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If you haven’t heard of the Azores, you’re about to. Part of Portugal, the archipelago consists of 9 islands which lie roughly 850 miles west of mainland Europe. São Miguel is the largest and most populated island of the Azores and is sometimes referred to as the “Green Island.” Lush, fern-like foliage blankets the rolling countryside, dense forests reach for the sky on steep crater walls, and black volcanic rock formations create a rugged coastline. Needless to say, São Miguel is one of the most magical places in the world. The dramatic topography is dotted with dozens of natural hot springs, emerald crater lakes, lush gardens, a maze of hiking trails, and more dairy cows than people. Whether you’re an adventure-seeker or just looking to relax in nature, here are 8 reasons you should visit the Azores right now.

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1. The tourist boom hasn't hit....YET

For some places, a tourist boom isn't a bad thing. It allows for more restaurant and hotel development, creates jobs, requires infrastructure to be updated, or can even just breathe life into a place. However, this is not the case for the Azores—the islands are perfect as they are. While on the largest island, São Miguel, residents do rely heavily on tourism dollars for a large percent of their income, they currently only have a handful of hotels, which means only so many people can visit at once. This preserves the natural beauty of the islands and keeps the integrity of the culture intact. The restaurants are run and visited primarily by locals, the hotels are small and boutique in nature and there isn't a single place on the island that feels crowded. But, this paradise won't stay a secret forever so visit sooner rather than later.

 
 

2. More direct flights are coming

Right now, the only direct flight from the U.S. to São Miguel leaves from Boston. Azores Airlines runs the 5 hour flight several times a week. For a while, they've had a monopoly on North American travelers looking for an Azorean experience. However, beginning May 2018, Delta began direct flights from NYC, which means it's now a lot easier to fly to the archipelago.

3. Outdoor activities aplenty

For outdoor lovers, there's perhaps no better place to travel than São Miguel. You can kayak in Sete Cidades, a sprawling volcanic crater protected by the government. The steep, lush crater cradles two lakes in the middle, one a peaceful blue hue and the other an emerald green color. Above the lakes, there's a gorgeous hike that rewards you with stunning views of the lake and perhaps the most postcard-worthy photo you've ever taken. The lookout at the end of the hike is considered one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal.

Enjoy a round of golf at Furnas Golf Course, rated the 2nd best course in all of Portugal by "Golf Digest," or stroll the steep trails surrounded by rolling countryside to get a birds-eye view of Fire Lake. If you're a thrill seeker, the World Series of Cliff Diving, hosted by Red Bull, has been held on São Miguel for 6 consecutive years and will take place there again during the summer of 2018.

4. Healing hot springs

The archipelago of the Azores was created from volcanic eruptions. Today, there are still numerous hot springs bubbling up from beneath, creating natural thermal baths all over São Miguel. One of the best is Poca da Dona Beija in the town of Furnas, which is made up of 5 thermal pools. Locals and visitors alike flock to the naturally heated pools for their therapeutic benefits; the water is filled with iron (giving it an orange hue) which is a vital component of hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. A fee of 4 Euros gets you in and also gives you access to the bathrooms, showers and locker rooms.

5. A striking beach scene

The beaches on São Miguel are very unusual looking, given that much of the coastline is made up of volcanic rock. The swimming scene just outside Bar Caloura (one of the best restaurants on the island) is crazy cool. The ocean spills into a bright blue pool, shallow enough for kids to swim in, while ocean access allows stronger swimmers the option of dipping in the Atlantic.

At Ponta da Ferraria, one of the coolest places in the Azores, you can swim in the ocean right above a natural thermal bath. Jagged volcanic rock (wear shoes!) surrounds a small cove that creates a natural swimming hole where the ocean and hot springs collide. Cold and hot water mix as you swim around. At low tide, it can be so warm it’s tough to stay in long. At high tide, when more cool ocean water flows in, the temperature difference can still be felt, but only immediately close to shore. Surrounded by jaw-dropping cliffs, this swimming hole has been used since the 15th century.

 

6. Meals are prepared over natural hot springs

The signature local dish in the Azores is called cozido, which is Portuguese for "a boiled dinner."  Meats or fish are paired with a myriad of veggies and stewed for several hours. They use the local hot spring as a type of oven, and the meal is cooked underground using the natural heat.

For a meat cozido, a combination of chicken, beef, chorizo and blood sausage are nestled into a pot alongside vegetables like potatoes, kale and carrots. Rather than adding liquid, the meat renders and the veggies break down, allowing the savory bounty to cook in its own juices. The pot is wrapped tightly and set carefully atop a hot spring where it cooks for roughly 5 hours. Enjoyed with freshly baked bread, the meal is hearty and filling, fueling you up for all the outdoor activities on the island.

7. Stunning scenery makes for a photographer's dream

Everywhere you turn on São Miguel, a gorgeous scene unfolds before your eyes. From the rolling hills of the countryside and jagged cliffs along the coastline to the volcanic lakes and fuming hot springs, there is no shortage of photo ops in the Azores.

One of the most beautiful and interesting things about the island is the ever-changing terrain and foliage. To a visitor, the island seems to be many places at once: the green hills of Ireland, the dense woods of Northern California and the tropical landscape of Costa Rica. The ever-changing scenery provide a wealth of varying sites and sounds to capture.

8. Boutique eco-friendly accommodations

About 40 minutes from the airport, you'll find Furnas Lake Villas. Made up of nine Japanese cedar villas sitting on 230 acres of magical land, the hotel is family owned and operated. Minimalist design in each villa allows the natural beauty of the surroundings to shine. Each morning, ducks bathe in the water below the villas, while stunning white horses roam the grassy lawn. The property also functions as an agriturismo. Honey is their main crop and they have about a dozen hives scattered about the land. The other crop is hydrangeas, which bloom in gorgeous blues and purples and are sold to local florists and other European countries. The family focuses on using sustainably grown ingredients in their restaurant and locally sourced supplies whenever possible. One of the premier properties on the island, it is the ideal place to stay when you visit São Miguel.

 

All photos by Compass & Twine

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Tagged: Europe, Portugal

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Compass + Twine
Sarah Driggs and Lindsay Ridenour are the story-tellers behind the NYC-based luxury travel blog, Compass + Twine. Follow along on Instagram @compassandtwine as they unearth some of the best hotels and travel experiences around the globe. From scenic landscapes to local cafés, they reveal the true character of a destination, always highlighting the best place to stay on compassandtwine.com .

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