Landing on the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, you could easily think it was a major travel hub. From the air, the airport seems out of proportion to the island, which only measures about 50 miles square. The runway is huge—easily visible from satellite photographs—but once you land, the truth becomes apparent. The airport is indeed large, but it feels like your own private airport—there are no another planes in sight, and the terminal is largely empty.
It’s not that Santa Maria is off the beaten path. The Azores islands sit about a third of the way between New England and Europe, making them the perfect stopover for mariners since the earliest seafaring days. Of the nine islands, Santa Maria is the southernmost, with the driest and warmest climate in the Azores.
The western half of the island is also very flat, making it the perfect place for an air base, like the one built by the Allies during World War II. The Allies flew planes back and forth across the Atlantic, scouted for U-boats, and when the war was over, they left behind the massive air base, which became Santa Maria’s airport and the center of life on the island.
Though I am a frequent visitor to Portugal and the Azores, I had never been to Santa Maria before. Traveling there with my wife and two small kids, ages 1 and 6, I wasn’t sure what I would find on my first visit. Given its location, I was expecting sun and clean skies. What I was not expecting was the across-the-board friendliness of Santa Maria’s people.
It began with the car rental company, which never asked for a credit card and took the time to explain the best places to visit on the island and to circle them on the map. The friendliness continued with the waitress at a restaurant who was happy to help with a long list of kids’ needs. At another restaurant, the owner sat down next to us and played ballads on his Portuguese guitar to help entertain the kids. Like a small town untouched by tourism, Santa Maria is a welcoming, real place, one that just happens to be extraordinarily beautiful and inviting.
Santa Maria is the oldest island in the Azores, thrust from the ocean some four million years ago by volcanic activity, after which it promptly sank again. The island resurfaced a few hundred years later as the other Azorean islands were being formed. Today, the western half of Santa Maria is warm and dry, giving it a very Mediterranean feel. The eastern half of the island is fertile, green, and hilly. In between, the center of the island is mountainous and lush, much like the other islands of the Azores, which are known for crater lakes, lush green forests, black sea cliffs, and geysers.
The coast of Santa Maria is dotted with small bays, two of which have sandy beaches. And this is where Santa Maria really differs from its sister islands. The island’s age, coupled with long periods under the sea, give it a natural sediment that results in yellow sand beaches, in contrast to the black sand beaches (which come from volcanic activity) on the rest of the Azores.
The most famous of Santa Maria’s beaches is located on its southern bay, the Baia da Praia, and is aptly named Praia Formosa, the “beautiful beach.” The road down to the beach winds through high cliffs that look like a small fishing village in Italy or Greece, with cactus and desert foliage filling in between the rocks. The beach itself sits at the bottom of the bay, surrounded by a dozen buildings, including two restaurants and a few summer houses.
The beach is about a mile long and is sparsely populated from September to June. The water is a clear, light green, and quite warm in the fall. The undertow is almost non-existent. Beyond that, two things make the Praia Formosa beach a real treasure. First, the ruins of a 16th century fort built to dissuade pirates, now mostly washed away by the sea. Then there are a series of natural tidal pools that offer a close-up view of the island’s diverse sea life, including small shrimp, hermit crabs, and all types of little fish.
Praia Formosa is a Blue Flag beach, an international standard awarded to only the highest quality and eco-friendly beaches. The sand is a rich golden color with streaks of black. Just as important to families, the beach has bathrooms, changing rooms, and parking. There’s also a restaurant on the beach, O Paquet, made to look like an old steamship eatery, which features a nice selection of fresh local fish, drinks, and a large open esplanade.
Sleepy Towns, History Abounds
Further inland, Santa Maria’s landscape is dotted with small farms and charming villages. The houses are painted blue and white, and often have an outside bread oven attached to them, a holdover from the days when the residents made bread for the many sailors who passed through.
The towns of Santa Maria seem nothing like the simple and rugged towns that are common on other islands of the Azores. Santa Maria’s villages are scattered and charming, each one seeming more picturesque than the last. The prize, however, goes to Santa Barbara, a town set on several hills, with charming one-story houses all painted white with blue trim. (There seems to be some sort of color collusion on Santa Maria. Each of the half-dozen largest towns has its own trim color to offset the whitewash of the houses. As you explore the island, you’ll see green in the southeast, yellow in the northeast, red in the southeast, and gray in the north.)
The main town on Santa Maria is Vila do Porto on the South coast, which is the oldest settlement in the Azores. Vila do Porto’s streets are lined with old homes that once belonged to people who emigrated from the Algarve and Alentejo regions of southern Portugal. These newcomers made a good living by growing woad, a plant from the mustard family that was prized throughout Europe for the blue dye that was extracted from its leaves.
Today, Vila do Porto has the feel of a sleepy town in the interior of Portugal. Perched on a hill and built around a 16th century fort, the town runs in a straight line towards the sea. The main street is lined with impressive, if somewhat ruined houses from the 15 th to 17th centuries, a time when merchants made a good living on wheat and woad sales. The town has several shady squares and an assortment of ancient churches and monasteries. The city hall is set in a former convent, and you can explore it at no charge. Just a few small restaurants line the main street, all reasonably priced and serving simple local food such as grilled fish, beef, and soup. One never gets the impression that this a tourist town, except for the abundance of local English speakers, who cater to the many visiting immigrants who left in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to go to New England and now return often to visit family and friends.
At Anjos, on the island’s northern coast, a small statue commemorates a brief visit by Christopher Columbus, who stopped by in 1493 on his way home from America. Next to the statue, you can visit a reconstruction of the chapel where Columbus prayed. (The original chapel was burned down, along with the town, by pirates about a century later.) Just up the road is a natural swimming pool complex, where mighty waves crash into a swimming pool set along the arrid cliff sof the bay. The bays of Maia and San Lorenzo both sport natural swimming pools, and are considered among the most beautiful bays among the islands.
The population of Santa Maria is only 5,000 today, down from a peak of 15,000 in 1940 when the Allied air base was active. Today Santa Maria seems a bit lost in time—there are just three hotels on the whole island, two or three inns, and a dozen restaurants. Choosing a hotel was easy for us, as there was only one that seemed kid-friendly--the Hotel Columbo, just north of the airport, was built four years ago and seems to have been designed to host tour groups that never came. The hotel is modern--very modern. In contrast to the gentle hills of the island, it has the feel of an airport, with steel beams, high ceilings, and a long, almost endless hallway. Still, the rooms were very comfortable, modern and clean. The hotel restaurant was great, and the service very personal. Even the outdoor pool was enjoyable.
Why visit Santa Maria, or any of the Azores islands? To begin with, they are only 2,000 miles due east of New England, or 4 hours from Boston by air. The mild year-round climate rarely dips below 60 degrees or rises above 80 degrees. Flights go year-round to the main island of Sao Miguel, and Santa Maria is just a 25-minute hop from Sao Miguel by air, or you can take a ferry to Santa Maria from May to October.