There is a traditional saying that goes:
Weather on the Azores changes within minutes. What never changes: Every road leads to Furnas.
Actually we invented this saying, at least the second part 😉 , but nevertheless it’s true!
- There is a reason why the Azores islands are very well equipped with web cams that serve up-to-date pictures of the different spots on the islands. If the webcam of Lagoa do Fogo f.ex. is all grey (which happens very often) then there’s no use in going there, you won’t see anything but clouds. Have a look where the sky is clear and go there. On the other half of the the day the clouds could have passed Lagoa do Fogo … or not.
- During our stay on São Miguel we passed Furnas several times. North, east, south, it’s likely that you come through the needle eye Furnas on your way to or from Ponta Delgada. And of course Furnas itself has a lot to offer. Later more…
But first we follow the south coast for a bit. Just a few kilometers east of São Roque, in Lagoa you’ll find the traditional family-run ceramics factory Cerâmica Vieira. The workshop can be visited and you can follow the whole process from the actual pottery to the glazing and painting. And of course there is a little shop where you can buy the artfully painted blue and white bowls, plates, cups, … and of course azulejos.
If you’re not in a hurry (and why should you on your holidays?) you should stay on the coastal road EN 1-1A when you’re heading further east. Several bays and black sand beaches invite you to make a stop and (in summer) to go for a swim. We chose the steep narrow bay of Caloura – and grilled fish for lunch in the beach Bar Caloura, that serves excellent seafood with great views.
If bathing in the rough Atlantic ocean isn’t your cup of tea you can choose the small piscina natural – a feature that is found quite often along the coast, cause you can’t expect calm waters in the midst of the Atlantic.
We simply enjoyed the amazing scenery and watched the young fishermen on the dock.
Great views over the south coast, the Ilhéu da Vila and the neverending blue sea are guaranteed from the pilgrimage church Ermida da Nossa Senhora da Paz which lies high above Vila Franca do Campo. The church itself with its many steps on which you can follow the Via Dolorosa painted on azulejo tiles that decorate the stairway is worth a drive up the hill, too.
Vila Franca do Campo, the former capital of the island until an earthquake in the 16th century fully destroyed the old town, was rather sleepy on our visits, but then it wasn’t yet time for beach life which usually starts in May. The new marina, that is still undergoing some renovation, nevertheless is a nice spot to stroll around, have a coffee and a pastel de nata or the local speciality queijadas da Vila that are sold in the bakery Morgado, but also in the marina bar.
A special experience – sadly only he could go on the trip – was a whale watching tour, operated by “TerraAzul” in Vila Franca do Campo (situated in the marina) and its knowledgeable young team. For sure, a tour in a zodiac boat on the open sea isn’t for mollycoddles, but on the Azores – they lie en route of about 20 different species and also have resident species like Sperm Whales – you’ll have a nearly 100% chance to see different whales and dolphins … at least their fin. The former lookouts of the whalers that can be found all around São Miguel – in 1984 whaling ceased on the Azores – are repurposed nowadays by the whale watching companies.
I guess, by now it’s finally time to head to the valley of Furnas which was formed by an extinct volcanic crater. Coming from the south coast you will first pass lake Furnas and see the first traces of geothermic energy: steam coming out of the earth. Getting closer to the hot springs called caldeiras you will also smell the vulcanic activity. The smell of sulphur gets more pungent the closer you get to the steaming and bubbling holes. The locals use this energy to make cozido das caldeiras, a stew that is cooked for about 5 hours in a pot that is lowered into a caldeira steam hole. This cozido is served in various restaurants in town. Taking them out of the earth hole at noon is kind of a major tourist attraction – unattentionally we had been in the right place at the right time. 😉
There are some more caldeiras in and around Furnas, some of them in the beautiful gardens of the Terra Nostra Hotel. The thermal hot pool in this extensive botanical garden, dating from the beginning of the 20th century, is one of its major attractions. You can just step into the 38° C hot sulphuric water. Just keep in mind that the sulphur reacts with other metals, and that a white bathing suit is also not recommended.
We found the atmosphere here a bit like in a fishbowl, not quite what we prefer for a relaxed spa visit. Instead we explored the labyrinthic botanical garden with its different collections of plants, its lakes, avenues, water gardens – built by a British gardener who was hired by the Visconde da Praia who had purchased the property in 1848.
Many other building in Furnas give evidence of Furnas’ good old time from the 18th century to the Second World War when the spa town became a meeting point for the elite of São Miguel where they build their impressive residences and gardens that can still be admired today, at least from outside the fence.
For our spa time we chose the newly built, more familial thermal pools of Poça da Dona Beija along the stream Ribeira dos Lameiros to take a bath in 39° C hot water. And was it just imagination that those thermal pools also known as ‘Youth Pools’ let us leave the place rejuvenated?!
Two other caldeiras that we’ve visited were the Caldeiras Ribeira Grande and the Caldeira Velha. Both of them lie in the mountain range Serra de Água de Pau which seperates the south and north coast between Ribeira Grande and Vila Franca do Campo.
This is the main region of geothermic energy on the island, which is also used by two geothermic power stations that are situated here – they are covering about 30-40% of the energy required on São Miguel.
The Caldeira Velha is a warm waterfall, surrounded by some other hot pools situated in a newly created site with layed out paths, showers and toilets and a Environmental Interpretations Centre.
High above, at 600 m lies another vulcanic crater lake, Lagoa do Fogo, which only originated in the 16th century after the eruption of Pico da Sapateira. From the Pico da Barroso at nearly 1000 m above sea level – about 5 kms beeline away from the sea! – you have a beautiful view on the lake – if it is not, like most of the time, wrapped in clouds.
Again we were just in the right place at the right time: The clouds were just moving into the crater hole again while we were admiring the beauty of the lake – high above on a tiny island in the middle of the wide Atlantic ocean.