“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
- Top things to do in Santa Maria Island
- Top cultural events in Santa Maria Island
- Azores food: what to eat in Santa Maria
- Local souvenirs
- Where to stay in Santa Maria Island
- Know before you go
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.
A photo posted by Steves (@spteves) on
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 sea sickness (the Atlantic can be, let’s say, “moody”).
Recommended Local Companies
Please note that I’m not listing ALL the local companies. These are tailored suggestions that fit the editorial tone of this blog. To narrow down the list I used the following criteria:
- Local companies listed on visitazores.com. I use the term “local companies” for companies that are owned by locals and/or operate locally only.
- A website in English where you can easily browse through photos and gather all needed data for an informed decision (such as prices and previous customers’ ratings).
- Easy to follow on social media and/or easy to contact from abroad (with a working email)
Miguel Marques describes his company as “young and energetic, passionate about the island, Nature, and how to enjoy it to the fullest.” Don’t worry, they don’t cater to “adrenaline junkies” only – there’s an activity for everyone (including borderline couch potatoes like me). Rated as Excellent on TripAdvisor
Rua Dr. Manuel Monteiro Velho Arruda 115
9580-530 Vila do Porto
Activities: Hiking (25€/US $27 per person), cycling (13.50€/US $15 per person), mountain biking (50€/US $54 per person), bird watching (25€/US $27 per person) and customised island tours (30€/US $32 per person, meals not included; 50€/US $54 per person, meals included).
The managing partner Roberto Furtado informed me that he’s opening two houses soon (classified as “rural tourism”) in the beautiful Sao Lourenco bay (pictured in the cover). They will be added to the post as soon as they are available. In the meantime, may I entice you with the possibility of booking a romantic tour or sailing at sunset? Rated as Excellent on TripAdvisor.
Baixa do Vigário
9580-030 Vila do Porto
Activities: Sailboat tours (prices start from 50€/US $55, per person, on low season and from 70€/US $76, per person, on high season) and sailboat rental (prices start from 900€/US $980 on low season and 1300€/US $1400 on high season).
Roughly translated, the name of this company is Portuguese slang for “let’s go”. So you can tell they’re an active bunch, right? They also focus on sustainable tourism which, in the Azores, is crucial. Rated as Excellent on TripAdvisor.
Rua Teófilo Braga, 66
9580-535 Vila do Porto
Activities: Jeep safari (75€/US $80, per person), canyoning (60€/US $65, per person), coasteering (60€/US $65, per person), rappel (35€/US $38, per person).
The company lists the diving spots by level (beginner, intermediate and expert) and, for safety reasons, demand proof of certification or experience. Some of the species you can find include the local moray eel and the “just passing through” manta rays. Rated as Excellent on TripAdvisor.
Marina de Vila do Porto
9580-541 Vila do Porto
Activities: Diving (prices start from 44€/US $47, per person) and snorkelling (prices start from 48.50€/US $53, per person).
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.
A photo posted by Steves (@spteves) on
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 accommodation possibilities. These are tailored suggestions that fit the editorial tone of this blog. To narrow down the list of places to stay on the island, I used the following criteria:
- Properties listed on visitazores.com as local accommodation and/or rural tourism (AL, CC, TH, TR). I excluded chain hotels.
- A website in English and/or a listing on Booking.com* where you can easily browse through photos and gather all needed data for an informed decision (such as prices and previous customers’ ratings).
- Easy to follow on social media and/or easy to contact from abroad (via a working email)
No minimum stay. Complete breakfast included. Unlimited free WiFi. Option to book individual rooms or a whole house. Rated as Excellent on TripAdvisor.
Prices for 3 or more nights:
Low season (October to May): Prices start at 59€/US $63, per night
High season (June to September): Prices start at 70€/US $75, per night
Prices for 1-2 nights:
Low season (October to May): Prices start at 69€/US $75, per night
High season (June to September): Prices start at 80€/US $87, per night
Typical local house. Two terraces and a traditional front balcony. Refurbished keeping the classical elements (like the facade and the chimney). 2.5Km from the Praia Formosa beach. Free WiFi. Casa de Almagreira is to be rented as one whole unit, no rooms are let individually. Rating of 9.7 on Booking.com
Low season (October to May): Prices start at 120€/US $130, for two people.
High season (June to September): Prices start at 150€/US $160, for two people.
“Oleiro” means potter in Portuguese, so the house name links to the former local industry. Typical local house. Refurbished keeping the classical elements (like the other style of chimney that can be found on the island). WiFi.
Low season (October to May): Prices start at 50€/US $54
High season (June to September): Prices start at 70€/US $76
Typical local house. Refurbished keeping the classical elements. Located in the North of the island, with ocean and mountain views. Internet available upon request. Rated as Excellent on TripAdvisor.
Low season (October to May): Prices start at 60€/US $65, per night for two people
High season (June to September): Prices start at 70€/US $76, per night for two people
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.
Where is Santa Maria island?
Santa Maria is one of the two islands in the Eastern Group (Grupo Oriental) of the Azores Archipelago, an autonomous region of Portugal.
What’s the official language in the Azores?
Portuguese. The Azoreans are also fluent in some foreign languages (mostly English), especially those who work in the tourism industry.
What’s the time zone in the Azores?
GMT -1 hour
What’s the currency in the Azores?
Are there banks and ATM machines in Santa Maria island?
Is there a post office in Santa Maria island?
What Visa do I need to visit Santa Maria island?
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.
Do I need any special vaccination?
Special vaccination is not mandatory to enter the Azores region. If you have special health conditions, please seek medical advice.
How do I get medical care in Santa Maria island if I need it?
There are pharmacies and public health clinics (known as centros de saúde with emergency services on the island.
What is the voltage?
220 volts (round two-pin plugs).
Is there public transportation in Santa Maria island
Yes, there are buses and taxis. You can also rent a car (check the local car rental companies for information).
How big is Santa Maria island?
The area of Santa Maria Island is 97.42 square kilometers (approximately 37.61 square miles).
How far is Santa Maria island from Lisbon?
1,500 km (approximately 932 miles)
How many people live in Santa Maria island?
5,547 people, according to the last census of 2011.
How many main towns does Santa Maria Island have?
Santa Maria has one main town (concelhos in Portuguese) called Vila do Porto (where the airport is).
How do I travel to Santa Maria island?
By plane – between islands, SATA Air Acores; from the Portuguese mainland and other countries, SATA Azores Airlines, Tap Air Portugal, and via Ponta Delgada (S. Miguel) Ryanair,
EasyJet (only until October 2017)and Delta Airlines.
By boat (seasonal, from May to September): Atlanticoline SA.
How is the weather in Santa Maria island?
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%.
When is the best time to visit Santa Maria island?
July and August for the beach season and the cultural events.
Are there earthquakes in Santa Maria island?*:
Seismic activity is low. (Source)
*Note: seismic activity is constantly monitored in the Azores.
Is there WiFi and cell phone coverage in X island?
Yes, 3G and 4G.
When will you start planning your trip to the Azores?