São Miguel – An Island Adventure – Part 2

Day three started much like day two, with a hearty breakfast and too many clouds in the sky. This time there was no rain and the forecast intimated that the cloud would clear before eleven. With so much to see, we decided to brave the elements and hit the road, anyway. First stop: Lagoa do fogo – The lagoon of fire!

Like most places on the island from Ponta Delgada, it was only a short drive of about twenty-five minutes up to the top of Lagoa do Fogo and, as we left the highway and began to drive around the winding roads leading up to the viewpoints at the top, some workmen who were doing some forestry work looked at us in disbelief as we went. We didn’t really realise why until we started to make the final ascent, pulled over and were presented with this view:

dscn1225

Yes, there was the first of what were to be many rainbows that day, but besides that, visibility was near zero. There was dense fog and we were inside a cloud. So far, not so very good. Feeling a little disappointed, we checked the weather in the Sete Cidades lagoon, further to the west  (our pre-planned second stop of the day anyway) and saw that the sky was a bit clearer. So we decided to head out and miss Lagoa do Fogo. As we careened round the winding road that hugs the side of this mountain the sky began to clear and we saw a park entrance up ahead and decided to stop and go in to check it out. Right in front of us as we parked, we realised that we now had a stunning view out over a patch of farmland to the coast and another rainbow.

dscn1233

The park itself was a really interesting place, with more hot spring-fed pools that you could bathe in (alas, we hadn’t brought swimming gear!) as well as a wonderful lush forest, channels where the spring ran through the park and a visitor information centre with information in a variety of languages about the volcanic activity of the islands and the rock formations found there. Sadly, the path to the source of the spring, which was said to be very interesting, had been closed off due to the heavy rain, but it was a beautiful place to explore for half an hour, nonetheless and only cost two euros to get in. There was even a caldeira you could get really close to, to watch it bubbling. Though not too lose – a warning side advised us that the water could reach 100 degrees and more.

From here, it was back on the road to Sete Cidades, the place I was most looking forward to seeing on the whole trip. It was only around twenty minutes from Lagoa do Fogo, so very easy to get too and, as we were driving, the weather gradually cleared up. As was becoming completely the norm in the Azores, I didn’t really take my eyes off the scenery as we drove, you see something amazing that often.

Before long, we were off the motorway and heading up to a miradouro – a viewpoint – called the “Miradouro do Rei” the king’s viewpoint. Before that, though, we’d heard about an abandoned hotel from some friends of mine, where the views over the Sete Cidades lagoon was even better. Suddenly, it appeared at the side of the road and we pulled in to the car park, still somewhat unaware of just how beautiful the spectacle awaiting us would be. We climbed the still-carpeted and very smelly stairs, ducking under jutting out pieces of metal and made our way to roof, to behold a view that I can honestly say filled me with awe.

After twenty minutes of just standing and appreciating perhaps the most stunning view of my life to date, we got back in the car and drove in to the lagoon itself, across the narrow road that runs across the water. We were about to stop and jump out for a closer look when the rain returned with a vengeance, fat raindrops pounding the roof of the Clio. We decided to look for somewhere for lunch but, curiously, there didn’t seem to be anywhere besides a pizzeria and the missus was fully against pizza in the Azores, so we looked up the next town over, and decided to take a look at the seaside town on the north-western tip of the island – Mosteiros.

Arriving there, we’d found a restaurant on google maps that was highly recommended for its seafood – something we’d yet to really try on Sao Miguel. We parked up, now bathed in sunshine, and went inside. The dish of the day, roasted octopus looked incredible, but the restaurant had run out, completely. From the options left, we both decided to try lapas – limpets – for the first time. Here they were grilled in the shell. First we had a bean and pasta soup which was excellent, and I tried the local beer Especial, for the first time. It was perfectly drinkable, if not memorable. Then the lapas arrived. So many people in the restaurant were commenting on how great they were today, which made us feel quite anxious to try them. In the end though, they came out, wonderfully presented, smelling strongly of the sea, but neither of us really liked them, the texture quite rubbery and the insides exploding onto the plate in an alarming fashion. From the opinions around the restaurant though, it was strictly that we didn’t like them, not that they weren’t great.

img_20161230_144253

It being distinctly low season, Mosteiros had the feel of a sleepy town. Few tourists besides us were wandering the streets and the local people were relaxing over lunch or outside the cafe kiosk in the small town square. The town was quite pretty though, with a church much in the style of the one in Ponta Delgada, and a curved harbour, with a black volcanic sand beach at one side. Beyond this there were some rocky outcrops with some seating where we stopped to watch the setting sun descend towards the water for a while.

After our walk, we decided to head back along the coast road to Ponta Delgada, so we could relax a little before our final dinner on the island. On the way we were to stop off at Europe’s only tea plantation. Not far from the tea place though, we saw a lookout point over the sea and decided to pull over to take in the breathtaking views.

It was only when I got back in to the car that I realised there had been about ten thousand midges waiting for an idiot like me in the air. They were biting my neck, my face, my arms. Dreadful. We spent some ten minutes killing them before driving on. We stopped in the tea place, as planned and tried the only tea made in Europe – for free! It was quite delicious, so we bought some to bring home and some more to take as a gift for Ana’s mum. Sadly it was very dark and I got no pictures. Then we arrived at the hotel and, as the Azores is such a reasonably priced place, we decided to do something we’d never done before. We booked a table at the number one restaurant on the island on Trip Advisor.

Called Quinta Dos Sabores, the restaurant is a concept restaurant and can cater for vegetarians and vegans as well as omnivores like us. You call and book – it’s the only way you can get a table and they ask you a few questions about what you like. Then they design a menu for you. The dinner menu is six courses of some of the best food I’ve had in my life. The lady who runs the place is extremely welcoming and has an interesting back story, having lived previously in Recife in Brazil, Lisbon and Alentejo. Besides wines and spirits everything is sourced from within a kilometre or so of the restaurant and the quality of the ingredients shines through in everything they put in front of you.

You can read about the restaurant here. I have to say that every word of praise is justified and it ranks among the very best meals of my life. I won’t bore you with a description of everything we ate, but I will say that the steak course was not accompanied by a steak knife, because the meat was so tender that I could easily cut it with a butter knife. And I will also mention that the baby carrots that came with the fish course were perhaps 1.5 centimetres long, but still had more flavour than any carrot I’ve ever eaten before. It was the best way I could possibly imagine to finish my trip to the Azores and I sincerely hope I have the chance to return.

After dinner it was off to bed, then breakfast, then returning the car, then the short flight back to Lisbon. If you are living in mainland Portugal or even the UK (direct flights from Stansted) I implore you to visit the Azores before tourism really takes hold. As yet, there is still so much that is untouched and such natural beauty I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in Europe on such a scale. Food is outstanding wherever you go and, best of all, it’s so affordable. I will certainly be going back!

São Miguel – An Island Adventure – Part 1

When my girlfriend asked me if I’d prefer a gift or an experience, this Christmas, I didn’t even really feel I had to give her an answer. When she told me, six weeks before Christmas that she simply had to tell me what the surprise was, ahead of time, I relented. And so, she revealed we were going to the Azores. Now the Azores has been one of those places that I remembered hearing about as a young boy, and thinking of as something exotic – almost otherworldly – and certainly somewhere I’d never have the chance to visit. They are a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the largest of which, and the one we were to visit, is São Miguel.

2017-01-15

The possibility of visiting the place has really opened up over the past couple of years, beginning with TAP starting to offer low cost flights both to São Miguel and to Terceira island. Following on from that, Azores Airlines, part of SATA, and Ryanair both jumped on the Lisbon-to-the-Azores-for-not-much-money bandwagon and tourism to the islands has skyrocketed, particularly during the summer months. But we were travelling in December. Would it be a wash out? We would find out!

We arrived on December 28th, after the obligatory Christmas festivities had reached an end. We arrived at about 11:00am on the Ryanair flight from Lisbon, which ran remarkably smoothly and suffered from surprisingly little turbulence for a winter flight that was almost exclusively over the ocean. Having left Lisbon in bright winter sunshine, we arrived to thick fog. But we weren’t to be deterred by that. And so we went to the Ilha Verde desk and claimed out silver Renault Clio, which was to be our wheels for the weekend. I strongly recommend booking this in advance, online. We got a slightly cheaper price and a much cheaper deal on reducing our insurance excess to zero. It’s worth shopping around online before you arrive.

From the airport, both complete strangers to the islands, Ana asked me to switch on the GPS to find directions for our hotel. I did so and then, within about three minutes, we were pulling in to the covered car park of the Azoris Royal Garden. We checked in within about five minutes and were in our fourth floor room in less than ten. From leaving home to dropping our bags, we had taken around five hours. Highly impressive. We dropped our stuff, took rain proof gear from our bags (as the sky looked a little angry) and headed out to explore the town of Ponta Delgada on foot.

Looking out to sea from the sea front, you can really begin to appreciate that you’re in the middle of the ocean. All you can see is the expanse of water, rolling away from you seemingly endlessly. The sea front also had a seating area, a small sort of shopping and restaurant area which hugged the edges of the water and the old gate, which is little more than a ruin, but still retains pride of place in a square in the city centre. The wind was also formidably strong, creating waves that relentlessly battered the sea walls and nearly took my head off at the top of the seating area.

After being blown around like that for around half an hour, we decided to grab some lunch and made a beeline for a restaurant we’d had recommended to us by one of Ana’s friends. So we strolled over to Tasca. Tasca, as anyone who’s been to a Portuguese or Spanish speaking country will know, means simply a small, informal, local restaurant. They’re everywhere in Portugal, and so the name is fairly uninspired. But the moment you walk in, you know this is not going to be just any old Tasca. Famous for its petiscos – Portuguese tapas – we were too hungry to go for that, so we decided to order a starter and a main course each. Which might have been an error. I had the selection of local sausages to start, which involved chourico, alheira, morcella (black pudding) and a dollop of migas (dissolved bread with herbs) and a slice of cassava. To follow, I’d already ordered a steak, with a side of fries. As you can see from the pictures, neither was in any way small.

Both dishes were beautifully cooked and the quality of the meat, in particular was really striking. They were washed down with a glass of terra de lava wine from one of the other Azorean islands, which lacked the delicacy of continental Portuguese wine, but was still a lovely drop. Ana ate plumas for her main dish, a fatty and delicious cut of pork. She faltered before finishing, while I just about managed to demolish both plates. But after a coffee, we decided we were in very definite need of a stroll back to the hotel.

As we went back, we passed the fortaleza of Sao Bras, which is also now the island’s military museum. We didn’t go inside, but it has impressive views from outside. We also tried to find a whale watching company who would be interested in taking us out, but learned that there would be no days with good enough sea conditions until the Saturday – the day we were to leave. This is certainly something to consider for those hoping to visit the Azores and something we will think about when we return. Finally, we returned to the hotel for a night of relaxation ahead of the many miles we would cover in the coming days.

img_20161228_174658
Fortaleza of Sao Bras, along with military museum, Ponta Delgada

We woke up at about half past eight the next day and ventured down into our hotel’s ground floor to find breakfast. We were not disappointed at the range of plentiful hot and cold food offerings, including a large amount of local produce in the form of cheeses, cakes and more. A look out to the outdoor pool – which we were definitely in the wrong season to be using – told us that the weather had improved, but not by much. Nonetheless, we ate up and went back to the room to prepare for our first road trip, to Furnas.

We started up the car, then the GPS and we were off towards Furnas. What immediately impressed us was how easy the road network on Sao Miguel seemed to be. I don’t know if it;s the same on other islands of the Azores, but there is a very efficient circular road, with highway standard surfaces and multiple lanes, with arterial routes criss-crossing the island to connect the main settlements and places of natural beauty. It means that even if someone is not an overtly confident driver, they ought not be deterred from hiring a car to explore the island (especially as local transport appears infrequent). The hotel we stayed at, too, was under a kilometre from the entrance to the highway, so in spite of the 40km between us and Furnas, we were there remarkably quickly, spotting some beautiful countryside along the way and also encountering at least six separate weather systems en route.

Once in the general area of Furnas, we passed a number of ‘Caldeiras,’ places where volcanic gas is emitted from below the ground, often accompanied by plumes of smoke and a strong smell of sulphur, as we would find out at close quarters sometime later. But first we headed for Parque Terra Nostra, where we were planning to take a dip in a pool whose water was rich in iron – and so was coloured a shocking orange brown – and also to walk around the extensive and beautiful gardens. First we came to the pool. We paid our 6 euro entrance fee, and an additional five each for towel hire (though we were reimbursed two euros each on returning our towels) and changed our clothes before descending into the water. It was gloriously warm, especially at the points where it poured into the pool from the underground piping system. It was extremely peaceful sitting in the warm, brown water, watching the steam rise into what was a rather chilly day by comparison, at 15 degrees centigrade. The water is as hot as 39 degrees when it enters the pool and so feels very warm against the skin. The iron is said to have therapeutic properties, but who knows if that’s correct or not. It was a fun experience.

After the pools, we dried off, changed and explored some of the gardens. We would have needed a huge amount of time to see all of them, but we felt we got our money’s worth as we tramped around for an hour or so. Some of it looks positively other worldly.

From here, we drove around to the nearest Caldeira, where we saw volcanic vents with names of saints, demons and more besides. We met a friendly stray cat and we became nauseated by the overbearing fragrance of sulphur. But it was fascinating to see. Some of the signs warned us of water temperatures of up to 100 degrees C. Definitely not for bathing, then.

After this, the plan had been to go a restaurant nearby and to try the famous cozido a portuguesa, which is cooked using geothermal heat, in one of the thermal vents. But, having breathed far too much horrid smelling sulphur in already, we decided instead to follow up another restaurant recommendation that we’d both been very excited about before coming to the island, The Associacao Agricola. It was something of a drive from where we were and we were both starving, but we hoped it would be worth it. And we were right. The restaurant’s plan is to provide locally raised, grass fed beef, with high welfare and an altogether humane approach to farming. The results are supposed to speak for themselves. And so it was. I had the house steak with three pepper cream sauce and my missus went for the same steak with mustard sauce. We took a half bottle of fruity Dao wine to accompany it. The steak was honestly the smoothest, most tender steak I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was like silk. If you are a lover of steak and you haven’t eaten here, I’d dare say your life is as yet incomplete.

img_20161229_161022

Desserts were also simple and deliciously made. We considered coming back to the restaurant again, even though we had only one more night on the island. We ultimately didn’t, but I would have had no regrets if we had done. It was genuinely stunning how good the steak was and, a month on, I still find myself thinking about it on a nearly daily basis.

After the steak, it was time to drive back to the hotel, in the company of a rather lovely sunset. Once we got back, we took a bath and then went to the hotel’s bar for what were really rather excellent cocktails, for a good price, from an excellent barman. After that, it was time for bed, for the next day promised trips to the fire lagoon, the seven cities lagoon and some seaside towns, too.

If you’re planning your own trip to the Azores, take a look at the Brandt travel guide, here:

Azores