. Sao Miguel island makes it easy.

Photograph by Zoe Macfarlane

Attractions aside, interactions with the locals cement the Azores as deserving of this ‘best new’ accolade. An effortless community, welcoming and generous, I met silver-haired dame Ana at the iron-rich thermal pools of Poco Dona Beija. Within 20 minutes, Ana had organized to show me more of the island, relaying the stories that only a local can. She even dropped me at the airport on my last day. The people of Sao Miguel seem to have voluntarily taken on the ambassador roles, so proud of their magnificently understated island home. The Azores have ample activities to boast about but it’s the local’s warmth and generosity that will see me return.

Want more Azores tips? Reach out on Instagram – @zoemacnz

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