Azores Diary

On our way

A Long Time Ago, we had no idea where the Azores were. But on the back of an exciting holiday in Shetland, where for the first time, we spent our time finding and admiring local wildlife, including otters, seals and a rare sighting of orcas, Helen discovered that the Azores were a great destination to go whale watching. Perfect.

Since we went, not a single person we’ve talked to has known where the Azores were either. Most have nodded and wowed, and thought that we were off to Greek islands. The Azores really should advertise more; nobody knows where they are. They’re nowhere, in fact. In fact, they’re in the middle of nowhere. Or the middle of the Atlantic Ocean actually, a tiny group of dots on the map between Europe and America, and they belong to Portugal. And Helen had definitely fallen in love with Portugal, having recently been to Porto once and Lisbon twice. Portuguese whales, even perfecter.

So now we went to Gatwick, that Long Time Ago now a long time ago, and were thrilled to be on our way at last, a 1500-mile flight, almost entirely over sea; it was all very exciting. The airport at this tiny set of pinpricks in the sea was one of those lovely humble little places, reassuringly the opposite of the vast thriving terminus we’d left; the arrivals hall had brightly-coloured murals, and a bird darted and chirped above us in the passport queue.

Almost all of this holiday had been pre-arranged, booked and paid for, and almost all by Helen of course, so we had a car waiting for us after we’d done said passports and found our funky luggage (Helen had also come home one day with a huge floral suitcase). He took us the short journey into Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores on the biggest of the seven islands, Sao Miguel. Given the scale of the whole place, he didn’t have time to point out many tip-worthy sights. I think the only one was the big triple archway in one of the squares off the seafront. This is what is left of what used to be the main gates to the city. In those days (18th Century, though the islands were discovered and claimed by the Portuguese in 1427) they were on the harbour front itself, and must have looked grand and imperious. He dropped us off at the door of the Hotel Camoes, our room for the next seven nights. Well, when I say room, they’d done us rather better than that. We had a suite of about four, with a balcony to boot. Best features were a lovely big, airy, windowy bedroom, into which the net curtains could billow of an early evening, and a sort of lounge with an extra TV. Much more than we were expecting; Helen was enraptured.

But in the cab, we’d noticed the tourist office which was our first priority to find, and a nice-looking bar opposite, on the sea wall overlooking the marina.  So we headed straight back there, got our few early questions answered in the office, and scuttled happily across the road to the bar, to settle down for the first time on holiday. That’s a great moment, a lovely relaxing ahhh…  A beautiful venue, that open bar by the water, umbrellas shading us, or not, in the warm afternoon sun; our first moments in these new surroundings, after a long day of travel, looking out on a completely new scene; the such-a-long-way-from-work moment, and in such a remote unknown location. Ahhh…


After a long gentle while, we returned to the hotel, a mere five minutes walk (but we soon found that everywhere, like Lerwick in Shetland really, is five minutes walk, and this is delightful after London. So are a lot of things) and unpacked and spread out a bit. It was certainly a real treat for me to be staying in the same room for the whole time we were there. As I get older I like to unpack and settle in and make somewhere home I suppose, and on whistle-stop tours, each night is different room, so this was luxury. Then off into what was now twilight to find our first Azorean meal. 

A place we’d spotted earlier, a mere five minutes away (but I said all that before…) near the three arches seemed a good bet and after a brief look at a couple of other menus we went in there. Everywhere in Ponta Delgada was big on fish, surprising for an island in the middle of the sea (oh ha ha, Ed.) so we thought we’d dive in and see what was what. What what was was an interesting list of various seafoods, many that we’d not heard of. But a fantastic-looking display of fish laid out on ice and a tank full of live lobsters served to reassure us, and we ordered with abandon. To start, we both had Black Pudding With Pineapple. We’d seen this on every menu we’d looked at so far, so it seemed an Azorean speciality and therefore worth a go. Then Helen went for a Black Spot Sea Bream, and I asked for a Grilled Splendid Beryx, being unable to resist the sound of it.

The black pudding was brilliant actually, local blood sausage, quite dry, served with wedges of sweet acidic pineapple, it works really well. Both the fish were good, meaty and fishy in different ways (Helen’s served with a nice lemony sauce), but the hefty starter and maybe the day’s travelling had wiped us both out, and we didn’t really do them justice. But the local wine that we had, a brew called Terras de Lava – not an unsurprising name for wine from a volcanic island – was fantastic, and something that would soon become a favourite for our entire stay.

As is often our wont, we stepped across the road after our meal, to enjoy finishing off the long day in the seafront bar. Time and time and time again, I love the possibilities of travel, and the opportunity we’d taken today: to be on a rainy platform at grey Finsbury Park with the commuters in the morning, and now to be relaxing in a gentle warm breeze by a harbour on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic; it loosens your shoulders just to think of it.

And soon to bed. For tomorrow, the whales were waiting!

Footprints in the sea

We went down to the marina, a mere five minutes – stop it, Ed. – and waited as we’d been told to do by the Futurismo office. The boat was to leave at 9 and we wondered which boat it would be. I was fairly certain it would be the ancient trawlery thing parked nearby, looking like the boat from Jaws. Bursting with enthusiasm for the adventure ahead, we’d got to the rendezvous early, but as time went by, there was no sign of anyone else joining us for this trip, or even anyone to open the office. At quarter to, the time we’d been told to foregather, it was time for a phone call to the Company back in England, thank goodness for mobiles. I spoke to Jake 1500 miles away, who told us that there were two Futurismo offices, and from that distance he gave us directions along the road to the other marina. D’oh! When we got there, there was a load of people looking reassuringly more like us, touristy, excited, ready to go, except they were all kitted out in life jackets and waterproofs already. Jake had phoned ahead and told the boat people that there were two more dozy English on the way, and not to leave without us, so it was all fine really. We’d missed the briefing, but what the hey, off we go!

So far from the battered vessel I’d guessed at, we clambered aboard a sort of 12-man jetski. Quite tightly packed, in twos, with the driver?/ pilot?/ skipper? and his mate at the back, we drifted gently out of the harbour towards the open sea.  Once there, the throttle came out and we started seriously picking up speed. In 30 seconds we were absolutely bombing across the waves, shooting half out to sea and half going east along the coast of the island. The further we went, of course, the bigger the waves, and the bumpier the ride. It was never uncomfortable, it was too much fun for that, but it was like riding a bucking bronco, with lots of splashing. Starboard side, away from the land, Helen got quite a bit of the Atlantic smack in the face, and one time, after I’d been admiring the sunny green hills to our left, I turned around to see her catch another heavy burst of spray from our bows, but still grinning womanfully.  “You sit on this side next time” she said.

From the water next to the boat, a flying fish shot out and veered an incredibly long distance with us before swerving and dipping back into the sea.  Flying fish is right; it’s no jump out of the water that they do, no half-hearted bounce up into the air; they sail along easily two feet above the waves, for perhaps 50 yards. Time suspends itself.

Talking of time, we were certainly spending a lot of it just zooming along like this.  By now we were level with the now-distant eastern end of the island, and a bulbous rock sticking out of the sea, a big oblong boulder with a gap then a shard at one end, which looked like a huge rhino.  As well as hurtling eastwards, we’d also gone a lot further out into the ocean, and we realised that it was actually a clear run from here down to Antarctica, and perhaps that was where we were headed? Sao Miguel had got a lot smaller, anyway. 

Then suddenly up ahead, we could see a few more boats gathered together, and we turned straight towards them. “It’s a whale, we have whales!” yelled one of our guides. Before setting off, we’d known that there was never a guarantee of seeing whales, or anything at all, and we could easily do our four trips out without spotting anything. And yet, before we seemed to have even arrived anywhere, here was the grand prize, immediately, first crack out of the box!

We caught up to the other boats and idled the engine. It was quite quiet, only the guides on each boat were talking, directing us where to look beneath the dark waves. “11 o’clock” said our man from the back of the boat, “he’s gonna blow any minute now”. We bobbed on the water and all turned frantically to whichever hour of the day he called out.  And before long at all, there they were, not just one but two grey-black shapes, huge forms just at the surface and then breaking it in a rolling motion forward. Helen and I discovered later that we’d found two Pin Whales, which is bloody impressive as they’re the 2nd-biggest animal on earth.  The 2nd-biggest animal on earth!  And you could get a feel of their huge size. I think what was most exciting, most resonant, was not their actual bulk, it was their presence. Their spiritual weight rather than their physical weight. Just to be near these awesome mammals was so impressive, following them as they dipped above and below the water. 

And when they did go below, they each left a patch of still water on the surface, a huge flat oval floating among the waves, bigger than the boat. “See the footprint?” called the guides, and this was what we often used to relocate the whales.

After a very short half an hour, we had to move on. It’s good practice that these tours are only allowed a certain amount of time with the animals, it’s nature after all, and not there for us, we can only snatch small moments before nature notices it’s being watched, and then we’re interfering. There were other good rules like this: no boat is to get closer to the whales than 30 metres, I think it was, and no boat ever drives in front of a whale. They go forward wherever they want, and can’t be distracted from any purpose by the intrusion of a jetski ahead. It’s their ocean.

So we turned away, not back to shore but off to find the other major attraction in these waters: dolphins. By the way, when I say “find”, it’s not a haphazard root around the sea until we chance upon anything; the drivers are in constant contact with a lookout base on Sao Miguel, an HQ with telescopes so strong they can locate dolphins and whales up to 20 miles out to sea, even underwater, which is amazing. So we were just following directions, and whenever the radio on board crackled, we knew that something had been sighted, and that was exciting.

During this next 40-minute sprint across the sea, the guide came to Helen and I and took us through the briefing that we’d missed earlier. Perched on the edge of the flying jetski, he showed us charts of the various sealife we might expect to see, the many different kinds of whales and dolphins, really. We tried our best to hear him over the the powerful engine as we shot along at millions of m.p.h., he tried his best to ignore the constant splatter of water on his clipboard, it was fun. After nodding a lot, I realised he’d finished what he was supposed to do, and though I’d asked many interested questions (I was interested in how long he could keep hold of the clipboard) I felt, as usual, that some local language would be nice, so as he moved back to the back of the boat, I said “Obrigado”.  “Oh”, he said politely, coming back, “er, I am Spanish, not Portuguese”. D’oh, again.

Soon we pulled up and idled once more. But no need to wait and watch this time, the dolphins came to us! So wonderful, such character! They actually approached and played with us, it was their choice, not ours. As earlier, there was a convoy of boats, and we’d all got to the scene at slightly different times, and as each arrived, the dolphins would come up and inspect it as a newcomer, something to investigate and puzzle over. They swooped around us, turned in the water nearby, and even went straight under us, you could see them swim underwater towards you and follow them as they dipped under the boat.

(When watching the seabirds in Shetland, nesting and hunting and doing pre-mating dances, I’d realised that this was so different from watching wildlife on TV, this was real, and when we see them do that stuff at home, they’re not doing for us, to be watched, they actually do do it, it is real.  And watching the dolphins showing off and coming up to the boats, the cliché ‘inquisitive’ is always bandied around about dolphins, but to see it here, as a real word and a fact, was entirely different, and entirely new.)

Whenever another boatload of visitors arrived, the dolphins would go off to see what was what over there, and so it went on. And when they realised there were no more of us to arrive, they started showing off. They’d form back into their school and start acting up. To incredulous “oohs” and “aahs” from all of us, they’d pop up from the water, sometimes loping, sometimes twisting, and sometimes shooting up and diving back in. And these great jumps, sometimes they did they did them in pairs, or in threes, somehow all perfectly co-ordinated in a spectacular display. It was 2 o’clock, 9 o’clock, 5 o’clock as the dolphins sported themselves all around, performing whilst moving forward as part of the school, or breaking away to do a spot of investigation or exhibitionism on their own.

When they tired of us, or decided to move on, we headed back towards home.  This time, as we hurtled across the water, I was the one on the windward side, and the one who should have been drenched along the way. But alas, the wind had changed, or something, because again Helen took the brunt of the spray and I tried not to notice.

We tied up at the dock, returned our lifejackets to the rail, and headed back to the room to change and shower before lunch. But on the way, there was a replica of the bar we’d been in yesterday, a very inviting small kiosk serving beers, with comfy-looking seats spread out on either side. And after 3 hours sitting on a psychotic rodeo machine, comfy was extremely appealing. We soon found that these bars were all the same, the same layout, the same menus, the same Company obviously, and very nice they were too. If our home from home in Barcelona had been the warm bar round the corner, where they gave us minute strong coffees and huge Torres brandies in palm-filling glasses, this bar in particular was to become the equivalent here in the Azores.

After reassuring our bums a bit and restoring the tissues, we went down to Roberto’s, a restaurant very close to, well, everything was very close.  An escalope each, with fries (forgive me o all of my previous life, I was abroad and I ordered fries and they were lovely and just what we both wanted and I’d eat them again) and a spot of Terras de Lava, and then I think we popped over the road, just as we’d done earlier, to sit in one of the identical bars to finish our meal off with another cooling drink and sit around and relax, hey, it’s called a holiday.

That evening we went separate ways, having slumped a bit in the room in the late afternoon. (How nice that is too, not to hare around extracting every last cultural or touristic morsel from a place, just to say Stop for a bit, and do that.)  Helen stayed in the room to have a picnic and just enjoy, and I went to a Sports Bar I’d found, to watch the football. Big important European Cup Final, I was watching it in a wonderful exotic location on my own, in a foreign bar in a great seat near the huge screen, a cheeseburger ordered, in touch with various friends in England by text if I wanted, all the pre-match signs were good, I’d been building up to it for weeks; we lost 2-0.  The cheeseburger was OK, I suppose.

Hugely disappointed in what I was really expecting to be one of the best nights of my year, and having bought Helen’s picnic in semi-guilt that she’d allowed me to spend an evening of our holiday watching the match, I returned to find that in fact she’d had a much better evening than I had. Wish I’d done that, now. There was the usual odd mixture of channels available when abroad, but as we settled in together with a glass of port, Charlie’s Angels came on.  Both of us had seen maybe one episode of this in our lives, but it was perfect just now. And it was brilliant not just for the programme but for the fantastic every-70s-cop-show cliché that was there: the long-suffering boss, the car chases and crashes into dustbins, the long look past camera as it closes in at the end of every scene, and from a musos perspective, the brass cluster crescendos and the maracas going g-chikachikachika whenever the villain appears at the dockyard. We did laugh.      

Finches and frolics

We were to return to the whales in the afternoon, so we spent the morning seeing a little more of the town, and particular, the botanical gardens. Another peaceful pursuit, we wandered round the shady trees and rockeries, and soon slowed down. Especially when we came to a pond in a hollow. Here, Helen investigated the opportunity to take a series of photos using the water as a reflector, so that whatever was on the far side of the pool was doubled upside down in the water. I sat nearby and watched a goldfinch in a fir tree; even growing up in a bird paradise like Northumberland, I don’t think I’d ever seen one before. Glad I brought the binoculars that day.

Then a couple of greenfinches flew down to bask in the sun on the far bank of the pond, just 20 yards away. And soon two goldfinches joined them. It was a good spot, a lovely warm grassy bank with the water nearby to bathe in. With the binoculars I could get right over to them, and Helen took some great pictures. A little further along the bank, near some reeds, she spotted a frog, a tiny little thing, but when it moved you could see it. Even with the binoculars it was brilliantly camouflaged against the background, a fact that was proven when after looking at it, I noticed that there were about 5 more very close by. We must have hung around this little pool for about half an hour, taking pictures and watching the frogs and birds. Tranquil.

At one o’clock it was quite the opposite, as we gathered down by the marina again, to shoot out to sea once more.  We’d booked four of these jaunts, the recommended amount, and after yesterday’s initial confusion about the venue, and slight nervousness, it being our first time, we were bursting with enthusiasm, and twitching to get out there again. Also, yesterday we’d been halfway back down the boat, today we’d vowed we’d try and sit right at the front. And with a small amount of manouvering and subtle sidling over to where it was moored, we succeeded. Yesterday, setting off at 9, it had been a bit breezy, certainly not warm by the time we even left the harbour; today it was bright warm clear sunshine, a great day for it. The front of the boat is the bumpiest bit, but that’s what we actually wanted, and zipping across the tops of waves on a gorgeous day like this was absolutely exhilarating. Again, not far from the shore, a flying fish suddenly took off from beside the boat. And again, for an amazingly long time, it flashed along beside us, then swerved in front and off to the left. And the driver followed it. That was wonderful, the prow of the boat nosing after the fish at top speed, with us two leading the way!

This time we went even further out, down past Africa at least, to find the dolphins again. This time we found loads, a school of about 30 of them. To say the least, this is an entertaining number of dolphins to watch and they were wonderful again, their familiarity and trickery and exuberance. We’d learnt that these were bottlenose dolphins, and I think the natural upturned smile of their faces just reaffirms their friendly nature. 

Something I noticed, that you don’t get from TV, was the sound of them. Or perhaps, like the whales yesterday, their whole presence. As filmed in arenas, jumping and catching fish, or even shown in their own environment, the feel of them in real life was very different. Firstly, they were big, solid, meaty grey animals, wild, and doing their own thing, not turning up for the crowds or cameras. And as for the sound, well, when they dived up and back into the sea, it was much more of a wet slap that you heard. None of the sleek soundless swooping into placid azure water, this was a solid smack into big black Atlantic waves.

(I never could decide on the colour of those waves.  They were dark and deep and dangerous, but there was a shimmery blue sheen on it, like you see on cut coal)

After frolicking with the chaps for quite a while, (though again, the maritime rules apply: 30 minutes max) it was time to go in search of bigger things. But alas, today, the whales were nowhere to be seen, not within our onshore binoculars range anyway, or maybe they were just hanging around elsewhere. As I said, it’s their ocean. So after a couple of crackles from the radio, which we chased, we turned reluctantly back towards home. No whales today, but a huge crowd of effervescent dolphins.

But we were still Kings of the Boat, and loved every moment of the dash back to shore. As we got nearer the land it became warmer, the dark waves behind us, the long island stretching out in welcoming sunlight in front. By the way, as a result of conditions expressed by both the weather and Helen on the previous trip, I was sitting on the starboard side of the boat now, so as to absorb and enjoy any heavy smacks of surf that were coming my way. Only, as I said, today was a beautiful day, and even 10 miles out, it was never rough enough to get very wet. So as we zoomed into shore in the increasing light and heat, it felt great, and just like surfing on land, fantastic. I looked across to Helen as the boat leaned her way and she soaked up another portion of ocean…

To the Comfy Bar, on our way back to the room. How nice is this?  About 4 o’clock now, having been careering like cowboys about the sea for 3 hours, and after a lovely morning in the town and the gardens, we had a couple of gentle, time-is-no-object, holidayish beers again, just sitting in the sun with a sea breeze blowing, enthusing over the sights we’d seen; not a bad day really.

Mentioning the breeze reminds me: the Azorean climate, by the sea at least, was perfect for us. It wasn’t boiling Spanish beaches, too uncomfortable to stay still in for 5 seconds; it wasn’t shivery cool, just too cold to say “this is nice”; it was the perfect inbetween, and a climate I’d bestow upon any holiday destination of ours if I could (Helen thinks I can).  Basking warm, sunglasses heat and light, but almost always with that servile breeze to brush the heat from your arms and breathe across your face.

These moments can last hours, so I don’t know how long we were there, but whenever we left, we went back to our room, to shower and wash the sea salt off, and try an catch a quick episode of Charlie’s Angels, before going next door to eat. Next door was in fact part of the same hotel (and it took me an incredibly long time to work this out. We’re talking days. On our last morning, at breakfast, I noticed the room next door and said “that’s the restaurant we ate in”).   For the record, which is exactly what this is, Helen had monkfish wrapped in bacon, and I had veal with olive sauce. And as there was a dessert trolley nearby – we hadn’t seen one of those since the 1970s, when we were both 6 – we had something from there too. Well, Helen had crème brulee, I had, er, something. That I pointed to. But it was creamy and mushy and like those Snowball things you used to get, in the 70s now I think about it, and all very nice.  

We fancied a little nightcap to round things off, so we paid up and nipped back next door to our hotel to the bar. No-one there, so I went to Reception to ask if someone could serve us a drink. No problem, he’ll be right with you, she said, and sure enough, the waiter from the restaurant appeared moments later to pour our whiskies out, or whatever it was. Even now, I didn’t make the connection. I thought he worked in the restaurant but knew the hotel next door, and helped out if they needed him. Of course he recognised us (having given us the bill next door about 2 minutes ago) but I still didn’t get it.  Anyway, we got our whiskies, or whatever they were, and finished up nicely before going upstairs to our room, perchance to catch an episode of you-know-what before falling aspleep.

So far, we’d done a certain amount of lazy exploration of Ponta Delgado, and a certain amount of frantic exploration of the wide sea, but inland, we knew nothing of Sao Miguel, largest of the Azorean islands. But we knew a man who did.

The green island

Tito tooted his horn at 9.30, outside the hotel. He and his taxi were to spend the day showing us round the eastern half of Sao Miguel, featuring the hot-springs village of Furnas (pron. Furnash) and its nearby green lake. He was a fairly casual tanned fellow, mid-40s? with a drawl like Jose Mourinho and with his shades always on like Al Pacino in Scarface.

Sao Miguel is the largest island of the Azores, but it’s not very big. It measures 65 miles across and only 13 miles north to south and looks like a witch’s finger, beckoning left. Ponta Delgada is on the south coast in the west, and we set off driving east along the road by the sea. Tito told us he’d been up since 7.30 doing another job on the other side of the island, where the local farmers had been delighted that it was about to rain. Bugger. But he reckoned we could avoid it if we stayed south as long as possible, did his normal taxi tour in reverse, in fact. So we left the capital and its outlying suburbs behind and soon came to a small town called Agua de Pau. We pulled up here to have a quick peek in the local church – peaceful, pretty, small – and a 3-minute walk round the tiny town square – also pretty – and up the steps to a much bigger church – closed for refurbishment – and for Tito to go to the loo. 

A huge percentage of all the town buildings in the Azores are white with black frames, a real distinguishing mark of the islands, and the stone is, obviously, volcanic stone. All the islands are volcanic, and are geologically pretty new.  The island of Santa Maria popped its head above water briefly 5 million years ago but didn’t like the look of things and sunk back down again. Then the west and east ends of the witch’s finger started thinking about putting in an appearance, and shortly after that, only 250,000 years ago, it was actually Agua de Pau that joined in. I said that Sao Miguel is only 13 miles tall, actually, in the middle it’s only 8, as there used to be two separate islands, and they joined up there a mere 5000 years ago.  In the world’s time scale, the place is brand new. I really should have gone into all that before.

As we can see from the pictures, Tito’s trick of avoiding the rain was working very well. We drove further along the coast, passing beaches, a huge old pink hotel, and countless picnic spots in shady glades. Turning left from the next big (!) town of Vila Franca do Campo, we started climbing. We quickly rose up the hillside, surrounded by green hedges, on a winding road. Turning a corner, there was a parking place looking out to sea, but that wasn’t the reason we’d stopped. Behind us was a fabulous chapel atop a spectacular flight of stairs. The actual building at the top was tiny, very quiet inside, almost totally bare, and looked out on a beautiful view.  Just next to the door outside was a small shrine, a statue of Mary in a lovely green ferny setting. Lovely place.

The island offshore, Ilheu da Vila, is another little volcanic pop-up, very popular with swimmers because the water inside the crater is especially warm.

Off we went once more, along leafy lanes and past sunlit copses.  Before we arrived, the impression had been very much one of a thoroughly verdant island, and this was certainly proving true. It was so green, and beautiful. However, several times, Tito told us that in a couple of weeks time, all these hedgerows and fields would be bursting with flowers.  Personally, I didn’t mind in the slightest that we weren’t seeing the place as he painted it, it looked great to me, and, well, green. 

Talking of which, we were soon bowling along the shore of Lake Furnas, the green lake.  There are five major volcanic lakes on the island, and in the course of two trips, we were to see them all. We turned right half way along, and started swooping up narrow lanes, to another viewpoint. This was our first real glimpse of mainland Azorean country, and was breathtaking. The view was all around us. An enormous crater, the far rim miles away but seemingly close up.  And seemingly miles below us, the town of Furnas, with what appeared to be a huge orange tiddlywink in the middle.  This was actually a pool, made that colour by the sulphur in the ground, it looked amazing, an amber sun surrounded by trees. If you turned round there were more rolling fields as far as the eye could see.  Well, not quite true, because as far as the eye could see was the sea in the distance.  The horizon was where we were scooting around with the dolphins yesterday.

We could see part of the green lake from up here too, cows grazing on hillsides, white-wrapped hay bales stacked in the corners of fields, well, perhaps a few more pictures will say it better. But Helen said this was the most beautiful view she’d ever seen, which also says it.

From this incredible high, in more ways than one, we drove down the hill to the town itself, and to one of the big attractions on the island: the thermal springs. In a fairly spacious area of the town there were geysers, volcanic pools of bubbling boiling water, sending clouds of steam high into the air. It was a hot day by now anyway, but you could still feel the heat coming off these natural kettles. And the smell was awful. The steam clouds were sulphur vapour, and pretty acrid it was too, metallic and eggy. You could understand why it was a spacious area now, there weren’t too many houses round here. From not far away, the steam rising through the trees made the place look like a prehistoric swamp.

From here, we moved on to the lake itself, a couple of miles up and out of town.  The ‘up’ bit confused me, the town was lower than the lake? Here was another Must See of the Azores, the traditional cooking of the local stew in the volcanic heat. By the side of the lake were lots of holes in the ground, circles about a two feet wide and three deep.  Cooking pits, into which, at 7 in the morning, were lowered huge pans (Tito’s word) filled with meat and vegetables. Then earth is piled up on top of the lid of the pit, and off people go to work.  After 5½ hours of slow stewing, the pans are lifted out and transported in triumph down to the cafes of the town, and eaten for lunch. It was very ceremonial. At 12.30 a small excited group of tourists had gathered to watch the results. Tito had identified the white van belonging to the restaurant we were going to go to, and the two men from there swept off the earth mound and lifted the lid.  Then they inserted two hooks into the sides of the pan and drew it out, and lifted it onto the van. Various other restaurants had their vans there too, and in fact it’s a complete free for all, these pits don’t belong to anybody.  Anybody can do this, just turn up with your prepared stew in the morning, pick a hole in the ground, cover, and leave to simmer at Earth Mark 6 for 5 hours, then hoick it out of the oven and enjoy.

For us to do this, we had to leap into Tito’s taxi and follow our lunch down the hill.  Soon after he picked us up, he’d asked if we wanted to do the stew thing, we said yes, so he’d got on his mobile and booked a table. He seemed to know everyone on the island. The fruit stall man at the lake – I bought some bananas, chatty Tito had recommended them, local bananas are stumpier and sweeter than ours – certainly knew him.

In town, he showed us to a table upstairs in a large, bright, open room.  He declined our offer to join us, and we sat down. At all meals in the Azores, they start you off with a nibble of salty wet cheese with fearsome pepper sauce on the side, and some bread. This is obviously a ploy, and a good one, to get people thirsty, but I quite liked it. We ordered 9 drinks each (only joking) and soon the star of the day arrived. All on one big plate, it was, as promised, just a hell of a lot of meat and vegetables, the big Azorean speciality known as cozido, here in Furnas called cozido a caldeiras. Let’s see now; several chunks and joints of pork, some chicken, some dark beef, some black blood sausage, some red sausage, potatoes, carrots, a huge green thing, some sort of cabbage, rice, and so on. The meat, after being in a volcanic pit for 5 hours, was obviously terrific, the veg a bit limp; the black pudding sausage was brilliant, the best bit.  All in all a great experience, seeing the thing from pit to plate.

After this extremely hearty lunch, a bit of gentle walking it off seemed to be in order. But first we had to wake Tito up. He was slumped in his car, mouth agape and absolutely out for the count (well he’d been on the road for as long as the stew had been in the ground); we weren’t sure how best to rouse him without being rude. I think I leant gently on the bonnet, though now I think about it, leaning in the open window and pressing the horn would have been much funnier.

He drove us round the corner to the botanical gardens, where the orange pool was, we got out, he parked and presumably went back to sleep. These gardens felt different from the ones we’d visited in Ponta Delgada, they were more sophisticated, more developed, with a greater variety of flora. As we entered the gardens, the famous pool lay before us, up a flight of stairs, so we decided to have a wander and finish up there.  We went left and drifted down the path by the stream. It was a wonderful, peaceful, really accomplished gardens, or so it felt to me as an ignorant admirer. Off the main path there was a frankly idyllic little patch, a confluence of three small sulphur-laden streams, with tiny banks and hillocks in between, with a couple of benches to sit and enjoy the mini-scene.  I absolutely adore tiny concentrated spots like this, no idea why, something about miniaturism and nature, something hobbit-like about it.

Back on the main human-sized path, there was another confluence on our left, of a normal water stream and another sulphur stream, where they merged after a bridge.  And it was interesting to notice that the large fish in this section were all immersing themselves in the orange water, almost reluctantly being swept downstream into the clearer flow.

We continued on round, Helen catching pictures of wagtails on lawns, a willowy pond, and some jungle-like foliage as we came round to the back of the big spa building in the centre of the gardens, reminiscent of our foray in the Malaysian rain forest. And in front of the big house, the central pool, the (apparently life-extending) shallow turmeric-coloured bath we’d seen from way above, which people come from all over to sit and swim in. (In another flashback to another trip of ours, the main house reminded me of the town hall in Sintra outside Lisbon.  The same kind of architecture?). These gardens were sublime, beautifully planned with points of interest all along the way, a relaxed visual treat after our lunch.

Back to the car, and we set off out of Furnas, and began climbing, for a long time. Some roads were incredibly steep, we were obviously aiming for something celestial. We came out at another panoramic parking spot, on the opposite side of the crater. From here, we could look across and down at the viewpoint we’d stopped at earlier, and could see all the green lake, the pan pits beside it; a huge vista from a point somewhere near the clouds. Then onwards and back westwards to a tea plantation, a very old establishment where we wandered through the factory looking at the ancient machinery. It may be ancient, but it had been in use that morning, as a couple of girls were just finishing cleaning the top of a thresher, or something, and through another door some more women were pulling tea leaves, this morning’s crop, off their stalks and packing them up. In the final room, by the souvenir counter, Helen and I had a taste of each of the factory’s different brews – normal, strong, and black – I offered a cup of tea to Tito (careful – Ed.), we bought a few samples for friends at home, and then off on the road again. 

Though several miles away from home, this was drawing towards the end of the day’s tour. There was another brief stop at a viewpoint, this time a position overlooking the north coast of the island, stretching away to the west end of the crooked finger, the nail end. And a bit further on, we parked above Ribeira Grande, the ‘second city’ of Sao Miguel, which we would visit on our next tour. At this point, Tito recommended The White Horse as somewhere to have lunch on our next tour.  And then we drifted home, across the narrow centre of the island, this is where it’s only about 8 miles deep.  As we were dropped off at the hotel, I pressed what I hope was an acceptable tip into Tito’s hand, which he accepted with complete nonchalance. He’d been great all day, really informative but never pressing, he was way too cool a guy for that (or sleepy), his English was good, he knew everywhere and everyone. We had another taxi day tour booked in three days time; I hoped my tip hadn’t offended him, and that he’d take the job on for that day too. 

That evening, after dining by the marina on the first night, and dining next door to the hotel last night, I believe we went one step further, or rather nearer, and just had a picnic in our room. Salads, muesli, carrots etc, not a bit of it; we picked up local cheese, we had our Furnas bananas and some local sweet bread which the stall owner had sweet-talked me into buying, crisps, chocolate biscuits and wine. And Charlie’s Angels on CBFC (Cliched But Funny Channel). Splendid fun, we do know how to take our feet off pedals. And rightly so, for tomorrow we fly out to sea again on our 3rd whale-watching mission. 

Out to sea again

So we got down to the marina for the foregathering time, much more casual about things now, and signed in, but suddenly the girl said “Bad news I’m afraid.  Tomorrow’s trip has been cancelled”. That was to have been our final jaunt but owing to impending weather conditions, the boatmen had decided that things were going to be too rough. If that’s what the experts said then so be it, but it was disappointing. Could they call us, if the weather changed its mind and so did the drivers? Of course, said the girl, and promised to do so, or refund that one trip if it failed to happen. All friendly and understandable stuff. We certainly felt not in the least let down. It’s the Atlantic Ocean we’re talking about, and 10 miles out we’d seen that things could get choppy to say the least: if the experienced guys said it was going to be rough, that was good enough for us.

(Which has reminded me of a moment I had with the Portuguese – no, Spanish – guide on the first trip.  He was sitting next to me as the chap at the back was directing us – “9 o’clock, he’s gonna blow any second now” etc – and I asked him how the chap knew when the whale was going to surface.  How did he do that?  Could he see under water? The guide was very polite.  “No” he said, “but he is, er, 18 years doing this, you know?”.  Oh, OK, note to self, Dan, stop asking stupid questions.)

But the news about tomorrow did mean that this was suddenly to be our last ocean venture. And despite the fact that we’d seen those two Pin Whales first time out, we both yearned for another sighting, possibly of the top attraction, the sperm whale. As in Shetland, when we’d seen an otter two minutes after leaving the harbour and agreed that that constituted a totally successful visit, we both set out on this final trip very satisfied with what we’d already been treated to by nature. Perhaps this time there was slightly more of an element of finger-crossing, but it is nature after all, and you get what you’re given.

It was rougher on the sea this time, already we could see that if things got much worse, as predicted, no wonder they’d cancelled tomorrow’s trip. With higher waves and deeper troughs, the bucking bronco now felt like a bike with square wheels. Our sidling to the front trick hadn’t worked this time, and we’d had our go anyway, so we were in the middle again, but the boat wasn’t full so we could all swap about and have a row each.

We set off straight out to sea this time, towards Antarctica, and soon encountered the friendly Bottlenoses. They really did seem plentiful, as well as playful, in these waters, and it was easy to hang out with them while they decided what to do with us. They were and are too curious not to do anything, and soon started fooling around and playing Look At Me! Amazing creatures, you can feel their intelligence, and they slipped all around us, smiling as they did so.

We turned east once more, back along the island, towards areas we’d visited before, obviously the prime sites for sights. After a while shoving across today’s waves, the radio crackled, and we tensed up. Whales? No, dolphins again.  I was telling myself that dolphins is good, dolphins is fine, we’ve been lucky enough in what we’ve seen. Which was true, but this particular find was something brand new. So far we’d seen Bottlenoses; this was a school of Risso’s Dolphins, and it had been explained to us back at the marina why they were particularly fascinating. Basically, the kids are black, the adults are white, we were told, and it’s a gradual transformation during their lives. They’re known by the locals as Michael Jacksons.

But actually the way they transform is not what you expect. Not a slow lightening of the skin colour at all, it changes in streaks and blotches, so that a teenage Risso’s looks tribal (which a teenage Risso’s would probably want to do anyway).

The Risso’s were less interested in us than the Bottlenoses, I suppose that’s why we’ve all heard of one and not the other, but it was brilliant to see this different species of dolphin, another treat.

After spending time with the Michael Jacksons, there was another bark from the radio, and we started up again. Whales definitely reported this time, and not far away, back along the island towards Rhino Rock. We’d been out for a while now, and this was more travelling than would normally happen; after two sightings on our first day we’d turned for home. I got a sense that the drivers were aware of the following day’s weather and cancellation (their decision after all) and that today should really be as successful as possible. So it was with a soupcon of anxious hope that we approached a third site and scanned the waves. And we were rewarded by a whale, a new kind for us, a Pilot Whale, its black fin tall in the water. OK, this was a mere glimpse, but it was another coup really, another major sighting. 

Hard to express our feelings as the radio started up again. We’d done a lot of time on the water on this trip now, and our guides would be more than justified if they’d turned tail for home at this point. But they responded, and our young driver, a lad of 17 or so (possibly learning the ropes under the eye of his father?) steered us further out to sea once more. 

There’d been a crackle, and today had been so up and down, we didn’t know what to think. I felt the guys were being generous with their time, affording us as much chance as possible to see as much as possible; accordingly, I felt that as they were being so cool about it, we could call it a day and I’d be more than happy with what we’d been treated to in our three visits; I also could not suppress the selfish hope that, in this last attempt, we just might see The Big One.

We tried to zoom and stumbled over the huge dark waves, and up ahead were a small group of boats like ours. And as we arrived, there it was, in full glory, a sperm whale. Trundling happily through the water, not dipping under and over, just happily trundling. And for about five minutes, we pootled alongside him, our engine on pianissimo, just enough to propel us at his speed.  He was grey and enormous, and our breaths were held, admiring this giant of nature for as long as we could. And then he did the dive. This is The Big Moment we all came here for, when one of the whales, of whatever kind, decides it’s had enough of swimming for fun and is hungry. At that moment they dip down, and their huge tail comes out of the water, the classic picture of whales, and down they go to feed. The angle of the dive indicates how long they’re diving for, the steeper the tail, the longer they’ll be under. There was an unstoppable cheer from our boat as our whale turned tail, and the trip was complete.

Wow, what a moment! We’d seen it! There was real feeling of celebration. “Well, we won’t be seeing him for another 45 minutes”, said one of the guides, but of course we knew that because we’d seen him and we’d seen him dive and we’d seen the angle of his tail and, o wow! With Helen and I in a daze, the boat turned back towards the shore and we headed for home. The nearer we got to the shore, the brighter it became. Suddenly, Helen and I realised that what had started out as a slightly forlorn trip in stormy weather had turned into an absolute triumph. Having spent the three hours (surely it was longer than that?!) fairly casually but with very British crossed fingers, that one outing had actually encompassed two species of dolphins and two completely different sorts of whales, including The Big One. You could do thirty of these trips and not see all that. Our luck was incredible.

There is no photo of the sperm whale dive and tail, because we’d both decided that the occasion was everything. If a moment as special and fleeting as this was to occur, no way was Helen going to miss out by scrabbling around with her camera. If we’d been by the whale for a lot longer, maybe she’d have tried a couple of shots, but today she did absolutely the right thing and just savoured the special moment, and her cheer was the loudest of all.

And as if responding to a very successful morning, as we came past the clouds into warm sunlight, the lad at the wheel couldn’t resist slamming his foot down and taking us faster than we’d ever been, a hurray woohoo! into the harbour.

This had been breathtaking, the whole trip, in hindsight, and as this was our final voyage, which it did prove to be, it really could not have been better. We de-donned our life jackets and waterproofs and headed back to the hotel, and were as usual diverted by the Comfy Bar. We needed some time and Comfy space to re-live what had just happened. Given the circumstances: the next trip cancelled, previously we’d seen one kind of dolphin and whale and weren’t complaining; now we’d seen two kinds of dolphins and three kinds of whales, it was mind-boggling.  So lucky.

Back to the hotel, shower the sea out of your hair, and off on a walk round Ponta Delgada. We’d explored the sea, and the right-hand side of the island, but not much of the capital. Just down the road from the hotel was a big square with the main church in it, and nearby, the town hall. On our very first evening we’d spotted this square from the seafront, and a perfectly-located café in the shade of the church. So we went there now, and though it did do touches of Portuguese food, grilled sardines, for example, we both had cheeseburgers. No hiding from it, and they were really nice actually, not mass-produced. And there was a wedding in the church to watch, as there had been one afternoon in Barcelona, with people thronging excitedly round the porch. What were also noticeable from the café were the lookout rooms, tiny attics built into the rooves of the houses on the square. They were nothing to do with defence, however. The houses used to belong to the orange traders, the merchants who would position a slave in the attic, and the slave would watch for the approach of the orange schooners.  Whereupon the word would go back to the plantation quick, to pick the freshest and fastest crop to be conveyed out to the waiting boats.

Past the town hall, we went west and then back to the seafront to see the Cais de Sardinha, the dock where they used to land huge catches of fish. Then back into the town to a small chapel, ornate and peaceful in the hot afternoon sun. Outside there was a bench where the famous local poet Anthero de Quental shot himself in 1891. 118 years later, I approached it nervously, looking for traces of blood.

Soon we came round to the Royal palace, but most of this was behind a high wall. Well, high would imply a forbidding barricade with majestic towers looming over it; in Azorean scale it was just a wall, with a building only slightly more forbidding than a Post Office behind. The street by the wall was also next to a lovely square we’d discovered earlier, and a nice-looking restaurant in it. A brief stop there for refreshment and to look at the menu, possibly to plan our farewell meal here. We’d decided that an up-slap meal on the final evening of the holiday would be nice.

But today we didn’t get much further. We walked alongside The Wall, did a left following our street map, and then it started to rain. Just light drizzly stuff, but enough to divert us into another street bar, this one much less salubrious and everyday. We sat outside while the weather decided which way it was going to go. A well-tanned older chap with glasses sat on a nearby table, enjoying the end of his long lunch. By the sound of things, several more long lunches were still going on inside too. Then the rain really started up. In no time it was almost sheeting, splashing from the canopy to the street feet away from us.  Just in time I noticed that we’d placed our bags in the conduit that was now a raging water channel. Suddenly, a group of men burst from the doorway, the party who’d been having a party.  All around 60, and very jovial, they’d had a great time. “Hello!” they called, seeing us sitting there, “Hello, hello!”  Then, as they moved off down the street “Goodbye!  Hurray, goodbye!” with beaming faces.

Soon the colonel-type at the next table finished his coffee delicately and got up too. He raised his hat to us. “I hope you have a pleasant day” he said, or something equally polite and charming. It really is the friendliest place, and I don’t just mean the café. Everyone we’d encountered had been extremely helpful and concerned and interested. There’s virtually no crime in the Azores, and that’s wonderful.

He had picked his moment to leave, weather-wise, and we followed him soon after. But we’d been duped. The calm had lured us into the open, fortunately only 5 minutes from our hotel – no point continuing our tour of the town today – but now came the real downpour. We ran down the deserted streets and got absolutely soaked. But it was impossible not to laugh at this, as the rain reached every inch of our clothing and all the crannies in between. We might as well have stood under a waterfall.

And that was about that for the day.  I think we settled in and dried out and searched for Charlie’s Angels again (g-chikachikachika…) and wondered what to make of tomorrow, now that it was definitely looking as if our final trip would be cancelled. There was a heavy storm in the night which confirmed this. We had the wide windows half open, and were both suddenly woken in the night when the curtains blew violently into the room. We stayed up a little and listened to the tropical storm over the island; it was pretty spectacular. I should think even the whales were hiding.


So now we had an empty day. Helen’s organisation of this holiday had spread the whale watching and sightseeing out nicely, but the weather had left us with a gap. But no matter at all, it’s still a holiday after all!

We decided to continue our tour of the town, picking up roughly where we’d been stranded by the rainstorm. Next stop was a large Franciscan convent, with a memorial garden next to it, dedicated to the poet Anthero de Quental, the ultimately sad soul who’d ended it all down in the town. Nearby was a museum we’d been looking forward to, but unfortunately this was in a period of renovation so we couldn’t go in. By this time we were virtually back at our hotel, having swung west then north then east of the central square where the church was. But as this was all so close, we nipped back into the centre, to the Café Mascote, which was where our walk was supposed have begun anyway, yesterday. 

Like the town’s arched gates a little further along, the café sits on what used to be the waterfront, and there are arches inside the café. The dock today is about 30 yards away, across the road, but I enjoy the idea of reclaimed land as you can easily imagine what it used to be like. Like in Sydney, where the old outline of the 18th Century shore is traced along the whitewashed harbour wall by the Opera House.

One thing about Ponta Delgada that I haven’t mentioned is the pavements. All over the town, the walkways are decorated with different mosaics in each street. Sometimes abstract designs, sometimes just pretty patterns, all in the black and white of the town; sometimes actual pictures of things under your feet.

It was perhaps midday by now, a scorcher by the way, despite last night’s turmoil.  You could still see that the horizon was pretty uninviting, even if we were bathed in sunshine. We drifted along towards the marina from where we would have been setting out to sea, and sat in a nice-looking café outdoors, overlooking the harbour wall. I had the Silly Idea of having ice-cream, which we did. But inside, whilst ordering this, I saw a menu on a wall and had a Very Silly Idea: cocktails.  This is not our usual style at all, but we went along with it and soon two extravagant-looking Long Island Iced Teas arrived. Actually these were pretty cool, and we sipped them in the sun with naughty relish. As if to highlight our depravity, a group of swimmers started desporting themselves in the shallow pond by the sea wall. Practicing various different strokes and generally being all fit and young and keen, I envied them not in the slightest. 

Tempering our level of Silliness, we had just one of these famous cocktails, then went off to Roberto’s for lunch. Here, I think we had a mixture of meals we’d had before: Helen had an escalope and I had a plate of blood sausage and pineapple. Apparently on other islands of the Azores, they eat the sausage served with yams; only on Sao Miguel does it come with pineapple.

Roberto’s is next to the town gates. These are the three black and white (as everything is) arches that used to be the grand feature of the capital. Now in the middle of a square, and a good way from the seafront, in the early orange-and-whaling days when the place was a thriving harbour, they formed part of the front, which carried along to the arches in the (now) Café Mascote and several other waterside buildings.

Roberto’s is also next to one of the Comfy Bars, our original one in fact, so after lunch we popped across the road to sip and sit in the sun. By now we’d accumulated various postcards, and we spent a while here writing them. Lovely.  Gorgeous sipping-and-sitting-on-holiday weather. What I said about the climate earlier, sitting here in the warm (not too hot) sun and the breeze (not too cold); the phrase I think I’m looking for is that it’s British summer on a good day.  That’s about it.

Then a camel went past. Blimey, we weren’t ready for that. Writing postcards, basking and sipping etc, and a bloke and a camel comes loping by along the sea wall. Obviously they were loping towards a more touristy area, or one with more kids around, or maybe even one with adults around who’d had several Long Island Iced Teas, the pair strolled casually along the front. No, loped is the word.

Well blimey. I love surprises like that, and so did Helen. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her do such a brilliant “What the-?”. 

This was a lovely hour or so, blimey we’re good at holidays, and after a while we went separate ways, because I’d regressed. Occasionally, when sitting in these bars, we’d noticed a little train choochooing its way along the road. One of those miniature, embarrassing touristy things that only embarrassing tourists go on, and I fancied a go. So I skipped along to the “bus depot” with my map and T-shirt of the Azores, bought an ice lolly and a ticket and some teeny-boppers and got on the train. Helen sighed and went back to the hotel.

The train choochood me round the outskirts of the town.  I wanted to do that route just to encircle the bits we’d seen when walking around, to encompass the capital having explored within it. It was a bit boring. The best bit was when the train slowed to tiny speed to get its three carriages over a speed bump. woo. hoo.  I got excited towards the end as I could see that the tour was going to take us right past our hotel, and that there were buzzers on the doors to let the driver know if anyone wanted off at any point.

It’d be great, Helen having just settled in, not expecting her intrepid explorer to return for a while yet, to stride in, having got the train to drop me at the door. Great. But the buzzer didn’t work. Nor did the next one, or any of the nearby oh-this-would-be-so-cool buzzers in the carriage. Bugger. So approaching my stop, having started out nonchalantly pressing one button then relaxing back in my seat, nodding to fellow passengers, the teeny-boppers obviously agreeing with me, I became increasingly less nonchalant, trying the buttons on other nearby doors, then diving across people to desperately try to punch a finger onto their buzzers. To no avail. None of them worked, it was all for show, the show being each confident boyfriend, well-meaning father or dumbo wearing teeny-boppers who tried to get off the train anywhere other than where the driver was going to let him. I bet he had a mirror, or a camera in each carriage.

So of course I slunk back into my seat, the teeny-boppers still enthusiastically agreeing with every move I made, and had to sit there arms folded while we trundled all the way back past the hotel, down the street then along the front to the ‘bus depot’. Bugger.

Quite a nice trip really, gentle, I was certainly glad I’d done it, I do like little tours like that. I tried to throw the teeny-boppers in a bin but the cola on my hands made them stick so I cried my way back to the hotel.

Where Helen was being a grown-up. It was to turn into another stormy night, and we did what had become the usual plan in the room, and stayed put.  I think we must have had some biscuits and crisps and squashy bananas left, all healthy stuff anyway… 

The witch’s nail

Monday morning, and we waited downstairs for a taxi to take us to the other end of the island. The west end, the nail end of the witch’s finger, which AQA tells me is the distal interphalangeal joint. Great. And I obviously hadn’t offended Tito with my tip the other day as it was he again, hunched in the front seat, presumably having seen in the dawn with some fishermen in a remote village somewhere.

Today there was no doubt that we weren’t going to be as fortunate with the weather, and as we climbed out of the capital, going northwards and upwards, we drove up into dense fog. We stopped at our first viewpoint, pretty good actually, and we could see a long long way back east across the island. We could see, for instance, the final viewpoint from the other day, after the tea plantation, overlooking Ribeira Grande about 10 miles away, and much further into the distance. 

We climbed a little further and turned into a steep lane on the left. This took us up to two remote lakes, one surrounded by a hedge of flowers. In sunshine this would have been idyllic, a short bank dividing the two, a quaint little road round the outside; but it was getting a bit cold up here now. I can’t now find these two little lakes on the map, but no surprise there, the middle of the island at this end is teeming with them, the word Lagoa appearing everywhere.

Back to the main road and onwards to one of the main attractions of the day, and of Sao Miguel: the Sete Cidades lakes. Tito pulled up at a vantage point high in the hills, directly overlooking these two giant differently-coloured stretches of water, set in a giant volcanic caldera.  But alas, we were way above the fog line now, and we could see but a few feet of forest down the steep slope.  The famous sight was invisible.  We could only just make out the dilapidated hotel across the road, which used to be The place to stay around here, and where Tito had a meal costing 40 Euros over 20 years ago. That was very posh then. Unfortunately the hotel’s brilliant location out here had also been its undoing, and now it stood above us in the mist, run down (you could almost hear crows cawing) and forlorn and forgotten.

Trying to keep one step ahead of the dogged busload of German tourists just behind us we set off down to a lower level, under the fog bank, and there, hurray, we could see clearly. One lake is blue, the other green. There’s a thin road between the two, with the small village of Sete Cidades on the far side. And, Tito pointed out, just past the village, just past the blue lake, there’s a tunnel which stretches underground all the way from there to the sea on the north coast. Blimey. “I walked through it once” he said casually. Blimey!

We trundled off down the mountainside, stopping once with the Germans to watch a flock of sheep go the other way, up the hill. Incidentally, since arriving in the Azores, it’d been very noticeable in the tourist shops that a big icon of the place was cows.  Everywhere there were little plastic cows, wooden cows, lowing cows, grazing cows; they were all Friesians so no variety there, and I wondered what the story was. I suppose I’d half imagined some legendary beast that had saved the Azorean people in the Battle of Furnas in 1773, or some spectral bovine that appeared in ghostly form at the windows of lonely cottages in winter, wooooooh…  (or moooooooh…).  Eager to hear the spooky truth, the fearful tale, I asked Tito why they were such a big souvenir item.  He shrugged and drawled “There are a lot of cows”.

Having descended past the mist and down to the lakes, we pulled up in the village, for Helen and I to have a little wander, for Tito to drawl at the locals. There was yet another picturesque black and white chapel, down a tree-lined avenue, then we drifted down to the lakeside itself. It was now quite warm, the day was heating nicely, and it seemed a lovely spot. Tito joined us, and we walked to the ancient boathouse inshore, behind which was the tunnel. It was quite easy to climb down to this, and peer into the man-height tube stretching away into the darkness. And yes, you could clearly see the other end. Here we were standing near the shore of an inland lake in a crater, and we could see right the way through the mountain to the sea, amazing. Tito said that he and some friends had done the trip one night many years ago, no doubt in the company of plenty of whisky or probably Passion Fruit Liqueur (the Azorean national drink, and a pretty poncy one if you ask me) to keep the spirits up and dispel thoughts of the dreaded Cow of Death, woooooooh…)

Given a childhood exploring creepy crags and dark forests, I thought this tunnel was great, and was half tempted to run in and meet the other two at the other end by the sea, but fortunately age and maturity and Christ You’ve Got To be Joking held me back. Instead, jumping in the car again, Tito drove us up and over the crater and round to another lake nearby. This was called Lake Santiago, where the trees came right down to the water’s edge. Another healthy green lake, and another spot where you could see back across the island to the sea in the south.  We got there just in time to do this, as the fog descended again, seeping down from the nearby hills like a predator.

Time for lunch.  There was another viewpoint stopoff, on the north coast, then we drove along it to the restaurant that Tito had recommended to us on Friday, in case he wasn’t able to drive us today. Turning right, away from the sea, and up a lane, we came to The White Horse, a whitewashed local establishment just setting up for its midday service. As this was a pretty small village with nowhere else to eat, Tito joined us this time, and ordered the local plate of meat joints and sausages, and Helen did the same. I was delighted to see Feijoada on the menu, a dish I’d known to be the Brazilian national dish therefore Portuguese in origin, but had never tried. Here they called it Feijoa, and both versions mean Beans.  Cooked with smoked sausages and garlic and a spot of chilli, I felt that, having tried in vain to find it in London (there’s a first), now was the moment. The Brazilian recipes I’d seen all called for black beans; here they were red, but not kidney beans, much softer. And mixed in were discs of sweet spicy chorizo, a very hearty stew. Portuguese cassoulet really. Washed down with a small carafe of local red wine, this is the sort of lunch I really like nowadays: big. And sumptuous and tasty.  Though of course nowadays it does tend to put me to sleep whilst asking for the bill. We wanted to treat Tito to his lunch; though it was his job, it seemed awfully good of him to spend two whole days taking us on a private tour of his island. He didn’t join us on the wine, obviously, as he was driving, and it transpired that Tito was Titotal anyway.

Hitting the road again, we drove along the coast road towards Ribeira Grande, the second city of Sao Miguel. In what was now blazing heat, this was a lovely town, and reminded me of a sleepy Mexican pueblo in a Western. Hot, dusty, lazy. There was a brown river in the centre, gushing down to the sea from the green hills inland. A quiet square with a bandstand by a flight of steps up to a church. People were sitting outside a bar, and time seemed to stop here. Pretty, and atmospheric, and slow.

Now we drove into the centre of the island.  Having left the witch’s nail far behind, we were past the thinnest point of Sao Miguel, the 8-mile stretch where the two volcanoes once joined up.  The whole place is pretty up-and-down, from high scenic mountains down to the lakes buried in the craters, but there was more that was hidden. On the roads, we often drove across bridges over apparently dry streams. There was never any water under the bridges. I started to notice this, and tried to see what it was we were crossing. And it looked as if we were often going over narrow but extremely deep ravines. You’d look down and there was no bottom, just green foliage disappearing into a great cleft. Maybe next to the road, there’d be a steep bank, tall trees on a slope above us, and then underneath our wheels would be these deep green gorges. Little country lanes with huge drops in the forest either side if you looked too closely, it was like scenery by the Brothers Grimm, light above but dark and spooky below.

Out on more open roads, still surrounded by greenery, Tito would point out that in a couple of weeks time, all this would be beautiful, flowers everywhere…

As we were heading inland again, we started climbing once more. Half way up a winding road through the woods, we pulled over and got out. From here, it was a short walk through the trees to our next stop: a cascade in the forest. Again, we were reminded of our day in the Malaysian jungle; I don’t suppose we’ll ever go into a forest again without thinking of that, in fact. The waterfall had come from a long way above, hidden in the trees, and landed in a pool on a bridge. You could go up and stand next to the pool, and some bathers nearby were spending the day there.

Back to the car – blimey, there were so many stops on these trips, I think Tito gave us a pretty good showing of the island – and on to the final big lake, Lagoa do Fogo, Fire Lake. Again, there was a spot to pull over and look down on the huge stretch sitting in its caldera. Two banks of trees stretched out into the water like a crab claw, well, here’s the photo.

And that was almost it, just one more little place to see, and we’d covered the island pretty thoroughly. After twisting around some high roads in the mountain mist, we headed back down across the island towards Ponta Delgada. We stopped for a short time at the pineapple plantation outside the town, seeing the fruit in its various stages of growth, in hothouses that took your breath away when you opened the door. We tasted some pineapple liqueur in the shop, which I preferred to the Passion Fruit national spirit.

Tito dropped us back at the hotel again; having bought his lunch I pressed a bit less than Friday’s tip into his hand, to the same response, he couldn’t care less, which was his way of being polite about it.

And blimey, that’s pretty much it for our stay in the Azores. Our upslap meal never did happen, not while we were there anyway – we went to The Beautiful South at the end of the week.  Our last evening was spent as we’d started really, sitting contentedly in a Comfy Bar in the evening sun. We’d got hold of some Terras de Lava to take home with us, and a few souvenirs of course, but no cows.

The raison d’etre of the holiday had been hugely successful. In three trips zooming out into the Atlantic, we’d seen whales three times and dolphins four times.  And in those sightings, we’d seen two species of dolphin (Bottlenose and Risso’s / Michael Jacksons) and three species of whale (Pin, Pilot and Sperm), and that all seems a pretty fantastic haul to me!

It’d had been similar to Shetland in some ways; it was a single island of many, about the same size, and wildlife had been the big feature. The colours here were different though. Deep blue skies, the black-blue ocean, orange rivers, and spectacular flowers of all colours bursting out in the gardens. But if the Azores are remembered in a colour, it’s green. The whole of the countryside is a mosaic of different shades, light, fertile fields and bright glowing hillsides, darker trees and limey forests, leafy ferns and hedgerows, absinthe lakes; you’re surrounded by variations of this fresh colour. 

Time to return to our own pleasant land.

June 2009.

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