São Miguel island (Ilha da São Miguel) is the largest in the Azorean archipelago of nine, and is often the first stop for visitors as most flights go to Ponta Delgada, the capital and biggest city.
Like the rest of the Azores, the weather in São Miguel is very unpredictable – truly four seasons in one day! While it rarely gets too cold or too hot (lows of 10 degrees Celsius in winter, highs of 25 in summer), wind and humidity are high and it rains a lot. Summer is the peak season for tourism, and the weather is mostly more settled then. Nonetheless, the islands’ location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean means that they are right in the pathway of storms rolling across the Atlantic, and they are regularly buffeted by high winds, large swells, and random downpours.
The good news is that the moderate temperatures mean São Miguel is a great place to visit year-round, and there are plenty of things to do on the island that don’t require sunshine. This is not really a beach holiday destination – you’ll enjoy São Miguel if you like hiking, hot springs, forests, and other outdoor activities, and you will be rewarded with luminous green fields, dramatic slopes and seascapes whatever the weather.
If São Miguel is the only island you’ll see in the Azores, I’d recommend taking at least a week or 10 days in order to give yourself the highest chance to experience it at its best. A downside is that much of the island is only accessible by car – so if possible, try to rent one or, in my case, travel with someone who can drive.
All weather: Miradouros (viewpoints), waterfalls, tea plantations
Because the weather is so changeable, São Miguel can turn from rainy to sunny and vice versa in a single day, even a single afternoon. If the forecast is looking a bit uncertain, don’t be put off – that’s a good time to go for a drive around the island. One microclimate will give way to another, and even on grey days you can get fantastic views from the many miradouros (viewpoints) dotted around the island. Some of these miradouros were once used by whale hunters to spot sperm whales from afar, before the practice was banned in the 1980s.
Another option while you’re driving around is stopping to see the island’s multiple waterfalls. Many of these are accessible via a short walk from a parking spot.
Another nice thing to do is to visit the island’s tea plantations of Gorreana and Fábrica de Chá do Porto Formoso. Sip a green tea and learn about the importance of this product for the people of São Miguel.
Sunshine and clear skies: Iconic volcanic lakes and hiking
If you are lucky enough to have clear skies when you visit, seeing the three main volcanic lakes on the island is a must. Their names are Lagoa das Sete Cidades, Lagoa do Fogo, and Furnas.
These lakes are located several hundred metres above sea level, meaning that even if it seems sunny at lower altitudes, there can be dense fog once you get to the top – so try to check out the webcams before you go. All the lakes offer hiking trails with spectacular views, and Furnas is surrounded by a tropical-feeling forest which offers cool shade in the heat and shelter when it rains (more on that below).
Light rain/fog/cold: Hot springs, botanical gardens, hiking
One of the best things about São Miguel is the naturally occurring hot springs, or thermal baths. Poça da Dona Beija and Parque Terra Nostra are my personal favourites. The former is much smaller and more intimate, and is open until around 23:00, meaning you can enjoy an evening there. The latter’s entrance fee (around 10 euros) includes entrance to the beautiful Terra Nostra botanical gardens.
The water is a brownish colour due to the minerals, so make sure you wear an old swimming costume, or at least one you don’t mind getting a bit stained. Both Dona Beija and Terra Nostra’s pools are really warm, around 40 degrees C. This is why they’re actually much better on rainy, foggy, or colder days: they’re best enjoyed when they contrast the surroundings.
Furnas (one of the volcanic towns, and a lake, mentioned above) and Terra Nostra are only a 10-minute drive from one another, so you can enjoy a walk in the dense tropical forest that surrounds Furnas, protected from light rains by the tree canopy. Enjoy the waterfalls and large redwoods, as well as the softly smouldering hot volcanic earth where restaurants slow-cook meat as a local speciality (see pictures above).
After that, you can go to Terra Nostra for the hot springs and beautiful botanical garden – a good choice in any kind of weather, but both the pool and the garden have a special kind of mystical feeling during foggy days.
There’s another very nice botanical garden in Ponta Delgada, Jardim Botânico António Borges, which dates back to the 19th century and is well worth a visit. You can stop for brunch at the delightful In Nature café, situated inside the gardens.
Heavy rain/cold: Museums!
São Miguel also has some good museums on offer. I really like the Carlos Machado Museum in Ponta Delgada, especially its amusing and vast collection of taxidermied sea creatures from centuries past, and the Museum of Vila Franca do Campo (which is free to enter).
Vila Franca was actually the old capital of the Azores until it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake and landslide in 1522, which killed 4,500 people. The museum has interesting exhibits explaining the earthquake and the town’s history since then.
Calm winds/gentle seas: Whale watching and natural swimming pools
Something people often forget is that ‘weather’ also includes sea conditions, and this matters if you are aiming to do something like whale watching, fishing, surfing, snorkelling, or bathing in the natural swimming pools on the island. The north coast of the island, as a general rule, experiences much rougher sea conditions than the south coast.
That’s why, if the conditions are favourable and it’s low tide, it’s worthwhile trying to visit some pools like the thermal Ponta da Ferraria or the Piscinas Naturais Caneiros in the north-west of the island.
For whale watching, it doesn’t matter if the skies are grey – it’s actually easier to see the animals without the glare of the sun. The most important thing is that the winds are low, the waves and swells are gentle, and the visibility is good (for both you and the vigias, or lookouts, on whom the tours rely to spot faraway whales using powerful binoculars).
Pick a company like Terra Azul, working out of Vila Franca do Campo (full disclosure: I have worked with them), a 20-minute drive from Ponta Delgada. They use fast Zodiac boats which can carry around 27 people maximum, and they keep a respectful distance from the animals so as not to stress them while also ensuring everyone on board sees as much as possible. Depending on the time of year, the Azores hosts 18-24 different cetacean (whale and dolphin) species, including the Risso’s, common, and bottlenose dolphins, blue whales in springtime, and the mighty sperm whale all year round.