Visiting Santa Maria - What to See and Do
(Santa Maria Airport SMA, Portugal)
During the mid-20th century, all transatlantic flights had to use Santa Maria Airport as a refuelling stop. Today, the airport only handles much smaller flights to another Azores island called Sao Miguel, yet nevertheless the island of Santa Maria still attracts visitors because of its sandy white beaches, coastal attractions, black volcanic rock houses with unique chimneys, and rich marine life beneath its waters.
None of the other Azores islands boast sunnier or drier climates than Santa Maria, tucked away in the Portuguese archipelago's south-east corner. This was also the first of the Azores islands to be colonised and several stately buildings from that era remain standing today, thanks to the island's lack of volcanic eruptions and earthquake damage.
No fewer than 13 military forts, three recreational forest reserves, two nature reserves and dozens of churches lie within this small 'yellow island', with its 17-km / 11-mile length, 9.5-km / 6-mile width and total population of less than 6,000 people.
Ten things you must do in Santa Maria
- Sunbathe in relative seclusion at Praia Formosa, surrounded by vine covered hills and ranked among the Azores island's finest swimming beaches. A restaurant, campsite, and small hotel are the only visible signs of tourism development on this long, white sandy beach. The Praia Formosa's liveliest time of year is during the annual August Maré de Agosto music festival.
- Tour the charming Ermida de Nossa Senhora de Fátima chapel in the village of Fatima. About 150 steps lead to this picturesque chapel, which is surrounded by trees, gardens, sculptures, and blue and white 'azulejo' tiles. Surrounding farmland, villages and Santa Maria's north coast can all be seen from this hillside chapel.
- Follow the footsteps of Christopher Columbus at the village of Anjos, where a modern statue was erected in 1993, on the 500th anniversary of this famous explorer's voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus and his crew prayed at the whitewashed Capela Nossa Senhora dos Anjos chapel, the Azores' oldest church, after their return from the New World.
- Find tranquility within the Igreja de Sao Pedro, a tiny 17th-century church in the equally tranquil village of Sao Pedro. A large stone window provides a sneak peak into the church's lovely interior, filled with colourful azulejos and elaborate carvings featuring Portugal's royal coat of arms.
- Discover the ancient ditches known as 'mata-mouros' where residents of the village of Almagreira used to hide food and valuables from pirates centuries ago. Wind and water mill ruins stand near Almagreira's charming old houses.
- Scale the 590-metre / 1,936-foot high summit of Pico Alto, Santa Maria's highest peak, which is marked with a tombstone in memory of the 200 Italians killed in a plane crash years ago. Visitors can clearly see from Santa Maria's western pastures to its craggy eastern coastline from Pico Alto's summit - when the weather cooperates.
- Make the dramatic descent down the cliff face next to the Baia de Sao Lourenco and admire the view of the bay and its surrounding vineyards along the way. The stalactites and stalagmites dangling and growing from the grotto on the tiny islet of Romeiro are just a short boat journey away from the tranquil village of Sao Lourenco.
- Admire the Baroque Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Purificacao church, as well as the historic local attractions and artwork displayed in the church's neighbouring museum at the verdant village of Santo Espirito. Visitors can also sample freshly baked bread and pastries prepared by the Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria, who also make and sell beautiful woven handicrafts.
- Watch for whales from Ponta do Castelo's pebbled beaches. This designated protected area also boasts a picturesque lighthouse, a popular diving spot, interesting marine grottos and unforgettable panoramic Atlantic Ocean views.
- Soak alongside the locals of Santa Maria at any of the natural swimming pools surrounding the south-east village of Maia, where a lovely bay is an official nature reserve. Visitors can also sample some of Maia's locally produced and pleasantly sweet wine.