Santa Maria tastes like summer, vacations, and the sea. We bathed in breathtaking beaches, walked through a red desert that seemed to be on Mars, listened to jazz in an open-air festival, toasted at sunset in the sea, and even had one of the most incredible scuba diving experiences ever. This island was undoubtedly one of the biggest surprises of the 2-month trip through the nine Azorean islands.
In this travel guide, we try to reflect all that Santa Maria has to offer with practical suggestions, itineraries from 2 to 5 days, where to sleep, and even where to eat so that your trip around the island is as incredible as ours has been.
- Basic facts for traveling to Santa Maria
- When to visit Santa Maria
- How to get to Santa Maria
- How many days to spend in Santa Maria
- Things to see and do in Santa Maria
- Map of Santa Maria
- Praia Formosa
- Ribeira de Maloás
- Miradouro da Pedreira da Tia Raulinha
- Ponta do Castelo and Gonçalo Velho Lighthouse
- Cascata do Aveiro
- Santo Espírito, the Cooperative and the Santa Maria Museum
- Baía de São Lourenço, its beach and viewpoints
- Poço da Pedreira
- Miradouro da Pedra Rija
- Pico Alto
- Miradouro das Lagoinhas
- Nossa Senhora de Fatima Hermitage
- Barreiro da Faneca (Red Desert)
- Vila do Porto
- Prainha, Pedreira do Campo and Figueral Cave
- Curiosities of Santa Maria
- The best hiking trails in Santa Maria
- Where to dive in Santa Maria
- Where to stay in Santa Maria: best areas
- Best restaurants in Santa Maria
- Santa Maria island itineraries
- Transportation: rent a car in Santa Maria
- How much does it cost to travel to Santa Maria?
- Useful apps for traveling to Santa Maria
- Recommendations to enjoy Santa Maria island.
- Checklist: what to take in your backpack/suitcase for Santa Maria
Basic facts for traveling to Santa Maria
Santa Maria is, with its 6 million years, the oldest island geologically of all the Azores (the island of Pico is the youngest with 250,000 years). The Azorean grandmother was born twice (the first island sank in the Atlantic Ocean years after it appeared) and hides fossils that tell us stories of millions of years ago. It was also, officially, the first to be discovered in 1427. Together with São Miguel, it forms the eastern group of the Azorean archipelago and is, of the nine islands, the one with the largest number of streams and the largest waterfall in the country. It is known as the yellow island, the island of the sun, or “the Algarve of the Azores“: if you have been on the southern coast of the Portuguese mainland you will understand that the nickname of Santa Maria comes from its extensive sandy beaches of fine sand and the pleasant and stable climate throughout the year, unlike its neighbors where the natural volcanic pools and the four seasons in one day predominate. You cannot say goodbye to the island without tasting its meloa (cantaloupe), a symbol of the island, and if you dive, you will want to make at least one dive in its transparent waters full of life.
Population: 5400 (in 2021)
Daily budget: From 80€/day per person (approx.) for a 5-day trip. More budget information here
Climate: Spring-like all year round with temperatures between 15º and 25º (varies somewhat, but not much, in the summer and winter months), being the ideal time to enjoy its beaches. Find out more about when to go here.
Accommodation: Santa Maria is not very big but, in our opinion, the ideal is to stay in Vila do Porto, its capital: in the Azorean Stone Houses (from 50€/night) where we stayed or in the Charming Blue hotel (from 89€/night) for something more sophisticated. If you want to stay in front of the sea, the ideal is the Casa da Fajãzinha (from 83€/night) or the Vigia da Areia (from 180€/night, with jacuzzi on the terrace) as both are in front of our favorite beach of the island, São Lourenço. Casa dos Tomarinhos ( from 80€/night) is ideal if you are looking for rural tourism. More options for where to stay here
Duration: Minimum 2 days. Ideal 5 days.
Flights: There are direct flights from Lisbon with Sata, otherwise you will have to fly to the archipelago (São Miguel and Terceira usually have the cheapest flights) and from there to Santa Maria. We recommend you use flight comparators like Skyscanner and Kiwi and be flexible with dates. More information on how to get here.
Transportation: The best option is to rent a car. We did it with Autatlantis and we loved it: new cars and the best franchise policy. Find your car at the best price at DiscoverCars. More info here
Time zone: UTC +0. The time in the Azores archipelago (Portugal) is one hour less than in the Portuguese mainland and two hours less than in Spain.
When to visit Santa Maria
The best months to visit Santa Maria are from May to October, trying to avoid July and August which are the months with more tourism, although this small island is not one of the most visited so you could even take the risk (booking everything ahead in time as the supply of accommodation is not very large). June and September tend to be the best months, with good weather, still appetizing waters, and less overcrowded tourism.
In terms of weather, summer is undoubtedly the best time, with higher temperatures, less chance of rain and the possibility of enjoying more of its beaches.
Santa Maria weather chart with temperatures and rainy days by month:
|Month||Average temperature||Average temperature (water)||Rainy days|
|Month||Average temperature||Average temperature (water)||Rainy days|
If you want to coincide your visit with an event, in July there is the Santa Maria Blues festival which, when we went in July 2021, was already in its XVII edition, so if you like Jazz and Blues, do not hesitate. In Praia Formosa is held every August, an international festival of arts and music, the Maré de Agosto festival, whose stage is just 20 meters from the sea and you can see some of the biggest names in the world’s art scene.
How to get to Santa Maria
The only direct flights to Santa Maria from outside the archipelago are with SATA, the Azorean airline, from Lisbon, although they are limited (few seats and few days a week). Alternatively, the most common is to fly to the archipelago and from there make another connecting flight to Santa Maria. There are flights from several European and American places, mainly to Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) or Terceira.
The cheapest flights are usually Ryanair flights from Lisbon/Porto to Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) or Lajes (Terceira) but to get the best price you should be flexible with dates and use price comparators such as Skyscanner and Kiwi.com.
Once in the archipelago, you will have to fly to Santa Maria from one of these airports with SATA, the Azorean airline (currently, there is no boat connection to Santa Maria).
Since November 2021 there are no longer free connecting flights for tourists (until that date, you could book a free flight within 24h of your entry to the archipelago to any other island). Flights to Santa Maria from other islands usually cost from about 100€/person round trip, so better book as soon as possible.
How many days to spend in Santa Maria
We recommend a minimum of 2 days, although the ideal for Santa Maria is 4 or 5 days and if you want to dedicate more time to relax and enjoy the beaches, you will not regret it. For this reason we propose different types of itineraries, of more or less days.
Things to see and do in Santa Maria
Here we leave you a summary of the places of interest to visit in Santa Maria, and below you have the map and specific information of each place.
What to see and do in Santa Maria
- Enjoying incredible beaches of fine sand
- Walking through a red desert as if you were on Mars
- Contemplating the largest waterfall in Portugal
- Learn about the origin of the Azores on the oldest island with the most fossils
- Have one of the most incredible diving experiences ever.
Map of Santa Maria
Here we leave you all the places of interest in Santa Maria that we talk about in this guide on a Google Maps map that you can carry on your smartphone to consult at any time.
Here is also a tourist map with the roads of Santa Maria (click on the image to download it in larger size and resolution).
Praia Formosa, the impressive sandy beach, transports us to the south of the Portuguese mainland, to a long beach in the Algarve, and for moments makes us doubt whether we are really on the volcanic Azorean islands in the middle of the Atlantic. It is also because of it (in addition to the island’s climate) that the oldest island of the Azores is known as “the Algarve of the Azores”.
In addition to being extensive and never lacking space to put a towel, Praia Formosa has another peculiarity: the water temperature. Thanks to the calcareous particles, the water is kept at a temperature of approximately 25º, a delight.
The prestigious newspaper The Guardian chose it, in 2013, nothing more and nothing less than one of the 20 best beaches in the world to go on vacation.
If you get hungry, there are some restaurants around. Right on the beach is O Paquete, where we went for a snack, but you’d better hold off until later and go to O Grota, in the town of Maia, for some delicious homemade food.
Don’t forget to stop, on the way (or on the way back from the beach) at the Miradouro da Macela to contemplate it from above.
You can also reach Praia Formosa by walking from Vila do Porto on a beautiful hiking route. More info here
Ribeira de Maloás
One of the most impressive natural monuments of the island, the Ribeira de Maloás is a set of basaltic columns, similar to those of the famous Irish “Giant’s Causeway”.
In fact, not only is this natural monument beautiful but also the path to get here. You can park your car here and then walk a few meters with stunning sea views to this point.
As we read on the explanatory sign at the beginning of the trail leading to Ribeira de Maloás, this volcanic structure was produced in a “basaltic lava runoff” that was emitted by the Pico Alto Volcanic Complex.
Prismatic or columnar disjunctions are structures that form during the cooling process of thick basaltic lava drainages. How? The contraction of the rock material during the cooling and solidification of the lava generates fractures perpendicular to the cooling surface. These fractures, propagating through the interior of the rock, generate columns parallel to each other. As this “lava runoff” took place in a flat and horizontal terrain, the prisms observed are vertical prisms, whose dismantling formed this imposing “prismatic wall” of Ribeira do Maloás. It is an integral part of the Protected Area for the Management of Habitat or Species of Ponta do Castelo and is classified as a geosite of the Azores Geopark-UNESCO World Geopark.
During the rainy season it has a 20-meter waterfall that makes it even more beautiful.
Miradouro da Pedreira da Tia Raulinha
On the way to Ponta do Castelo and Maia, you can make a short stop at the Miradouro da Pedreira da Tia Raulinha, from where you will have views of the Gonçalo Velho Lighthouse and the bay of Maia.
Ponta do Castelo and Gonçalo Velho Lighthouse
A lighthouse with name and surname, the Farol de Gonçalo Velho is named after the navigator who is said to have discovered the island of Santa Maria. It is considered one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the Azores:
There is also a lookout that was an old lookout post, where whales were sighted, and the ruins of an old whaling factory that reminds us of the sad and hard past of whaling in the Azores. This practice had more expression in the island of Pico although it was transversal to the 9 islands.
On Santa Maria Island, whaling had two periods. The first, between 1896 and 1904, lasted 9 years and 26 sperm whales were captured. It was in the second period of “baleação“, between 1937 and 1966, that this practice gained more importance on the island as a main activity in the local economy, generating employment and wealth. After more than 30 years of activity in which more than 850 sperm whales were caught and produced about 2,000,000 kg of oil, the “Companhia Baleeira Mariense” closed. The activity was finally and happily banned when Portugal joined the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1986. In our guide to the island of Pico we tell you more about this practice that persisted and became an important economic activity on the islands for about 50 years.
If you have time, walk down the path that is located there, next to the lighthouse, towards the sea, to find the ruins of an old whaling port and be surprised by some natural pools in which to enjoy, almost certainly, in solitude.
Cascata do Aveiro
The Cascata do Aveiro (Aveiro waterfall) is nothing more and nothing less than the highest waterfall in Portugal. 110 meters of waterfall that form a spectacular scenery that flows into the sea a few meters ahead.
At the mouth of the stream, on one of the banks, there is still the “Lagar do Aveiro”, a small tank dug into the rock in the 16th century, where its owner produced 20 barrels of wine a year.
Walking towards the sea, we come across the landscape of the southern coast of Mariense. An area that extends from Ponta de Castelete (north of Maia) to Figueiral (west of Praia Formosa) and is classified as a Protected Area of Resource Management for its biological importance and its wealth of habitats and marine species of fauna and flora. It is a passage area for migratory marine species such as whale sharks and loggerhead turtles.
You will meet Maia to go to one of the mythical places to eat on the island, O Grota. But Maia goes beyond the canja de peixe (fish soup) of Aida. You can also take a dip in the swimming pools with sea water that contrast with the vineyard “socalcos”.
The protected area of Baía da Maia has 55 hectares and is delimited by the coastline and the slopes of Ponta do Castelete, Baixa da Maia and Ponta do Castelo. It is a popular summer resort for the people of Santa Maria, with a rich cultural and economic history that is evident in the landscape with numerous vineyards arranged in“socalcos” and protected by “quartéis” of basaltic rock. Vine cultivation was traditionally carried out by families, for their livelihood, and involved significant human effort, as the grapes were carried in wicker baskets on their shoulders, downhill to the bay.
Santo Espírito, the Cooperative and the Santa Maria Museum
To buy a textile souvenir, support an incredible project, and taste their delicious handmade cookies, we recommend you go to Santo Espírito and visit the Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria (Santa Maria Handicraft Cooperative). The cooperative was founded in 1989 by nine women who, at a time and on an island where they were viewed with suspicion for working (also) outside the home, learned the entire textile process (initially without profit, only for the future): from shearing the sheep, to making the thread and coloring it. Then came the looms and, with them, blankets, rugs, hats, tablecloths, skirts and sweaters. Finally, in order to diversify the offer, they created bread (baked in a wood-fired oven) and then the traditional Mariense sweets, famous and delicious cookies that are already exported, called “biscoitos de orelha” (orelha biscuits).
Also in Santo Espírito is the Museu de Santa Maria. Inaugurated in 1972, the museum is housed in a traditional island house from the early 20th century and houses a collection on the daily life of Santa Maria in the 19th and 20th centuries with ceramic objects produced by the many earthenware factories that existed on the island. Admission: 1€. Tuesday to Friday from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14:00 to 17:30. Closed Mondays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
In Santo Espírito is one of the most special accommodations on the island. The Casa dos Tomarinhos (from 80€/night) are stone cottages with one or two rooms, in a bucolic setting, overlooking the sea. Ideal for those seeking tranquility.
Baía de São Lourenço, its beach and viewpoints
Here is our favorite beach, São Lourenço, and also our favorite viewpoint (with the same name) of the whole island. When you go there, you will tell us if it is not one of the most beautiful places in Santa Maria. Classified as a nature reserve since 1987, its intense blue in contrast with the green of the vineyards catches anyone who passes by. This area was the ancient crater of a volcano, which collapsed giving origin and shape to the bay we see.
From the viewpoint, the bay dressed in green vineyard socalcos delimited by volcanic rock cut by a turquoise blue sea that makes us, despite its beauty, not hold us long just contemplating the views, without going down for a dip.
Once down, an immense beach of fine sand and very clean waters where you can refresh yourself.
If you dare to walk a little bit, from the other side of the cliff there is an incredible viewpoint that can only be accessed on foot. The viewpoint is this one, and you have to leave the car here, where the trail starts. If you’re interested in going there, get more information on the official PRC03SMA trail, which passes through there (official brochure in PDF). On the way to the next point (Poço da Pedreira), you will find three more viewpoints (one, two and three) from which to view the spectacular bay:
You can stay at what is, in our opinion, the best beach on the island at the Casa da Fajãzinha (from 63€/night, in high season it goes up to 90€/night) or at the Vigia da Areia (from 180€/night, with jacuzzi on the terrace) ideal to treat yourself and wake up (and have breakfast and lunch and dinner) with the Atlantic Ocean, both with the view and the soundtrack.
Poço da Pedreira
The Poço da Pedreira is a former stone quarrying area used for construction, and is now an otherworldly landscape, an oasis of silence and… frogs.
It consists of a large reddish rock, excavated in the volcanic cone, the Pico Vermelho, formed about 3 or 4 million years ago. It is formed by basaltic pyroclasts of reddish color, very altered and consolidated.
The low rigidity of the materials made it possible to geometrically cut large blocks of stone, using rudimentary techniques and a lot of human strength, giving this place the spectacular appearance it has today. Its extraction stopped in the first half of the 20th century, with the arrival of cement and iron to the civil construction of the island. Until then, the extracted material was of great importance in the construction of houses, mills, and churches in Santa Maria, specifically in the facades, shutters, ovens and chimneys.
It currently has vertical and geometric walls and at its base a beautiful water mirror was formed which explains the soundtrack, the croaking of frogs. This old quarry also created the conditions to currently host a fauna composed of frogs and some fish, which also attracts some endemic and non-endemic birds. As for the flora, in the vegetation cover of the volcanic cone there are some species of endemic vegetation of the Azores and Macaronesia.
It can be seen from above, climbing the rock on the side through a forest to enjoy the panoramic view or from below, on the lawn, with the frogs as a soundtrack. If you want to go back a few years or if you are traveling with children, there is a swing.
To the south you can admire the beautiful green valley of Salto, where the stream of the same name flows into the Ribeira do Salto, next to the islet of Romeiro, in São Lourenço. The Salto stream borders and separates the parishes of Santa Bárbara and Santo Espírito.
Near Poço da Pedreira, also in Santa Barbara, there is a project of a woman artist and entrepreneur, the ceramic store Marina Mendonça, an atelier and store of the ceramic creations of this Azorean from São Miguel who lived many years in Lisbon and when she returned to her archipelago chose Santa Maria to live. Come and get to know her “monstrinhos” (little monsters), ceramic pieces so curious that you will want to take some of them home.
A little further north, Casa do Norte (from 65€/night) is an incredible option for those looking for a quiet place to stay. This former family vacation home, now transformed into rural tourism, has sea views and a lot of pampering inside and out.
Miradouro da Pedra Rija
Continuing our route, you can make a stop at the Miradouro da Pedra Rija, from which you will have a view of the area of Santa Barbara and the sea, and on clear days, you can even see the neighboring island of São Miguel. In addition, it is well maintained and is usually full of flowers (if you travel in summer, hydrangeas).
From the highest point of the island, at 587 meters above sea level, you can have the perception of the unique geography of Santa Maria, the island that was born twice, and on a clear day, the view can even manage to identify the neighboring eastern group São Miguel (20 minutes away by flight).
In addition to being one of the most biodiverse points of endemic flora, here hides a beautiful history of reforestation. Until the mid-twentieth century, much of the territory of Santa Maria was as arid as a desert and thereforestation of the Pico Alto area, where today there is no lack of vegetation, occurred only since then, through a program that gave rise to several forest reserves.
One of the reserves of this program is the Parque Florestal das Fontinhas, currently divided into different areas: a children’s playground, several trails that you can do, a viewpoint, a picnic area (with grill, of course, in the Azores it is very common to find a grill for community use in the most incredible places and here is no exception) and forest nurseries.
This experimental planting area is delimited by trails that can be walked on foot and, although most of the species are not identified, the diversity of the flora is impressive. And although it is on this piece of land that they take root, this is not where the saplings end up: from this nursery they go to other parts of the island that need to be reforested or to the land of the local Mariense people themselves, who only have to ask for and collect the trees they want to adopt. When a sapling leaves, another one takes its place, forming a perfect cycle of sustainability and reforestation.
Miradouro das Lagoinhas
From the Miradouro das Lagoinhas we will get a view of the small islet of the same name, as well as the bay and the sea. The Ilhéu das Lagoinhas is located about 60 meters from the coast and is a rocky elevation with steep slopes, 52 meters high.
Both the islet and the bays off the north coast of Santa Maria are important nesting areas for protected seabird species, such as the tern and the shearwater (Cagarro in Portuguese). The islet and the adjacent coast are therefore classified as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) by BirdLife International.
Both the North Coast Trail (PRO1SMA) and the Great Santa Maria Trail (GRO1SMA) allow hiking to observe this protected area. More info on the Best Hiking Trails in Santa Maria.
Nossa Senhora de Fatima Hermitage
The oldest hermitage in the world in honor of Fátima, after the Capelinha das Aparições, in Cova da Iria (where the Miracle of Fátima is said to have occurred). Beliefs aside, it is a building with historical value, and with beautiful views of the area.
Barreiro da Faneca (Red Desert)
As if Mars had green. Known as the“red desert of the Azores“, the Barreiro da Faneca is an invulgar ecosystem and protected landscape of the island.
It is a curious arid spot of reddish color (due to the clay) in an extensive area of more than 8 km2, near the sea, dotted with vegetation that includes endemic and primitive flora of the island.
The barreiros are the desert landscapes of Santa Maria, unique in the Azores.
As it could not be otherwise, its origin is linked to volcanology. The reddish, arid and clayey semi-desert landscape emerged with the most recent volcanic activity on the island. The whole area is made up of volcanic ash from about 4 million years ago, rich in iron, which oxidized in a time of hot and humid climate. As interesting as it is beautiful.
The Barreiro da Faneca red desert protected area also includes the neighboring bays of Raposo, Tagarete and Cré.
To get there, you can leave your car here and walk a few meters to the point marked on the map.
If earlier we spoke of the oldest chapel in the world in honor of Nossa Senhora de Fátima, in the town of Anjos is the oldest chapel of the Azorean archipelago, the Ermida de Nossa Senhora dos Anjos.
Besides being the oldest, this chapel also has historical importance because the “Irmandade dos Escravos da Cadeínha” was created here. In the 16th century it was common for the island to be attacked by pirates who captured local people and enslaved them until they paid their ransom. In fact, it seems that the hermitage still preserves a “vara” (stick) from 1675 used for whipping… The enslaved people who managed to return, in gratitude, created the brotherhood that was in charge of taking care of the church’s patrimony and holding an annual procession. By the way, the nearby Furna de Santana is supposedly where the population took refuge from one of those pirate and corsair attacks.
If you notice, in front of the chapel there is a statue of Christopher Columbus, since it was apparently here that he and his crew disembarked for the first time on their return from their voyage to the American continent in 1493. Legend has it that as soon as he set foot on dry land, the navigator ordered a mass to be said in this chapel.
But what we really liked the most about Anjos were its natural pools and the Bar dos Anjos, the best place on the island to enjoy the sunset with a beer. If you get hungry, you should know that this is one of the few places where you can still try one of the typical dishes of Marienses, the Caldo de Nabos (you have to order it in advance). If you are more of an improviser like us, there are several petiscos (tapas) that you can order, from clams to pica-pau and sausages, all with homemade bread as garnish.
It is also here, in Anjos, that the Santa Maria Blues festival takes place and where we went in July 2021 in its XVII edition.
Vila do Porto
Vila do Porto, the small capital of the island of Santa Maria is the oldest of the Azores.
Not only the mild climate all year round and the long sandy beaches contribute to Santa Maria being known as the “Algarve of the Azores”, but also the picturesque little whitewashed houses take us to the south of the Portuguese mainland and a short walk through Vila do Porto is enough to testify it.
You can start your tour at the Forte de São Brás, a fortress built in the 17th century to protect the island from the attacks of corsairs and from there walk up to the center of Vila do Porto.
Right in front of the Igreja Matriz de Vila do Porto is the most interesting museum of the island. The Casa dos Fósseis museum is the best place to find out about the origin of the island of Santa Maria, the oldest of all the Azorean islands, although this museum is also known as the Dalberto Pombo Environmental Interpretation Center.
Dalberto Pombo was a pioneer in the geological research of the oldest island of the Azores. Self-taught and creator of the “Centro de Jovens Naturalistas” (Young Naturalists Center), a project dedicated to training and creating curiosity in the youth for the endemic flora and geology of the island through the study of its fossils. Dalberto Pombo also helped trace the route of the sea turtles, discovering that 90% of the sea turtles observed in the Azores were born on the beaches south of Florida.
In addition to learning about the island’s species and getting to know Dalberto’s work up close, the museum has a complete video explaining the interesting geological history of the island and the fact that Santa Maria was born twice!
The island was formed with different volcanic eruptions and the “first” island sank into the water years after it appeared. Later, with other volcanic eruptions, it rose again. And that is why so many well-preserved marine fossils can be found in Santa Maria, the big sister of the Azores – we even saw a fossil of a piece of a whale jaw!
If you can, we recommend that this is the first place you visit on the island so you can understand everything you will see later in your adventurous days in Santa Maria.
The small capital of the island is also the perfect place if you want to take a souvenir of Santa Maria home. It is in Vila do Porto where you will find Aida Barros’ wicker handicraft store (Artesanato de Vimes de Aida Barros: Rua do Cotovelo, 18. Vila do Porto). From smaller items such as hats, baskets, baskets or decorative swallows to pieces of furniture such as chairs, tables or sofas, everything is made with plant fibers: wicker and other plant fibers such as reed and straw. Aida also loves to mix these vegetable fibers with other materials such as clay for the creation of her works.
Another option to buy a souvenir is the Neon Joyride store located on the same street as the Fossil Museum. Here the proposals are jewelry created from plastics found on the local beaches of Santa Maria, to which recycled gold and silver are added.
Vila do Porto is one of the best options to stay. We recommend the Azorean Stone Houses (from 50€/night) where we stayed (small functional and renovated studios where we basically went to sleep) or, if you are looking for something more special, the Charming Blue (from 89€/night), a hotel with pool and sea views located in an old 19th century mansion in the center of Vila do Porto.
Prainha, Pedreira do Campo and Figueral Cave
If you dare to walk and do not have vertigo, you can not miss the hiking trail (PR05SMA) that connects Vila do Porto with Praia Formosa, where you can enjoy a beach almost in solitude (Prainha), visit an artificial cave from which clay and lime were extracted (Gruta do Figueiral) or learn about geology and admire marine fossils in the Pedreira do Campo.
Pedreira do Campo is a natural monument excavated in submarine basaltic lava flows (currently 110 meters above sea level). It was a former exploration front from which volcanic aggregates were extracted for the production of brita (crushed stone for civil construction). The quarry presents a submarine volcanic sequence with layers of cushioned or pillowed lava that show that other previous life of Santa Maria and how it was submerged millions of years ago. It is possible to contemplate all this fossilized area after ashort walk through a wooden passageway.
Unfortunately, in our case it was not possible to do this hiking route because it was closed due to landslides. There are some sections of the route that can be dangerous, especially in windy or rough sea conditions (in which case there is a possible detour that does not pass through Prainha). Be well informed before doing the route.
Curiosities of Santa Maria
- Did you know that Frank Sinatra‘s first two concerts in Europe were on the Azorean islands of Terceira and Santa Maria? Well yes, Sinatra performed in Santa Maria (one day after performing in Terceira) in June 1945 (the year World War II ended) for the American soldiers who were on the island. The performance was at the Atlantida-Cinema, a movie theater at the airport built by the allied military with a capacity for more than 500 spectators. That he performed in Terceira is clear to us, because of the American Military Base das Lajes, but why Santa Maria? In the context of the Second World War and in negotiations between the USA and Portugal (which was “supposedly” neutral in the war) it was decided that Santa Maria had a suitable land to build an airstrip, and so it was. By the way, once the war was over, it became a civilian airport, the first in the archipelago.
- The construction of the Santa Maria airport in 1944 radically changed the island. Until then, Santa Maria had no electricity or piped water, and bartering was still practiced. With the airport, the population multiplied due to the need for personnel to build the airport and then operate it. The airport meant, therefore, an incredible modernization of the island (for example, the population started to drink “Coke” normally, forbidden in the rest of Portugal under the Salazar dictatorship, receiving a strong cultural influence from the USA). A large part of the population began to stop working in the fields to work at the airport, where they earned up to three times more, making it necessary for the local government to implement measures to promote agriculture. Something similar happened with the construction of the French military base and its impact on the population of the island of Flores (later, in 1966) but in that case, the influence was French, not American.
- Santa Maria airport had its golden age between the 40s and the 70s, when it was a key point of the Atlantic for civil aviation as it was where the planes stopped for refueling. It even had 30 planes a day! As a curious fact, the famous Concorde stopped here on flights between Europe and America. The island’s economy became practically dependent on the airport, which lost its importance in the 70s. It is estimated that 300,000 passengers a year passed through in 1970. Today, only about 68,000 a year (2008 data). You can travel to those golden days of Santa Maria airport in the new Roteiro do Aeroporto de Santa Maria, a route through 21 points of interest from the port of Vila do Porto to the airport itself. More info is at this link.
- And what better for this section of curiosities than a map of Santa Maria for curious people, literally. The ‘Santa Maria For Curious People‘ is a map made by locals for those who, like us, visit the island in search of something more than “the essential”.
The best hiking trails in Santa Maria
- Grande Rota de Santa Maria (Great Route of Santa Maria), GR01SMA: circular route of 78 kilometers, divided into four stages of about 20 kilometers each. Those who do it get an incredible overview of the island, as the route passes through all the geosites, all areas of the natural park, from the fossil sites to the barreiros (the desert landscapes of Santa Maria, unique in the Azores) and even the most rural areas. In short, doing the great route validates you a Mariense postgraduate degree in areas of historical, touristic and geomorphological interest of the oldest island of the Azores. Well, maybe not that much, but you will take away some of the best landscapes and experiences that anyone can have on the island. This route was inaugurated in 2015 and is now part of the regional network of official trails. More info / Official brochure
If you do the Grande Rota de Santa Maria, it is worth taking a look at this project, Ilha a Pé (Island on Foot): a set of old barns transformed into shelters/shelters for all stages of the Great Route. In addition to maintaining their original typical stone construction, the barns are as sustainable as possible, with their locally sourced, handmade wooden interiors, electricity from solar panels, dry toilets and waste water cleaned by plants, with a system of phytolagunas. All this without losing any comfort.
- Route Costa Sul (PR05SMA) from Vila do Porto through Prainha to Praia Formosa, always with breathtaking views, you have the PR05SMA that will help you learn more about the geological past of the island. More info / Official brochure
- Santo Espirito – Maia Trail (PRO4SMA): route with spectacular views, descending towards the coast between vineyards(socalcos on the slopes of the old crater) passing by the highest waterfall in Portugal and ending with a refreshing swim in the natural pool of Maia (not suitable for people with vertigo). More info / Official brochure
More information and trails on the official Azores trails website.
Where to dive in Santa Maria
If you dive, bring your equipment because several of Santa Maria’s must-see sites are under the sea. If you don’t bring it, as was my case, don’t worry because you can rent it at the Mantamaria center, where I did the dives and which I highly recommend. If you don’t dive, your trip to Santa Maria can be a good opportunity to learn how to do it, and you can try first with a diving baptism.
The island has 55 dive sites and during the summer it is even possible to catch a glimpse of whale sharks! The best time to dive is from May to October although throughout the year the visibility is between 20 and 40 meters. I went in July and the sea looked like a swimming pool, incredible.
Of all the spots where you can dive there are a few that stand out:
- Ilhéus das Formigas Natural Reserve and Dollabarat Bank: considered by many divers as the best dive site in Europe. About 20 miles off the southeastern tip of Santa Maria, these two sites are known for offering the best visibility in the Azores and encounters with large schools of pelagic fish, manta and stingrays, sharks and many other species.
- Baixa do Ambrósio: just 3 miles offshore, there is an abundance of life around here, with an emphasis on groups of dozens of curious manta rays present throughout the summer, as well as schools of large pelagics. That happened to us on our dive: we enjoyed 23 manta rays swimming around us for almost 1 hour. One of the best dives of my life. If you want to see the video of the experience click here.
For the two divings above (Formigas and Ambrósio) you will need to have advanced diving certification and some experience. If this is not your case and/or you don’t dive, you can try to see the mantas (as well as other species) by snorkeling, book your snorkeling tour in Santa Maria here.
The double dive with equipment rental at Mantamaria cost me about 80€ approximately. To find out about other dive sites, the availability of the dives on the days you are going to be on the island and to adapt the best dive to your capabilities, contact Mantamaria directly.
Where to stay in Santa Maria: best areas
Santa Maria is not very big and, wherever you are staying, you can easily reach any point of the island. In any case, in our opinion, the ideal place to explore the island and have several accommodation and gastronomic options is its capital, Vila do Porto.
- Azorean Stone Houses (from 50€/night): small studios (we stayed in one). Good location, comfortable bed, bathroom with good pressure and hot water. Recently renovated with everything we needed to have breakfast at home and go out to explore the island.
- Charming Blue (from 89€/night): a hotel with 15 comfortable rooms with sea or pool views, all with private bathrooms, in the historic center of Vila do Porto. The hotel is housed in an old 19th-century mansion and has a restaurant – Mesa d’Oito – with delicious food (and breakfast) and a bicycle rental service.
Find more accommodations in Vila do Porto, Santa Maria
Since the island is not very large and you can access any point more or less quickly, we include other types of accommodation, more special or rural tourism that we keep to stay on our return to the island:
- Casa da Fajãzinha (from 63€/night, in high season it goes up to 90€/night), São Lourenço: ideal to indulge yourself and wake up (and have breakfast and lunch and dinner) with the Atlantic Ocean, both with the view and the soundtrack.
- Casa do Norte ( from 65€/night), Santa Bárbara: an incredible option for those looking for tranquility is this former family vacation home transformed into a rural tourism with sea views and lots of pampering inside and out.
- Casa dos Tomarinhos ( from 80€/night), Santo Espírito: stone cottages with one or two rooms, in a bucolic setting, overlooking the sea. Ideal for those seeking tranquility.
- Vigia da Areia (from 180€/night): probably one of the best accommodations on the island, that terrace with jacuzzi on what is, in our opinion, the most beautiful beach on the island revitalizes anyone:
Find more accommodations in Santa Maria here.
Best restaurants in Santa Maria
- Espaço em Cena (Vila do Porto): It’s really not just a restaurant. This “space on stage” is also a dance school, a gallery and a store. But it is the restaurant part (and especially the fried octopus in beer tempura and smoked paprika soft inside and crispy on the outside, served with a pea and coconut puree, for example) and other original creations that make it a must stop on the gastronomic route of Santa Maria. It has several healthy and gluten-free options. Of course, it is better to make a reservation.
- A Travessa (Vila do Porto): ideal to try the Mariense craft beer “A Nossa” brewed right there. There are 6 different beers to try and lots of snacks on the menu, from burgers, steaks, crepes to wiener schnitzel, currywurst and sauerkraut (or wouldn’t its brewer owner be born in German Bavaria).
- Clube Naval de Santa Maria: we ate a very good fish cataplana here.
- A Cagarrita (Vila do Porto): typical sweets and desserts of the island, made with old-fashioned recipes.
- Ponta Negra (São Lourenço): try the “sopa de peixe” (fish soup) or, really, anything (such as bitoque de atum or cataplana) as long as you sit and enjoy the view of the bay of São Lourenço, one of the most beautiful (if not the most beautiful) places on the island with the freshest fish.
- Sol da Manhã (Santo Espírito): the well-known thing to try here is the “Caldo de Nabos” (a stew of salted meats, sweet potato, chorizo and, of course, grated turnips, served with the cooking juices on thick slices of bread) but even if they don’t have it every day, ask what’s there, it’s homemade and tasty for sure.
- Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria (Santo Espírito): buy and eat the delicious handmade cookies typical of Mariense, the famous Biscoitos de Orelha.
- Bar dos Anjos: our favorite place to enjoy the sunset over the sea with a beer. If you get hungry, you should know that this is one of the few places where you can still try one of the typical dishes of Mariense, the Caldo de Nabos ( yes, you have to order it in advance). If you are more of an improviser like us, there are several petiscos (tapas) that you can order, from clams to pica-pau and sausages, all with homemade bread as garnish.
- O Grota (Rua do Divino Espírito Santo, Maia): order the canja de peixe (fish soup) or whatever is on the menu. If it’s made by Aida, it’s good.
- O Paquete: beach bar in Praia Formosa, ideal for beach snacks or an Imperial
- Mesa D’Oito, at the Charming Blue hotel (Vila do Porto): well prepared creative dishes
- Lanchonete (Vila do Porto): known for its €1 sandwich of “Pé de Torresmos” (literal translation: bacon pie), homemade bread with a kind of homemade pâté made with pork, salt, garlic, pimenta da terra (Azorean paprika), regional wine and spices.
- Central Pub (Vila do Porto): an English pub atmosphere where locals and tourists meet and where you go to eat… Pizza! Yes, it is the specialty of the Central Pub, together with the Bacalhau à Brás.
- Pipas Churrasqueira (Vila do Porto): typical meat or fish dishes.
Don’t forget to order for dessert (or buy for your breakfasts) the famous meloa de Santa Maria: the smallest, sweetest, juiciest melon you will ever taste.
Santa Maria island itineraries
As you will have seen if you have read our entire guide, Santa Maria has many incredible places to visit, so to see everything you need at least a week.
As we do not always have so much time to enjoy the island, we leave you several suggestions of itineraries for 2 to 5 days.
Things to do in Santa Maria in 2-3 days (a weekend)
A weekend is a short time for Santa Maria, especially if you come for diving or relaxing on the beaches, but it will give you time to see many things, if you sacrifice hours of lying on the sand.
3-day itinerary in Santa Maria
(you can finish every day with the sunset at Anjos)
- Day 1: Arrival, check-in at accommodation and tour of the southern area (Vila do Porto, Praia Formosa, Ribeira de Maloás, Ponta do Castelo, Maia and Cascata do Aveiro).
- Day 2: Northeast route (Santo Espírito, Baia de São Lourenço and viewpoints, Poço da Pedreira, Pico Alto and Ermida de Nossa Senhora de Fátima).
- Day 3: Route through the west (Barreiro and Anjos) and return flight.
Things to do in Santa Maria in 4-5 days
Visiting Santa Maria for 4 or 5 days is the ideal amount of time to get to know the island well with some time to relax on its wonderful beaches.
5-day itinerary in Santa Maria
(you can finish every day with the sunset at Anjos)
- Day 1: Arrival, check-in at accommodation and tour of the southern area (Vila do Porto, Praia Formosa, Ribeira de Maloás, Ponta do Castelo, Maia and Cascata do Aveiro).
- Day 2: Northeast route (Santo Espírito, Baia de São Lourenço and viewpoints, Poço da Pedreira, Pico Alto and Ermida de Nossa Senhora de Fátima).
- Day 3: Diving or snorkeling in the morning, relax on one of the beaches in the afternoon.
- Day 4: Hiking route (e.g. PR05SMA) and relaxing on the beach
- Day 5: Route through the west (Barreiro and Anjos) and return flight
Transportation: rent a car in Santa Maria
As in all the islands of the Azores, in Santa Maria we consider it essential to rent a car in order to enjoy the island to the fullest, take advantage of the weather, and be able to visit some emblematic places (which cannot be reached by public transport).
We did it with Autatlantis, both in Santa Maria and in the rest of the islands, and everything was perfect: the attention on arrival was fast and effective, the car (an Open Corsa) was like new and we had no problems. Practically all the companies include an excess in the insurance, and Autatlantis is one of the ones with the lowest excess (700€, compared to 1300-1500€ of other companies).
If there is no availability with Autatlantis, you can check and compare other companies with availability for your dates in comparators such as DiscoverCars. Remember to check the rental conditions of each company (excess, insurance coverage, fuel policy, reviews…) and not only the price.
The prices of rental cars in Santa Maria rarely go below 25€ per day and, especially in summer, we recommend booking well in advance to avoid running out of vehicles or that the few that are available have prohibitive prices (in the summer of 2021 they reached 100€ per day and we know several people who did not manage to rent a car because they left it to the last minute).
There is also the option to move around Santa Maria by public transport: there is a bus company (Transportes de Santa Maria or TSM) that connects some of the points of the island, you can see the schedules here. The connections and frequencies are quite limited, but if you travel with a low budget it can be a valid option to visit some of the main points of Santa Maria.
How much does it cost to travel to Santa Maria?
As always, giving a generic budget is very difficult as it depends greatly on your style of travel. What we can do is to give you an orientation of prices and that you calculate your budget with them:
- Flights: You can find direct flights to Santa Maria from Lisbon for 120€ round trip per person but it depends on how far in advance you book. Alternatively, you will have to buy two flights (one to the archipelago and one to Santa Maria), which will raise the price to 150€ round trip per person or more.
- Car rental: from 25/30€ per day for the cheapest car (depending on the company and the number of days), all inclusive.
- Accommodation: from 50€/night for a room with private bathroom or apartment with kitchen, centrally located.
- Restaurant meals: between €15 and €25 per person
In total, as a guideline, a 5-day trip to Santa Maria with a rented car can cost between 80 and 100€ per person (with the cheapest options of car, lodging and restaurants).
Useful apps for traveling to Santa Maria
We recommend some applications to install on your cell phone that will be useful on your trip to Santa Maria:
- SpotAzores(Android / iOS / Web): here you can see all the existing webcams in different points of the islands to see how the weather is. Because the weather is very changeable and it can be raining in one part of the island and sunny in another, this app is the fastest way to make sure and avoid unnecessary trips.
- Windy(Android / iOS / Web): essential app in our trips, even more so in the Azores. It allows you to see forecasts for rain, clouds, wind, etc. to help you plan your days based on the weather (as there are places that lose a lot depending on the weather). Obviously the forecasts are not 100% reliable. It also shows the available webcams
- Google Maps(Android / iOS): is the one we use to save / classify all the places we want to go / have gone and as GPS in rental cars. You can see other people’s opinions of the places, photos, restaurant menus, phone number of the places to contact them, etc.
- Maps.me (Android / iOS): application similar to Google Maps but works offline (although Google Maps can also work offline) and in many cases has information that Google Maps does not have, especially trails. Useful whenever you are going to do a trail, to orient yourself, download the route from the official website of the Azores trails (click on Downloads->GPS), etc.
Recommendations to enjoy Santa Maria island.
- Some of Santa Maria’s beaches have fresh water showers (which is great) but don’t use shampoos and soaps with chemicals in those showers. A quick shower to wash off the salt and you’re done.
- Remember that sometimes you may come across a jellyfish (aguaviva) or a Portuguese Caravel in the Mariense waters, whose sting is painful and dangerous. The good thing is that these last ones float and are easily detectable, but in case you see one, get out of the water immediately and warn other people of their presence. In case you have been stung by either of them, you must follow these official recommendations: do not scratch the area of the sting (to prevent the venom from spreading); do not clean with fresh water or alcohol, clean only with seawater and very carefully; and in case the sting is from a Portuguese Carabela, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
- Respect other people and the island: don’t play your music loudly on the beach or natural pool (if you want to listen to music, bring headphones), don’t leave trash, don’t throw cigarette butts, etc. Leave the beach better than you found it (if you find plastic, pick it up).
- In some areas, bathing can be dangerous due to strong currents. Don’t be brave.
- Never try to touch or feed an animal – don’t be an accomplice to animal abuse!
- Do not buy handicrafts made from sea animals or extracted from the sea (e.g. dolphin teeth, turtle shells, shark jaws, sperm whale ivory, …). The ivory trade, currently the only valuable product of the sperm whale, is still an argument for hunters. Buy local handicrafts made from alternative materials such as wood, stone or vegetable ivory.
- Always travel with travel insurance: medical expenses, theft or problems with your plane on a trip can cost you a lot of money, so the ideal thing to do is to take out travel insurance. We always use IATI and we recommend it. If you purchase your insurance through this link you have a 5% discount.
Checklist: what to take in your backpack/suitcase for Santa Maria
Here is a list of must-haves you can’t forget to take with you on your trip:
- Reef friendlysunscreen, i.e. free of coral damaging chemicals, oxybenzone free, and not tested on animals, such as this one or this one.
- Cap, the sun is very strong
- A water bottle like one of these to always carry water with you. You are on the island of waterfalls and great water! Take advantage of it! In addition, you will avoid using single-use plastic.
- A neck brace like one of these to protect you from wind and sand.
- Long sleeve lycra T-shirt with UV protection that we use to protect us from cold water or the sun when snorkeling, such as one of these.
- Snorkel kit/glasses if you want to bring your own, otherwise you can rent. Here you have a kit for less than 20€.
- Waterproof bag, to keep your electronic devices safe on the boat (especially if you dive) or on the beaches. This one for example costs 12€.
- Microfiber towel, which occupies little and you will use for the beach. If you don’t have one, you can buy the typical ones from Decathlon or these on Amazon
- Camera to record the majoreras adventures. We carry a Sony A5100 and a GoPro for underwater images.
- Power bank: with so many photos you will spend a lot of battery, so it always comes in handy to carry a good power bank. We travel with these 2(Xiaomi and Anker), which allow us to charge our smartphones, camera and GoPro.
- First-aid kit: ourfirst-aid kit includes a medicine against seasickness (such as biodramine for sea sickness on boats), antibiotics, antidiarrheals (and some probiotics to recover more quickly), antihistamines, analgesics and antipyretics.
Thanks to all these experiences, Santa Maria earned a very special place in our particular RandomAzores Oscars and we are already counting the days to return to this island that tastes of sea, summer, jazz and relaxation. See you soon!
Disclaimer: Autatlantis helped us explore Santa Maria with one of their vehicles but all opinions and information expressed in this post are our own.
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