Date of Trip: December 2015
When I told people I was going to the Azores I was asked “why are you going there?, what’s in the Azores? and where is that?” My answer was “I’m going to find out”.
The Azores are a group of volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean almost 1,000 miles off of mainland Portugal. They are actually the tops of some of the tallest mountains on the planet as measured from their base at the bottom of the ocean. My destination is the largest of these, Sao Miguel (Portuguese for St Michael), known as “the Green Island”. The population is about 150,000 on less than 300 sq miles with one third living in the capital city of Punta Delgada. The climate here is mild year round between 55 – 75 degrees, however the winter months can bring more clouds, rain
My interest in traveling there started with a Groupon Getaway sale price of $649 including airfare and hotel for a week, however I did pay $150 more as a single supplement. Altho the Azores are remote, SATA Airlines makes the direct flight from Boston to Punta Delgada in just 4 1/2 hours and the Azores are 4 hours ahead of Boston in time. Arriving at 6:30am, I got a taxi to Sao Miguel Park Hotel for 10 Euros. As a backpacker a hotel is a real step up for me over my usual hostels and I am happy with my ocean view room. This package deal included the big breakfast buffet each morning, just what I needed right about then. Lunch and dinner is available there too for a cost, either buffet or off a small menu in the bar area or for room service. There is an outdoor pool and an indoor pool with a jacuzzi, sauna, steam room and a full fitness club that the town people can pay to use. I was able to join in water aerobics classes. The hotel tours desk helped me select and book a couple of day trips with UTC Tours.
It is a sunny day and I am off wandering thru this charming city to the promenade along the marina and harbor where there are many outdoor cafes. I feel like I have stepped into a postcard with colorful flowers, blue skies and black and white architecture. The 3 arched City Gates date back to the 18th century and nearby is the tall square clock tower. The sidewalks and squares are made up of black and white cobble stones with distinctive patterns. All the churches have similar baroque style of white stucco and basalt black stone trim, the main one is Sao Sebastiao. The people here are very religious Catholics and nativities are set up everywhere. In the small shops I had a difficult time picking out a small nativity to take home for my collection as there were hundreds to choose from. Of course I wandered into many of these churches to see elaborate gilded ceilings, altars and artwork. But then it was time for a break so I stopped at one of the outdoor cafes and had octopus salad which was cerviche style with bread, olives and Especial cerveja, a light refreshing Pilsner beer. I am amazed by the reasonable price of just 8 Euros for all of it.
My first 7 hour day trip was to the volcano crater of Lago do Fogo (Fire Lake) located in a nature reserve in the center of the island, however clouds where obscuring the view from the rim. We visited Viera Lagoa Ceramics Studio, family operated since 1862. More interesting in my opinion was the visit to Mulher do Capote Liquor Factory where we had samples. The fruit ones were too sweet for me but the milk, coffee, caramel and chocolate creme liquors were quite excellent.
The pineapple greenhouses were interesting to see as they are unique to the Azores. Years ago winter oranges were one of the Azores biggest exports and so popular in London that they called them St Michael oranges, but a blight destroyed the groves in 1860. The Azores are not warm enough to grow pineapples so they now have 6,000 greenhouses to provide the warm rich soil needed and they use smoke to fertilize the plants as they grow, but it can take almost 2 years for these small pineapples to be ready to harvest. We had lunch at a beautiful restaurant with modern decor, colorful glassware and flowers on each table with windows overlooking a garden. They served each of us 2 courses, fish and beef with free flowing local white and red wines. On the north slope of Fogo Volcano were the Caldeira Velha hot spring mineral water pools. Surrounded by lush rain forest with high towering ferns, the upper one has waterfalls while the lower one has warmer water. We were allowed about an hour for a wonderful relaxing soak time. Then we headed to a highlight of the island, Sete Cidades (Seven Cities) located on the crater floor of a big circular dormant volcano and is reached by crossing over a bridge between the twin crater lakes. We stopped first at Vista del Rei (The King’s View) to see these lakes from above, Lagoa Azul is blue and Lagoa Verde is green. The area is surrounded by forests and blue hydrangeas are everywhere. The fields are dotted with black and white cows. The tour was 50 Euros including
hotel pickup, the lunch with wines, samplings of liquor and pineapple, and the hot springs.
Back at the hotel I just had a couple of beers in the bar as after such a big lunch I did not need dinner. I also enjoyed the jacuzzi before relaxing in bed to watch TV which included some American TV shows like Shark Tank and Ellen, a couple of my favorites and they were in English. Although Portuguese is the language here, many people, other than some of the older ones, do speak English very well.
My next 7 hour day trip includes a visit to the Cha Gorreana Tea Estate, family owned and operated since 1883, this is the only tea plantation in Europe. The original vintage machinery is used in production and some of the work is still done by hand. Of course we had samples in the tearoom overlooking the rolling hills of green tea bushes and the cliffs dropping down to the sea. Both the green and black tea comes from the same leaves, it’s just how it is processed that makes the difference. Again we see the green pastures of grazing cows, they say the cows outnumber the people here. They are treated like divas as they are the queens of the island. They don’t need barns because it doesn’t get cold, so farmers come to them for milking. There are dogs to guard not the cows themselves, but the milking machines that are kept in the fields. The milk is then hauled by donkey or horse drawn carts to be processed. The cheeses and yogurts from these happy cows are just the best.
We stopped at Pico do Ferro for a view of the Furnas Crater and it’s lake, but it was lost in the misty clouds. We went to the area of hissing geysers, gaping holes of boiling water, burping mud bubbles and whirling steam vents. We are indeed walking on volcanic activity and there is a strong sulphur vapor. We watch as the restaurant comes out to dig up our lunch, a cozida stew cooked volcano style for 6 – 7 hours buried underground in a sealed pot. It’s a delicious mixture of beef, pork, chicken, potatoes, carrots, kale and white cabbage and served again with free flowing local
Our next stop is The Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitorias (Our Lady of Victories). This chapel was ordered to be built by a rich landowner as a burial place for his ill wife, so it’s like a Taj Mahal. The style is like a gothic cathedral, only much smaller and sits on the shore of Lagos das Furnas. It was completed in 1882 and when the owner died he was buried beside his wife within the chapel. Then we went to Vila Franca do Campo on the south coast. This city was the first capital of Sao Miguel but that changed in 1522 when an earthquake destroyed the city. Above the city is the
Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Paz (Our Lady of Peace). There are 10 flights of 10 steps each to reach the chapel and it offers an amazing view.
This day long tour was also just 50 Euros. As we get back to the hotel, the skies open and it is pouring rain. Again because I had the big lunch, I just have a couple of beers in the bar, chatting with the bartenders and fellow travelers.
In my further exploration of the city, I came upon a big interesting cemetery. Although not morbid, I have always had a fascination with how different cultures honor their dead. There were many little house type structures set up here in rows that serve as mini mausoleums with a locking door and a window. Peeking inside there are 3 racks on each side of the door, some with coffins on them and a center altar with pictures of the deceased and lots of flowers of course. Family members can come to visit inside. For those buried outside, the family tomb can have several buried one on top of the other and the older ones will sometimes need to be removed to make room. Those bones will then be put into a small cement box and set on top of the family tomb. I saw some of these small boxes also set on the floor inside the little houses. I have never seen anything like this before. Altho there was a crematorium here, many Catholics do not readily warm up to cremation (no pun intended).
For dinner a couple of the nights I did join a fellow traveler for the hotel’s buffet. It cost 22 Euros but had free flowing wine, the grass fed beef that just melted in your mouth, fresh fish, a whole cute little suckling pig on a platter, wonderful soups, a variety of the cheeses, luscious desserts etc.
My last full day there was a wild and windy one and all flights were cancelled. I used the fitness center, pool, jacuzzi, steam room, read, watched TV and joined others in the bar. The next day a Mercedes driver took me back to the airport for 10 Euros. It is raining heavily at the airport. I found my week on Sao Miguel to be full of discoveries. The Azoreans may not be rich, but this island has the peace and tranquility of life in simpler times. The cost of living is much cheaper than mainland Europe making travel there affordable. The amazing dramatic views draw visitors who appreciate natural beauty over beach resorts. Punta Delgada is a lovely port city and Sao Miguel in the Azores Is truly an enchanting green island.