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Ilhéu de Vila Franca: The Idyllic Princess Ring

Blog » Travel » Ilhéu de Vila Franca: The Idyllic Princess Ring

Picture this: A perfectly round volcanic crater partly emerging from the Atlantic Ocean, filled with crystal-clear water and colorful fish. A paradise for birds who nest and live there for months, and equal heaven for travelers to swim and sunbathe the rest of the year. This is Ilhéu de Vila Franca (Vila Franca Islet), in São Miguel island – Azores archipelago.

What would be a better place than this little islet to work on your tan and swim in the Atlantic? Plus, due to the shape of the islet, there are usually very few or no waves at all. It is a peaceful environment for the whole family.

But what is this crater doing here and why does it attract not only travelers but also biologists and athletes from all over the world? In this post, we will discover the history and geology of this wonderful place, but also we will give you all the tips you need to know before going to Ilhéu de Vila Franca to have a great time at the ‘Princess Ring’.

What is Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Marco Medeiros | The beautiful Ilhéu de Vila Franca in São Miguel island
Marco Medeiros | The beautiful Ilhéu de Vila Franca in São Miguel island

Ilhéu de Vila Franca is not only some beach of the Azores, nor just a Nature reserve. It is much more than that – a little paradise. It is nowadays one of the most popular tourist attractions in the summer but served different purposes throughout time. 

The romantic islet is also known as the Princess Ring due to its perfectly round shape that reminds a ring. Let’s see together the origins of the islet and its story.

Geology and Volcanology of the Vila Franca Islet

The islet of Vila Franca is the result of an ancient submarine volcano. Indeed, it is actually an extinct volcanic cone that is part of the Fogo volcanic complex. It formed inside the ocean by a shallow joint secondary eruption about 4000 to 5000 years ago. 

The total area of the islet is about 87 ha, for a terrestrial surface of 6.2 ha (62,000m2). It seems to be divided into two parts – the big and small islets – but the highest point is at 64 meters above sea level.

Alexandre Balas | Ilhéu de Vila Franca seen from the sky
Alexandre Balas | Ilhéu de Vila Franca seen from the sky

Also, the rocky tower beside the islet – called Farilhão – goes up to 32 meters above sea level. About the narrow entrance to the North, channel Boquete, is not a natural area of the islet. Locals widened it to accommodate larger ships during the seismic crises as the islet served as a shelter.

The volcanology type of the islet is surtseyan, which means the eruption occurred in the water. Studies show that basaltic eruptions happened there, which are phreatic (meaning the eruption was explosive due to contact between magma and water). After the eruption, the volcanic material was compacted and stratified structures formed.

On the islet, it is still possible to see the areas where volcanic ashes and pumice stones landed. The rocky ground consists of mostly tuffs – consolidated volcanic ash – of palagonite (fragile, pale rock of low density and rich in iron). The bottom of the crater is predominantly made of slabs of lava, and you can find as well pebbles and sand.

History of Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Ilhéu de Vila Franca has many stories. It was officially registered for the first time in 1537, at the time when the settlers of São Miguel started to move Westward from Povoação. But before that, in 1522, the capital of the archipelago at that time – Vila Franca do Campo – was completely destroyed by an earthquake, and the islet played an important role! It served as a port of shelter for ships and locals. In 1563, another seismic crisis hits Vila Franca and the islet was once again used as a shelter. The next shelter harbor built was in Ponta Delgada

David Rodrigues | Ilhéu de Vila Franca during sunset
David Rodrigues | Ilhéu de Vila Franca during sunset

On July 26th of 1582, the islet was in the middle of a naval battle between Spanish and French forces. It served as a prison and an execution place for French prisoners. 

Did you know that some people would buy the islet over the centuries? It was indeed a private, and not a public space. In 1846, the owner of that time, Simplicio Gago da Câmara, used the islet for his grapevines production.

Also, whalers built a lookout hut on the highest point to help hunt sperm whales. In addition to that, the islet was a place to process dead whales.

In 1933, a new owner built two small buildings as holiday houses for his family.  However, in the second half of the 20th century, Ilhéu de Vila Franca became a popular summer holiday destination for locals to go swimming. 

The Regional Government only acquired the islet in 1989. And it is nowadays a tourist zone very popular in the summertime, from June to October and a nature reserve strictly closed the rest of the year.

Enrico Pescantini | Ilhéu de Vila Franca, also known as the Princess Ring
Enrico Pescantini | Ilhéu de Vila Franca, also known as the Princess Ring

Conservation of the Vila Franca Islet

Since 1983, the islet was classified as a natural reserve. It is strictly forbidden to fish, remove plants or introduce invasive species to this protected habitat. Also, from 2005, boats are not allowed to enter the lagoon. A small port outside allows for preserving the water inside. 

There is a limit on the number of people who can enter the area to 400 per day and 200 at the same time to limit the impact of tourism on the islet’s rich fauna and flora.

In 2008, the islet was re-classified as a Protected Area for Management of Habitats or Species” in order to allow people to use the islet. And from the year after, to 2012, the environmental project LIFE and Safe Islands for Seabirds came out to help preserve Ilhéu de Vila Franca. 

This was a partnership between important conservation entities including SPEA (the Portuguese Society for Bird Research) but also the Public function like the City council of Vila Franca do Campo.

David Rodrigues | Ilhéu de Vila Franca and the town of the same name
David Rodrigues | Ilhéu de Vila Franca and the town of the same name

From 2004 to 2007, another project led by BirdLife designated Ilhéu de Vila Franca as an IBA (Important Bird Area).

The objectives of these preservation projects were many. Between them was the elimination and control of reeds (an invasive plant avoiding native vegetation to grow, also an obstacle for the birds to enter their nest) and plantation of native species. Also, the elimination of exotic mammals like rats and mice that were totally eradicated from the islet. And last but not least, attract birds for nesting through the installation of sound devices and artificial nests. The bird population, namely Cory’s shearwaters, are monitored every year.

Also, note that the naval club of Vila Franca is organizing some underwater clean-ups every year and anyone is welcome to join! It is a great opportunity to help preserve this unique site and to see it closer.

Fauna and Flora

May it be on land, underwater, or in the air around, the islet is so rich in fauna and flora. Ilhéu de vila Franca is home to a wide variety of animals and plants, it is crucial to preserve it for as long as we can.

Álvaro RP | Some of the fish you can find while snorkeling in Ilhéu de Vila Franca
Álvaro RP | Some of the fish you can find while snorkeling in Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Animals are the only residents of the islet. Among the fauna living in the islet, we have 29 different species of birds registered including our dear Cory’s shearwaters who nest there, but also common terns, the yellow-legged gull, and the rock pigeon. Also flying, there are 18 identified species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).

In the water, there have been 24 species of littoral fish already registered, like parrotfish, grouper, dreamfish, and pufferfish. You can also see mollusks such as octopuses from time to time. If you have a mask and snorkel, you can also try to find starfish, sea urchins, and colorful sea cucumbers. Outside of the islet, it is frequent to spot dolphins, and sometimes even whales! 

On land, we have some geckos and crustaceans such as crabs.

Among the flora, you can see some of the 59 identified species including 9 endemic ones. There is heather, fire tree, reed, agave, or dragon tree for instance. In the water, you can also spot some submarine flora as there are 13 species of algae.

What to do at Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Although it is a small islet, there are many things to do and see at Ilhéu de Vila Franca. That is why you should plan to spend at least half a day there. You can even bring a picnic to enjoy on the shore that will allow you to stay the whole day.

Combine whale watching and a visit to the islet

David Rodrigues | A sperm whale rising its fluke in the air
David Rodrigues | A sperm whale raising its fluke in the air

Why not make the most out of your day and combine a whale and dolphin-watching trip with a visit to the islet? At Futurismo, we have got your back to spend a fun day in the Azores. 

Begin your day aboard one of our boats to explore the wildlife of the Atlantic Ocean. There are 28 different species of whales and dolphins wandering around the islands. From June to October (when the islet is open), you can still see some of the biggest whales in the world like the blue whale passing by during its migration, but also our resident sperm whales visible every month of the year.

Then you will have lunch at a local restaurant, and in the afternoon, we will take you to the islet. We even have some snorkels and masks to borrow, but we always recommend that our travelers bring their own for more comfort. Spend the afternoon at the islet relaxing on the beach and watching the colorful fish.

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Sunbathe on the beach

Lay your towel down on the rocky ground, around the lagoon to just relax to the sounds of the ocean. You can bring a book and enjoy this very special scenery to recharge your batteries. 

When the tide is low, another small beach inside the natural pool suddenly appears for some hours. This circular sand beach in the crater is also a good spot to sit with your feet in crystal clear water. Plus, it is a super photogenic spot.

Snorkel

Álvaro RP | Snorkeling at Ilhéu de Vila Franca is fun!
Álvaro RP | Snorkeling at Ilhéu de Vila Franca is fun!

The shallow waters of Ilhéu de Vila Franca are a paradise to go on a snorkeling adventure. It is very safe as a lifeguard is always there, and there are few waves inside the lagoon. 

The maximum depth when the tide is high would be around 20 meters. The lagoon in itself has a diameter of approximately 150 meters. 

Along with the 7 tunnels you can see around the islet, the marine wildlife is incredibly colorful in the lagoon. Between parrotfish, dreamfish, wrasses, and canary damsel, your eyes will be filled with rainbow colors.

Search as well for starfish, and octopus but be careful with sea urchins.

Walk around and go to the viewpoint

David Rodrigues | The view from the viewpoint on top of the hill at Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Once you get off the boat, at the little harbor at the entrance of Vila Franca Islet. This narrow passage to the North allows the water to flow between the ocean and the lagoon, keeps the water slightly warmer, and avoids high sea agitation. From there, you can walk inside and do almost the entire circle. There is a closed area for conservation purposes, but you can still go a bit around the lagoon. 

And don’t forget to go up to the viewpoint to have a panoramic view of the islet, with the town of Vila Franca do Campo in the background.

If you go on low tide, you can even walk inside the crater, on a thin sand band.

Also, look up for birds if you enjoy nature and animals. There are up to 29 different bird species flying around the islet. It’s birdwatching time!

Red Bull Cliff Diving

David Rodrigues | Red Bull Cliff Diving at Ilhéu de Vila Franca
David Rodrigues | Red Bull Cliff Diving at Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Every year since 2009, the famous Red Bull Cliff Diving athletes come to the Azores to jump from the top of Ilhéu de Vila Franca and perform impressive acrobatics. This is a very important stage in the competition of the World Series that goes from France to Australia. An event locals love to watch from a boat.

The professional international divers jump from 27 meters high for men and 21 meters high for women. This is so spectacular to see. It usually occurs between June and July.

Kayaking

Sea kayaking around the islet is also a fun thing to do! It takes about 40minutes to go there paddling. You can visit the different caves, see the cliffs from up close, and even freedive outside the islet.

Spending time in the ocean can be very therapeutic for some people. The sound, the tranquility, and the scenery around are unique when you arrive at the Vila Franca islet, this volcanic crater lost in the sea.

Best time to visit Ilhéu de Vila Franca

David Rodrigues | The islet of Vila Franca during sunset
David Rodrigues | The islet of Vila Franca during sunset

Now that you know all about the story of Ilhéu de Vila Franca, and what to do there, let’s help you with useful information about when to go. 

Is a visit to the islet better in the early morning? Or maybe after lunch?

The islet is closed most of the year. Do you know when Ilhéu de Vila Franca is actually open to travelers? The answer is below!

Summertime

The high season is actually the only time period when the islet is open for visitors. It is usually from June 15 to October 15. The boat that transports travelers there is only operating during that time of year.

Álvaro RP | Inside Ilhéu de Vila Franca
Álvaro RP | Inside Ilhéu de Vila Franca

For the rest of the year, the nature reserve of Ilhéu de Vila Franca is closed for birds to be able to nest in peace. No one is allowed inside the islet outside of the opening season, except for scientists.

Best time of the day

As the islet has a limited number of visitors of 400 people per day and 200 people at a time, it is always recommended to go early in the morning with the first boats. This way, you will arrive at the islet and not have so many people around. 

The first boat usually leaves Vila Franca harbor at 10 am, and it is necessary to buy the ticket beforehand at the harbor or online. So make sure to be there before the departure time, as there can also be a queue to enter the boat, and not a seat for everyone sometimes.

If you decide to go in the afternoon, you risk not finding a nice spot to lay your towel, or also the maximum number of visitors could be reached already.

Also, note that you need some time to enjoy the islet. 1 hour is not enough to fully appreciate the scenery and swim in the lagoon. We recommend staying at least 2 hours, but some people like to spend more time as it is not something you see every day.

David Rodrigues | Swimming in the crystal clear waters of Vila Franca islet is a privilege
David Rodrigues | Swimming in the crystal clear waters of Vila Franca islet is a privilege

Be careful with the strong sun of noon, because there are not so many shadow spots. We recommend going early and finding a spot with some shadow for your comfort.

Plan your visit to Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Next is everything you need to know to have a great time visiting Ilhéu de Vila Franca. From how to get there to how much it is to visit, the islet won’t have any more secrets for you. Let’s plan your perfect day at Vila Franca islet.

How to get to Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Ilhéu de Vila Franca is on the South Coast of São Miguel island, in the Azores archipelago. The islet is about 1000 meters away from the harbor of Vila Franca. 

There are few ways to visit the interior of the beautiful Ilhéu de Vila Franca. 

Álvaro RP | The boat taking passengers to Ilhéu de Vila Franca
Álvaro RP | The boat taking passengers to Ilhéu de Vila Franca

First, you can go to Vila Franca do Campo harbor – cais de Tagarete – and take the ferry boat that goes there every hour from 10 am to 6 pm. It is an old fishing boat reconverted to make ferry services in the summertime. It takes about 10 minutes to arrive at the islet. The returns are usually right when the boat arrives at the islet, every hour. 

Alternatively, you can come with us on a full-day tour to watch whales in the morning and visit the islet in the afternoon. This is the best way to enjoy this beautiful part of the island and you even have lunch in a local restaurant included!

When you disembark at the islet, you will really feel how small you are in front of nature. It truly is something worth seeing with your own eyes to realize how amazing it actually is.

Price and Opening Hours

The price of the ferry tickets for both ways are:

  • 10€ for foreigners
  • 6€ for residents

If you book online there is a small tax to add. Also, note that included in this price is a tax for nature conservation. 

The first boat leaves the harbor at 10 am, and the last boat comes back to São Miguel island at 6:10 pm. Outside of this time period, it is not possible to go inside the islet.

Pro Tips for a good time at Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Álvaro RP | The transparent waters of the lagoon
Álvaro RP | The transparent waters of the lagoon

As there is not so much shadow on the islet, make sure to bring some good sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. Also, don’t forget water and snacks as there are no cafés or restaurants on the islet. 

For more comfort on the rocky ground, bring a thick towel to lay down, as well as water shoes or flip-flops. 

If you want to go snorkeling, you can usually find masks and snorkels at the ticket office. But we always recommend getting your own as this is not a guarantee. Also, for fun, underwater pictures get your waterproof camera!

In terms of clothing, as you might have already heard, we have the 4 seasons in a day in the Azores. So, get ready for anything! It can be very hot and sunny, and suddenly raining heavily.

We can also recommend you to bring a bag with you to put all your litter and take it back with you. Remember, leave nothing but footprints.

What to do after Ilhéu de Vila Franca

David Rodrigues | The view of Vila Franca town and islet from Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz

There are so many things to do near Vila Franca do Campo! You can simply enjoy a walk inside the town that once was the Azorean capital.

Also if you have the chance to go up the mountain by car to see the wonderful view from Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz, go for it because you won’t regret it! From up there you have a beautiful panorama of Vila Franca do Campo and the islet. Such a picturesque place!

Not so far away from Vila Franca, you can find a less touristy but very unique spot. We are talking about Lagoa do Congro. This otherworldly lake in the middle of the forest is a curious place to visit. The scenery is all green, from the water to the trees around. You will definitely understand why São Miguel is the green island after seeing Lagoa do Congro.

If you are not lucky with the weather, then forget about Ilhéu de Vila Franca and go to Furnas hot springs! You can choose between Terra Nostra park or Poça da Dona Beija. They are perfect for rainy days.

Useful Tools & Apps

The Wise Travellers | Ilhéu de Vila Franca in all its beauty
The Wise Travellers | Ilhéu de Vila Franca in all its beauty

If you decide to go on your own, you can book your ticket for the ferry directly online and avoid the queue at the ticket office. We recommend booking in advance or coming on the same day but before the opening hour.

Spotazores is an official platform that allows seeing the weather in real-time in several places around the islands. It is very useful to make sure you get decent weather wherever you decide to go.

Conclusion

Now that you are an expert on Ilhéu de Vila Franca, you just need to book your ticket to the Azores and visit this natural wonder on São Miguel island.

We hope you found everything you need to know and that we can share this experience together in the wild Atlantic.

Video

We take you on a tour to Ilhéu de Vila Franca

Gallery

References

Visit Portugal – Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo

Sandra Toste, SIARAM – Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo

By Açores – Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo – Ilha de São Miguel

Melissa Masvaleix

Nature lover and adventure seeker, Mélissa is a French girl who landed in the Azores 3 years ago and never let go of this paradise in the Atlantic. She particularly enjoys the tranquility of the islands contrasting with the infinite outdoor experience possibilities.

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