As we move towards the last of our islands, we're now 3,794 miles from the east coast of the United States. We're in Santa Maria, which is the southernmost of the Açores islands. We've traveled 34 miles from Sao Miguel, the previous island we visited. Those visiting this welcoming island have a different experience here than in the other Açores islands because of Santa Maria's warmer weather. This island is a must for those who love lots of sunshine and spending time on the beach.
Santa Maria is Accessible by Boat and by Airplane
Santa Maria's original airport was built in 1944 for the military’s use and re-inaugurated as the Santa Maria International Airport in 1946 for civilian use. Despite being the third smallest of the Açores islands in size, Santa Maria was an important link in trans-Atlantic travel until 1970. The airport became a tremendous source of employment and helped the local economy. First, because of the construction, the airport and support structures, attracted workers from São Miguel and the archipelago, and then as a hub of aviation activities, supporting air traffic in the North Atlantic.
Santa Maria is also accessible by ferry on a limited basis during the month of July and August and not available during the winter months. Private boats do make the trip and can be hired to do so.
The Light at the End of the Steps
Santa Maria is no lightweight when it comes to beautiful places to see. It has the same kind of stunning vistas, sacred places, and natural wonders the other islands offer. Visitors are often pleasantly surprised by how much there is to see on this island that's home to 5,578 people. One place that is an example of Santa Maria’s beauty is Farol de Goncalo Velho.
Whether you're a lighthouse fan or just a fan of beautiful places, making the trek to the lighthouse, Farol de Gonçalo Velho, is worth every step. This lighthouse began its operation in 1927 and continues to work sitting at the end of one of the most scenic walks on the island. Those who visit this lighthouse describe it as a magical experience, and when you see the pictures of Farol de Gonçalo Velho, and the surrounding view, you have to agree that it is magical. This lighthouse sits on a peninsula stretching into the sea by over 300 feet and is above it by over 250 feet. It's important to note that the trip to the lighthouse, both during the drive and then the walk, may not be for everyone.
From what I was told, the drive to Ponta do Castelo is on a narrow and windy road but paved the way and can be made in any vehicle type. Once on foot, to get to the lighthouse, there's a concrete walkway that provides amazing views of tiered land that ends up in the ocean. The walkway descends towards the steps that lead up to the lighthouse.
While I couldn't find an official count, I counted over 30 steps judging by the pictures. The beauty of the lighthouse and the surrounding vistas make every step more than worth it.
Eat, Drink, and Relax
When asking others where they recommend eating when visiting Santa Maria, the first restaurant mentioned more than once, was Ponta Negra Restaurant e Bar de Praia. This restaurant offers excellent food made of the freshest ingredients, great drinks, and extraordinary views. Diners are made to not only feel welcomed; they're made to feel special.
The restaurant's chef is known to make dishes customized to the diner's preference as nothing is started until the dish is ordered. People say they go back because of the food, views, and great conversation they have with the restaurant's owners. The owners are known as gracious hosts offering the best in hospitality.
Another restaurant that receives high marks for excellent food and wonderful hospitality is O Grota.
This restaurant offers fresh seafood and excellent views for diners to savor, and the owner is known to treat guests as if they're family. Patrons say that everyone who comes to the front door of this quaint restaurant instantly feels at home. Both Ponta Negra Restaurant e Bar de Praia and O Grota serve. While Santa Maria has other great places to eat, drink and relax, these two were mentioned every time I asked where to eat when visiting Santa Maria.
What Not to Miss
Santa Maria is known as "the sunny island" and is reliably sunnier than the rest of the Açores islands. It has much less precipitation and, although the temperature doesn't typically reach beyond the mid-eighties, it has more sunny days than the other islands. Santa Maria's Praia Formosa (Formosa Beach) is a rarity of the Açores islands because of its almost white, soft sand. Because of its sunny weather and having a beach that is reputed to be the best in the Açores, swimming is the thing that can't be missed when visiting Santa Maria.
There are two sandy beaches in Santa Maria. Geologists determine that this island is older than the other Açores islands, which explains why it has yellow, sandy beaches rather than black sand. The most famous of Santa Maria's beaches is named Praia Formosa, the "beautiful beach." This long stretch of a beach sits at the bottom of the bay and is approximately one mile long.
Praia Formosa' shallow, calm waters are crystal clear, beautiful turquoise color. They remain warm well into the autumn months with a non-existent undertow.
Praia Formosa has the distinction of having the Blue Flag designation. The Blue Flag, a European symbol of seawater quality, awarded only the highest quality and eco-friendly beaches. In addition to the inviting waters, the beach has plenty of parking, changing rooms and bathrooms. If you don't bring a picnic meal, don't worry because there's a restaurant on the beach. Praia Formosa is a place to swim and relax all day when taking in Santa Maria's beauty and warmth.
Santa Maria is approximately 1,000 miles from the coast of Lisbon and concludes our trip visiting each of the Açores Islands. These enchanting nine islands all have the same quality of indescribable beauty, and each is unique, containing characteristics different from its other sister islands.
From the smallest to the largest, all deserve the highest of accolades for what they offer visitors. For those visiting these magical islands for the first time, they come away with the desire to visit again. And for those who were born there and moved away long ago, a piece of their hearts forever remains with the precious, beautiful Açores
Margaret Resendes Peek