The Azores – Portugal in Mid-Atlantic

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I didn’t realise how few people knew about the green volcanic archipelago of The Azores until my recent article on the tea grown there persuaded many people to contact me for more information.  The mountains, lakes and picturesque towns are The Azores greatest attraction and because the capricious climate means that mass tourism is unlikely to destroy the strong culture of the archipelago one can really use the word ‘unspoilt’ to describe the islands.

Having said that, they have now been discovered by the cruise market and nearly every day there is a cruise ship moored in one of the harbours.

But meantime, the 9 islands are there for the traveller who looks for beauty and tranquillity, not adventure, not crazy nightlife, but the serenity that used to be the added value of most remote islands.They are perfectly placed for outdoor activities with a lack of pollution both in land and at sea as well as unique and diverse terrain.

Walking, Hiking and Trekking in the Azores   

Lichen on Stone in Mountains
Lichen on Stone in Mountains
Tree in Botanic Gardens in S. Miguel
Tree in Botanic Gardens in S. Miguel

Hiking and trekking includes walking up to volcanic peaks, around craters and through mountains.  Local organizations such as the Os Montanheiros have spent countless hours mapping and cleaning trails all about the Azores. The Mountain of Pico and the Pico is a “must climb” for those wanting a moderate exercise and a unique stunning view of 4 other islands,  Terceira, Faial, S. Jorge and Graciosa, on a cloud-free day).    Horse riding tours via places such as Picos da Aventura, local farms such as Quinta das Raiadas can also be reserved, the tours being made along the beautiful countryside.

Whale Watching and Swimming with Dolphins

The most reliable departure ports are Ponta Delgada, Vila Franca do Campo, Horta, Lajes do Pico and Madalena.   Visitors are taken out on small boats and often get within ten yards of the whales. Contrary to the mass-produced affairs that swimming with the dolphins involves in more popular places, in the Azores, one is not allowed to touch the dolphins due to environmental concerns.  This in no way decreases the fun to be had especially as you swim in a clean blue ocean with pleasant water temperature.

Coastal Adventure Sailing,  Yachting and other Water Activities   

The Azores from the Sea
The Azores from the Sea

It is possible to spend time sailing between the islands and exploring what each one has to offer:  boats moore in sheltered marinas or anchor in secluded bays.  Find out more from the individual islands as weather and winds make a difference to the frequency.  Canoeing is popular in the main marinas as well as some of the lakes in S. Miguel and Flores such as Sete Cidades e Furnas.

The marinas of Ponta Delgada and Horta are world famous for those crossing the Atlantic with Horta in particular having been used for centuries by the yachting community as a place to pull in for a rest and a g. & t!

Pleasant cafe by Church
Pleasant cafe by Church

Surfing

Located in mid-Atlantic as they are, the Azores have plenty of swell most of the time. Not  surprising therefore, that major international events are being held there for both men and women (on S. Miguel).  The Azores are slowly becoming a surfing mecca for those want to surf with fellow aficionados, the main spots being Ribeira Grande, a powerful beach break with consistent waves, and Rabo de Peixe, a left-hander created by the harbor development.  Only for experienced surfers as these are, more or less, uncharted and sometimes dangerous waters.

Diving and Underwater Activities

The Azores is home to some unique and fantastic sub-aquatic setting. With a variety of fish and water mammals great coastal formations, excellent water visibility and temperature, the Azores have become a must-visit place for diving aficionados. Many certified diving centers are located in the various islands. Two decompression chambers are available in S. Miguel and Terceira.

Golf

A less strenuous activity is gold and The Azores are a great place for golfing due to its pleasant weather.    S. Miguel has 3 golf and there is one in Terceira, all fully certified and internationally recognized 18 hole courses.

Local Transport, Horse & Carriage in Ponta Delgado
Local Transport – Horse & Carriage

Volcanism

There is current fascination with volcanoes and on The Azores special mention should be made of the underground lake (Graciosa), the volcanic cones of Furnas valley (Sao Miguel), the remains of the Capelinhos volcano (Faial), the sulphur grottoes next the “caldeira de Guilherme Moniz” (Terceira), the basaltic columns of “Rocha dos Bordoes” (Flores) and the many grottoes and caverns on the islands of Sao Miguel, Santa Maria, Pico, Sao Jorge and Terceira.

Pineapples growing in glasshouse - a local speciality.
Pineapples growing in glasshouse – a local speciality.

If there is time for any other sports while on a trip to the islands, think about hang-gliding, bicycle rides, tennis, jeep safaris or moto-quad.    In fact, there are few sports that cannot be indulged in on the Azores, but if you aren’t a sporty type, there is plenty of beautiful scenery on which to feast the eye, gorgeous architecture, excellent and unusual shopping (think pineapple liqueur made on the islands, sea-island cotton goods,and  island grown tea).

A Street in Ponta Delgado
A Street in Ponta Delgado

Tea Growing in Portuguese Azores

Stunning colour of the azaleas in January
Stunning colour of the azaleas in January

Of all the things I expected to find in the Azores, that group of Portuguese islands in the Atlantic, stunning scenery, beautiful architecture, charming people and good food, tea was not on my list. When I say tea, I don’t mean the tea you find in tea-rooms and restaurants, I mean tea growing on hillsides and gathered in traditional ways.  So far from the Orient, so almost Europe, the tea is delicious.

When one thinks of tea, one usually thinks of Chinese or Indian, but I was more than a little surprised to find that the tea grown in the Azores, on hillsides that attract heat and rain in just the right quantities for this particular type of leaf, is quite delightful.

Frequent mistiness keeps the pastures lush.
Frequent mistiness keeps the pastures lush.

It is believed that tea was first discovered in China in 2737 BC.  Legend has it that the Emperor Shen-Nung, who drank boiled water for his health, was one day enjoying this plain beverage when some leaves accidentally blew into the drinking vessel:  the resultant savoury and aromatic brew started the passion for tea drinking.

It wasn’t until the Portuguese expeditions to the Orient 16th century, that the western world discovered the wonders of tea, but it was the Dutch and the English who developed the trade in Europe in the 18th century, which later reached the Americas.  Today, few houses in the world are without this popular beverage whether it is in the form of speciality teas, robust breakfast tea, or the current favourite,  green tea.

The Azores is the furthest point from Europe in which tea is grown.  It was introduced to the islands in 1820 when one Jacinto Leite started the first plantation in São Miguel, with seeds which he brought from Brazil, where he had been Commander of the Royal Guards in the court of Dom João V1.

Tea plantations very quickly took over from citrus growing on the island during the 19th century and in the 1850’s tea production reached approximately 250 tons – a lot for a small island.  Sadly, wars and a policy that protected the Mozambique tea industry, severely affected tea production in the Azores, and by 1966 there were only 5 of the original 14 tea manufacturers left.

Swirley black and white marble mosaic pavements
Swirley black and white marble mosaic pavements

One of these was the Gorreana Tea Factory (Chá Gorreana) which had been founded in 1883 by the Gago da Câmara family and which today produces nearly 40 tons of a strong-flavoured tea annually, three-quarters of which is sold with the region.  One of the things that sets Gorreana’s tea apart from others is that it is purely organic, as neither pesticides nor fungicides are needed in the region, as no pests exist in the islands.

The Gorreana Tea Factory produces 3 types of black tea – Orange Pekoe (a light and aromatic tea produced from the first leaf),  Pekoe (fuller –flavoured than the Orange Pekoe and prepared from the second leaf) and Broken Tea (produced from the lowest leaf).  It also produces a Green Tea (Hysso) rich in tannins with a very full flavour and green colour.

The islands of the Azores are delightful for many reasons, their exotic flowers, the dazzling colours of the blooms against the lush green grass, the charming people and the feeling of stepping back fifty years, but their tea is something quite special and should be sampled while on the islands.  It also makes a perfect gift to take home for friends.

Further details http://www.gorreana.com

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Cruising: The Verdict.

In my last post I wondered if cruising was all it’s cracked up to me.  Well, I have now returned from a my Caribbean cruise and have reached a verdict.  No, it’s not.

Lifeboat and Sea
Lifeboat and Sea

Mind you, I went with my viewpoint on the subject of cruising already half-formed.  My interaction with regular cruisers had not always been positive as I had found most of them to have little interest in the countries they visited: they spoke of “seeing” the city when they had spent a mere six hours there.  No harm there you may well say and I agree: we don’t all have to like the same thing.   But I felt that cruising took away the real adventure and excitement of travel, of discovering new things and being surprised by sights and sounds.

Big Ship in the Harbour
Big Ship in Harbour – Probably Celebrity Cruises

What I also hadn’t realised was the sheer competitiveness of the cruising lifestyle.  Those who had cruised most often talked about their Platinum status with certain lines, their Diamond status with others and their Gold cards, all of which entitled them to various bonus events and favours, champagne in the cabin, extra captain’s cocktail party, an upgrade (the only worthwhile bonus in my opinion) and early booking rights.  I listened in awe at the dinner table to the cut and thrust of the conversation and tried to work out if 4 Cunard trips equalled 3 P. & O and how many P & O’s or Celebrity Cruises would one have to do to have equal par with someone who’d done a trip on the Queen Mary.  It was a world I’d never known before, one fraught with social dangers.

Swimming in St. Vincent's in the Caribbean
Swimming in St. Vincent’s in the Caribbean

Then there were the back-to-backs, those who stayed on the ship and continued with the next voyage, sometimes 3 voyages all together.  Many of these people didn’t even bother getting off the ship when it docked, saying “Oh, we’ve been here before and it doesn’t change much!”  Well no, it probably didn’t, but don’t we all change with the years and what appealed last year might not this year so isn’t a town or city worth another look

The Azoes and Street Art

Amazing Street Art in Porta Delgado in the Azores

.But then I love my casually shod feet on the ground as I roam the streets and alleyways of foreign ports.  I love evenings sitting at wayside cafes and restaurants, watching the world go by as I sip a coffee or something stronger.  I love the strange smells that waft from the kitchens, the sounds of foreign languages, the frisson of excitement as one tries to remember the warnings from friends of the dangers of certain places.  And there’s none of that on a cruise.

I got off at every port, I went on some trips into the interior, but I don’t think for a moment that I experienced the Caribbean.  I saw beautiful landscapes and seascapes through the window of a coach, I managed a walk along a beach once or twice, and sampled Creole cooking on one occasion, but we never interacted with the locals.  I walked through the towns where we docked listening to the cries of the vendors, being hustled to take a taxi, buy a necklace, try some rum, but all the time aware that the ship would sail without me if I wasn’t back in time.  Even on the one day I managed to have lunch in the town it wasn’t possible to meet any local characters as I normally do.  I was an obvious visitor from the ship (two ships unloading over 5,000 people into a small town skews everything out of kilter).

Tropical Blooms in Martinique
Tropical Blooms in the island of Martinique in the Caribbean

So, I shall return to land holidays with maybe the occasional cargo-ship trip (these I don’t class like cruise ships – they are so different).  A week trekking in the hills in my own country, or walking in Austria or Switzerland, lazing on an Asian beach and attending a religious festival in the evening, or jazzing it up in New Orleans is more my style.