Ponta Delgada’s airport is a tiny white dot in an angry froth of sea when we veer out of the clouds and land on a windswept strip of tarmac. Stepping from the plane we stare around us at the jagged volcanic scenery in awe. Four hours flying time from the UK (and roughly the same from Boston, opposite) this tiny Atlantic outpost seems thrillingly remote.
Known as The Green Island, Sao Miguel, measures some 290 square miles and is the Azores’ largest atoll. With a week to spare we plan a two centre holiday – staying in Sao Miguel’s capital for a few days then spending three days on the smaller island of Sao Jorge. Discovered in the early 1500s by renowned explorer Gonçalo Velho Cabral, the Portuguese influence on Sao Miguel becomes evident as our taxi drives us over cobbled streets painted with intricate geometric designs, and past stunningly ornate baroque churches, to the Talisman hotel.
Situated at the heart of Ponta Delgada’s old town, this charming sleepery, with its panoramic rooftop pool and restaurant serving local specialities, makes an ideal base for exploring this bite-sized city. Over the next few days we admire exhibits – ranging from natural history to sacred art – in the city’s eclectic Carlos Machado Museum; we wander the cobbled streets admiring glorious churches and shopping for the local blue and white pottery, and we buy small, sweet locally grown pineapples and tangy island cheeses in the Mercado de Graca. On our last day we make the scenic, eight kilometre Ponta Graca coastal hike, over rolling hills dotted with crumbled stone walls, to Ribeira Quente, a picturesque fishing village at the foot of a dizzy ravine – and then we fly out to Sao Jorge.
If Sao Miguel seemed remote, stepping from the near-empty prop plane onto the pocket handkerchief which is Sao Jorge’s runway is like arriving at the end of the world. Along a steep road corkscrewing past whitewashed, red-roofed houses and grazing cows (there are two to every inhabitant) we reach Casa do Antonio, our quirky little guest house overlooking Velas Harbour. Sitting out on the rooftop terrace we watch the sun go down over Pico island opposite, as Cory’s Shearwaters flit like harried ghosts across the harbour, desperately seeking food for their burbling babies nesting in the cliffs above.
Rising early next day we tour this tiny island – stopping off to visit far flung hamlets clustered together on small lava outcroppings known as fajas; admiring the lush exotic flora ranging from Kauri trees to bright blue Hydrangea hedges; sipping home grown coffee at Cafe Nunes (this is the only place in Europe where it is cultivated) and chatting with farmers riding home from milking on their big-boned shire horses.
On day three we do the Serra do Topo walk, scrabbling down steep inclines and along shale paths admiring breathtaking views of blissfully remote hamlets, then returning to Velas for a hearty meal of molha de carne beef chunks served with potatoes in the friendly Flor do Jardim restaurant.
Ponta Delgada seemed tiny when we set out, but returning now from farflung Sao Jorge, the Azorean capital seems like a busy, buzzing metropolis.
Staying at the plush, modern, Hotel Vila Nova we head out for one of the highpoints of our trip, a traditional Cozido in the Furnas volcanic park … But that’s a whole other story and you can read about here…
Blog and photographs
by Heidi Fuller-love 2014