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Madeira and the Azores

The beautiful jewels of the Atlantic

Some know of these two islands – Madeira and the Azores – as the Hawaii of the Atlantic. Lush, naturally mountainous tropical islands to explore, these autonomous regions of Portugal are a simple hop from the east coast of North America. Rich in their Where are Madeira and the Azores?vast panoramic views, their delicious food offerings, and tropical weather influence, I’d wager these two island destinations are NOT top on many North American’s travel radar – and that’s a shame for the gems they are to visit.

With access to Sao Miguel of the Azores a single 4-hour direct flight from most of the eastern United States – and Madeira a 2-hour hop more – it’s like Madeira and Azores are a best kept secret.

The GoGirlfriend team spent a week on each of these two islands and fell in love with their individual offerings of beauty. Take a mountainous journey Madeira's north coast vistaswith us as we lay out why these islands should be on your upcoming travel itinerary.

It’s easy to take in both islands with one trip as we did. Our recommendation would be to enjoy the beauty, the lushness and the pastoral vistas of São Miguel before hopping to Madeira. Madeira is starkly beautiful in its harsh, jurassic, rugged mountainous beauty but we found visiting São Miguel second undermined the quiet beauty it truly was.

Madeira ~ the Pearl of the Atlantic

good morning from MadeiraLocated about 600km southwest of the Portuguese mainland, this small archipelago of islands sits on the same latitude as Morocco and South Carolina. With weather patterns like the Mediterranean, temperature ranges are moderate both day and night with summer highs in the 80’s and winter lows in the 60’s.

As a once-volcanic island, the Madeiran landscape offers a rugged, jurassic terrain with spectacular high mountains, deep valleys, and steep cliffs – majestic sights to behold … and crazy Madeira's mountainous ruggednessfun to drive! The highest peaks stand just over 1,800 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level and with the island only 34 miles (55 km) long and 14 miles (22 km) wide, the transition to from sea level to peak is steep and stunning. Naturally windy on the north side of the island, we based ourselves for a few days on the north coast and transitioned to the leeward side of the island for the second half of our travels to make sure we could fully explore Madeira’s awesomeness.

Madeira's early roads before infrastructure improvementsTo open the country to tourist exploration, the Madeiran government heavily invested in infrastructure. I can’t imagine the early north coast roads hugging the mountainside with risks of rockslides and wind driven waves crashing the coastline. They built 153 tunnels (some up to 3 km long) through the mountains, 135 bridges and viaducts and created an ultra modern road network around the island. Note though that to visit the interior or slightly off the main roads, while the quality of roads are good, the hairpin turns, the 1 ½ lane widths for 2 directions, the steep angles and precipitous cliffsides take a steel will. For navigating on Google Maps, cellular service is 5G for virtually the entire island – amazing!

fresh tropical fruits and seafood at local marketsA small island population of about 250,000, Portuguese is the dominant language. English is a major second language followed by German, Spanish and French – a very multilingual and friendly people. Let me say we never had a problem in communicating, even in some of the small villages our travels took us to. Portuguese food is delicious, meaty and hearty – be aware as a vegetarian your offerings are generally limited to veggie burgers, mushroom risotto, pasta and salads. And naturally, fish and seafood are main menu ingredients with bountiful selections to choose from.

Visit Blandy's Wine Lodge for a Madeira wine sampleHand in hand with the island’s name is their Madeiran wine (or Madeira) – a must try! A fortified, sweeter treat to enjoy – a delight perfectly suited to the volcanic soils and sub-tropical climate of the island. Blandy’s (in capital Funchal) might be the most popular establishment for a tour and tasting but don’t discount smaller producers about the island (like Barbaruso’s in Sao Vincente) for a more intimate exposure to the art of growing and producing Madeiran wines.

Island attributes to look forward to:

  • The beaches are black, volcanic and stony (only 1 sandy beach at Machico with sand imported from Africa).
  • Fanal Forest hosts rare ancient Laurissilva treesThe rare Laurissilva Forest in Madeira is a UNESCO World Heritage site (Fanal Forest)
  • Given the extremes of terrain and spectacular vista’s to be enjoyed, walking trails across the island are abundant - from the towering heights of Pico Arieiro to the sea level cliff sunrises in Sao Lourenco, or to enjoy one of the many levadas throughout the island. The formal hiking trails (preceded by a PR prefix) are well maintained throughout the island with toilet facilities and safety elements in place.
  • Waves on the north coast can be very strong, making for a great surfing experience.
  • Seasonally, whales and dolphins are abundant as their travels take them past the island.
  • To truly see the island, you must rent a car and explore. Keep in mind most European vehicles are standard and the mountainous terrain and switchbacks require a good knowledge of driving a standard. Madeiran driving follows the same right-hand drive as North America.

A few extra GoGirlfriend recommendations specific to Madeira:

  • Miradouro Bica da Cana above the cloudsMiradouro’s are lookouts. They are abundant and we recommend you stop at every one and take a moment to just say “Wow”!
  • If you have some time, take a side trip to the small island of Porto Santo – there’s a 9km (5.7 mi) uninterrupted sandy beach to explore!
  • Upgrade your rental car from the bottom tier offering to make sure you have enough power for the steepness of the mountainous climbs.
  • Take a historic walking tour in Funchal to learn the 600+ year history and how the island was inhabited.

For us, Madeira is mountainous awesomeness, with views that never seem to end, roads that require the skill and glee of an adventure and a friendly culture of people, gracious and hospitable.

Explore our 7-day sight-seeing itinerary for Madeira.

São Miguel (Azores) ~ The Green Island

Sao Miguel's pastoral beautySão Miguel is the largest of the Azorean Island archipelago of 9 islands, located 1200 km (740 miles) west of Portugal on a latitude with mainland Portugal and Virginia. With a mild marine climate dipping towards Mediterranean warmth, temperatures are still North Atlantic moderate ranging from 50’s in the winter to 80’s in the summer.

Agua de Pau Caldera and Lagoa do Fogo crate lakeSão Miguel is also a volcanic island, but with much more recent activity. Situated on the convergence of two tectonic plates (the African and the Eurasian) and very near the triple junction with the North American plate, a lover of earth sciences has many treats in wait for them. From calderas west at Sete Cidades, central at Lagoa do Fogo, and eastward in Furnas with its still vigorous geothermal activity, there’s no shortage of evidence on how these islands were formed.

While both Madeira and the Azores are created volcanically, Madeira is steep, rugged and primal - steeply topping out at over 1800m (6000 ft). São Miguel and the Azores are lush with rolling green hills and farmland – its peaks topping out at only steaming thermal vents in Furnas, Sao Miguel1100 m (3620 ft) by comparison. Madeira is dormant volcanically; the Azores are dynamic in areas like Furnas with its geothermal activity. The beauty of São Miguel shines in the remnants of volcanoes past. Whether a shield volcano or strata volcano that has exploded (millenia past) and imploded in on itself creating its 3 main calderas, the caldera rim to crater lake level inside often sits 300m+ higher offering fantastic viewpoints to the original volcano size and it’s caldera crater and often crater lakes today.

São Miguel is similar in square miles to Madeira though less mountainous – São Miguel being 65 km (40 miles) long and 15 km (9 miles) wide. Being comparably flatter with more farmland available and with about half the population at 140,000, the island feels less extreme and more pastoral – relaxed almost.

delicious Cozido das Furnas cooked in the thermal ventsBoth Madeira and the Azores gifted us with wonderful, friendly residents that communicated in many languages. Foods were similarly rich in meats and seafoods, São Miguel offered a greater abundance of natural local cheeses, great local teas (add a visit to one of their tea plantations and see the process in person – like Gorreana teas) and a delicacy of their Cozido das Furnas – their traditional meaty stew cooked directly in the geothermal vents – yum!

Terra Nostra's iron-rich thermal poolsA bonus of the natural heated geothermal vents are the “caldeira’s” or hot pools fed by waters heated directly from the geothermal hot springs. Located in the Furnas Valley, the most popular hot spring destination is the Terra Nostra Gardens – a large pool filled with thermal heated waters from natural hot spring at a steady 40°C (104°F), golden in color and rich in iron and other minerals highly beneficial for the skin. Staying at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, I can assure you we took full advantage twice daily of this wonderfully relaxing hot pool and strolled their treasure of botanical garden pathways.

Island attributes to look forward to:

  • explore the lava tubes at Gruta do CarvaoGeothermal hot springs exist at various points of the island, but the main concentration is in the Furnas Valley.
  • The beaches are generally black, volcanic, and stony (a few rare sandy beaches can be found).
  • Walking trails across the island are abundant – with waterfall hikes easily found, caldera hikes to enjoy the earth science perspective and beautiful clear, crater lakes. The formal hiking trails (preceded by a PRC prefix) are well maintained throughout the island with toilet facilities and safety elements in place.
  • Seasonally, whales and dolphins are abundant as their travels take them past the island.

A few extra GoGirlfriend recommendations specific to São Miguel:

  • Make sure you enjoy the suite of Azorean cheeses – the Sao Jorge was our favorite.
  • see the cozida's cooking in the thermal vents at Parque GrenaPlan to enjoy the Cozido das Furnas stew cooked in the geothermal vents – but it must be ordered a day or two before as quantities are limited. Visit the Grena Gardens to see your Cozido cooking, and the pots being removed from the vents between 10am and noon.
  • Have a sunset drink waterside in Mosteiros and look backward to the caldera rim for the evidence of the graben fault line separating the Eurasian tectonic plate from the African plate.
  • Explore 200m of an ancient lava tube and see inside the lava stalagmites, lava bridges and volcanic glass at Gruta do Carvão.

Explore our 6-day sight-seeing itinerary for Sao Miguel, Azores

I imagine many have heard of the Azores and probably roughly where they are. I imagine if you make enquiries about Madiera, thoughts lead to Madeira wine (sweeter and fortified). I’ll admit my interest was piqued when the opportunity to travel here came up last spring. What truly spectacular islands we whole-heartedly recommend worthy of a visit if the terrain and exploration style is to your liking. They are stunning, breath-taking in their mountainous beauty and gems of the Atlantic, for sure.

Interested in more information on our travels to Madeira and São Miguel of the Azores, check out our other posts offering more detail:

  • Madeira 7-day sightseeing itinerary
  • Visit Madeira Tourism
  • Sao Miguel, Azores 6-day itinerary
  • Visit Azores Tourism
  • Madeira hiking – seaside to mountains, and levadas
  • Sao Miguel, Azores hiking – calderas, tectonic plates and waterfalls

What's your knowledge level on Madeira and the Azores? Have you had the pleasure of exploring these island beauties? Drop a comment below and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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