It was 6 a.m. — 2 a.m. to my raddled East Coast brain — and my husband, daughter and I were staggering through customs in the Ponta Delgada Airport, on the island of São Miguel, the largest of the nine islands that make up Portugal’s Azores archipelago.
Despite the fog inside my head, my energy was high. A fellow mom who had been on our Boston redeye marveled at the gorgeous weather forecast, which elicited a chuckle from the guard. “Gorgeous, I don’t know,” he said. “But you will experience all four seasons every day.”
He was right. During our weeklong visit, we experienced steady rains and bright sunshine, donned bathing suits and layers of fleece. But never mind the weather; it was the natural theater of the four elements — earth, water, fire and air — that made São Miguel an adventure unlike any other.
Around 36 million years ago, the Azores Plateau was formed in the Atlantic Ocean where the North American, Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet. As these plates pulled apart on the ocean bed, molten volcanic material rose and formed new oceanic crust. The chain of islands formed from the upper sections of the volcanoes that rose from this plateau. In other words, the Azores are volcanic islands, and their distinctive geology creates a vivid landscape and environment.
Carpets of green and bubbling fumaroles
Our adventures through the elements began with the early morning drive from the airport to our first hotel, Furnas Lake Forest Living, in the Furnas Valley, a dormant crater that has high geothermal activity in the southeast of São Miguel. Refamiliarizing ourselves with the adrenaline rush of a stick shift in a hilly environment, we drove past expansive, green, almost glowing pastures that were crisscrossed with darker green lines, where volcanic rock walls had been covered over with moss and plants.
As we descended toward the valley, these vast green carpets — dotted with the black-and-white dairy cows that are so important to the local economy — became obscured by thick plane trees and pink azaleas. The hydrangeas the island is known for were still two months from blooming. The proximity of the foliage to the road created tunnels that seemed to be transporting us to a magical destination.
When we pulled into Furnas Lake Forest Living through a grove of Japanese cedars, the storybook enchantment was complete. Manuel Gago da Câmara, who owns the resort with his wife, Helena, and who had planted those imported cedars, traces his family roots back to the late 15th century, about 50 years after the island is thought to have been settled by the Portuguese explorer Gonçalo Velho Cabral. When Mr. Gago da Camara took over the family property in 1984, the 270 acres were overgrown with weeds. He has spent nearly 40 years transforming them into a sustainable forest surrounding the 14-villa resort, which opened in 2004. (Rates start at 320 euros, or about $349.)
“My dream is to turn it into a place where people can also learn how to farm and have quality food in an easy way,” Mr. Gago da Camara said. The couple makes their own honey and have garden beds and fruit trees that supply the on-premises restaurant. “Nature gives you everything if you take good care of it,” Mr. Gago da Camara said, a perspective that seemed to be shared by many on the island where pride in and protection of the land has created an inherently eco-friendly travel experience.
We spent our first days in the lush, gurgling, sometimes sulfurous-smelling region, admiring its alternating beauty and otherworldliness. The large lake, Lagoa das Furnas, looked like it could have been in Switzerland with its aqua water surrounded by a tree-covered rim. But on its north shore was a roiling patch of land: the Caldeiras das Furnas.
As we watched the bubbling fumaroles and plumes of steam rising through the air, a small van rolled up. Two men hopped out and sauntered over to one of a couple of dozen mini-mounds of earth that were marked by a small sign with a restaurant name. They uncovered the deep holes and yanked two cauldrons out of them with long metal hooks. Inside each pot was the coveted cozido: a meat-and-vegetable Portuguese stew that consists of everything from chorizo and chicken to cabbage and carrots. The stew had been cooking in the earth for six or seven hours before the men hoisted the cauldrons out, placed them in the van and sped back to their restaurant.
We headed over to the lakeside cafe about 50 steps from the boiling ground to sample the cozido there. The meat was tender, the vegetables, soft, and its taste was, unsurprisingly, earthy.
Just beyond the gray-and-taupe ground surrounding the caldeiras, the landscape turned steep and verdant. Grená Park, a forested area with hiking trails, was once a private home in the 1800s. Over the years, it changed ownership and was eventually purchased by the Portuguese government in 1987 as a place to accommodate traveling officials, and then transferred to the local Azorean government in 2009. Despite all the movement, it remained largely abandoned until it was finally sold back to private owners who transformed the property into its current state.
After paying a fee and entering through a metal turnstile, we chose one of the three trails and started ascending through towering trees, past waterfalls and through fecund air. It felt almost like we were playing in a life-size board game made of trees: Paths were marked by slices of tree trunks, miniature garbage cans were constructed from logs, and wooden ladders guided us to different levels of the park. A dense canopy and moss crawling everywhere created a timeless atmosphere, though the park only opened in 2019.
Thermal pools and lava flows
In nearby Furnas village, Terra Nostra Garden was an entirely different convergence of natural and human-made elements. The celebrated botanic garden dates back to 1776, when the American orange merchant Thomas Hickling built a modest home and surrounded it with trees mostly from North America. In the 19th century, the property was enlarged by the Visconde da Praia and, later, his son, who continued adding land and planting imported trees. Today it is 30 acres of gardens and groves spanning specimens from New Zealand, China, South Africa and other countries. There are palms intersecting with eucalyptus trees, which give way to sequoias, and an extensive camellia collection. It was a lovely place to get lost — despite having a map, we did — and take a soothing dip in the naturally warm, iron-rich thermal pool that is popular with locals and tourists.
After a few days exploring firm, albeit sometimes molten, ground, we were ready to ride the seas. The ocean surrounding São Miguel is home to many cetaceans and more than a few tour companies that will bring you close to them in low-riding Zodiacs and larger catamarans. Definitely not a seafaring family, we opted for a ride in the latter, offered by a tour company called Futurismo.
About 15 minutes after heading out from Ponta Delgada, the island’s main port, we saw our first dolphins gliding through the water, their sleek backs and dorsal fins triggering gleeful gasps from everyone aboard. For the next three hours, our boat’s captain followed the direction of Futurismo’s point person, who was perched at a lookout on the island, relaying the visible marine activity. The result was a successful expedition: pods of bottlenose and common dolphins and several sperm whales, including a mother and calf, elegantly breaching the water before diving back into the ocean’s depths with a wave of their tails.
The next day was also filled with dramatic ocean views, this time from the heights of the western coast. We took another meandering road lined with plane trees and grass banks to one of the most photographed points on the island: Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado. A spectacularly sunny day, the sloping green inland contrasting with precipitous sea cliffs, blue skies and white billowy clouds could have been ripped from a travel agency poster.
Down at the water’s edge, in the town of Mosteiros, the green grass gave way to black lava flows, frozen into craggy formations. It was a foreboding but irresistible sight, and we scaled their pointy peaks, poked through clear tidal pools and kept an eye on the Atlantic, here a sublime turquoise, as it pummeled the shore and sent salty spray through the air.
After our fill of scampering, we went to nearby Ponta da Ferraria to soak. A bubbling hot spring beneath the lava cliffs creates a heated cove right within the ocean. We followed the trail of sunbathers and adventure seekers past the indoor spa to the black, sometimes jagged, rocks where scores of people lay. We paused to consider the wisdom of joining others in the narrow channel where cold ocean waves rolled through, mixing with the hot water to create the perfect tepid temperature, but also smashed against the rocks before returning to the sea.
Maybe emboldened by the epic waterfalls and literally gaping and burning parts of the island we’d seen, we were compelled to descend into the fray. Warm and churning, invigorating and intimidating, the water bounced us between the rocky edges and a rope strewn across the waterway for safe-holding. For a moment, I felt one with the island’s history, geology and beauty.
Wild winds and low clouds
On our last day, we visited one of our favorite spots: Lagoa do Fogo, Lake of Fire, a more-than-1,200-acre protected region in the center of the island. Wending ever upward on another winding road to get there, we watched as the blue skies disappeared and we were enveloped in a whole new climate. The higher we went, the denser the fog. Or, were they clouds? As the guard had promised, we had experienced every season — every landscape, climate and element — over the past week across São Miguel’s 290 square miles.
We parked and walked to the trailhead, the wind whipping against us, stirring whitecaps on the volcanic lake thousands of feet below. We again briefly questioned whether we were taking on a little too much adventure, but decided we’d at least start the hike. There was a pumice beach along one of the lake’s edges that we wanted to see.
The farther we descended into the caldera, the more protection its steep rims provided. Gulls and terns screeched their welcome. The air was purifying.
Down at the water, the clouds still floated close enough to seemingly touch. We tramped through ferns and laurel, wanting to prolong the trip to this lush but fiery island, though the wind, and distance to the beach, was finally persistent enough to compel us to turn around.
We didn’t make it to the pumice beach, but we had already absorbed so many sights and experiences. We left to catch our flight, knowing São Miguel had an incomparable place in the world, and now, in our minds.
Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.