Monday, June 15, 2015

The Azores' Awesome São Miguel

EUROPE'S EMERALD ISLAND


  Ponta Delgada seen from our ship.  
I'll bet you never considered a special trip to the Azores.  It just happens when it’s on your cruise itinerary.  For myself and a travel mate, it was a delightful accident.  Looking for green adventures and enticing, affordable gourmet dining?  I had one glorious day on São Miguel, the largest of the Azorean islands.  Thanks to Trip Advisor, a friend and I found top recommendation for azoreantours.com, a small business run by local Gary Travassos.  His comfortable Mercedes van had plenty of room for seven passengers.  Gary is very professional, organized, well informed and with a good sense of humor.* His van was parked as planned only a five minute walk from our ship.
  No glamour or exciting shopping, but excellent wines, cheeses and seafood.  Local architecture is basic white with windows trimmed in black stone or paint. The Azores is nine remote volcanic islands largely ignored until the 19th century.  Located in the Atlantic west of Portugal, the islands and culture are Portuguese with a strategic port location and rich land that is chiefly agricultural. Total population for all the islands is about 250,000.  No crowds here! Since this was not a place know for shopping or walking (it’s literally untouched by tourism) a private tour seemed a good option.  São Paolo was our first stop after six days at sea from Fort Lauderdale on the Celebrity Equinox.


Roadside view of the Seven Cities lakes
Hiking opportunities are limitless, with perfect weather, vistas and countless hiking trails. Thick green washes across the land leading to views of pristine landscape punctuated with hills, mountains, lakes, craters and more.  Every mile there was a new reason for a moment of awe.  We found areas reminiscent of Ireland (deep greens and stone fences), Hawaiian primeval forests (ferns, exotic flowers and hot springs), Caribbean palm trees, majestic stone cliffs and fresh breezes. The forest and mountain paths were smoothly worn. Then dip under a waterfall and soak in a hot pool.  When done, gather your friends for a gourmet meal at budget prices.

Front window view as we leave Ponta Delgada
The local grocery has excellent 
wines at hard-to-believe low prices














  

Artisan wines and cheeses are readily available (we paid $6.00 for an excellent bottle of Port wine and  about $8 for 1/2 lb, 200 grams, of Sao Jorge, a famous local cheese. A generous fresh seafood dinner will cost about same as a good lunch in the USA.  The culture, cuisine and dialect of each island is distinct enough so that a return trip brings new surprises and variety.  São Miguel is a good place to start.
Our five-hour tour began from where the ship docked, in the main city of Ponta Degada.  Never did we feel like guide Gary was giving a lecture. He explained the geography and abbreviated history, plus local information. We were able to exit our Mercedes van at every stop so we could wander and take photos.  São Paolo’s climate is perfect for hiking and outdoor activities.  There are no winter freezes or sweltering summer days although the winds can be a bit nippy. Temperatures are such that there no air conditioning is needed and the heating method is mostly by fireplace.  




Working donkeys are largely phased out but we were lucky to catch this one along the way.

 Hiking opportunities are limitless, with perfect weather, vistas and countless hiking trails. Thick green washes across the land leading to views of pristine landscape punctuated with hills, mountains, lakes, craters and more.  Every mile there was a new reason for a moment of awe.  We found areas reminiscent of Ireland (deep greens and stone fences), Hawaiian primeval forests (ferns, exotic flowers and hot springs), Caribbean palm trees, majestic stone cliffs and fresh breezes. The forest and mountain paths were smoothly worn. Then dip under a waterfall and soak in a hot pool.  When done, gather your friends for a gourmet meal at budget prices.

Our first stop - the awesome cliff view from 
Vigia da Baleia, the whale lookout

Our five-hour tour began from where the ship docked, in the main city of Ponta Delgada. Guide Gary Travaso knew plants and culture. He explained the geography and abbreviated history, plus local information. We left our Mercedes van at every stop so we could wander and take photos.  São Paolo’s climate is perfect for hiking and outdoor activities.  There are no winter
freezes or sweltering summer days although the winds can be a bit nippy. Temperatures are fairly even so no air conditioning is needed and the heating method is mostly by fireplace.



This little snack bar along 
the way had full 
entrees for under $8.00,
 fresh coffee 
$1.25 along with 
beers under $2.00










Time for his 
morning coffee



Many houses feature a tile plaque, often religious. This one roughly reads "if 10 men envy my home, they should work as hard..."



Might as well enjoy
blending in with the 
many cows found 
walking the roads.





The uncle of our tour guide seen working on
his farm along with his wife and a helper. 
There is no AC and fireplaces heat their home.
Most of the population
does some form of farming
The big landlord lives here


Ferns, woods and exotic plants surround us


View of Fire Lake, named for the time it reflected the volcanic fires.

Lake of the Seven Cities.  It's easy to guess why.
    



Every Scenic area has a placard for guidance
The black volcanic rock produces a rich agricultural soil



High unemployment rates and diminished commercial fishing have hit this fishing village



This local teenager uses newspaper in  his pants legs for cheap protection from chaffing



Driving through one of the larger Villages  (Above and below)


Octopus stew made with potatoes is the most popular lunch here. 

Main course with a drink and sopa, only six euros
Time for the local lunch stop.  The menu has mostly local seafood along with sandwiches



Visitors enjoy floating in hot
springs and hiking through 

 the exotic foilage

Civilized changing rooms are provided.  What a welcome surprise!













Back to civilization and the traditional mosaic streets of Ponta Delgada


Our tour ends in the main church plaza.  Tomorrow penitents will circle on their knees while medics
stand by during a major religious holiday




The town's own gourmet waterfront Red Lobster restaurant with (what else?) all sorts of local seafood

Complete your invigorating day with an inexpensive but quality wine.  These are just some of the local and Portuguese wines on a nearby grocery store shelf.  
Grab some cheese and enjoy before boarding 
your ship docked ten minutes away.
Your author nabbing her perfect shot