April 25, 2016: Horta, Azores, Portugal
After six days at sea, all of us on the Holland America Zuiderdam were pleased to hear the captain announce that given good speed and remaining on/ahead of schedule, we would be able to arrive to our first port of call, Horta, 90 minutes earlier than expected. Instead of anchoring to begin tender service at 10am local time, an 8:30am start would provide us extra time on the island and allow us greater opportunity to explore. Well… In theory, that was the plan.
Just after 8am the next morning, we gathered in the Queen’s Lounge and were able to secure the first tender tickets available (Red 1) and patiently awaited announcements that we were cleared to go ashore and meet our guide for the day.
By 8:30, only a single lifeboat had made the ride out to pier with staff and crew and it was evident that their trip was far from smooth sailing – it was more like a wine bottle cork swirling and bouncing around in a washing machine. Wind, waves, and occasional rain was going to make the tender process much more than anticipated. The wait in the lounge increased, but the Captain was considerate. He re-positioned the ship to serve as a buffer against the waves, minimizing the impact to the tenders, and though it took an extra hour to get things started, he granted us an additional hour in port to make up for the inconvenience. Just another point for Holland America in its commitment to its passengers across all aspects of this cruise.
At 9:30am, we boarded our tender, and R was nothing but smiles, laughs, and squeals of joy as we bounced our way into the tender pier. Upon arrival, we walked into the beautiful, clean, and efficient terminal to meet with Felipe, our driver and guide for the day from Azore Experiences. On this trip, we were joined by a nice couple from Santa Rosa, CA that reserved with the company separately. We got situated in our 9 passenger Renault Traffic van, giving us all plenty of room, and headed out of Horta, working our way to the west along the southern edge of the island of Faial.
With a population of only 16,000, the island presented itself as a perfectly sleepy little island with folks enjoying the national holiday remembering Revolution Day, in which there was a transition of power from a Dictatorship to Democracy in Portugal. Apparently, it was revolution without a single shot fired and, interestingly enough, the nation’s radio stations were a pivotal part of the revolution with the incoming government taking over these radio stations. As the takeover progressed, they played specific music selections and songs so, throughout the country, the people knew that the revolution was underway, advancing, and eventually had completed, simply by knowing what music was being played.
Felipe was a great storyteller and guide for this trip – just a year or two younger than Natalie and me, he was a father, married to a woman from the United States, and his child had dual citizenship. This combination of age and experience helped all of us better under life in Faial, life in the Azores, and the changing world that the European Union (and the archipelago’s strong connection the United States) has brought to the Azores.
While our original itinerary was to take us straight to the center (and the highest point of the island) to see the caldera, the soupy and impenetrable fog covering much of the island made this an impossibility, a fact that brought real disappointment to Felipe, since he spent the first 30 minutes of the day apologizing profusely. We reminded him that no one can control the weather, and that there was a lot more to Faial then just the Caldera and to share as much of his home with us as he could. With that, our alternate itinerary began, and it was pretty amazing!
Our drive around the small island (only about twice the size of the city of San Francisco) was a fun on and off-road adventure as we worked our way around the coastal areas, seeing lush mountainside campgrounds and family parks, visiting beautiful seaside communities, experiencing the damage and rebuild efforts from the devastating 5.8 earthquake of 1998, and witnessing the power of nature. The most recent eruption (less than 60 years ago) buried entire sections of the island under 12-15 feet of ash, erasing homes, small towns, and sending nearly half of the island’s population to seek another home anywhere other than on top of a brutal and devastating volcano.
While life on a small island has its perks (like living with unlocked doors, leaving keys in the ignition of your car, etc), only recently has the support of the European Union allowed Faial to have a fighting chance, though ongoing economic challenges keep unemployment high, sending many young people migrate to mainland Portugal for higher education, jobs, and eventually to make more money than is possible on island, ultimately keeping the island’s population of 16,000 from growing back towards its pre- 1950s eruption count of 28,000.
One of the many highlights of the day was a chance to stop in for a traditional Azorean lunch. We pulled up to a small restaurant and snack bar located on the North coast of the island, and while the big tour buses were using this stop for restrooms and a “snack”, we were treated to a feast of Octopus Salad (it was fantastic!), two types of bread (sweet and traditional), local cheese (from one of the thousands of cows that are a staple to the island for milk and meat), Portuguese linguica, pork ribs, blood sausage, swordfish, sweet potatoes, yams, beer, wine, and a little of the local “moonshine”. Everything was exceptional!
Even though we didn’t have a chance to see the Caldera, the island of Faial exemplifies the unique landscape and challenges that come with living on a (relatively young) 300,000 year old volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a beautiful place, one that I would welcome the chance to visit again, maybe spending a week or two exploring several of the 9 islands within the archipelago.