|10-28-2014, 10:08 AM||#1|
Joined: Aug 2013
Location: Toronto, Canada
North Atlantic's best kept secret: why you should NOT go to the Azores
Why NOT go to the Azores? Well, because if you do, and you come back and tell your friends about it, and they tell their friends, and everyone starts going there, the gorgeous islands are going to turn into a tourist trap like so many other wonderful spots before did. So just don't. Leave it to the pros
All jokes aside, more than half the people I've told about this trip had no idea what the Azores were, and they are frankly missing out. So I feel obliged to report to my cherished advrider community that:
We spent the most amazing 3 weeks there and rode around on rental scooters when not engaged in other activities. I'll start off slowly as the report writing and picture processing is not coming as quickly as I wanted (if I had it my way, my cat would do all the work while I sleep, but alas, she just dozes off, lazy thing ).
The few threads I did find here about these islands are old, with dead image links, and are almost exclusively from people who live there. Somebody has to fix that! We have no relatives or friends in the Azores, which seems to be quite unusual, most visitors there do. So here is my take on the Azores as a complete foreigner.
It begins, naturally, with jet lag...
Somewhere in the depth of the Atlantic ocean the three tectonic plates holding the continents of Europe, Africa and America meet. As you might expect, a bit of volcanic activity came about as a result of their meeting, and 9 islands were eventually created. They were discovered and settled by the Portuguese, and are now known as the Azores. A tiny bit of land in the middle of the ocean. Lots and lots to explore and enjoy.
First light over São Miguel island.
The flight from Toronto to Ponta Delgada, São Miguel arrives shortly before 8 am local time, and comes with a complementary case of serious jet lag. We were picked up at the airport by our host, Jorge. He was surprised at our scant luggage (carry on only) and we sped off towards our home for the next two weeks — a farm in the centre of the island, close to the fishing village of Rabo de Peixe (which translates as Fish Tail).
Lots of animals greeted us there: a pair of extremely friendly dogs, two cats, a few geese, lots of chickens, and a few other birds whose names elude me. Jorge built a small guest house on their property, for hosting visiting relatives and tourists. The guest house was surrounded by banana and apple trees. And we had it all to ourselves.
Our hostess Guida offered us breakfast and after getting to know each other and chatting for a bit, Jorge was generous enough to offer us a ride to the city where we arranged for scooter rentals. Past the cow pastures and farmlands, we got on the expressway and were in Ponta Delgada in about 10 minutes. What awaited us was a pair of brand spanking new, white Honda scooters, all fuelled up and ready to rock. Looking to test them out, we headed wherever the wind would take*us. Soon we came across a pair of figures that were contemplating life while roasting on concrete tetrapods on the shore.
Public art installation in Ponta Delgada.
Empty streets on a lazy Sunday, Ponta Delgada.
The sun was hitting us quite hard, and the effects of jet lag were kicking in. We dropped by a large grocery store on our way back to the farm, and were promptly mesmerized by the new and unusual things, like unrefrigerated milk (UHT processed, very tasty), and the sweet and flavourful breads called bolos lêvedos.
Back in our little house, the sun filled the room through the large windows, and after a small snack we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon nap. When we woke up it was still broad daylight outside, and I realized that we had yet to dip our toes in the ocean. Many of the beaches are helpfully marked on the standard issue tourist map, and the nearest one was Santa Bárbara, in the town of Ribeira Grande.
We hopped on our scooters and were there in a few short minutes. While I'm tempted to say that a beach is a beach, and that it looked exactly like you would expect — sand, water and sun — there was something different about it. The waves on the beach were huge! It was quite fun jumping over them, but we were hoping to snorkel as well, and with waves 1-2 m high it did not seem safe to go near the rocks that might harbour some viewable sea life.
Wanting more, we decided to try a different area entirely — a location on the opposite, southern side of the island, in Água de Pau. Instead of taking the fastest route via the expressway, I decided to try out a smaller road that runs roughly parallel to it, M515/M516. A section of it was unpaved, and our scooters managed it quite well. Passing the green pastures with cows grazing, with hydrangeas and volcanic rocks separating the fields, with foliage covered mountains towering near and far — it was a real pleasure and a theme that continued wherever we went on the island.
Although I am a natural born navigator and can typically find my way around a new location with my eyes closed, the path from the main road to the beach in Água de Pau proved a bit difficult at first. The town sits on a hill, and the road winds and turns quite a bit as it descends to sea level, occasionally turning into a one-way path. After we passed a small group of locals for the second time in our attempt to find the right way, one of them offered to help. Of course, he only spoke Portuguese, but since I knew the magic word praia, it was enough to set us straight.
This beach turned out to be much smaller than Santa Bárbara, but similarly harassed by waves. Instead of trying to swim in it, we climbed a rocky formation just off the shore that offered a beautiful view of the sea as the sunlight was getting more and more purple. And thus we met our first Azorean sunset — in the moment, not even bothering for a photo.
Toronto to Newfoundland as part of a break in process
Riding and chilling in Curaçao
Island adventures in the Azores
NonstopBanana screwed with this post 11-13-2014 at 06:11 PM
|10-28-2014, 10:17 AM||#2|
Joined: Sep 2011
Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma
had to look that one up ...
|10-28-2014, 10:18 AM||#3|
Joined: Aug 2013
Location: Toronto, Canada
Few things are as awesome as waking up in the morning and knowing that the hardest task on your plate today is to figure out which of the numerous amazing places to visit first. If you pick a random image matching the keywords "São Miguel", chances are it will feature the twin lakes of Sete Cidades, and that's exactly where we decided to go.
The streets of Sete Cidades.
First things first, we had some errands to run. We dropped by a dive shop in Ponta Delgada and arranged for a dive the next morning. Easy enough, and with business out of the way, we checked the compass and headed northwest to what is officially known as freguesia das Sete Cidades. Freguesia is just a fancy name for a parish.
Getting tomatoes, mixing with the locals.
As expected, getting there is half the fun, if not the whole 90% of the fun. Everything is more fun when you're on a scooter and can stop at any random spot on the road to enjoy the view, not just the designated lookout points. The fact that you get to lean into the gentle turns on the twisty roads doesn't hurt either.
Church in Arrifes, along the way from Ponta Delgada to Sete Cidades.
Streets of Arrifes (our scooters waiting in the shade).
The ubiquitous yellow flowers in the foreground, with the ubiquitous dairy cows in the background.
An old mill among the fields.
Stopping for photos. The brown cows will eventually be used for beef. (But the locals don't know the English word "beef" and just explain that your meal will contain "cow".)
The quintessential São Miguel landscape.
The quintessential São Miguel landscape. Infrared.
Another old mill on São Miguel.
Looking towards the east end of São Miguel, you can see the north and south shores simultaneously.
By the time we reached the iconic blue and green lakes, we were in desperate need of a lunch break. Having seen so many beautiful vistas along the way, we were not quite as impressed with this freguesia as one may expect. Nevertheless, we spent some time eating ice cream outside of the local church (every freguesia has a church, if not three) and walking around the tiny community.
The Sete Cidades lakes visible from the distance.
Twisty mountain roads on the way.
The blue lake and the town of Sete Cidades.
The beautiful road close to the town, with the blue lake visible on the right.
The church in Sete Cidades.
Eager for another serving of the refreshing ocean, we continued to the coast, stopping by a small village of Mosteiros. Here I'll take a break for a quick language lesson. The first thing a foreigner notices about Portuguese speech is a lot of sh-ing going on. The thing is, the letter S has 3 possible pronunciations, depending on other letters around it. At the beginning of a word it is pronounced simply s, in the middle or end of the word but preceding a vowel, it is makes a z sound, and finally, in the middle or end of the word but preceding a consonant, or at the end of a sentence, it sounds like sh. That last one seems to be the most commonly used configuration, and makes it fairly easy to tell that you're listening to Portuguese, and not for example, Spanish. So the name of the beach we went to, using more English-friendly spelling, would be Moshteirosh. Weird but true.
The black volcanic sand was warm, but the water was being whipped by waves into a slightly murky mix of seaweed and sediment. Not snorkelling material, not today. We did take a short dip, but afterwards decided to walk around a coastal trail that leads from the beach to the village.
The village of Mosteiros.
The church in Mosteiros.
The streets of Mosteiros.
Gardens in Mosteiros.
We still had hopes of finding a good snorkelling spot, and set our eyes on the São Roque beach just east of Ponta Delgada. The ride through the twisty roads heading south along the west coast was beautiful. With the evening approaching we had to go a little faster than sight-seeing pace. Adrenaline pumping, we took consolation in leaning harder and hitting each apex on the dozens of corners that separated us from our praia.
The beach in São Roque, with the beautifully decorated church.
The village of São Roque was so typically Azorean - narrow streets, a church overlooking the ocean, black sand, and mellowness all around. It was getting darker and colder, and instead of getting into the water we just walked around the beach, watching the sky change its colour, the waves hit the funky rock formations on the shore. In one area of the beach the water was streaming down from a nearby hill into the ocean, probably due to decreasing tide. It looked like a small river was entering the water, though there was no trace of a river, the water seemed to come right from inside the sand. We took our sandals off to tread in the shallow water, and noticed weird puffing going on underneath, like an underwater fountain sputtering up sand by an unknown force. If you try to stick your foot into it, you just fall in by about 20 cm, until the fine sand is replaced by small rocks underneath. This leads to a temporary collapse of the "fountain", but after a short while the stream of water finds a way to puff up again, in a gentle but persistent fashion.
Underwater streams in São Roque.
And so it goes.
I'm still working on the rest, but hopefully this piques your interest just a tad bit ;)
|11-12-2014, 12:24 PM||#4|
Joined: Aug 2013
Location: Toronto, Canada
There is a good reason why they call it the Green Island!
In the context of the nine islands of the Azores archipelago, São Miguel is often referred to as the green one. The reason for this is apparent as soon as you throw one casual look at it - it's all green - but it becomes even more pronounced when you dwell deeper into the lush rainforest-like interior of Nordeste.
Hiking in Ribeira dos Caldeirōs.
Before getting to the green, we decided to try out the blue. That is, it was time for a dive! Woke up unusually early, and were at the dive shop at 8:30 am sharp. While our initial experience diving in Curaçao consisted of shore dives where you start at a beach, walk in and just follow down the seafloor, in the Azores nothing is so simple, and all dives require at least a short boat ride.
Long story short, apparently, the waves of the open Atlantic ocean are too much for me to handle unassisted, and I got a major case of sea sickness. Even rolling over from the boat into the water did not calm me down enough to proceed with the dive, and I went back on the boat while the rest of the group went under. That was not my smartest decision, as over the next 20 minutes the motion sickness escalated and I had to share the strawberry yogurt I had for breakfast with the fish in our immediate vicinity. Since I had breakfast such a short time prior, it was still undigested, and hey, how many people have vomit that smells like strawberries? On the bright side, neither Alex, nor the dive master had to witness that undignifying event, so it could be worse. Spoiler: there are pills for cases like me, and I got deeper on the next try, but that's a story for another time.
After Alex resurfaced, we went back to our little house for de-stressing and decompressing, where he admitted that it's not quite as colourful as in Curaçao. Not much to say for the rest of the day, aside from a trip to the grocery store, that resulted in us getting some local fresh cheese (yum) and Portuguese wine from the mainland (meh).
As a seasoned (i.e. salted and peppered) Azorean traveller, I have to say that few things are as quintessentially São Miguelian as a trip to Nordeste along the north coast of the island. Nordeste is the name of both the region and the main town of that region. (Don't forget to sh your way through that name. Nordeshte!) A tentative destination was set at Ribeira dos Caldeirões, a national park known for its waterfalls. Disregard the expressway and take the winding road that hugs the coastline along the cliffs and valleys, taking you to the tiny quiet villages of Porto Formoso, Maia, Salga, Achadinha and everything in between.
Approaching Ribeira Grande
The actual river Grande in Ribeira Grande. It will flow with more energy in the winter, when the rainy season begins.
Main square in Ribeira Grande.
Look, a dirt road!
Overlooking the expressway on São Miguel.
Dirt road with a view.
A gorgeous green road through a forest.
Almost all of these villages have beaches, and we could not resist the first one we encountered, Moinhos in Porto Formoso. Still too many waves and low visibility for snorkelling, but it was a great spot either way.
Riding towards Porto Formoso.
Porto Formoso, but could be any one of the dozens of São Miguel villages.
While the actual distance to the national park we were aiming for is not that long, with the road going up and down along the steep cliffs it takes hours to get anywhere. For every little village, the road gets down to sea level, temping you with another beach, then it creeps a few hundred meters up. There it offers up a majestic view of the village you just passed and the rugged shoreline around it, only to throw another set of downward hairpin turns at you. You struggle to concentrate on the road because the landscape opens up glimpses of the next beautiful village and you just wonder why you've never read about this part in the guidebooks.
Riding through Porto Formoso.
Main church in Porto Formoso.
A garden with an ocean view!
Overlooking the village of Maia.
All of this can get very tiring, and soon enough you find yourself in a small restaurant in Lomba da Maia, with catch of the day on your plate, surrounded by a variety of vegetables, learning more Portuguese words as you go along. Maracujá - passion fruit - frequently found in juice or jam form.
While taking pictures outside, we chatted with a fellow who was taking a break from all the eating going on in the restaurant. It was a family reunion and some people were on a mission to see just how stuffed they can get him. The man was originally from the island, but now lives in the United States. It would be a frequent theme with English speaking people we met here - many are visiting family in the Azores but live in the United States or Canada. There are many Canadian or American flags flying from houses here, and a beachside café in Porto Formoso was proudly flying several Quebec ones. It's quite unusual, it seems, to come here with no family connections.
One of the many scenic lookouts on the way.
An odd berry that was found in large quantities all around. Looks like a strawberry, tastes like grass.
A picnic area by the road, where we stopped to wait out a bit of rain.
Riding right after the rain? Sheer pleasure on São Miguel!
Hard as it was, we did eventually reach Ribeira dos Caldeirões. As long as you stay off the expressway but follow it roughly from the secondary road, you cannot miss the majestic waterfall welcoming you to this spot.
Ribeira dos Caldeirōs welcomes you!
Waterfall up close and personal.
Another spoiler for today: this main waterfall is not real. The river that feeds it creates several cascading waterfalls along the way, but this particular stage was created artificially by redirecting the water over this particular cliff with the help of good old-fashioned PVC piping. A short hike proves it, but a longer one takes you through the gorgeous greenery the likes of which are not often found outside of a rainforest.
Is it a tropical plant or a miniature dragon?
Hiking trail through the park.
A very tempting bridge over the river (not shown, it's about 5-10 meters below).
The first real waterfall.
The abundance of vegetation makes you feel tiny!
The gentle river becomes your trail. At this point it was getting close to 7 pm and we decided to head back.
We followed the trail along the river for a couple of hours, at which point we decided that the combination of the setting sun and strengthening rain meant we should head home. It's always fun to go 90 km/h on the expressway wearing only a T-shirt and a short skirt while getting pelted by rain! We took a couple wrong turns at the end, but made it back just in time for dinner (it's always perfect time for dinner when you're the one cooking). The rain was pouring harder and harder outside, but inside it was cozy, and with good cheese.
|11-12-2014, 01:09 PM||#5|
Joined: Jul 2012
Great story! I'd heard of the Azores but didn't know much about them....until now! Looking forward to the next installment!
Revel in your time!
|11-12-2014, 01:27 PM||#6|
Joined: Dec 2005
Location: Marble Hill, MO. U.S.A.
Wow, excellent ride report and pictures too! Thanks for sharing this with us.
1997 Yamaha XJ600s Seca II - mostly stock, Oxford Heaterz heated grips, Barkbusters Blizzard Cold Weather Handguards, a Scottoiler auto-chain oiler system. My Mileage Tracker Page
|11-12-2014, 08:46 PM||#7|
Joined: Aug 2011
Location: Pacific NW
Most excellent ride report! Wonderful pic’s and narrative. Looks like you two had a great time. Not often do we get to go to the AZORES! Thank you very much!!!
The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done and self restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it. Theodore Roosevelt
|11-12-2014, 09:07 PM||#8|
Joined: Nov 2005
Location: right here on my thermarest
Is it like this year-round? Maybe this is a better destination for me than Madeira Island.
|11-12-2014, 09:32 PM||#9|
Joined: Aug 2013
Location: Toronto, Canada
North Atlantic's best kept secret: why you should NOT go to the Azores
Thank you all! Glad you enjoyed the ride so far, there is more to come. ;)
It's not like this year round. It drops to 15°C in the winter, and rains more than in the summer. I suppose you could ride year round, but would not be able to get away with a T-shirt. I think Madeira is as close of an approximation as it gets, but the Azores are a tad bit colder and less popular.
|11-13-2014, 01:07 PM||#11|
Joined: Aug 2013
Location: Toronto, Canada
Being a relatively small island, São Miguel has a surprisingly large number of volcanic craters, and many of them are occupied by picturesque lakes. Opinions among the locals vary as to which one is the most beautiful, but the strongest competitors are Lagoa das Sete Cidades and Lagoa do Fogo. While the former can be traversed quite extensively by well maintained roads, and offers a civilized settlement for all your foodie needs, the latter requires a hike to be fully appreciated, and you better pack your own lunch, too! Armed with sandwiches made from bolos lêvedos we headed out for what our hostess Guida calls paradise on Earth.
Lagoa do Fogo, São Miguel
The road climbs quite a bit, winds back and forth, opening up to amazing views of Ribeira Grande as we approach the lake from the north. It's surrounded by a lush landscape dominated by the yellow flowers of Hedychium gardnerianum.
Known locally as Roca-da-velha, these plants are actually an invasive species in Azores, and originate from the Himalayas.
Although Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire) is one of the feature attractions of the island, the strip of space reserved for parking near the main trailhead is rather small. It's easy enough to find a small spot for our scooters, but some cars had to park right on the road.
There are several ways to enjoy this location. Quite a few people were content just sitting at the top of the crater, looking out and snapping pictures from the "parking lot", if you can call it that. Others were taking a hike down a fairly well marked trail that even included such amenities as stairs. We, on the other hand, decided to take a different route, one that seemed to lead up along one of the ridges. No one else went there, so it must be good .
The ridge around Lagoa do Fogo.
The ground is covered in plants, not all of them green.
A small peak before descending further towards the lake.
The trail headed upwards for an additional 100 meters of altitude before slowly making its twisted way to the lake. Along the way it almost disappeared entirely, hidden by the fierce vegetation. A couple of times we found ourselves positively off the trail and had to turn around and take a different path. At some point the trail began to coincide with some promising goat droppings. It seemed like a good sign: if the goats made it, so can we, right?
Panoramic view of the lake. (click for very large version)
The mountains turn into marshes before the blue-green lake takes over.
The emerald green lake perfectly complements the mountains covered in evergreens.
The trail is barely wide enough to turn around!
Alex takes a short rest after slipping on the trail. It's right behind him, yet it's very easy to miss.
A tiny spider on the trail
The lake is getting closer and the tall trees start dominating the view.
Although we did not spot any of the goats, towards the end the trail cleared up and it became easy enough even for the most inexperienced of goats. The area where the trail met the lake was surrounded by tall evergreens and felt so different from the highlands covered in stubby prickly shrubs. Fine sand marked the shore. A few people were sunbathing after a swim. Separated from the ocean, the water was calm and harboured some fish. We noticed a couple of trouts just a few meters from the edge. They were quite large and tempting, but as we didn't have any fishing gear, we had to settle for our sandwiches.
A beach on Lagoa do Fogo.
Lunch break by the lake.
Nestled in the middle of the ring of mountains, the lake feels quiet and peaceful. It's not so much a spot to see, as it is a spot to experience: take your time and take it in. Perhaps it's a good thing that Lagoa do Fogo is only accessible via somewhat more demanding trails - it forces you to slow down and get to know it a little better.
We walked around the shore, noting a couple of dark caves (maybe that's where the goats spend the night). On the way up we took the better marked trail, the one with a certain semblance of stairs on it, travelled frequently enough that it does not get engulfed by vegetation. After that, we continued by the mountain road, liberally stopping for photos, or just shooting while riding and making fools of ourselves.
Enjoying the view of the north shore of São Miguel.
Fooling around on the empty roads.
The obligatory sea-side beach of the day was Àgua de Alto, located on the south side of the island. The long sandy beach was fairly empty by the time we reached it in the evening. After playing around in the water, we headed towards the edge of the beach, where the waves kept hitting the black volcanic rocks, slowly hypnotizing any onlooker.
View of the village of Caloura.
Praia Àgua de Alto.
The ride home with the setting sun.
The friendly chickens on our farm.
Sunset over the mountains seen from the farm.
|11-13-2014, 06:48 PM||#12|
Joined: Jan 2012
Location: Southwestern Ontario Canada
Wonderful pictures and descriptions. Did you just return from this trip? How expensive are scooter rentals and the guest house you stayed in? Looking forward to more!!!!...Dave
Money can't buy you happiness.
However it can buy you a beer.
Which is close enough.
2007 F650GS 1978 KZ400C1 1972 XL250
|11-13-2014, 08:11 PM||#13|
Joined: Mar 2007
Location: Climax, NC
Thanks for sharing all the pictures. I vacationed there back in '78 with my parents but the memories have faded as I was only 6 yr old. We lived on Terceira. I remember they had some wonderful coffee.
|11-14-2014, 05:01 AM||#14|
High Plains Drifter
Joined: Nov 2009
Location: Edmonton, Alberta
Absolutely fantastic! I've never seen so much green in a thread.
I'd rather be dragging a club than clubbing in drag.
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