Roadtripping Iceland

A few years ago, Husband and I went to Iceland for the Eve FanFest. We spent a few days in Akureyri, before going back to Reykjavik for the Fest itself.

And of course, we had a blast because Iceland is that amazing. We also decided that we wanted to go back and see a different part of Iceland – so this summer, we headed back to Iceland, to do a road trip of the Westfjords.

We had a total of 10 days to spend in Iceland, so the plan was to spend 2 nights in Borgarnes (exploring the Snæfellsness peninsula), then to Laugabol Horsefarm by Arnarfjorður for 2 nights, then up to Flateyri for 3, then to Djupavik for a night, before heading into North Iceland and staying near Borðeyri (actually, across the fjord, at the HI Sæberg hostel). Our actually plan only deviated a little bit – we cut our time in Flateyri to 2 nights, and added a night at the Sæberg hostel.

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We had rented a car with Budget (through I Heart Reykjavik) –  we picked the car up at the airport and returned it in Reykjavik. We took photos of any damage already done to the car, and went over it with a rep to confirm the scratches, dings and dents. We did get a hard sell on ‘sand and ash’ insurance (which the agents at Budget assured us was nearly required if we were going along the south shore) but ultimately the numbers for the liability didn’t make sense (nearly quadruple the cost of the car) ….and we weren’t going anywhere near the south shore, so we opted out of it.

We stayed predominately at Air BnBs in the Westfjords, which meant that for several nights we’d be a considerable drive away from the nearest town…and thus the nearest restaurant, or grocery store. Our host was amazing, and included this information in our email exchange, so we were well prepared. It’s definitely a good idea to either ask your host, or take a look at a map to see how much planning you’ll need to do for food and/or drinks.

There’s no rush to get groceries in Keflavik (or in Reykjavik) if you’re going to pass through/stay in Borgarnes, as there are several grocery stores available there as well. In fact, there are smaller grocery stores located around the Westfjords, but it’s by far cheaper to buy groceries at the Bonus in Borgarnes or Isafjorður, depending on which way you’re going.

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A nice taco meal with an Einstock beer to wash it down

For alcoholic drinks – well, stock up at the airport. If you don’t (for whatever reason), you’ll need to hit a vinbuðin – their version of the LCBO + Beer Store. Each vinbuðin has differing hours of operation – generally, the smaller the town, the shorter the hours, and every one is closed on Sundays. Be sure to do some research before heading into the Westfjords.

Driving in Iceland is fairly easy – or at least we found it so. Driving in the Westfjords is easy….but terrifying. Paved roads give way to gravel through parts of the southern end, as well as through the summer roads that cut through the West. There’s a tourist map available (for free in various places, and available online) that shows which roads are paved, which are gravel, main vs secondary. Most of the gravel roads are bordered by mountain on one side and cliff face on the other, and can be slick in wet weather. While locals will drive with (reckless, some would say) abandon, we found ourselves slowing down…sometimes because our little car couldn’t make it that fast up the grade, and others because the descent seemed a bit perilous. At the beginning of our trip we worried about every ding we heard as rocks bounced off the car, but eventually became more relaxed. (And didn’t add any damage to the car!)

As you can see from the photos, we didn’t rent a very large car, and it did well enough on the roads of the Westfjords. Husband wasn’t overly fond of driving Carlita (I can’t drive standard, and the windy, one lane, mountainous roads of the Westfjords didn’t seem like the place to learn) simply because he was unfamiliar it – how it would handle on the slick dirt roads after the rain, but otherwise our little Hyundai i10 handled the roads extremely well. If in doubt, ask!

One website that proved incredibly useful was Hotpot Iceland. Not only did it indicate locations of hot pots, it also showed gas stations. It wasn’t 100% accurate, as at least one gas station that we used wasn’t given on the app (the gas station in Norðurfjorður) but used in conjunction with the map I linked to above, and by asking locals you shouldn’t have a problem. (That being said, do keep an eye on your gas tank).

We bought a sim card in the airport – we ended up getting a NOVA card, with 10 GB of data (way more than we needed). We ended up with not so good reception in the Westfjords, with the exception of areas around towns.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Brief Tour of Klaipeda

One of the highlights of this trip was having it unplanned and going with the flow. We spent an evening in Kaunas deciding our next steps, and we decided on Klaipeda. From there we could visit the Curonian Spit (and see Russia) but also have an easy bus route to Riga, where we had rented an AirBnB for a week.

Because it was unplanned, we ended up last-minute booking a suite at a hotel, Friedrich Guesthouse, in Klaipeda. It turned out to be a great deal because we had a small sitting area, a small dining area, and a kitchenette! Plus for the first time on the trip, we weren’t sharing the bathroom with the rest of the rooms.

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Hotel sitting room

We did our standard walking tour of the city the first….including the walk from the bus station to the hotel, which should have been aboutt 20 minutes, but took us closer to an hour, as we walked through a sculpture park, past a war memorial, and beside a river. Our hotel was very centrally located – about 20 minutes from the bus station, and 10 from the harbour.

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Hotel sitting room

After checking in at the hotel, we dropped our bags, snagged a ‘What to do in Klaipeda’ travel guide, and headed out. We noticed that there was a blacksmith museum, and a brewery tour, of the Svyturys brewery (which had been our beer of choice throughout this leg of the trip). Alas, the brewery (once we figured out where the entrance was) didn’t look too inviting to guests, and after reading the local brochure more, we found out that tours need to be arranged in advance through the tourist office.

So we continued to wander around, trying to find the blacksmith museum, coming across a tourist market in the town square, where we loaded up on some amber souvenirs. I had previously gotten an amber necklace in Czech Republic, so I picked up a pair of earrings to match, and the Fiancé got an amber die. 20160804_185721

Of course, it rained, so we popped into a pub’s patio, before heading back to the hotel. Where we found the blacksmith’s museum across the street from the hotel. So much for paying attention!

Our evening plans were put on hold when we had a massive downpour of rain. Thankfully the hotel had a series of restaurants attached along an alleyway, with several tables covered by awnings, so we had dinner and drinks there, while watching the rain come down…..and trying to avoid getting wet.

 

 

Kaunas

Our second stop of our Baltic adventure was Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. We arrived by bus, and walked to our hostel, the Monk’s Bunk. (It’s an easy 15-minute walk from the bus station to the hostel, with only one leftturn)

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Follow the backpacker to Monk’s Bunk

We had been told that the hostel could be difficult to find, and they weren’t kidding. Located on Laisves, it’s actually behind the buildings on the street. You walk through an archway, and you’ll see a hiker painted on the wall, with an arrow pointing towards the hostel. It’s located on the second floor, with their private rooms being in a separate apartment on the fourth floor. (There’s no elevator, so be prepared to carry your bags!)

During our two-day stay in Kaunas we toured the castle, as well as did our own little walking tour around the city. And we made up for not visiting any museums in Vilnius by going to a gem museum and the devil’s museum.

Our walking tour of Kaunas began at our hostel, down Laisves to Zemenhofo, where we saw a sign post pointing to a ‘Gem Museum’. So we headed down Zemenhofo to the end, went back to Laisves….no sign of a ‘Gem Museum’. It turns out that the ‘Gem Museum’ is actually a jewellery store with quite a few different types of gemstones on display. It’s located at the corner of Zemenhofo and Kurpiu.

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Relaxing on the pedestrian street, Laisves

From there we headed back to Laisves and walked on to the old town hall, which is now the city museum….and which was never a church by the way. It may look like it started life as a church but it wasn’t. For a nominal fee you can tour through the town hall, seeing the history of the city. Worth a pop in, especially if it’s a gray overcast day!20160803_034557

Our next stop was the castle, which is incredibly interesting, with a dungeon that you can explore (but it’s tiny, so there’s not much exploring.) The stairs leading down to the dungeon are on a steep angle, but it’s short. At the bottom, there is a round chamber with stocks, and chains, which you can play around with (although there is no way my head and hands are going into a set of stocks.) An archway leads you into another chamber, with a few placards that give the history of the castle and prisoners that were held there after various wars.

From the dungeon you climb up the narrow, stone, spiral staircase of the central tower (and only tower….) into various rooms that display period clothing, archaeological items, paintings…you can even step out at one point for a view of the rivers and city.20160803_102355

Walking back towards the hostel, we took a different route, taking Gertrudos and then down Daukšos, and stopping in at Hop Doc for some beer and food, before spending the evening in.

The next day, we headed in the opposite direction. We headed down Micheviciaus to the funicular, taking it to the top of the hill.

We then walked down Zemaiciu, to a set of stairs, with a fountain at the bottom, leading back up the hill, which we explored. Back at the bottom, we headed along Putvinskio to the Devils’ Museum – which started off as a private collection – consists of artwork from around the world (paintings, masks, statues) depicting various versions of the devil.

Vilnius, Rain and Relaxing

Things were hectic for me this summer, starting a new job, and getting ready for our European vacation. After our African safari adventure, we decided to go back to Europe for a vacation focused more on relaxing than on daredevilry. So we settled on a tour of the Baltic states – starting in Vilnius Lithuania, heading up through Latvia, and ending in Tallinn, Estonia.

Our first day in Vilnius was full of errands – buying some clothing (our bags had managed to miss the flight from Toronto to Warsaw), and getting a sim card for our phone. That was definitely worth it – we paid a few euros, and had internet all the time, not having to rely on wifi (that may or may not work) at cafes and restaurants.

20160801_093723While looking for a (relatively) cheap clothing store, and place to buy a sim card, we got to wander around Old Town Vilnius, including the Republic of Uzupis. Once one of the roughest parts of the city, it’s now an artists haven, and full of quirky charm. Walking into Uzupis, you walk past their constitution which has been translated into quite a few languages. The mirrored plaques line the street as you walk towards the main square of the republic.

20160731_093842We ended up spending a lot of time in Uzupis, simply because we got a lot of rain while in Vilnius. The third day of our trip, we headed out towards the bus station, our intention being to visit Trakai, but alas, it began raining while we were halfway to the station. We ran under an arch to take a look at the weather forecast…..and it was going to rain all day. So instead we meandered through the Old Town, and then back over the bridge into Uzupis, where we sat on a (covered) patio at a pub along the river. We also conveniently looked across at an art installation of a swing under the bridge.

After some food and drinks, the rain had abated somewhat, so we headed to the main square, where we stopped into a little cafe/bar/pizzeria, which was thankfully toasty warm inside, but it wouldn’t have mattered.  Because on the patio, across every second seat, were fleece blankets. For the next three weeks of travelling, it was a sight we would get familiar with. (And it’s seriously something we need to get on here in Ottawa!)

Our last day in Vilnius we took a hike through Bernardine Park, which borders Uzupis.  We started at St. Anne’s Church (or The Spikey Church, as I called it before I googled it for the real name) and wandered along the well-tended paths along the river, before crossing over to the other side, and doing a u back in the direction we had come from. The path here was a little rougher, closer to a hiking trail than a walking path. We finally came across a little used trail heading up the hill at a steep angle, and we decided to head up back to the street. Luckily for us, we came out behind a post office, so I could pop in and send off the thousands* of post cards I had written.

20160801_095918‘Lithuanian Post’ in Lithuanian is ‘Lietuvos Pastas’ so I was going to make a joke about sending my postcards by penne….but I figured I probably shouldn’t.

When we had arrived in Vilnius we had grand plans of visiting Trakai, a small historical town close to Vilnius, that includes a castle on an island in a lake. (In fact, I saw it as we approached Vilnius on our flight) as well as Grutas Park, where Soviet-era statues have been relocated/erected.  We never ended up getting to either location, unfortunately, but I guess that just means that we’ll be going to Lithuania…perhaps on our way to Belarus?!

What’s in Your Phone: Travel Apps

The advent of smartphones has made my travelling so much easier. And I don’t just mean being able to Skype people at home, or ask Trip Advisor for a restaurant recommendation while on the road, I also mean the issue of what in the world do I pack in my carry on to keep me occupied on a flight? Now I don’t have to pack one thousand and one things in my pack, I just have to download them to my phone. (I have a Samsung, so I generally save apps to my memory card, rather than to the internal memory.)

I live in Ottawa, so FlyCanada (an app from the Ottawa airport) really helps out, in that gives you the status of flights, both arrivals and departures. It’s really convenient – I can check my flight status to help me plan when to arrive (i.e. if the flight is delayed, I won’t be sitting around the airport for several hours.) Other airports may have their own app.

In the same vein, I download (and then delete to save space) airline apps when I’m flying them. WestJet and United are two airlines that I fly with often enough to keep their apps on my phone. (WestJet because it’s an economical way to fly west, and United because most of my flights south and to Africa go through Dulles airport in Washington.)

Because The Fiance and I have membership with Priority Pass (which isn’t for priority boarding, rather it gets you into airport lounges) we have their app, to help us figure out a) if an airport has a lounge, and b) where exactly that lounge is. Best thing is, you don’t have to be connected to the internet to use it – you can look up where a lounge is in a airport offline.

Another app that smooths your travels is Seat Guru (also a website, if you don’t feel like adding another app.) This one lets you figure out the good, and the bad, seats on a flight. Fill in the departure and arrival airports, flight number, and voila – it determines what airplane the airline is using for that flight, and which seats are good, so-so, and to-be-avoided-at-all-costs.

While traveling, I sometimes have a hard time converting currency. It’s easy enough if it’s a simple 10 to 1, but if it’s a weird amount (130X to $1, for example) then I pull out XE currency. Rates are up-to-date, and take the guess work out of prices.

I spend a lot of time in countries where I speak very little, to none, of the local language. So if I need something other than a beer, or the bathroom, I whip out my Google Translate app. Not only can I type something in in English and get the translation, you can now open the app, hold it up to something printed in the local language and it will translate it for you. There is a caveat – it has to be a major language – French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, although sadly Arabic doesn’t seem to be in the list.

Talking about Google, we also use the Google Drive app. We have our travel documents scanned in and saved in case of emergency, as well as copies of pre-booked hotels/activities, and frequent flier numbers.

And since I always end up somewhere that I didn’t think I’d end up (I’m big on talking with people when I travel, who then suggest a place I hadn’t known about) I also have the Trip Advisor app on my phone. Great for suggestions on restaurants, pubs, hotels, activities…

In the same vein, I have a few hotel/hostel booking apps on my phone – Hotwire.com, Hotels.com, Hostelbookers, Hostelworld. We occasionally leave a night or two unbooked for unexpected side trips. Or we book in somewhere that we don’t like….and sometimes we get a special discount if we book through the app.

I spend (probably) far too much of my travel time in NYC. So I have an NYC subway app on my phone. SO much easier to figure out the closest subway (we spend a lot of time just wandering around NYC), or what route to take to get where. A lot better than unraveling (and trying to re-ravel) a paper map.

And finally on the planning side is the Time Out app. Letting you see a list of things to do , nearby bars, and make a reservation at a restaurant, among other things, this app covers (select) cities in Europe, Africa, the US, Asia, Australia….pretty much everywhere except Canada. (Boor-urns to that!)

On the fun side, I have a few other apps to help pass the time while waiting….anywhere. At the airport, on the plane, on a train, at a restaurant….

My ereader is a Kobo, so I also downloaded their app. I sometimes find it easier to navigate buying a book on my phone – say if I’m using a wifi that’s password protected, it’s a lot easier to navigate that issue with my phone than with the ereader.

Shortyz. I love crosswords, and pre-smartphone era (which for me, was up to a few years ago) I would pack a crossword book in my carry-on. That alone doesn’t take up a lot of space, but add to it a couple of books (I got a tablet in 2010, but didn’t get an ereader until just a few years ago.), a journal, a deck of cards….and bags start bulking up. So if you’re a crossword fan, Shortyz is a great app. Download a few days worth of puzzles, this app pulls in crosswords from multiple sources, from pop culture (People Magazine) to easy-to-hard (LA Times, depending on the day of the week). Along the same vein, I also have Sudoku and Solitaire downloaded.

Buttons and Scissors is a game that involves buttons of different colours that you ‘cut’ in a straight line off the board. You can’t cut past a different coloured button, and you have to cut at least 2 buttons at a time. A bit of mindless fun, it occasionally requires a bit of strategy as you try to figure out what order to cut in to clear the board. (I also have Candy Crush, but the 5 lives go by so quickly.)

Somalisa Camp and Hwange Park

After our Intrepid tour, we had a few free days before we had to fly home. We decided that we wanted to do a safari (I’d done a 4-day safari in Tanzania, but the Fiancé had never experienced one). We debated between Kruger Park in South Africa, and Hwange Park in Zimbabwe. Friends and family advocated for Kruger, as Zimbabwe gets some bad press, and they felt it might be more dangerous.

But I won out, an20160105_054621d we ended up booking a 3-night 4-day stay at Somalisa Camp, with fly-in/out transfers.

We flew out of Vic Falls on a Wednesday, on a 6-seat Cessna 206. The Fiancé got to ride in the co-pilots seat for the 45-minute flight. We landed on the dirt strip, and were greeted by our guide, Albert (who it turns out, used to be a pilot.) We waited for the plane to take off, before heading towards Somalisa.

About 10 minutes into our drive, we came across a mud hole, where a herd of elephants were, for lack of a better word, frolicking. It’s a sight to see, these massive animals rolling in mud, spraying themselves, and each other. As far as introductions go, this was a great way to start our stay.

20160105_134240At the camp, we were met by Dophas and Johannes, who would be our hosts for the three days that we were there. Each time we came back from a game drive, they would meet us with cool, damp towels (lemon-scented!) so we could wash off the dust, and cool down. Dophas gave us a quick orientation of the camp, explaining where everything was, and what times we could expect our meals, and game drives, before we headed to our room to freshen up and relax.

Each day was similar in timings – Dophas would wake us up at 5, leaving coffee in our butler hatch, and breakfast was at 5:30. At 6, we would begin our game drive, and be back in camp by around 1 or 2, for lunch. At 4:30 we would meet for a snack, before heading out on an evening game drive at 5:00, ending with sundowners, before heading back to camp for around 7:30.  After that it was dinner, and drinks.

Somalisa had just finished renovations, and upgrading their camp. Their grand re-opening was set for the day that we were to leave, so the Fiancé and I joked that we were their soft opening. In fact, we were the only guests at the camp – making us feel more like royalty. In effect, we had a personal staff – personal hosts, personal guide, personal chef…not a bad way to end our tour!

20160108_091412Our game drives were well equipped. Our 4X4 carried two tents (just in case), a cooler of drinks (soft drinks, beer, wine, and water), and another case with snacks – we had everything from carrot and cucumber sticks, popcorn, cookies to grilled cheese, samosas, and pastry-wrapped sausages. We got a kick out of drinking a beer while driving through the park – it’s not often that one can do that!

20160106_100203Our first evening game drive was filled with animals.  Just as in Botswana, there were massive herds of impala and zebra, and elephants. At one point, the Fiancé counted over 100 elephants at the pans. We drove around the pan, watching baboons play, zebra mock-fight, and impala passively saunter. Albert informed us that if the impala are so relaxed, there are no cats in the vicinity. If there were, the impala would be standing at attention, all staring in the same direction. (We would get to test this theory on our third day.)

Hwange Park is a very dry, sandy place. To encourage the animals to stay, the water is pumped into the pans. There were the odd diesel pumps, but most had been upgraded to solar power. The drought is just as evident in Hwange as it was in the Okavango Delta – the grass had predominantly turned brown, and animal carcasses had basically mummified. (Not even the vultures would go near them.)

20160106_114955But the pans were, if not full, providing plenty of water to the animals. We drank our gin and tonics, and watched the animals drink, as the sun went down. Driving back to the camp, we were lucky enough to see an African Wild Cat make a kill. Our dinner was on the lower deck, just in front of the elephant drinking pool. The elephants were maybe 5 metres away – an incredible end to an incredible day.

On our second day, we drove out of camp and towards the pans where we had had our sundowners. This morning we saw jackals and bat-eared foxes, and Albert found lion tracks, which we followed. Unfortunately, the lions were hiding in the brush, so we headed back to camp, coming across some giraffe. 

20160106_132046That afternoon, we lounged by the pool (the camp provided sunscreen and towels), enjoying some downtime after the rush and bustle of our Intrepid tour. At 5, we headed back out for our evening game drive, this time finding monkeys and warthogs. (Each time we did a game drive, we saw new animals.) We ended with our sundowners again (Albert makes a mean G&T) before driving back to camp.

A few more staff had turned up in anticipation of the re-opening. Over drinks, I chatted with Denzel, while Ross taught Dophas how to play backgammon. Our chef, Sandy, came out and detailed the meal for the evening (steak!), before retiring back to the kitchen. The Fiancé and I got to eat on the lower deck again (I assume, if there had been more guests, it would have rotated)

IMG_0958After our unsuccessful search for lions the previous day, Albert asked us if we wanted to do a longer morning game drive, heading further afield, closer to Main Camp, where reports had come of lions in the previous days. We agreed, and we set off. We took a meandering route there, finding a Sable antelope, hippos, crocodiles, even a territory fight between some jackals and bat-eared foxes.  But no lions. We stopped for lunch overlooking a pan (watching the hippos wallow, and the birds flock) before we reluctantly decided to head back to camp.

And that’s when Albert yelled out “LIONS!” Sure enough – there was a male and two females walking through some bushes. Luckily, there was a road slightly closer, so we drove around and got a great view of the lions lounging under some bushes.   “Now that we’ve seen them, we’re going to see lots, just watch” Albert said as we drove away.

Our morning game drive ended up being close to 10 hours, so we opted out of an evening game drive. While lounged poolside, we had many visitors at the pan in front – zebras, kudus, impalas, a warthog, and of course the elephants. 

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Our last morning at the camp we slept in. Our flight time had changed several times the evening before, from 9:15 to 8:15, so we decided that we’d skip a long game drive. When we had breakfast, we were informed that our flight was finally settled at 9:50. So we did get a short game drive in. 

20160108_010134And of course, 5 minutes outside of camp….we saw a lioness and her cub. We followed them a little, but the cub was very skittish, so they quickly headed into the bush, so we started back. And of course….we saw another lioness and her cub. Albert took a look, and determined that the cub was actually one of Cecil’s sons. These lions were very relaxed, and flopped out in the shade right beside the track. We spent a few moments there, before driving a loop, and heading to the air strip to await our flight.

Lucky for us, a government official (The Minister of Tourism) was flying in for the re-opening. He was on a dual-engine King Air, with a pressurized cabin and comfortable, lounge-y seats. It was decided that rather than take the Cessna caravan back, we’d be taking the King Air. Our transfer back was half the time it took to get to Hwange – we were in the air for only 20 minutes before we landed at Vic Falls. From start to finish at Somalisa, we felt like we were getting a true luxury experience!

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.