Trail Guide - The Azores
Issue 42 / Sat 25th Jun, 2016
Sandra Sabitzer travels to the Azores Islands in the Atlantic and finds out what the riding has to offer. With beautiful coastlines, great trails and hot springs, it's a destination that could soon be on everyone's holiday tick list.
The Azores are perhaps mostly known from mentions in the weather forecasts rather than as a great travel destination. The Archipelago of the Azores, located 1500 km off the coast of Lisbon, is composed of nine islands of volcanic origin. The locals just call them eight islands and one entertainment centre; Terceira, as you can hop from one party to the next during the summer months.
A quick Google search generates images of green pastures, fishing villages and sandy beaches. All nine islands are entirely different and so is the weather; you can encounter every season in one day, with sunshine and rain showers alternating within a few minutes. We chose to stay on Sao Miguel, also known as "The Green Island", the largest and most populated island of the Azores. Sao Miguel belongs to the eastern part of the Archipelago; its length is around 60 km, and the maximum width is 16 km. Sao Miguel island consists of two volcanic massifs separated by a central ridge and offers fantastic golf courses, lakes and beaches, with century-old architecture and majestic scenery.
Before arriving, we checked out several riding options online and got in contact with Carlos, who is the main point of contact on the Azores Archipelago for mountain biking. He was born and raised in Ponta Delgada and a pioneer for the sport there. He knows all about the local trails, shuttle service options, guiding and anything else about biking. On our day of arrival, we met Carlos in Ponta Delgada and embarked straight away on our first riding experience on Azores soil.
The destination of the day was the small town of Faial da Terra situated in the eastern part of the island. From there we had access to around ten trails which can be reached either through our own pedal power or a car shuttle service following a concrete road winding up the switchbacks to all the trail heads. There are all kinds of trail variations to be found in Faial da Terra; from flowy and fast, to technical and slippery. After a great day of riding, we relax with some ice-cold Azorean beers in a small bar downtown, what a perfect start to our trip!
Our plan for the next day is to explore the area around Furnas, a place where we can feel the volcano origin of the island. An acrid, sulphuric smell accompanies the sight of large tufa mounds as steam emanating from the bowels of the earth clouds the area. For centuries, this volcanic activity has been put to good use: large pots of various meats and vegetables are lowered into man-made Calderas, before being covered by soil and retrieved several hours later.
One of the trails around Furnas is called '16 seconds', a shaped trail with small jumps and berms. As the access to the trail is a mere 200 meters climb in altitude on a concrete road, we decide to go for some more laps. Short, fast and super fun! It is also a trail that is part of the national downhill series and local riders often use it for training and shuttling.
After spending a beautiful day on the trails we pack our gear and take the van back to Ponta Delgada, the main city on the island. During the 30-minute drive to the city, we pass green fields with grazing cows and tiny villages made up of stone houses, which are typical for the Azores.
On Carlos' advice, we have dinner in one of his favourite restaurants, and we are treated with great food and service. The Azorean hospitality is prominent and can be encountered throughout the whole island. Typical Azorean food is very tasty with a lot of meat; choices include beef, pork, sausages, potatoes and cabbage, with fresh fish and seafood available in all restaurants.
After a comfortable breakfast, we start the rainy day with a small tour of the western side of the island. Our first destination is the famous 'Caldera of Sete Cidardes'. This is the largest freshwater lake in the Azores, located in the craters that form the island. It consists of two lagoons (Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul), which create a scenario of extreme beauty, and one of the symbolic images of the archipelago. From 'Visto do Rei' we try to catch a glimpse of the lake, but unfortunately, the clouds and fog are too compact. A reason to return later...
The legends in these parts are as fabulous as the landscapes, and one tells the story of a princess and her lover, a farmer’s boy. The King did not approve of their love and forbade his daughter from seeing the young boy. The princess and the farmer’s boy cried all afternoon, embracing, and their tears formed two beautiful lakes; one green, for the Princess's eyes were green, and the other blue, for the farmer’s boy's eyes.
We keep on travelling along the steep, rugged shore and end up in the middle of the island between Ribeira Grande and Ponta Delgada. Luckily the sun is out again, and we can head for an afternoon ride called 'Batalha'. The trail follows a circuit shape and starts/ends at the beautiful and well-groomed golf course of Fenais da Luz.
With only 200 meters in altitude and a length of about 3 km, it is a perfect course for a short ride in bad and unstable weather conditions. We then set our camp for tonight on the beach of Sao Roque near Ponta Delgada. Some surfers were using the lovely evening for a ride on the waves until the sunset; it was another stunning end to a beautiful day.
Tired after spending a windy night in the shaking van, a strong coffee from the shop in Lagoa kicks us into gear for a great day of riding. We start our ascent to 'Lagoa do Fogo' near Agua d’Alto. It is a pretty exhausting 700 meters in altitude ride on a concrete road which spins its way up to Monte Barrosa, but it is all worth it. The view on top is spectacular and offers sights of the crater and the coast from varying points.
From the top, we bomb down an epic trail known to local riders as 'The Cathedral'. The trail is an iconic ride featuring technical, challenging and often rutted sections of trail. You either love it, or you hate it. At the end of the trail we treat ourselves with a short detour to the harbour 'Caloura'. The restaurant of the same name is situated in a little cove near Lagoa on the southern part of the island. There is plenty of outdoor seating, and the view is awesome, with food that is outstanding and a great place to hang out and relax.
After one more night in Sao Roque we decide to explore the north side of Monte Barrosa/Lagoa do Fogo. We park our van at the Caldeira Velha hot springs and there we start the short ascend to the mainly man-made downhill track called 'Bandeirinha'. Local riders mostly take a shuttle ride up to the starting point of the fast track with shaped berms, little drops and short technical sections.
As the weather is getting wet and windy again, we decide to spend the rest of the day at Caldeira Velha hot springs. A beautiful jungle with waterfalls and many tiny frogs surrounds the pools. Costing € 3 per person per day, it's a great place to hang out. Right in time for sunset the clouds clear away and we dare to take a short ride on 'Mata do Canario' trail, which is located near the viewpoint 'Canario' and offers a stunning view over the 'Caldeira of Sete Cidardes'. The reward for our courage is a breath-taking evening ride towards the sunset. What an experience!
The advantage of the island’s small size is the short distances between different regions, which makes it easy to ride different trails in various parts of the island within one day. Tonight we indulge in a stay in a cosy hotel in Lagoa, and after an unhurried night we start the day with a short ride on the north side of the island. Unfortunately, the weather in the morning is rainy again so we can rarely catch the beautiful views of the rough coastline down by the ocean.
Nevertheless, we have a lot of fun riding the trail 'Atalho da Viola' in Maia. The trail winds alongside the cliffs and varies from fast and flowy to technical and slippery parts. The way back to the car is a short uphill ride on the main road between Maia and Lomba da Maia. We use the time in Maia for a visit to the local tobacco factory, which is one of the oldest on the Sao Miguel Island. For a fee of 2 Euro we enjoy a guided tour through the history of the museum, including the Tim Burton style machinery!
As we are in sightseeing mode our next stop is Europe’s oldest tea plantation named 'Gorreana Tea'. The factory and tea fields are embedded into undulating hills with marked trails. The hike is pretty easy, and the views all along the trail are fantastic. Back at the headquarters of the tea factory, we get a free tasting of their tea and learn about the history of the plantations and how the teas are made.
We end our touristy day with a gorgeous dinner in the typical 'Cozido das Furnas' and a visit at the 'Poca da Dona Beija', a thermal pool area in Furnas, and a beautiful place to relax for a few hours. This pool area has four hot water pools in beautiful surroundings and again is only € 3.
The new day starts with sunshine and a blue sky, and we begin the day by riding up 'Monte Barrosa' to head down 'The Cathedral' again in order to catch a stunning view over 'Lagoa do Fogo' without the fog and clouds. After a short break to enjoy the beauty of the Crater Lake we head into the trail, and this time the trail conditions are better and less slippery which makes it even more fun to ride it.
After packing our bikes and gear back into our van, we begin the drive to the northeastern part of the island. Near 'Sto Antonio' we unload our riding gear again and go on a quick ride on one of the fun grass trails which switchback down to the ocean. It is a fast trail and therefore easy to complete numerous times or switch to one of the other trails for more fun. We only do one lap to have more time on our trip to 'Nordeste' in the northeast. It is the least populated area on the island of Sao Miguel, and most of its landscape is characterised by forests, mountainous peaks and river-valleys. During our trip, we stop at several lookout points, as the scenery is magnificent.
During our stay on Sao Miguel, we noticed that there were lots of barbeque areas all over the island that you can use for free. Especially picturesque is the one at the coast in 'Nordeste' embedded in a well-groomed botanic garden and with a stunning view. Another must see in this region is the artificial waterfall 'Ribeira dos Caldeiros' which is surrounded by a beautiful botanic garden where all kinds of sports activities like canoeing, hiking and mountain biking can be done.
A call from Carlos got us out of bed. We should come for lava surfing as an excellent way to end our trip to the Azores Islands. We set out in the direction of 'Sete Cidardes' as on 'Lagoa Rasa' huge lava fields are drawing through the landscape. The slogan of the day: Hike your bike! Accompanied by Carlos and his dog Loci we start the new adventure. It is fun to watch them both cruising down the steep and loose slope to show us the perfect line.
Some fun rides later and totally breathless from carrying the bikes, we are more than happy and grinning like a Cheshire cat. Like little kids in a huge sandbox, that is how we are feeling at this moment. 'Hungry?' Carlos is asking, oh yes, we are hungry. In a small restaurant in Sete Cidardes we enjoy our last typical lunch with a lot of meat, fish, blood sausage and vegetables.
Tasty, cheap and with a lot of calories. After saying goodbye to Carlos, we drive back to Ponta Delgada to get our bikes out for the last ride of this trip. We spend our afternoon with local kids on the nearby dirt park. What an awesome last day!
Time to go:
The best time to go depends on what you want to do during your stay. If it's dependent on the sea such as ferry travel, whale watching, sailing or fishing, then you best go during the summer months between mid-April and early October. March and April, still low season, are beautiful months because spring begins early in the Azores and by now nature is wide awake. Make sure to bring a down jacket, rain cover and swimming suit with you. You will need them all.
Carlos dos Santos/Bike Safari Tours: http://www.bikesafaritour.com/
Ponta Delgada Restaurant Bar “Cais 20”: http://restaurantecais20.pt/pt
Lagoa Restaurant “Ondas Do Mar”, Largo do Cruzeiro, 14-A | S.Miguel, Acores, Lagoa,
Agua de Pau Bar Caloura: http://www.barcaloura.com/en/
Furnas Restaurante Tony’s: http://www.restaurantetonys.pt/
Ribeira Grande Bar Tukatula, Areal De Santa Barbara
Sete Cidades Restaurante Lagoa Azul, Rua da Caridade 18 | Sete Cidades
Hotel Arcanjo, Rua Nossa Senhora das Necessidades, 2, Lagoa, Sao Miguel 9560-418, Portugal
With TAP Portugal via Lisbon
By Sandra Sabitzer