The Azores

An adventure to the Azores, Cascais and Lisbon

As a family, we like to think we are adventurous.  We are all very active and have individually taken on different challenges.  With this in mind adventure always plays a part when choosing our annual holiday destination however the reality is that relaxation, culture, good food, new experiences and family time are at the top of the list.  With seeing and swimming with dolphins in the wild also fairly high up the wish list, the Azores and the Portuguese coast seemed to tick all the boxes this year.

Sao Miguel

We weren’t ready for the positive soporific effect of the tranquil island of Sao Miguel ensuring pure relaxation as soon as we arrived.  This was a welcome relief having arrived very late into Ponta Delgada after a 5 hour flight on Azores Airlines.  We were staying in the capital so our transfer to the hotel was thankfully swift and we were soon snoring and dreaming of the day ahead.  We were staying at the Antilla Hotel Apartments which was an ideal base for exploring the island.  We had a very spacious two level family apartment with kitchenette and balcony overlooking the rest of the property, the island and out to the ocean. Whilst we didn’t eat in the restaurant very much we did enjoy an expansive buffet breakfast on a couple of mornings and spent a few afternoons poolside.  It was great to have the flexibility to venture out into the town for a coffee and pastry for breakfast on two or three mornings too.  Even though the hotel was full, the pool was a relaxing spot and loved by the few resident children who all made friends. With an indoor pool, spa and gym this hotel is a perfect spot for the first time, and indeed returning, visitor to the island. We all agreed we would stay there again.

Activities galore

We had planned to enjoy various activities when we were on Sao Miguel.  We had prebooked a boat trip to (hopefully) see whales and dolphins, a chance to swim with dolphins in the wild and canoeing on volcanic Lake Furnas.  We could have chosen from endless fabulous activities but we wanted to build in some time to take it slowly and appreciate the island under our own steam.  At only 41 miles long and 10 miles wide, driving distances are short and it is easy to see a lot of the island in one day.  To this end, we hired a car for the day and headed north.  We really didn’t need the car for any longer as we were only staying on the island for one week and many activities were a short walk away.  Sao Miguel seems to have been untouched for centuries.  It is stunningly beautiful and even driving is a pretty experience as naturally growing hydrangeas line every route.  Even the cool vibe of Santa Barbara on thei  north coast n holds an underlying tradition ensuring it is sympathetic to its environment whilst offering a chilled beach experience.  The beautiful black volcanic sandy beach was half empty and the cool Tuka Tula beach bar offers an excellent menu served by friendly and attentive staff and has been seemingly unaffected by a lackadaisical approach so often associated with beach front joints frequented by transient tourists. We spent a few hours here and also managed to fit in a visit to the Gorreana tea factory as well as a pineapple plantation.  The Azores produce the most incredible pineapples that are mouth wateringly delicious – I have never seen the children eat so much fruit on a voluntary basis!

Caldeira Velha

Being a volcanic island, formed with its 8 sister islands as a result of colliding tectonic plates, Sao Miguel is known for its secondary volcanic activity which can be witness bubbling to the surface particularly at one of the island’s thermal pools.  Continuing our journey, we spent an hour or so at Caldeira Velha, a beautifully preserved natural park with many hot bathing pools and a pretty waterfall. Don’t wear your best swimsuit as it will take on a yellow tinge and a tangy sulphurous smell.  There is a whiff of sulphur in the air however we only really smelt it when we were close to any thermal activity such as Furnas Lake and the thermal pools.

Ponta Delgada

During the week, we found several good restaurants in Ponta Delgada and it was reasonably priced to eat out.  We tended to stay away from the marina which is now home to many larger, busier eateries and instead wandered into town each evening. We came across two restaurants in particular that were excellent: Big 21 is slightly more expensive but certainly worth visiting at least once during a week long stay. The other restaurant, the Azores Grill, is a cook-your-own bbq restaurant that the children particularly enjoyed.

Swimming with Dolphins in the wild

One of the main attractions of the Azores was to be able to see wild dolphins in their natural environment and to have the privilege of swimming alongside them.  Our 11 year old has been dreaming of swimming with dolphins since she was first able to swim so to be able to make her dream come true was magical.  Unfortunately, we had not been lucky enough to spot any whales on our first trip however we had seen a playful pod of bottlenose dolphins, the most popular breed in the Azores, swimming alongside the boat which escalated our excitement for our swimming experience.  The company we went out with were very professional and extremely in tune with the sensitivity of these majestic animals and their natural habitat. Our marine biologist and guide, a lovely lady from Spain who is due to return to Spain next year to complete her studies, combined our expectations with compassion and a professional regard for the animals to ensure the experience was fantastic and the animals felt no anxiety. There are only a limited number of boat licenses issued on Sao Miguel as on other islands however sadly they are at saturation point so there is a risk that such activities may be limited in future to ensure the safety of guests and wellbeing of the animals.  Unless the dolphins are feeling inquisitive, it is unlikely that dolphins will approach but they certainly swam close enough to us!  As we were plunged into the water at the right moment, goggles and snorkels intact, several bottlenose dolphins dived and swam beneath us.  Whilst this was incredibly hard to catch on film it will be etched in our memories for a very long time.  There is a need here to be a strong swimmer as life jackets aren’t worn when in the water to ease movement.  Fortunately, we all are however one lady was not comfortable so decided to stay in the boat.

Lake Furnas

We particularly enjoyed a trip to Lake Furnas one morning to enjoy a spot of kayaking, a particular highlight for our 13 year old son who loves being on the water.  Incredibly beautiful and peaceful, Lake Furnas is volcanic crater lake and just part of the scenic tapestry left by the Sao Miguel’s long history of earthquakes and volcanic activity.  On our drive the previous day we had also looked down on Lagoa do Fogo: a stunning volcanic crater lake that would be an amazing spot to while a day away if you are happy with the hike down to it and back up again.  On the west of the island, Sete Cidades is also worth a visit and a hike to see its majestic beauty and its blue and green lakes.

On the shores of Lake Furnas we witnessed (and smelt) bubbling steam rising up and around the cozido das Furnas being pulled out of the ground and taken back up the village to feed hungry locals and tourists.  Cooked in the ground for 8 hours, recipes dating back centuries are used to create these stews which some say taste of sulphur.  We didn’t try it but instead wandered up to the pretty village of Furnas and had a picnic.

As a family we all loved Sao Miguel and our taste of the Azores. We enjoyed the relaxed vibe, the natural beauty, the endless activities on offer, the delicious fruit and the easy going people – not to mention the pasteis de nata!  Not a family to stay in one place for too long however, we decided to spend the second week of our holiday on the Portuguese coast in Cascais, just north of Lisbon.

Cascais and Lisbon

On arrival into Lisbon we were swiftly transported through Lisbon to the residential suburbs of Cascais.  We had booked a villa at Vila Bicuda, a sophisticated villa complex for holiday makers and villa owners. After a relatively busy week, we wanted a more typical week of sun, water and relaxation but not able to sit too still for 7 days, we were also keen to explore Lisbon.

Vila Bicuda

Our spacious and contemporary villa was superbly located about 3 metres away from one of the two pools next to an expanse of beautifully manicured lawn– what felt like our own private garden was ideal for football and cartwheels!  The villa was excellently equipped which was welcome as after a week of eating out in Ponta Delgada were keen to cook a little more by ourselves and enjoy some relaxed family evenings in the privacy of our terrace being beaten at cards by our children!  The villas felt peaceful and safe and the staff had so much time and were extremely helpful and friendly. The handy supermarket was useful for a few simple items and the bakery was good too – far too good!


Rather than hiring a car we took a few taxis into Cascais and the surrounds as to walk was into the town took a good half an hour/40 minutes. For further exploration it would be sensible to hire a car for the duration of any stay here. We found Cascais very busy and not quite the fishing village it used to be.  We did spend some time on one of the beaches a little further up the coast towards Estoril and the children did some paddle boarding however our favourite beach spot was watching the surfers on the more dramatic Praia do Guincho.  We were lucky enough to swim however that part of the coast is the start of Portugal’s surf mecca so does get incredibly windy – but beautiful at the same time and not at all crowded.


Exploring Lisbon was high on our agenda so we decided to hop onto the train at Cascais and take the easy 40 minute coastal journey into the city.   We started our day with a coffee at the Time Out food market, conveniently located next to the train station in the Mercado da Ribeira and a must see for anyone who is remotely interested in good food.  We could have gone back for dinner on the way home and wandered amongst the many fabulous food outlets all offering excellent cuisine however a wish to experience more of the city took us to a fabulous seafood restaurant on the way home called Pesqueiro 25.  There is no real central tourist zone in Lisbon although there are several churches and museums to explore and the Praca do Comercio is a buzzy, although touristy, spot for an al alfresco coffee.  There is a great shopping scene here too for those that are interested. The city is just a joy to walk around, through the personalities and architecture of the Chiado and Baixa districts and up and down the many hills with the help of an elevador or two!

Pasteis de Nata

We climbed up to the village like Alfama district, the reward for which was the best (in fact, award winning) pasteis de nata in town.  Pastaleria Alfama is a small unassuming cafe tucked away in this historic district that has stayed traditional for many years. We then continued on up, with the help of historic tram number 28, to the historic heart of Lisbon and Castelo de Sao Jorge.  From there we had the best views in town.

We really enjoyed our twin centre holiday and certainly felt as though all our boxes had been ticked.  We experienced relaxation, culture, good food, new experiences and family time – with a tiny part of adventure and enough down time to read a couple of books!

This blog originally appeared on the Sunvil website.

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