Ah, the Azores. You know - the first place where Mark Twain stopped in his book "The Innocents Abroad", while on a long boat tour from the U.S. to Europe and The Holy Land? Hmm, maybe that doesn't ring a bell for most people... and it wasn't that long I didn't know much about the destination, either. As a quick introduction, if you need one, the Azores is an archipelago consisting of nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic, administered by Portugal since the 1400s and located 900 miles west from that country's mainland. Some people call the island chain "Hawaii of the Atlantic." The landscape is hilly, largely undeveloped, and lush green. Each island is known for different specialty products, like coffee, tea, pineapples, and cheese. The official language is Portuguese, but most people, especially the younger generations, also speak English very well. To wrap up this intro, there are pockets of Azorean immigrants across the U.S., with a large concentration in Boston. That's been the hub for direct flights for a long time now, but there are also options part of the year from Oakland, California and Newark, New Jersey. We've been asked several times why we chose to visit the Azores. The answer is two-fold. First, the place has long been a curiosity of ours, due to gorgeous, scenic views posted by publications like Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast. The second part is that we're still in a pandemic, and if you want to ease back into international travel, places that are little more remote might be a wiser choice. Now, onto my personal travel journal, with useful tips, tricks, and recommendations at the end...
Table of Contents: Day 0 - Travel Terceira island Day 1 - Angry Cows Day 2 - Angry Bulls and Volcanic Views Day 3 - Inside a Volcano and Angra Views Day 4 - Whales and Dolphins Day 5 - Back to São Miguel, Destination Furnas
São Miguel island Day 6 - Tea, Limpets, Lupini Beans Day 7 - Waterfalls and Cozido Stew Day 8 - Furnas Bound and Accidental Hike Day 9 - Greenhouse Pineapples and Hot Springs Day 10 - Trying Sete Cidades, Again All The Stuff You Need To Know The TL;DR Summary Of This Trip In Video Form
Day 0: Travel
As I write this, from the airport in Newark, the twinkling lights of the New York City night skyline span across the horizon. It's beautiful, and it's been a while, so I'm wishing we had just a little more time here.
My first visit to Newark International Airport was at the end of my work on Ghost Hunters Live in 2009. It had been a long, but memorable run, essentially being on tour for a few months, and I was ready to sleep in my own bed again. Getting home turned out to not be that easy... While waiting for my flight to take off, so was Air Force One. Once POTUS Obama was in the air, it was at least an hour before we continued taxiing, which was really irritating. That reminds me: I don't miss Presidents visiting L.A. all the time. Flight #1 (Los Angeles to Newark) was fine and pretty unremarkable, except for some fascinating tech I've never seen before. As we were sitting on the tarmac, Janine and I suddenly realized the cabin had become darker and, at 1 PM, it looked like night out the window. The 787-10 didn't have any window shades, either! What the??? Instead, the aircraft had a clear gel between the window panels and, when an electric current is applied, it darkens. Mind = blown! Flight #2 is overnight, from Newark to Ponta Delgada (Sao Miguel island, Azores), then flight #3 will be from Ponta Delgada to Lajes on Terceira island. There, we will rent a car and head to the main city, Angra do Heroismo.
Day 1: Angry Cows
My eyes are barely open, but we have arrived.
The sentence above is all I could eek out in my notebook before falling into a deep slumber, pen in hand.... but I'm back, baby, and here are the initial discoveries. It's a Monday, and almost everything here is closed. It feels like a holiday, but apparently that's just how things go on this particular day of the week. It's hard to find a place to eat and hard to find groceries. Also, siesta hours apply in the Azores, so if you do find something open on a Monday, there's also a chance it might close between something like 2 or 3 to 5 PM.
Otherwise, the wind and the rain.... Good God. It's been wet and cold, despite being on the verge of summer. As we were goofing around next to a cove, a powerful gust sent my NCIS baseball cap - one of my favorites - sailing right off my head and down into the rough ocean, 20 feet below. My initial thought was to dive in, then "Baywatch" flashed before my eyes, specifically the episode where"Mitch" (David Hasselhoff) is slammed into some rocks by some strong waves, and he ends up paralyzed. Yeah, I let that hat go. But man, day 1, and my hat is gone. Janine kindly offered me "her" hat, which is the one I bought and used during our trip to Joshua Tree. When it became hers is a question she refuses to answer! Before the hat misadventure, we watched some bullfighting in the street, which is a style unique to Terceira Island and dates back to at least the 1600s. Called "tourada à corda" (bull on a rope), five guys (called "pastores") hold a long rope collared around a bull's neck. The animal has pretty much free rein of the streets, challenging any thrill-seeking, amateur matadors that stand in its way. Unlike the Spanish tradition, the bulls aren't killed and instead are just sent back to the farm at the end of the day. In all, four bulls run the streets (one at a time) during these weekly events, which take place in different neighborhoods across the island for half the year. That sounds exciting, right? Well, when we showed up today, we chatted with some of the friendly locals and found out the main event is tomorrow. "Today they brought in the young cows for the kids." So something like a petting zoo, it seemed.... Nope! Instead, it was a lighter version of the tourada à corda. Younger, but still feisty, bulls tried to gore anyone that dared to stand in their way. I have to note here that metal balls are clamped down around the bulls' horns... The powerful beasts can still inflict some damage, but the odds are at least minimized.
I have to wonder what Hemingway would have thought of this. He probably would have been bored, because "Death in the Afternoon" just wouldn't be the same if it were about an amateur matador in the street, wielding an umbrella for a bull to target... and no death. It's fun, though, watching these "young cows" chase people around, while sipping on 1 Euro beers from the bar right next to the action. Once the young bulls are worn out, it still takes a team of guys to corral them back into the pen, so I can't wait to see what it will be like with adult bulls tomorrow. Again, being a Monday, at least the American fast food chain we keep passing by is open, so dinner ends up being from Burger King. This is what seems to be one of those rare times dealing with someone younger that doesn't speak English. I point at the pictures high up on the wall, and he tries to figure out where I'm pointing. My attempt at Portuguese, via my years and years of learning Spanish, doesn't cut it, either. What's really perplexing is that he really doesn't understand when I ask for barbecue sauce. After making a dipping motion, he opens the bag to show the chicken nuggets are in there. Trying to reiterate the "sauce" part, he has another idea and, from under the counter, he pulls out a pack that says in English only: "barbecue sauce". We both laugh about this challenge, which has felt like playing Charades.
Day 2: Angry Bulls and Volcanic Views
We are still in a pandemic and, like at home, enough people are either over it or act like it never happened. At breakfast (the first buffet we've seen in a couple years now), the host tells everyone masks aren't mandatory but that management requests we wear the provided plastic gloves to dish out food. That approach to public health is a curiosity because we've long been told now that COVID-19 is spread primarily through the air, instead of surfaces. Meanwhile, every window and door in the restaurant are closed. But yeah, let's exercise caution by putting on gloves.
Breakfast was good, and I enjoyed trying some local specialties as part of it - Azorean cheese, bread ("bolos lêvedos" look like English muffins), and pineapple juice ("ananas" = pineapples). The pineapples are less acidic and more enjoyable than whatever variety Dole forces on us. After eating, it's time to start exploring by car. First up is Miradouro ("viewpoint") da Serra do Cume, which offers a look at the green landscape below, dotted with ancient volcanic calderas. Along the way, we bounce around on several cobblestone roads. Those have to put a lot of wear and tear on cars, and one would have to assume owning an auto shop here can offer a comfortable living.
We wind our way up to the viewpoint, where it's cold and gusty. The wind turbines on both sides of us seem to indicate the whipping wind isn't unusual, but the scenery is beautiful and reminds us of Ireland.
Next, we descend northeast, to Praia de Vitoria. Another vista (Miradouro do Facho) offers a nice view over the harbor town. At this stop, a sudden rain starts beating down, so it's time to quickly pack up the camera and move on. In the few minutes it takes to get to the bottom of the hill, the rain has stopped, and the sun is shining again. It's lunchtime, so we check out one of the well-reviewed restaurants nearby. It turns out to be a good choice. The "seafood bread soup" is a hearty stew with various types of seafood mixed in and thickened up with bread. Along with that, I try a local beer called Peter Francisco. That one is pleasantly like a hefeweizen and a nice break from the mainland Super Bock and Sagre beers that dominate the market here. After lunch, we are presented "a gift", which is a little tart cake called Queijada da Dona Amélia. These were named in tribute to Queen Amélia (the last queen of Portugal), who was offered the dessert on her first royal visit to Terceira in 1901. These little cakes date much further back, though (as "Indianos" or "Bolo das Índias"), and are made with corn flour, eggs, butter, honey, and cinnamon, and topped with powdered sugar. Raisins, nutmeg, and molasses are often added. For being considered a local specialty, these aren't actually that easy to find, when you have a hankering for one.
After lunch, the scenic views are all rained out, so we head back to our home base, the hotel. Before long, we are out in the rain again, walking to see the tourada à corda bullfight. The atmosphere is much more lively than yesterday. This time, food trucks line a street, serving beer and tapas. Turning the corner, where the bullfight will be, temporary wood fences have been installed on the sidewalk, to protect people and property from the animals. Along this residential street, people are on rooftops and looking out second story windows. The only business around is the bar we visited yesterday, so we order a couple beers and claim a spot by their fence. A single firework is shot up and pops in the sky, signaling the event is underway and a bull is in the street. Right away, the animal takes a run at the first person it sees, and that guy sprints away. A group of spectators are out in the street, and it's funny watching many of them run away any time the bull even turns in their direction. Occasionally, the amateur matadors (in street clothes) step in and use whatever they happen to have - mostly umbrellas but also sweatshirts, horse blankets, etc. - as targets for the bulls.
A cheer erupts from the crowd every time a matador has outmaneuvered the animal enough that it gives up. When the bull is worn out, it gets corralled back into the pen, the rope/leash gets tied around the next bull's neck (that's a challenge in itself), another signaling firework is shot, and the animal is released into the street.
Day 3: Inside A Volcano & Angra Views
We start the day by heading to the top of Monte Brasil, which is the large, volcanic outcrop that's straight across the cove from our hotel balcony. To get to the top, you have to drive through an old fort that's still used as a military installation. It feels weird driving past military police on guard, who watch you drive by, as if you shouldn't be there. The regular cars slowly maneuvering down the mountain, in our direction, seem to reinforce that we're still on the right path to go up. The top features a couple monuments, old artillery guns, and probably the best view you can get of Angra do Heroismo (often just called "Angra"). It's sometimes amazing how sound travels, considering we can clearly hear Disney music playing from somewhere in the city far below.
From here, the southernmost part of the island, we head to the northernmost part, to a town called Biscoitos. It's about a 30 min. drive, and our destination is a wine museum. I'm glad to get to explore another part of the island, but the wine museum isn't worth a special trip. It's free to walk around the property and interesting to see how some of the vines grow within volcanic stone walls that serve as a wind break. However, the property is small, and there isn't a wine tasting. If we want any, we would have to buy a bottle... So far, the Azorean red wines haven't been good, and just some of the white wines have been decent, so no thanks. In the next town over, Altares, we grab lunch, and it's really good. So far, the food has consistently been tasty and looks like it could be used in an ad campaign. I've never before ordered bone marrow, and there's no time like the present. It's actually really enjoyable on some good bread that's essentially like sweet Texas toast.
After lunch, we head to a really unusual site, called Algar do Carvão. This is a volcanic vent, filled with lush vegetation and a lagoon at the bottom. Looking up through the lava tube, at the clouds quickly passing by over the landscape, is a really amazing sight. This photo gives you an idea but certainly doesn't replace being there:
As the day starts to wind down, we head back into town, to explore Angra. At dinner, I have my first-ever caipirinha cocktail. Made with cachaça (a spirit made from sugarcane juice), sugar, and lime, I expected it to be sweet, but wow! It's good, but I just couldn't imagine anything that sweet.
Day 4: Whales and Dolphins
This is our whale watching day. The prospect of being on a boat, out in the water, always feels like a risk, because of one bad experience when I was 16 and another among a storm-is-a-brewin' / this-boat-could-break-apart choppy waters at age 30-something... In other words, during this same decade. As I shrug that off as being not quite the norm, in reality there's probably about a 30% chance I'll end up feeding the fish from the back of the boat today. This morning starts off with too many mysteries. The first is where to park near the harbor. In L.A., you know exactly where to park because of the meters and numerous, posted signs that require you read them a few times for clarity. Here, we look all over and don't see anything posted. The second mystery is where the tour company actually convenes at the harbor. It looks more industrial to the left, so we make an educated guess that we should go to the right. We spot a boat with our tour company's name on it, and workers in the vicinity instruct us to go even further to the right to check in. One thing I love about tours is that they bring people together from all over. Among our group are residents of Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Boston and, of course, yours truly, representing Los Angeles. Not that we ever sit down and have a nice symposium, but it's at least nice knowing we have some shared, common interests with people from across the globe. Once we are all suited up in the supplied raincoats and lifejackets, our group collectively follows our guide to the boat. Surprise! We aren't going out on the big one we spotted earlier. Instead, we carefully board an inflatable boat, with 2x5 seating, and I have to wonder what effect such a small craft might have on seasickness. All aboard! We settle in, Janine and I are near the front, and the guide sets the simple ground rules: Basically, if we spot something to the left of the boat and you're on the left side, stay seated so the people on the right can stand up and get a good view. If you're on the right, and something is happening to the right, stay seated. We slowly motor our way from the harbor and go further and further and further from the coastline. The direction we are heading must be downwind, because the exhaust seems to follow us and is nauseating. As Mount Pico - the highest point of Portugal, located on Pico Island - grows larger and larger in our view, we finally slow down, and the guide explains what we've been seeing on the surface of the water. We all thought it was trash. Instead, we've been passing the dangerous Portuguese Man o' War "jellyfish" (not really a jellyfish species, but we won't get into the nuances here). It's explained to us that what we've been seeing are the sails and the dangerous tentacles dangle far down below the surface. The boat captain says "Take a look here", we turn to look, and he's holding a man o' war by the sail. I don't know if the tours normally get this opportunity, but the up-close view is fascinating.
It turns out the woman behind me is amazingly adept at spotting anything on the surface. In her British accent "Oh, look over there!" "Look there!" "Something's there!" This has been pretty amazing, as Common Dolphins have swam with the boat, we've seen Risso's Dolphins, and pods of Sperm Whales have surfaced at a distance.
We motor back into the harbor shortly before noon, getting a nice look at how hilly Angra is. We will explore town a little bit, but I'd like to work our way up to yellow-orange obelisk just right-of-center in the photo below. That's the Memoria a D. Pedro IV, aka Alto da Memoria... which was previously the Castle of Moinhos.... and the Castle of São Cristóvão... and Castle/Fort of São Luís... Some sort of fort or memorial has been on that very spot since the 1500s.
Along the way, we stroll through the beautiful Duke of Terceira Garden, then we climb flight after flight after flight of stairs. At the top, my legs are worn out, but the view from Alto da Memoria is pretty spectacular. It's just too bad the clouds and rain have rolled in again, just after I got the camera out.
Day 5: Back To São Miguel / Volcanic Pool
This marks the end of our time on Terceira, and we will soon be en route back to São Miguel (which is where we had a connecting flight to get here). I really love vacation, but inconsiderate people can really make it a challenge. In terms of public health, although we are in a much better place compared to last year, and especially two years ago, it still feels important to take reasonable precautions for our own well-being and for that of others. With that in mind, we were staring out the window, watching the occasional plane arrive here at Lajes Airport. An older couple plopped down on the windowsill next to us. With their masks around their chins, the man was working up some phlegm, while the woman let out an occasional cough... and made no attempt to cover her mouth in any way. At this point - year 3 of a pandemic - it's safe to say some people are just idiots. The window view was nice while it lasted. Our small airplane (with 37 passenger seats) finally arrives, an hour late. The delay was longer than the actual flight (45 min.) and, upon landing, we are eager to get settled in at a new place. We will be spending the first half of our time on Sao Miguel exploring the eastern part of the island, while staying in the town of Furnas. Then, we will pack up, head back to Ponta Delgada (the city where the airport is located), and explore the western half of the island from there. Wrapping up the trip near the main airport is strategic, since the weather in the Atlantic sometimes snarls air traffic to and from the mainland, and between the islands. Our first hotel on this island is called Terra Nostra. It's unlike anywhere I have ever been before. At the back of the property is a massive botanic park that costs €10 per person, or is included if you're staying at the hotel. Within the park is a massive pool, with brown, volcanic water continually flowing in at a steady 104°F (40°C). People swear the minerals and heat have healing powers. We'll see.
We need some snacks (and especially water) for the room, so we take a short, 10 min. walk into town. Straight down the road, we can see and smell the white smoke wafting way up into the sky. That's one of the parks with volcanic vents and water boiling at the surface. We will give that a visit later on. Back at the hotel, we drop off our groceries in the room, which is about like a suite. Why can't home be more like this? We grab the thick robes embroidered with the Terra Nostra logo and towels and head to the pool. Dipping into the brown, murky water does feel really nice. Thankfully, it doesn't smell like sulphur, or anything really. Soon, rain starts to fall, and it feels tropical and peaceful, as we have the large pool to ourselves. The cold rain offers a nice contrast to the hot water covering the rest of our bodies. I'm starting to feel overheated and can feel my pulse in my head, so it's time to get out and wind down in the room. Before settling in, I spend some time trying to wash the brown, volcanic minerals out of my brand new swim trunks. Lather, rinse, and repeat... lather, rinse, and repeat. Although the water in the sink keeps turning brown, the brown spots in the fabric aren't budging. Hopefully at home some stronger cleaning products can fix this, 'cause I certainly won't be wearing these at a normal pool and have people wonder what's with the brown stains on my shorts. You win some, you lose some, and alas, it's vacation.
Day 6: Tea, Limpets, Lupini Beans
On the agenda first for today is visiting a tea plantation, Chá Gorreana. This family-run place has been in operation since 1883, and they claim to be the only tea plantation in Europe. I wonder if that means they also own the other tea factory just down the road. It's not long before I start to regret making this stop. The parking lot is a madhouse. We turn the car around in the lot a couple times, when it seems people are leaving... and they don't. They get in the car and take their time doing whatever it is they're doing. Finally, I hop out and jog to back of the property, to see if there's any additional parking. Sure enough, there is. My text to let Janine know isn't going through, so I jog back to the main lot and see her pulling into a spot that finally opened up. Inside the factory building, a nice, earthy-sweet fragrance hangs in air, from processing the tea leaves. Looking at the old, industrial equipment isn't very exciting, and we breeze through the self-guided tour. At the end is a self-service area, where you can pour and consume as much green or broken leaf tea as your heart desires. Not bad for being free. Around the corner is a bustling bar area, where you can buy bagged tea, honey, jams, and knick-knacks. There is also a small area stocked with various liqueurs, and each shot glass size sample is €1. We tell one of the workers we want to try some of those local specialities, so she hands us each a glass and says "You can serve yourselves." Wow!
Before moving on to the next destination, we take a short hike across the street, among the tea fields. The rows of low bushes are nice and aesthetic, which gives way to an "Oh crap, the restaurants are going to close soon for siesta" moment. We head out, and it's looking like places listed as "snack bars" on the map are the only places to find food during the mid-afternoon. I dread the idea of having potato chips and a Coca-cola for lunch, but it turns out the "snack bar" we try has burgers, salads, sandwiches, wraps, and even limpets. Those are sea snails that resemble oysters or mussels. I've been wanting to try this local specialty, so this time I finally do. Swimming in butter and garlic, you just slurp the meat from the shell, and enjoy! And maybe "swimming" isn't the best word to use, to avoid sending the wrong message... These animals are certainly cooked and dead (although some people eat them raw).
After lunch, the thick fog has started rolling in again, making any scenic stops around here pointless. We head back to our home base, the hotel. In a light rain, we go for a walk through town and to the park with the white smoke rising from volcanic vents in the ground. It's neat to watch water naturally boiling at the surface, until the smoke and steam shift direction, and the the sulphuric smell of a rotten egg is suddenly in your face.
I've been excited and curious to stop by a tea house right next to the park. The place has been featured on travel shows because you can order a special tea that's brewed with volcanic water that's continually flowing from a spigot on the wall. As the minerals in the water react with the tea, the water in the glass carafe slowly turns purple. That sounds fun, right? Well just one problem - the damn place is closed. A sign on the door claims there's a private event, but clearly no one is here. Nor does it look like anyone has been here for an event or will be here for one today. At dinner, I finally try another specialty - lupini beans with a tall, cold beer. The beans taste similar to garbanzos/chickpeas and are pickled. They have a husk that can, but isn't recommended, to be eaten. It makes for a cheap appetizer. Speaking of, here's a bit of good news: daily spending, especially on food, has been less than we expected.
Day 7: Waterfall Hike and Cozido Stew
Starting on the eastern half of Sao Miguel, today we're doing a roughly clockwise loop from Furnas. That takes us first to a national park, Ribeira dos Caldeiros, which features primarily an amazing waterfall. A nice, slightly muddy hike follows, and some really scenic spots can be found along the path next to the river. From here, we drive along the coastline and check out a less-visited garden, at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego. Here, the birds gather and chirp in the palm trees, bees coated with pollen buzz between the unique, beautiful flowers, and the amazing coastal view features blue water lapping on a rocky beach far below. As the clouds start to roll in, we move along. Heading south along the coast, rain starts to fall. It's starting to feel like a theme on this trip. We skip the photogenic lighthouse and the small towns and turn west, where there's better visibility. One of the top sites on my list is in that direction, which is a church with a really unique staircase: Ermida da Nossa Senhora da Paz (or "Our Lady of Peace Chapel"). In a lot of these small towns, too many people park halfway up on the sidewalk/halfway in the street. That essentially turns these already-narrow passageways into one-way streets. As we motor up one of these, a car is heading our way, and Janine whips us down a side street. It's a matter of contention between us, because navigating these towns is like being in a labyrinth. The choice has been made, so we drive through town again and back up this two-way street: