“Santa Maria Azores: tips on planning your trip” is the first installment of a series of nine blog posts about planning a trip to the Azores islands. The posts are meant to give you a detailed overview of each one of them to help you plan your trip, whether you decide to visit one, two, or all nine. If you have any questions or a specific request, feel free to drop me an email and I’ll do my best to answer it or to put you in touch with the right contact.
Table of Contents (Click to skip to a section)
About Santa Maria
Perfect island destination for: lovers of sun, beach, and unusual beauty.
Overall, the Azores islands are known for, among other things, the one-of-a-kind beauty of its black sand beaches and luscious green hills. In an archipelago that is already offbeat enough, Santa Maria Island is the most offbeat of them all — the most Southern of the nine islands (and the oldest of all of them, geologically speaking, at 8.12 million years old), with a drier climate (compared to the rest), and, just to be wonderfully off-key, with white sand beaches and its unique “red desert”.
Santa Maria is known as the “mother island”. It was the first Portuguese settlement in the archipelago, after its discovery circa 1432, and inhabited mostly by Southerners (farmers from Algarve and Alentejo). This legacy lives on in the small details of the local architecture, like the long and narrow chimneys, and the Alentejo-style painted house facades (white, with colored borders).
Historical records show that Christopher Columbus, on his way back from the “Americas” in 1493, stayed on the island. He prayed at the Chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Anjos (Our Lady of Angels), the first Catholic temple built in the archipelago.
Top things to do in Santa Maria island
You will probably want to make the best of the dry climate during high season (from June to September) and lie lazily on your towel, both feet buried in the warm sand, lulled by the waves of the deep blue Atlantic. Did I just paint the perfect picture for you? Good.
But take the time to also feel the island’s pulse. Hiking and diving are definitely the most popular, but you can add the offbeat twist to your trip with mountain biking, bird watching, canyoning, coasteering, and sailing if you don’t suffer from seasickness (the Atlantic can be, let’s say, “moody”).
Please note that I’m not listing ALL the local companies. These are local companies listed on Visit Azores website, with a website in English, and easy to contact from abroad (via social media or email). I do my best to update the blog, but if you notice that any of this information is outdated let me know.
- Smatur (bike tours/MTB, birdwatching, hiking) – www.smatur.pt
- Golden Sail (yachting) – www.goldensailazores.com
- Bootlá (canyoning, hiking) – www.bootla.pt
- Mantamaria Dive Center (scuba diving) – www.divecenter.mantamaria.com
- Blue Azores (yachting) – www.blueazores.com
- Paralelo 37 (scuba diving) – www.paralelo37.pt
Top cultural events in Santa Maria Island
Islanders in general, at least in the Azores, have a somewhat close connection with religion. Unshielded exposure to a, sometimes, not kind Ocean, centuries-old memories of pirate invasions and forced isolation from the rest of the world tend to lead people to find inner peace through prayer. In the end, faith would be one of the few things they could hold on to.
Santa Maria is no exception. Many Catholic entities are celebrated throughout the year and it wouldn’t be fair to pinpoint just a couple as the most important. The biggest ones, however, are Senhor Santo Cristo in May and the Holy Spirit Festivities (Pentecost) in June/July.
One of the oldest music festivals in Portugal, Maré de Agosto, happens every August at the Praia Formosa Bay. Recent additions to the Santa Maria festival scene include Maia Folk and Santa Maria Blues, both in July.
Azores food: what to eat in Santa Maria
I know that the following options will sound slightly heavy right now (and probably strange too) but have you heard that the sea increases your appetite? No? Maybe it’s an Azorean belief then. I guarantee you it does; don’t have the scientific evidence to sustain this theory, though.
Pick a main dish (I have a thing for the octopus, but don’t let it influence you): turnip broth with pork, pork broth with flour cakes, stewed marinated beef, wine-stewed octopus or “Molhos” – large rice and pork sausages, sliced. In a first glance it seems more meat than you can handle, but the high-quality beef, pork and seafood are surprisingly light. That’s what happens when you give things enough time and plenty of freedom to grow.
And if there’s still room for dessert (if there isn’t, make some, just for a nibble at least), I have one word for you: “Cavacas”. For a sweet treat, these sugar-coated biscuits are not that heavy, really.
Pottery used to be a big industry on the island but these days I don’t think you will find much of it around for sale (unless you ask around and find someone knowledgeable in local antiques; if you do, feel free to share the tip). A handful of sand of the first island of the Azores to be discovered makes for an emotional souvenir, but my advice is to always invest a bit in the local heritage. Handmade straw hats and wicker baskets are popular, and, if you’re looking for something more portable (and by that I mean easier to pack without destroying it), pay a visit to the Santa Maria’s Handicraft Cooperative (Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria) to buy some artisanal linen clothes or the typical farmer’s wool cap.
A photo posted by Laurinda Sousa (@casadonorte.santamaria) on
Where to stay in Santa Maria Island
Please note that I’m not listing ALL accommodations available on the island, just the ones you can book via Booking.com* for convenience.
A photo posted by Laurinda Sousa (@casadonorte.santamaria) on
Know before you go
These are the most frequently asked questions about the Azores islands in general (and the island of Santa Maria in particular). If you have a question that’s not on this list, feel free to email me.
Santa Maria is one of the two islands in the Eastern Group (Grupo Oriental) of the Azores Archipelago, an autonomous region of Portugal.
Portuguese. The Azoreans are also fluent in some foreign languages (mostly English), especially those who work in the tourism industry.
GMT -1 hour
You need a visa to enter all Schengen area territories, including the Azores islands. Click here for detailed information.
* Please note that this information may change over time. Refer to the Portuguese Embassy or Consulate in the country of your departure for updated information.
Special vaccination is not mandatory to enter the Azores region. If you have special health conditions, please seek medical advice.
There are pharmacies and public health clinics (known as centros de saúde) with emergency services on the island.
220 volts (round two-pin plugs).
Yes, there are buses and taxis. You can also rent a car (check the local car rental companies for information).
The area of Santa Maria Island is 97.42 square kilometers (approximately 37.61 square miles).
1,500 km (approximately 932 miles)
5,547 people, according to the last census of 2011.
Santa Maria has one main town (concelhos in Portuguese) called Vila do Porto (where the airport is).
SATA Air Acores – between islands
Azores Airlines, Tap Air Portugal, and Ryanair (via São Miguel) – from other countries and the Portuguese mainland.
By boat (seasonal, from May to September):
The climate is Mediterranean. Temperature: average high 20.1°C / 68.2°F. Average low 14.9°C / 58.8°F. Average relative humidity: 76.8%.
July and August for the beach season and the cultural events.
Seismic activity is low. (Source)
*Note: seismic activity is constantly monitored in the Azores.
Yes, 3G and 4G.