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Fall 2003

Azores | Madeira | Lisbon | Algarve

SãoMiguel (1) | Terceira | Faial and Pico | São Miguel (2)

We have traveled extensively in Portugal, but some of our Portuguese friends here in Toronto have repeatedly told us that we have missed the best, the islands of the Azores. So we took their advice but, not to put all our eggs in one basket, we added two other destinations new to us, the island of Madeira and the Algarve. We hate to go to Portugal and not spend a few days, at least, in Lisbon, which worked out perfectly as a transition place before and after the Algarve.

We are very fortunate in Toronto to have direct flights to the Portugal mainland and the Azores. Our Air Transat flight to Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, was booked through the efficient and helpful staff at Accord Tours, Tel. 416-599-3340, which has specialized in Portugal travel for twenty-three years. Air Transat has always been our airline of choice to Portugal. We have always found their service both on the ground and in the air to be exceptional. We took advantage of their "Club" service which offers separate check-in, priority baggage handling, a wider seat, more leg room, advance seat selection, a free headset, an amenities kit, bar service and delicious mixed nuts and champagne before take off.

We made the necessary car rental arrangements with Reise-Profi Service GmbH with whom we have always enjoyed excellent service and who once again offered very competitive prices.

The flight to São Miguel is only five and one half hours and the time difference is only four hours. This relatively easy travel combined with what we discovered makes the Azores a compelling destination.

Nine volcanic islands form the Azores archipelago. They are situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean 3910km from New York and 1400 km from Lisbon. There are 3 groups: São Miguel and Santa Maria, the eastern, Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial, the central, Flores and Corvo, the western. São Miguel is the largest island. It is said that the Azores were discovered in 1427 and that the first islands to be populated were Santa Maria and São Miguel in 1443 and 1444, respectively. The Azores became an autonomous region in 1976 with its capital in the city of Ponta Delgada, where we arrived at 08:50, right on time.


We checked into the Holiday Inn (now Lince Hotel Azores), which is nicely located within easy walking distance to the marina, historic center and excellent restaurants and only 10 minutes from the airport. The exterior of the hotel is quite impressive, shaped like a boat with a high, gleaming glass frontage. The property is rather new with a clean modern design. Our standard room was very nice size, done in light woods and beige tone furnishings with large windows which created a bright airy feeling. The lighting in the bedroom and bathroom was excellent, as well as all amenities such as A/C, satellite TV, hair dryer, bidet etc. The business center with free internet access is a convenient extra, as well as a fitness center, sauna, whirlpool, swimming pool and indoor parking.

Our plan was to spend the day in São Miguel and fly in the morning to Terceira for the day and overnight, then fly to Faial for two days and nights, the second day going to Pico by ferry, and then return to São Miguel for two nights before flying to Madeira.

It was a glorious day of bright sunshine, blue sky and 22c as we left Ponta Delgada heading east and then north toward Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake), geographically right in the middle of the island. As we climbed upward each twist and turn brought thicker fog and we became disappointed that we would not be able to see this place of beauty, "when suddenly thru the fog in São Miguel town the sun was shining everywhere" and the volcanic lake emerged in its brilliant shades of blue. Surrounded by lovely greenery in a myriad of shades, and a peninsula of trees and small sandy beaches jutting out below it was a marvelous sensual experience (the beginning of many to come). There are hiking routes around the crater and if you want to catch some carp, red mullet or perch, just go get a license.

Driving north we followed the road signs and rising vapors down a dirt road to Caldeira Velha (old hot springs). We found ourselves in the middle of an exotic rain forest. Off to one side were pools of hot bubbling water (33c) from the old crater below. Just beyond was the breathtaking sight of a waterfall cascading down over the lava rocks and thick vegetation into a shallow natural pool where bathers were enjoying the 31c thermal waters either swimming or getting close to the waterfall and enjoying the massage effect of the water hitting their head and shoulders. This is one of the island's most beautiful spots and combined with what we found at Lagoa do Fogo we were getting the message that Mother Nature has created something very special in this archipelago and especially here on São Miguel.
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Ribeira Grande, the second biggest city, is located on the north coast in the middle of the island. The first settlers came to set up watermills for grain on the fast flowing river that gave the city its name. The river flows from Lagoa do Fogo thru the city to the Atlantic Ocean. Today the river is the center of the calm and peaceful atmosphere that we felt as we strolled the streets. The city grew from the area around the Parish Church, Nossa Senhora da Estrela (Our Lady of the Star) and the Town Hall. The gray, white, red and yellow exterior of the church is quite colorful and attractive. Its bell tower is in harmony with the white and black of the bell tower of the Town Hall. The Church of Espirito Santo (Holy Spirit) has an unusual design in that it has two doorways, the result of combining two former chapels into the present church. In the large square in front of the Parish Church is a statue commemorating the historian Gaspar Frutuso, who is buried in the church. He wrote extensively about the area. Nearby is an attractive bandstand used for festivals. Opposite the Town Hall is a park shaded by thick, leafy trees with benches occupied by seniors. A relaxing, small garden along the banks of the stream hosts entertainment during the summer months. As in these main public areas the narrow streets with attractive homes and mansions were spotlessly clean and the properties perfectly maintained. We found this throughout the islands.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Azorean economy was shaken by the orange crisis. The commercialization of the industry made it impossible for the Azores to compete. In seeking alternative crops they discovered tea. The last remaining producer is the Gorreana Tea Factory in Gorreana, just east of Ribeira Grande. Both black and green teas are grown and are famous for their strong aroma. Because of favorable climatic conditions Gorreana tea is able to be cultivated without fungicides, pesticides or herbicides. It's no wonder that demand is increasing from importing countries. After watching the harvesting of a fresh crop of leaves (the leaves are removed by machinery from the top of the tall plants), we sampled both the green and the black and indeed the aroma and taste were wonderful. This is the only place in Europe where tea is grown.

The road southeast to Lagoa das Furnas and the village of Furnas passes thru acres and acres of rich grazing land. It is no wonder that the meat of the Azores is exceptionally tasty and tender; the cattle are fed only what nature produces.

Much of the land across the middle of the island is protected from building and so the magnificence of nature occupies a significant proportion of the acreage. It is a feast for the eyes and great for the body if you choose to walk, bike or hike. The controlled building and settlement is for the most part along the coasts whose cliffs, picturesque fishing villages, harbors, marinas and sea views each provides its version of nature's beauty.
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The village of Furnas is a very special place. Both palatial and modest homes are gleaming white, some with large gardens others with flower-filled verandas. Flowers are everywhere. In fact, the local government gives flowers to the residents to decorate their homes. The entire village was a picture of cleanliness and neatness, indicative of the strong community pride of the Azorean people.

Nearby the Lagoa das Furnas beckoned. The island's second largest lake, almost rectangular in shape, is surrounded by gorgeous flowers. A waterfall tumbles down from on high. On the banks its thermal springs, the lake's "caldeiras", serve as a natural kitchen. Huge pots are filled with either meats or fish and vegetables, covered with a thick cloth and buried in the 61.5c bubbling earth for about six hours. The dish is called "cozido". After watching the lunch time pots being retrieved and the dinner ones going into the holes, we hurried over to the dining room at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel to complete the experience with a "cozido" lunch. We arrived at the same time as the steaming pot. The chef invited us into the sparkling kitchen to witness the unwrapping of the pot and the placement of the ingredients on large serving platters which would be quickly whisked out to the eager diners. It was a neat experience. The aroma of the meats and vegetables escaped as the cloth was removed, it was heavenly. The goodies were temptingly placed on the serving pieces and we hurried to our table anxious to partake in the feast. The tender chunks of meat, chicken, pork and sausages along with potatoes, carrots and cabbage were a delight. The bright airy dining room is surrounded by windows opening to the beautiful grounds. The service was impeccable. It's a lovely venue for any kind of lunch.

The Terra Nostra Hotel is owned by Bensaude Turismo. Behind the hotel is the Terra Nostra Garden for which I have run out of appropriate adjectives. Anyone visiting São Miguel must see this garden. It dates back to 1780. In 1930 Vasco Bensaude acquired the property and parcels of surrounding land to bring the garden to its present size of 12.5 hectares and undertook a major restoration. In subsequent years the Bensaude family has continuously restored, added to, and maintained this masterpiece.

Guests of the hotel have free access to the garden. The public fee is 4 euro, a bargain! We crossed over a bridge spanning a stream of clear mineral water on one side with pools of yellow volcanic thermal water on the other, illustrating the types of water flowing thru Furnas. The Casa do Park sits majestically on the opposite bank looking down at a large thermal pool for the pleasure of guests and visitors. Over the years the Casa was home to famous people. It is now part of the hotel and suites.

The brilliant design of the layout and plantings made it easy and pleasurable to get the full impact of the glorious collection of native and imported species. Besides the spellbinding century-old trees and exotic flowers, there are areas of special collections. The Endemic Plants collection was initiated in 1993 and showcases the flora of the Azores archipelago. The Vireya collection is originally from Malaysia - Malaysia rhododendrons. This collection blooms many months of the year in a wide variety of colors benefiting from the mild climate. Azaleas are everywhere and when they bloom in March and April present colors ranging from whites to reds to lilac. During various festivals, it is traditional to make and display carpets of flowers made from Azaleas. The valley of the Cycads displays 55 varieties of this species. Sparkling lakes and streams have been created to enhance the beauty of the presentation.

Our last stop in Furnas was at the "caldeiras" in town. Amid the piles of lava rock, openings in the earth sprout geysers of boiling water. There is a constant sulfur aroma as the action never stops. In one small pool ladies were boiling husks of corn and eggs, which is a common practice at this particular spot. There are thermal baths under construction, which will utilize the waters and medicinal muds for treatment or relaxation. Not all the water is hot for cooking or bathing. At the Ascenta da Aqua Azeda we drank delicious cold slightly carbonated water directly from a spigot in the rocks. It's no wonder Furnas is known as one of the richest hydrologic regions in Europe.
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We headed south and then west to Vila Franca do Campo, the first capital of São Miguel. A friend in Toronto comes from this seaside town and had told us repeatedly that it was the best place in the Azores. She is understandably in love with her home town. The narrow streets of white homes trimmed in black and gray stone are warm and welcoming. The center of town is built around the lovely public gardens, dominated by the Church of São Miguel Arcanjo and on the opposite side the Misericordia Church and Hospital. About 1km off the coast of Vila Campo is the Ilheu da Vila, an island created by a sunken volcano. It is circular in shape and its interior is a natural swimming pool with sparkling clear waters. There is regular ferry service during the summer months.

Just west along the coast is the extraordinary viewpoint of Pisão with its panoramic view of the picturesque fishing port Caloura. The village was protected by a fort and convent, which today are privately owned. The property consists of vineyards surrounded by a stone wall. The ride along the coast to Ponta Delgada was a spectacular glimpse of the beauty of coastal life.

It had been a long first day so after a brief stop at the hotel we walked south toward the marina to find a restaurant that had been recommended to us. Unfortunately it was closed so we walked down the street and found a small neighborhood place that looked clean and inviting, Boa Nova at Rua Eng. Jose Cordeiro 82/84, Tel: 296-383-544. After working with our helpful waiter we settled on soups to start, one vegetable and one bean, both very good. The bread and fresh white cheese arrived next. (It's standard to pay a cover charge for bread and whatever else you accept of what is offered as hors d'oeuvres.) We shared a huge swordfish slice served with boiled potatoes and vegetables. The fish was very fresh and grilled perfectly. The Terras do Lava white wine from the island of Pico went nicely with the fish.

The prices for fish and seafood, compared to what we are used to paying at home, are very reasonable and extremely good value in all restaurants, particularly if you share the ample size portions, which we did not always do. We did have soup and seafood twice a day for most of the rest of the trip.
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