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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year:

A Atep Back in Time
Anne Armand

The Azores, Portugal consists of nine major islands. They are actually the tops of some of the tallest mountains on the planet. Located in the Atlantic 1500 Km from Lisbon, this area is also known as the Autonomous Region of the Azores.

Not many people that I know in the US have any idea where the Azores is located. Off the coast of Africa? Near New Zealand? It is not a place that too many Americans visit unless they are, of Portuguese origin or are trans oceanic sailors.


I am very particular about my travel. There are definite no-nos. No bus trips with strangers. No cruises of any sort. I get violently sick from motion and crowded dining rooms. No nametags, no resident tour director and no babies. I do not make friends with Americans just because they come from ‘home’. In the past I have always traveled with the tested friends, my husband and adult children. But I like new places and am very easy to please other than the above. Mostly, I like meeting new people, seeing the way the live and appreciating our differences.

Sadly after several self navigated trips to the UK and Ireland we have added another restriction to our list of travel prohibitions. We are getting to old to travel without a driver.

It was fortunate that we found the perfect answer. Our package, a three-island tour, featured English-speaking drivers, who met us at the airport. They were at our disposal for daily tours in Mercedes taxi cabs or small jitneys.

We had a direct flight from Boston, Massachusetts to Ponta Delgada on the Island of Sao Miguel. From there we flew the175 miles to Horta on the island of Faial. We were immediately impressed by the vast stretches of green fields and awesome cliffs as we flew over them. Very little development was evident beyond the towns and small cities.
As we learned very quickly the Azores are a step back in time. What we saw from the air was pretty much all.
But, then, that was what we were looking for. I left computer, ipod and cell phone behind. We were looking for a relaxing place to unwind.

The hotel in Horta, Do Canal, was perfectly appointed. Our room and balcony looked out on the ferry dock with mountain on Pico dominating our view. It is an incredible sight. It can be totally obliterated by clouds and then a few moments later you have full view of the summit. The harbor looked miniscule with the mountain as a backdrop. We photographed the ever-changing moods and colors of the sky as rain gave way to sun in seconds.

On our second day, we took a day trip to Pico by ferry. I felt close to death on the way over. For some reason I chose to sit on the upper deck. We were going into the wind and it was very rough the ferry lilted to Starboard and a few times I was sure we were going over. I do know that by the time we docked I was willing to pay whatever it took to fly back. If necessary I would throw myself on the mercy of the American embassy or worse, get arrested so I could stay there. To my dismay that was not an option.

Our driver on Pico was very much of a character. Having gone to live in Canada for fourteen years as a young man, he spoke perfect English with a Canadian accent. He drove us to the usual tourist sites but also incorporated his custom tour of the island. We stopped to drop off his computer for repair, to see his father’s still (an operation where local clear rum like mixture. (In the USA this is called white lightening or hooch. It is made from the left overs of wine production. ) and a stop at his Mom’s to deliver something from his wife.

Pico is known for its wine production in fields of stonewalls that are as remarkable as any site I have ever seen in all of my travels. UNESCO protects it as an international treasure, which cannot be changed or developed. The grapes are grown on stonewalls in enclosures of volcanic stones. Each enclosure is quite small and is attached to another and so on. We were told that the walls protect the vines from the wind and the dark rocks provide warmth. With the moisture from constant rain showers, the grapes are grown in perfect conditions for a rich harvest.

Horta is a very old town, which had been devastated by earthquake and eruptions. The people there are very resilient and proud. They seem to take these monumental events in hand as a normal part of life. The islands grow with each eruption and also fall away with erosion and quakes. Houses are rebuilt with the aid of the government.

Horta has a famous and colorful port, once defended by a prominent fort that is now a hotel. It is tradition for sailors to paint a replica or motto of their ship on walls and walkways before they depart and it is considered unlucky not to do so. Peter’s Sport and Bar at the harbor, is most famous for it’s legendary gin and tonic. It is a Horta’s equivalent to the ‘watering holes’ of Key West in Florida. A bit like a Hemingway haunt, locals and tourists gather to eat mediocre food, read and smoke while they sip their gin.

We noticed the lack of Americans as we toured about the small city. We are easy to spot!
But lo and behold there were a lot of Brits. A huge cruise ship, which had been on a journey for some 51 days had just moored. The poor folks had been avoiding hurricane Noel and were hoping to enjoy the pink sand and warm winds of Bermuda. It was not to be!

What they got instead was the rocky volcanic coast of Faial and nary a souvenir shop to be had. Dressed in their summer cruise wear they were a stand out among the more somber islanders and the few Americans in our dark slacks and sweaters.

We had the pleasure of spending some time listening to their tales of confinement aboard ship and their absolute need to break from the decks and walk on terra firma. We met a lovely woman from Boston England who had been to our Boston early in the cruise. She was particularly amusing as she detailed their ports of call as they outran the storm.
We were very impressed with the young people who drove us around the islands taking us to the nooks and crannies that undoubtedly we would have missed if we attempted to drive ourselves. All of the towns have black and white mosaic sidewalks and cobble stone streets. Some of the designs emulated waves, which appeared to give motion to the pavement. We just could not imagine the labor needed to build and maintain them.

The island of Faial is known for it’s billions of hydrangeas which bound both road and field. It is worth a trip back in June to see this incredible show by Mother Nature. Due to this proliferation of color, the island is known as the Blue Island.

All of the islands prosper from their dairy production. Each island has it’s own distinctive cheese and wine. They are quite different but wonderfully fresh and have very different textures. I imagine one could live quite well on a diet of their home baked breads, cheese, wine, meat and root vegetables.

One restaurant treat that I especially liked was having a steak brought to the table on a flat hot stone. The beef was rare when it was brought to my place, but as I cut from the edges the center was still cooking. It was unique and it was delicious.

Later, on the island of Sao Miguel, we were treated to another marvelous dining experience. Our guide arranged for us to go to an area of hot springs and spas. The lakes take on spectacular color from the intense foliage. At this site there was an emerald green lake. I have never seen anything to compare.

At this locale, there are volcanic vents where large cooking pots are placed into the ground for a few hours. Inside the pots are layers of meat, root vegetables, assorted potatoes, cabbage and kale. It is left there to steam, like a huge crock-pot covered with soil. In the States, we call it ‘boiled dinner’. We watched as they unearthed the pots and transported them to a local restaurant. Wine, fresh breads and cheese were included with our meal. The food was perfectly cooked but the portions were huge. Undoubtedly, if we were home, we would have had leftovers for several days. We also were treated to fresh swordfish, which was incredible. (We New Englanders are particular about fresh fish, and this was the best I had ever eaten.)

We were told that Sao Miguel was one of the only places in Europe to grow and sell tea. We cannot dispute that, but we did visit a small tea plantation and watched a few women sorting and bagging tea. The green tea was superb. We did not get to the ceramics factory where they manufacture and paint blue and white tiles. Undoubtedly, I would have purchased some.

Much to the relief of my husband, there were not a lot of opportunities to buy souvenirs but we managed to find a few T-shirts. As I said before, it is a step back in time. The islands have tourism, but they are not "tourist traps" like so many places in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Most goods, which are offered to tourists, are made locally.

The residential buildings on the Azores are reminiscent of Irish cottages however there are not many Bed and Breakfasts. In general I would say that the villages were neat, but not colorful. Buildings are white with terracotta roofs, unless they have a special license for color. The streets are immaculate but drivers greatly exceed the speed limit for such narrow roads.

Bring an umbrella and wear "layers", the islands have microclimates, which change frequently and vary by several degrees in a matter of hours. We did not notice HC accessible ramps and the narrow cobblestone sidewalks make walking a challenge.

If you love nature’s theme parks and have patience for authenticity and history, I recommend this trip.

© Anne Armand August 2009
Hannarose39 at aol.com

Anne is a freelance writer

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