April 26, 2016: Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal
While the rough weather and seas of the Atlantic Ocean crossing was starting to subside, the thick overcast cloud cover would again impact our stop in Ponta Delgada, on the most populated island within the Azores, Sao Miguel. While it changed the scheduled itinerary, our driver and guide for the day, Carlos of Azorean Adventures, saw to it that we had a great time, lots of laughs, and a wonderful visit.
Docking into the Commercial pier of Ponta Delagda (we had the #2 spot, as the Norwegian Star got the main waterfront terminal position, given that they were a larger vessel – by 400 people), Carlos was waiting for us right in front of the gangway, we got everyone and R’s car seat into our comfortable 7 passenger Renault Grande Espace (noticing a trend here?) and discussed our “alternate” itinerary, focusing on the South, West, and Northwest corners of the island of Sao Miguel for our 6 hour tour, given that the central section (the Furnas/Fogo areas) were again socked in by heavy pea soup fog…
We began heading west along EN1-1A, passing the modern John Paul II International Airport (immediately cementing our view of the Catholic faith practiced by 99.9% of the island’s population), learning that with 12-15 flights a day to Portugal, other locations in Europe, and the United States, the archipelago is actually not as “remote” as many might think. In fact, we learned that Sata Air now flies from Oakland International airport to the Azores (through Boston) a couple times a week in the summer!
Our next stop was the beautiful lighthouse (Farol da Ponta da Ferraria), built in 1905 and still run the old fashion way by three families that live within the building. The lighthouse is still today using small gas flash explosions to create the brightest light (stronger than electricity), sending that signal beam out over 30 miles into the ocean. Sitting on a jagged cliff with hills of green surrounding it on all sides, it was one of those places that you just wanted to pull out a picnic lunch and spend the day, but there was much more to see, so we were off to the lookout (Miradouro da ilha Sabrina) where we reached the western most point of Sao Miguel. The views were amazing, with the cliffs, rocks, and crashing waves!
The next stop was a truly unique place… We got to stand on the spot where the American, European, and African tectonic plates all converged. Not only was it a seismological hotbed, but the magnetic properties of the spot allowed for a trippy but fun “sound cone” to exist, where even with strong blowing ocean winds, we could all speak in a standard volume and hear one another as if we were in a soundproof room – clear and every sound distinct. Lots of fun and also a little sobering to know that this junction of the plates could bring about some of the largest quakes in the world, with the potential to even send damaging tsunami waves all the way to the eastern seaboard of the United States. Volcanologists in the Azores describe the potential here as “the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of the great Indonesian earthquake and tsunami”. While a very sobering thought, Carlos reminded us that he and the others of the Azores live their lives everyday, knowing that the statistics place a heart attack or being hit by a bus much, much, higher on the reason for one’s demise… Even in this moment, Carlos found a way to have us all laughing, along with his other stories about previous travelers on his tours, the Azorean people, and life in general. He made the drives from place to place enjoyable.
From here, we turned inland and worked our way to Sete Cidades, where we had a short visit to the Church of St. Nicholas, a snack at a local restaurant, and got to see the Blue and Green Lakes, which is actually just one lake, but was separated into two bodies of water with a stone bridge and 7 channels to allow the water to pass between the two “lakes”, creating the difference in colors due to the depth of the water in each half.
After grabbing tons of pictures in this area, we tempted fate and increased our elevation to get to a lookout that gave us a elevated viewpoint of the lakes and Sete Cidades. In between passing clouds and constant fog, we got some great views, and continued inland. We finally had to admit defeat at the Vista del Rei (view of the King) where the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see feet in front of the car. This was the view Carlos had really hoped that we could have, so we did the next best thing… We pulled up pictures from Google on our cell phone and we all looked at the view that way – Carlos laughed so hard, I thought that he was going to spit out his cigarette. He said the little screen simply wasn’t the same, but he admired our creativity.
We continued onto an old aqueduct that supplied water to the northern coast, and got to take a little drive around the “Empanada Lakes” a set of small lakes that supply water to areas of the island, and are surrounded by lush green plants and flowers. Even with the dense fog, the drive was enjoyable.
We worked our way down the “mountain” and back to the coast, where a couple miles from the John Paul international airport, the front right tire said “I’m finished” and had a blowout that ripped a 2×2 gash in the sidewall of the tire… We pulled to the side of the road, made the most of the short delay, and waited for the mechanics to get the spare on. Baba and R took the stroller on a short walk to a nearby elementary school where the kids were at recess, and we were back on the road within an hour.
From here, we bypassed Ponta Delgada and worked our way to the east, where we got to visit an Organic Pineapple plantation, Tres Cruces. Here, we watched a short video, got to visit some of the 52 hothouses where the pineapples are grown on the island, and got to try some organic pineapple ice cream and purchase some pineapple candies.
We continued back into the “big city” where 60,000 of the 125,000 people of Sao Miguel live, saw some of the downtown sights, picked up a Portuguese book for R, and returned to our ship. Another great day in the Portuguese Azores, more than ever, we would like to return for an extended stay.