As the largest island in the archipelago of the Azores, São Miguel is also touted as the island with the most to offer. Referred to as “The Green Island”, three large craters of long dormant volcanoes with lakes of crystal clear water amidst lush and varied scenery are perhaps the showpiece of the verdant landscape for which it is known. Although it also hosts the Azorean capital of Ponta Delgada, the main attractions of São Miguel are said to lie beyond.
Measuring 65 km by 16 km at its greatest length and width, São Miguel supports a population of around 150,000, a third of those living in the capital where over half the labour force is employed by the government. The greatest source of revenue, however, comes from tourism. Primary economic production of those living outside Ponta Delgada is agrarian, particularly the production of dairy products, cereals, fruits, and wine. The island’s north coast also boasts Europe’s only commercial tea plantations, plants having been introduced in the 18th century because of the ideal growing conditions.
With Portuguese settlement beginning in 1444, this first Azorean island to be settled evolved into primarily a collection of small settlements of which Ponta Delgada was one. Early settlers throughout the island, as many residents do to-day, applied themselves to agriculture as a means of support. Ponta Delgada meanwhile grew in size and influence and later became capital in 1522 following an earthquake and landslide that killed 5,000 in the former capital of Vila Franca do Campo. With Ponta Delgada continuing to grow in stature as both a business centre and a conduit for citrus exports to the United Kingdom, it was at one time ranked as the third largest city in Portugal.
It is, however, São Miguel’s volcanic history that defines, as Lonely Planet Publications describes it, the island’s “rumbling mass of beauty”. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Sete Cidades, a spectacular volcanic caldera with a village near the bottom adjacent to a pristine lake. It is one of a trio of similar craters, near one of which vestiges of volcanic activity in the form of which there are still bubbling sulphur pools, hot springs, geysers, and hot mud pools to be found.
Those not venturing beyond Ponta Delgada are told to expect a cosmopolitan (for the Azores) city of traditionally Portuguese mosaic cobble stone streets, impressive churches and historic architecture competing with more modern cafes and restaurants. Although that may be true to a point, especially in the small old centre, my only previous visit did not leave me with any longing to return. The true charm of the island is to be found elsewhere. In fact, Lonely Planet gushily advises that exploring São Miguel’s natural and generally unknown beauty may rank as “one of Europe’s last great island adventures”.