The Azores: Sao Miguel

This was an exceptional year for us, travelwise.  We decided to do summer trips, each one a week long.  We thought it would be great!  And while the trips were, it was somewhat exhausting – packing, travelling, unpacking, washing, packing, travelling, unpacking, washing…it just ended up feeling like we didn’t spend much time at home.

So after our end of June trip to Hawaii, we spent the first week of September on the Azorean island São  Miguel.  (The Azores are a set of nine islands, belonging to Portugal, located in the Atlantic Ocean.  Far, far from anywhere.)

Lots of people say ‘where?’ when we said we were going to the Azores, and after explaining the above parentheses, they said, ‘How do you know about these places?’ because I always seem to end up going places that other people have never heard of, or rarely think about.  I have no idea how I knew about the Azores, it was just one of those places that I’ve always wanted to go to.

We bought our tickets via the Sata website. Sata is the airline for the Azores, flying between the islands, and to Europe and North America (Boston and Toronto). Fair warning though – the seat pitch on the planes that Sata uses, is horrible.  31 inches, so if the person in front of you reclines their seat, say good bye to your knees.  But otherwise, it’s a good airline – the flight attendants were friendly, the food on the way to Ponta Delgada was ok (on the way home it was awful) and the flights were on time.

Town square

We started our trip in Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel. While they are part of Portugal, they are also autonomous and have their own government.  The airport is very close to town (but don’t worry – there are no night flights, so the sound of airplanes landing/taking off will not disrupt your night) We were staying at hotel, VIP Executive, on top of a small hill, just off the downtown area.  This gave us the opportunity to explore the city a bit more, walking to and from the hotel.  The town has a few rolling hills, but the closer to the harbour you get (where most of the tourist sites are located) the flatter the city becomes.  There are quite a few cafés restaurants – some are located around the main square, others to the west, and then a lot around the harbour.

The widest sidewalk in Ponta Delgada

Ponta Delgada is small and compact, and it’s very evident that it was built for horses and carts.  Streets are narrow and windy, with cobblestone – meaning that even little old ladies going 5 km an hour squeal their tires as they go around curves.  Sidewalks vary in size but are mostly non-existent, forget walking side by side with your travel buddy.  The architecture is brown and white, very colonial looking.  It’s a very pretty town to wander in – even the houses look quaint, and the sidewalks tend to have tiled designs of white and grey.  (Easy to use as a navigation aid, in fact.)  You most likely won’t need a taxi to get around the city, but if you do – there is a taxi stand at the town square, and your hotel will be able to arrange one (say, if you wish to travel to a different part of the island, or to a different town.)

We were there at the tail end of summer, so it was still quite warm during the day (anywhere from 25C to 30C), so most restaurants had patios set up, even if those patios were only two tables and 4 chairs.  Most of these patios would have umbrellas over the tables to keep the sun off the patrons, but around the harbour the patios had roofs.

We popped into the fort one day (entrance fee of 3€) to see the military paraphernalia.  It was really interesting – there are a number of rooms to visit, in three different locations in the fort. They provide instructions on how to structure your visit – which rooms to visit first, how to get to the others – they are all located near each other, and there are also signs to help you find your way.  For military buffs, it’s definitely a must-see.  We enjoyed ourselves, but I could see it not being as much of an attraction to some people.  Towards the end of the tour, you can actually climb up onto the fort walls (accessed via a staircase) and look out over the city and working harbour.

Street art in Ponta Delgada

One tour guide that we had (when we did a half-day tour to Siete Cidades) told us that Ponta Delgada has a street art festival every year.  There certainly was a lot of different artwork on display around the city – and all of it amazing. We used some of it as a navigation aid, helping us find where to turn to get back to the hotel.  You never knew where you would find a new painting, they seemed to pop up in unlikely spots around the city.

On our first day, we noticed that a lot of people were swimming in the harbour.  There’s a section that is blocked off from boats, and people can swim (either do laps, or just splash around) as they want.  We also noticed that there was a platform that the  kids were jumping off of, into the water.  So of course Ross and I decided that we’re kids (well, we’re somebodies kids, right?) so one day we bought towels (travelling tip #34:  always bring towels.

Jump jump!

Even if you’re staying in a hotel, bring a towel.  Douglas Adams had it right.) and headed down to the harbour, where we proceeded to fling ourselves off the platform.  (We were, by far, the oldest people to be doing so.  The other adults were sedately using the stairs.)  It was actually a lot of fun, if a little cool at first.  Getting out was a little harder – the concrete steps and ladder are slippery with algae, and you had to time the climbing with the waves – wait while the wave comes in, then haul yourself up when the water rushes back out again.

There really isn’t anywhere comfortable to sit and dry off, other than a concrete step, or bench, but there’s plenty of room, and lots of other people doing the same.  For those worried about safety, there were life guards on duty while we were there.

From Ponta Delgada you have a plethora of tours to choose from.  We opted to a half-day jeep tour to Siete Cidades with Futurismo (they also do whale-watching tours).  The benefit (for us) in doing a smaller tour was that we got to go to places that the large tour buses couldn’t – for example, we headed up into the mountains to see two lakes in a  park.  We also got to go at our own pace – either spending more time somewhere or less time, depending on how we felt. It started out as a grey day, but the sun came out as we headed to Ferraria – where a hot spring meets the Atlantic Ocean.  During low tide you can swim in the ‘pool’, but unfortunately when we went, it was not only high tide, but also very windy, making it dangerous to enter the pool (we would have been dashed on the rocks had we tried.) For days when you can enter the water, there are ropes and a ladder available to help you.

View from the lookout
Siete Cidades

The other tour that we did was a whale-watching tour with Moby Dick Tours.  The day we booked to go ended up being very windy, so they shuttled us to the north of the island, to do the tour out of Rabo de Peixe.  (It’s only about 8 km from one side of the island to the other, so this isn’t as big a deal as it sounds.) We’ve gone whale-watching before (in Iceland) and if there’s one piece of advice I can give you (well, two.  I’m going to give you two) – 1) bring motion-sickness tablets.  It can get choppy out on the water, and you’ll be thankful to have them.  2) You’re most likely not going to see a whale leaping out of water, or the tail of a humpback.  Most likely you’ll only see the back of the whale as it surfaces.  If you think that sounds anti-climatic, it might be best to save your money.

On this whale watching trip, we ended up seeing a mama fin whale with her baby (it was one big baby), as well as a dolphin as we were coming back to shore. We spent close to an hour and a half watching the fin whales, they would breach, then go under, breach again.  I didn’t try to take any photos – it’s next to impossible to get a good shot, and you never know where they are going to breach.  I’d rather enjoy just watching them than stress myself out trying to get a photo.

Coming back to shore, we saw a beautiful rainbow over the coast of the island, which was unfortunate, as half the people on the boat couldn’t enjoy it. They were suffering from sea sickness (again, bring those motion sickness tables!) and were either lying down, or had their heads between their knees.

Our last few days we spent in Furnas, a town about 45 minutes away from Ponta Delgada (when the traffic is light).  Our hotel ordered a cab for us, and we took the southern route to Furnas, which cost about 45€, We were staying at Furnas Boutique Hotel and Spa, which from the photos looked faaaancy.  (It turns out that the place is very laid-back and chill, so we were comfortable in our jeans, hiking shoes and tshirts.)  We loved this place – the room was incredible, and even though we overlooked the restaurant and patio, we couldn’t hear any noise.  The room came with enough lights, which adjustable light, to give yourself a little light show (in fact, we did, trying to figure out which switch controlled which light, and how to get everything to turn off).  The hotel has two pools – an indoor pool, which is heated, and an outdoor pool, which is fresh, cool water.

We decided to do the hike around Lago de Furnas, a roughly 10km walk, round trip, from the town.  The first part of the walk is on a road, a winding road with no path alongside.  It felt a little unsafe at times – not quite dangerous, but often we questioned whether a driver would see us as they rounded curves.  Eventually we turned off that somewhat busy road to a quieter one that went along the lake.  We were given free entrance (I assume hikers get in for free, cars need to pay), and we stopped to check out the hot springs, where locals (and local restaurants) make Cozido – a local dish, where different types of meat and root vegetables are put in a pot, then lowered into a hole dug in the ground.  They cook for about 7 hours before being ready to serve.

The walk around the lake itself was very relaxing – it was a smooth gravel path, very even and very flat.  While the walk is 10km, it is not strenuous.  It is also shaded for the first half, but then becomes more open. Hats, sunscreen and water are definite musts for the hike, as well as comfortable shoes.  (Hiking boots not needed)

Halfway around the lake, we came to a small hill just off the trail.  We climbed the steps up, and found a large swing hanging from a tree.  Across from the tree was a lovely view of the lake, so we decided to take a moment and enjoy the solitude.  (In fact, at this point we had only run into two other people)  It was very quiet and relaxing, and a great place to take a rest.  The tires on the tree are to protect it from being damaged if it is hit by the swing.

After that the trail became more open, and eventually turned into a road (although we didn’t see any vehicles).  We passed a old church that had fallen into ruin (although it was still beautiful and picturesque) and started to notice more people, as there is a parking lot not far from this end of the trail. In fact, it’s possible to get a taxi to take you here and to walk back in the opposite direction, if the idea of walking 10km seems daunting.

As we rounded the lake, a sign pointed us up a steep hill (along a road, again) to a lookout over Furnas.  This part of the hike was strenuous – it was a steep grade, although it was partially shaded so at least we weren’t out in the direct sunlight.  We paused several times, before making it to the turn off for the lookout, which was a short walk off the road. The view was incredible, so we paused to soak it all in (and catch our breath), before heading down.  The down was just as steep as the up, but with the added insult of having loose gravel and leaves strewn over the cobblestone.  We took it slow, not wanting a fall to ruin our trip.

View of Furnas from the lookout

Our last full day on the island, we took a taxi (10€, one direction) to Faial de Terra, to hike to Salto do Prego waterfall.  We arranged with the taxi driver (who thankfully spoke English), to pick us up in 3 hours.  If you choose to do this hike from Furnas (or Povoação) you can ask your hotel to make the arrangements with your taxi driver as well.

This hike, while a lot shorter at 4.5km, is a lot more strenuous. The hike follows a true hiking path, and is steep and, at the time anyway, muddy.  There are rocks and roots to be careful of, as the trail winds its way along the stream, and through groves of olive trees.  We climbed slowly, with periods of steep ascent, before hitting the junction with the trail to the waterfall.
We were the only people there when we arrived around 11 a.m. We tested the water and it was cooooold.  We decided to don our swimsuits anyway, to at least splash in the pool around the waterfall, and to explore the stream in the opposite direction.

We quickly became accustomed to the water, and spent nearly an hour wading around the rocks and exploring the area, before decided that we should get dressed and continue on – we wanted to have enough time to explore Sanguinho, an abandoned village along the trail.  After putting our clothes back on, we climbed up, and explored the area around the top of the water (there’s a small lookout up there, as well as a trail that continues on.)

Just as we had started back, we ran into a German couple who were heading to the waterfall.  In fact, on our way back, we started to run into more and more people.  We had had excellent timing, arriving early and having the place to ourselves.

Sanguinho, the abandoned town, had some houses in complete ruins while others were merely overgrown with vegetation.  The most astounding part was that it had been abandoned after it had been wired for electricity – there were numerous street lamps along the cobblestone road. Several of the houses had been repaired and renovated, and we saw many tents – some Googling after we got home, and I found out that there was an  ‘Ecovillage Design Education’ group based there.

Our final day (half-day really), we took a taxi back to Ponta Delgada, this time via the northern route, and only 35€.  We had lunch and got a few remaining souvenirs, before heading to the tourism office, were we had arranged for the Aerobus to pick us up – at 5€ each, roundtrip, it’s a great deal.  A big plus for people who end their trip elsewhere on the island, the Aerobus will pick you up at non-hotel locations in the city.  We chose the tourism office because it was easy to find.

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