Santa Maria is the southeastern most island of the Azores. The island is divided into two regions: a flat dry western region where you’ll find the capital Vila do Porto and other parishes like São Pedro and Almagreira and a hilly, vegetative, eastern region that rises as high as 600 meters above sea level at Pico Alto. Many who visit Santa Maria find the island a portrait of idyllic life: green plaids of fields, rainbow flowers, ripe yellow crops, sandy beaches, white chimney houses, chiseled basalt churches, and joyous folk festivals.
Santa Maria’s history is the most extensive of the Azores. It was the first island in the archipelago to be discovered. The Portuguese explorer, Diogo Silves, landed on the island during his journey to Madeira in 1427. It was first settled by Gonçalo Velho when he brought families and cattle to the island.
Most visitors of Santa Maria find it to be a peaceful, tranquil, and rustic experience. The island is home to some of the most beautiful bays in the archipelago. The São Lourenço Bay is one of them with its sandy white beaches in the backdrop of checker-board basalt fences, rolling hillsides, and cliff-side vineyards. Nearby is the Romeiro Islet, whose interior caves showcase alluring stalagmites and stalagtites. The Maia and Anjos are two other beautiful bays. Both are natural pools with crystal blue waters inhabited by a diverse set of marine life. Anjos is historically notable for being Christopher Columbus’ first landing on European soil after returning from the New World. Another popular coastal beach is the Praia Formosa, which has one of the largest inlets in the Azores.
Santa Maria’s caves, tunnels, and fissures, which are remains of past volcanic activity, are also an enigmatic exploratory experience. Guides and equipment can be hired and rented to explore these sites like the “Santana”, “Cré”, “Nova”, “Faneca”, “Àgua”, and “Velha”.
Santa Maria is also known for its lively festivals, most of them taking place between the summer months of June and August. The music festival in Praia Formosa beach is perhaps the most celebrated, taking place on the third week of August, and leaving the beach packed with party-goers.
And like most other Azores islands, Santa Maria is rich in architectural heritage with many churches, convents, and fortifications, some of which date back to the end of the 15th century like the “Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Assunção” (Our Lady of Ascension Church).
If you have time, it is also worth checking out the islets of “Lagoinhas” and “Vila” and the “Formigas” that are just off the Santa Maria mainland. These islets are part of Santa Maria’s coastal landscape. The Formigas, in particular, a group of eight islets some 30 miles northwest of the Santa Maria mainland, is home to a natural reserve that is a nesting area for various marine life and seabirds.