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Ponta Delgada Overview
The Azores form an archipelago of nine beautiful mountainous islands, located well out in the Atlantic Ocean, significantly closer to Europe than North America. Ponta Delgada, the chief port and administrative center on the island of Sao Miguel, lies 900 miles west of Lisbon. Cruise ships on positioning voyages between North America and Europe often call there.
Discovered in the 15th century by exploring Flemish and Portuguese sailors, Sao Miguel Island became a favorite stopover for passing ships because of fresh farm food and the abundance of fish in the surrounding waters. Ponta Delgada attained city status one hundred years later, and today the city's population numbers 45,000 with a further 20,000 residing in smaller towns and on the countryside. Since 1976, the Azores have status as an autonomous region of the Portuguese Republic.
Volcanic activity has produced some pretty spectacular scenery on the island, along with some of the highest mountains in "Europe" (if you include the rise from the seabed). Visitors stream out of Ponta Delgada to climb the crater rims for breathtaking views down onto blue and green lakes, hike the mountain and nature trails, and gaze out to sea from mighty headlands.
Unlike the Canary Islands, where travelers go for predictably hot weather and good beaches, the Azores draw a different type of visitor -- one who appreciates the natural beauty of a subtropical environment that produces pineapples, good wines and creamy white cheeses. Hence, beach and resort hotels are few by comparison.
Cruise-ship visitors to Ponta Delgada will often drive out into the countryside for visits to small villages and natural volcanic wonders. There's usually time afterward for a relaxed amble through the lovely port city, noted for its squares paved with black and white tiles, beautiful churches, and public buildings with their white-painted facades and brown-black volcanic stone trim. Fish and shellfish fans will discover moderately priced restaurants, some right outside the cruise terminal.
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Pottery (for table settings) and tiles make wonderful buys. The most prevalent combinations are blue and white, but some may find other patterns featuring a rainbow of colors that are even more attractive. Embroidered napkins and tablecloths are also lovely and easy to carry home. For the most choices in one location, Solmar Avenida Center along Avenida do Infante Dom Henrique has four floors of shops, along with food outlets and free Internet. Many small shops are also found to the left when leaving the cruise terminal along Avenida do Infante Dom Henrique. Generally, most shops are closed between 1 and 3 p.m., but some will stay open when a ship is in port.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Portuguese is the official language. English is spoken at the main tourist destinations but less so in towns and the countryside outside Ponta Delgada.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the euro; for the current exchange rate, visit
Where You're Docked
Terminal Maritimo, the principal cruise facility, is conveniently located just a five-minute walk from Avenida do Infante Dom Henrique, the main street running along Ponta Delgada's harborfront. In addition, some ships may berth at the more remote outer breakwater. Depending on how far out on this arm the ship is docked, it can be a longish 10- to 20-minute walk into Ponta Delgada. If you're docked on the outer breakwater, you won't find any services until you pass through the security gates into town.
From the main terminal building's exit, a row of outdoor/indoor restaurants stretches along a promenade to the right. To the left, cafe bars, some with free Wi-Fi (if you purchase a drink or snack), and shops lead the way to town.
Taxis are available at the cruise terminal and outer breakwater. Minibus routes serve Ponta Delgada's outlying residential districts, and standard-size buses link the rest of the island. You'll find stops along Avenida do Infante Dom Henrique; just pay the driver when boarding. You can rent cars at the terminal through Autatlantis, which offers rates with unlimited mileage plus taxes. Car rental is a good touring option, as traffic is generally light, though roads beyond the city are curvy and narrow, especially when climbing into the hills. Additional auto rentals are found left along Avenida do Infante Dom Henrique.
Watch Out For
Pedestrians should cross roads at designated crosswalks and be aware of fast-moving cars on one-way streets. If driving, note that the secondary roads are narrow and twisty, and driving up into the clouds requires caution. But otherwise, motoring is a pleasure, as the island is so beautiful, and it's very hard to get lost since the sea is your guide to finding the coastal road back to Ponta Delgada. Watch out for turnoffs that lead to a viewpoint and a short hike down to the sea or along a cliff.
Volcanic Lakes: The Azores archipelago is noted for its volcanoes (most recent significant volcanic activity took place in 1957) and resulting craters, as well as beautiful green mountain scenery. Two of the main attractions are Fire Lake, set in a nature reserve seen from Pico de Barrosa, and Siete Cidades Crater Lake, viewed from the rim at Vista do Rei or at lake level from the village of Sete Cidades. One lake is a deep blue, and the other a contrasting rich green. A bonus to visiting the lakes is the drive along coastal roads and through pretty villages noted for their charming Catholic churches. In the spring, hydrangeas and Easter lilies abound.
Ponta Delgada: The town of Ponta Delgada, the main commercial center and port, is quite charming, featuring sidewalks paved with black and white volcanic stones in distinctive patterns. Many buildings have whitewashed facades with brown-black window trim and reddish pipe roofs. From the cruise terminal, walk ahead to Avenida do Infante Dom Henrique and then left along the harborfront, lined with stores, cafes and restaurants. At the Praca GV Cabal, the square is enclosed on three sides and dominated by whitewashed, triple-arched town gates, trimmed in black volcanic stone, and a handsome, tall, square clock tower. The tourist office is located there.
Convento da Esperanza and Igreja de Santo Cristo: The Convent of Esperanca and the Church of Santo Cristo is located in the town center, near the Forte (Fort) Sao Bras. Inside the church and to the right is a public chapel with an enormously elaborate gilded arched ceiling and engaged columns; to the left is a lovely private chapel for the nuns. The meditation foyer between the two is tiled with soft blue and white murals. At right angles stands the Igreja de Sao Jose (Church of San Jose), much larger and plainer, using grey stone blocks for the columns, but with an elaborate gilded altar and arced ceiling above.
Been There, Done That
Island Tours: For the independently minded, one alternative to the ship's shore excursion program would be to hire a taxi for a half day or full day and ask the driver to make one of two circuits. For the eastern half of Sao Miguel Island, visit scenic Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake) from the viewpoint of Miradouro da Serra da Barrosa and make stops in Villa Franca do Campo and Ribeira Grande, two attractive seaside towns. For the western end, make stops at Sete Cidades, a village on the shore of Lagoa Azul and close to Lagoa Verde, and the viewpoints Vista do Rei and Santiago Land. If taking off for a full day, stop for a seafood lunch; the catch of the day will be fresh and the prices moderate. Alternately, skip the taxi, and rent a car instead. It is simply a pleasure to enjoy the ever-changing scenery from dramatic headlands and steep mountain slopes to the rolling pasturelands between small villages.
Hiking: The island is laced with walking trails, some half-day and full-day treks, as well as very short jaunts that are simply an excuse to leave your car. Get some exercise by spiraling down to a secluded, sandy beach or following a circular path along the coast and then double back. Hiking maps are available at the tourist office in Ponta Delgada. You'll want to rent a car to facilitate independent exploration.
Tea Plantations: Two tea plantations are located near Ribeira Grande on the north coast, and not surprisingly, they may be the only ones in all of "Europe." Gorreana's European Tea Factory & Museum offers tea-tastings and tours of the estate and gardens daily (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). The Porto Formoso Tea Factory also offers tours and tastings; it focuses on the history of tea production in the Azores.
Fresh seafood of all kinds, from the common cod and tuna to the more exotic shark and octopus, is available in the local cafes and restaurants at reasonable prices. Pastries are another specialty sold in small cafes and as desserts with meals. There are several restaurant choices just outside the cruise terminal and many more along the Avenida do Infante Dom Henrique and the parallel streets inland from the seafront. Restaurants generally serve lunch until 2:30 or 3 p.m. Reservations are not necessary.
O Corsico Restaurante: At this upscale eatery, located in the bustling center of Ponta Delgada, the specialties are grilled mussels, grilled swordfish, arroz de marisco (seafood rice usually with mussels, clams and shrimp) and octopus salad. A lunchtime menu offers a set three-course meal. (Rua Manuel de Ponte, 28.)
Mercado do Peixe: Descend a half level downstairs to this fish restaurant where the catch of the day is laid out on ice before you. You choose your rockfish, sea bream or tuna and have it grilled or served as a fish kabab. Shellfish mixed with rice, served in a pot, is another good selection. (Avenida do Infante Dom Henique, 15.)
Postelaria com Fabrico Proprio: Located on a back street three blocks inland and parallel to the seafront boulevard, this small restaurant serves a mostly local clientele. Food is ordered at the counter, with the specialties of the day on display. Try the fish soup, cod casserole with eggs and potatoes, and home-baked pastries. (Rua Merchado dos Santos, 75.)
Staying in Touch
Wi-Fi is available in the terminal complex at several cafes, with a purchase, and two have a few computer terminals if you haven't brought a laptop. The Solmar Avenida Center on Avenida do Infante Dom Henique offers free Wi-Fi.
Best for Scenic Sightseeing: The 3.5-hour "Fire Lake and Ribera Grande" tour passes along the scenic coastline, then climbs to the rim of Lago do Fogo (Fire Lake) with views from Miradouro da Serra da Barrosa down onto the lake and nature reserve. Low clouds at this altitude may obscure the scenery. Stop at Ribera Grande, the principal town on Sao Miguel's north coast that's named after the river that flows through the center. Free time is available to walk through the town park and along narrow lanes, and visit the church and theater. A stop is usually made at a pineapple-growing hot house.
Best for Alternative Scenic Sightseeing: On a 3.5-hour "Sete Cidades Crater Lake" tour, you'll drive along winding inland and coastal roads through a couple of attractive villages to Sete Cidades. This small town is located next to a lake in the center of a crater with a three-mile diameter. Then you'll climb by bus to the Santiago Land and Vista do Rei viewpoints, which overlook the adjacent Lagoa Azul (blue) and Lagoa Verde (green), mists and clouds permitting. If the view is obscured, the guide may choose to substitute the Antonio Borges Botanical Gardens just outside Ponta Delgada instead.
Best for Viewing Marine Life: The 3.5-hour "Whale and Dolphin Cruise" tour begins with an onshore introduction to the sea creatures living in the waters off the Azores. Then you'll board a boat in Ponta Delgada to search for sperm, humpback, blue, sei, bottlenose and minke whales, and several species of dolphin.
For More Information
Official Tourism Web Site of the Azores
Portugal Official Tourism Web Site
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Western Europe
The Independent Traveler Forum: Spain & Portugal
--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic Contributor