Santa Maria is the southernmost island in the Portuguese Azores, boasting the sunniest climate of the archipelago.
Known locally as ‘the yellow island’, Santa Maria is recognised for its golden beaches and slightly drier vegetation than the other Azorean islands, giving off a blonde tinge. Moreover, it’s noted as the first landfall of Christopher Columbus on his return voyage from the Americas in 1493.
Santa Maria offers the finest swimming conditions and surf breaks of the island chain, with one of the best beaches situated on the southern coast: Praia Formosa. Just south of Vila do Porto, the main settlement, lies the oldest chapel on the island, believed to be Christopher Columbus’ chosen place of worship during his stay in the fifteenth century. However, the prettiest of Santa Maria’s towns is Santo Espirito, towards the east, encircled by verdant pastures and home to just under six hundred people.
For excellent viewpoints, head to the recreational reserve in Fontinhas, and to Pico Alto, the highest peak reaching almost six hundred metres. Any keen geologist should make their way north to the fascinating ‘red desert’, encompassing nine square kilometres of red clay, emitting a spectacular glow at dusk.
The traditional housing found throughout Santa Maria is quite remarkable, characterised by large chimneys protruding from a small pyramid shape, with each town adopting a different colour to contrast against the white washed buildings. Also, be on the lookout for local handicrafts such as intricately hand-woven tablecloths and colourful patchwork quilts.
As with every island on the Azores, the Holy Ghost Festival plays an important role in Santa Maria’s heritage. The celebrations consist of a large procession parading a chosen emperor or empress from the nearby towns, circled by residents performing traditional dances, with food stalls lining the streets serving up freshly caught seafood.
You can sail to Vila do Porto on Santa Maria’s south coast from the Azores Islands of Graciosa, Pico, Sao Miguel, Terceira, Flores and Faial. These routes are operated by Atlanticoline, providing one to three crossings each week with varying journey times, depending on your island of departure.