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Monday, 29 June 2015

Last dips

On our final day we set out for some more natural volcanic springs which empty into the sea a little way down the coast from us. The sun was bright but the wind was fierce and when we found the rocky inlet where the springs warm the incoming tide, Tom and I wimped out. Philippa, always a sucker for the free spa, bravely lowered herself in carefully avoiding the jellyfish. But the tide was high and the water was cold. Shuddering slightly but grinning, she battled the swell and pulled herself out. We went back up the hill to the non-free spa further up the cliff and lounged in the hot, salty outdoor pool as the wind flicked the water at us and an elderly Japanese lady in baseball hat and sunglasses did very slow lengths. 

Tom felt a bit cheated about coming to the sea and not playing in it. After a mighty lunch in Mosteiros, in a cafe overlooking the friar and the nun, he and I went to the black sand beach with a boogie board. The beach was almost too hot to walk on, which contrasted nicely with the sea which was almost too cold to swim in. But not quite. T and I managed to ride several waves which blasted our legs with pebbles on the undertow. Honour was satisfied and we sat in the sun drying off, feeling like hero surfers. 

We went back to the house where P was soaking up the sun on the terrace while the waves crashed on the rocks below. It was a grand way to end the week; sun sinking down over a pounding shoreline and the three of us with glowing faces. 

Of volcanos and vents

Sao Miguel's volcanic birth is unmistakeable wherever you are in the island. The beaches are black of course and the velvet green grass covers fumaroles, sharp lava ridges and long extinct cones. In places there are hot springs and bubbling mud pools and we set out from Mosteiros to find some, taking the small road up the hill to the north of the village. It started off paved and then as it became steeper, became unpaved and soon we were on a farm track winding up the slope, popping out onto the main road at the top. It was a great shortcut and despite trying a couple of times to find it on our way back into the village, we never could. 

Instead of taking the coast road, we went through the largest caldera on the island to see its two large lakes. The postcards show one to be blue and one green, separated by a road. The view was lovely but the lakes looked the same colour to us. It is breathtaking though to be so high on the crater edge imagining the size of the volcano that built the island. On one overlook there is a vast hotel, built to be one of the finest in Portugal. Apparently it never filled up and closed within a year. A few years after that the owners stopped paying for security guards and eventually it was stripped. It remains now as the kind of giant concrete shell discovered in films about lost civilisations. 

The village of Furnas has cashed in on the fact that it is riddled with cracks and chasms, venting boiling water and sulferous gasses. Actually, "cashed in" is unfair. We haven't come across anything which feels like a tourist rip-off. In Furnas we paid two euros each to dip in the hot pools that someone had carved out of the rock, watching the runoff pour into a shallow stream with an ochre bottom which runs steamily through the village. We soaked our faces and felt the skin tighten. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.

In the middle of Furnas is a low grey mound with numerous natural jacuzzis bubbling furiously and great clouds of stinky steam billowing about. Set into the walls were little spouts, some delivering hot water others delivering water that was cold and fizzy. The drains were all steaming too. It was a little parcel of Yellowstone deposited in the middle of a village, surrounded by all the usual village trappings- houses, a shop, a church - all carrying on pretty much regardless. 

On top of the world (or at least the island)

The highest point on Sao Miguel is Pico da Vara. And my guide to walking in the Azores told me it was the only "hard" hike on the island. The weather is fairly unpredictable with clouds liable to blow in at a moments notice but with the promise of sunshine for at least most of the day we set out to drive almost the length of the island and walk up the Pico. The North Coast is a lovely rolling drive through small villages looking out across the sea. Everywhere there are brilliant clumps of pink azaleas and we were all reminded of Hawaii: a brilliant green interior with black lava beaches, palm trees and flashes of tropical colour. Halfway across the island a new straight road cuts across the the East and it took fifteen minutes to cover the same distance we had taken an hour to drive along the coast. We were about the only car on it.

The access road into the park is a steep drive over sharp volcanic cinders, tyres squirming to get a grip. After ten minutes of climbing we came to the start of a straight path up through tall conifers. Our guidebook said this was a five hour path but we couldn't really tell whether that was only one way so after a handful of chocolate each we set off, not really knowing what to expect. We hadn't got far before I realised that we were all wearing our ordinary shoes and had left the walking boots in the back of the car. Ahem. Back to the car, change, and off again steeply up through the quiet woods, a line of blue sky between the tree-tops over our heads. P and I were sweating by the time we emerged above the tree line. From here we walked along the ridge top, past the site of an Air France crash in the 1940s, marked with a stone cross. Ahead of us and quite a bit further up was the Pico, like a green shark's fin. 

At the top it was still clear and we could see right across the patchwork of San Miguel and out to Santa Maria the closest island to us. We ate sandwiches and hard boiled eggs watching clouds form in the valleys below and eventually sweep up the flanks of the mountain. As we prepared to head down we were enveloped in cloud and the view vanished. Half an hour later and we would have been too late to see anything from the top. Tom, the mountain goat wanted to race between trail markers which, fortified with nuts and chocolate, P and I did, though on one sharp curve a managed to flip over a bank and land in the bottom of a boggy ditch. Tom, sensing my distress, immediately took the opportunity to overtake me and win that leg of the race, before coming back to ask if I was ok... There was laughing, though not much of it was mine. 

Once back at the car we decided to head on to the eastern tip of the island as we were so close, and we found a place in Nordest for coffee and ice-cream, just off the main square.  Every community it seems has its church in the middle, then a square marked out in white inlay, usually with a shop or a cafe at its edge. Nordest was utterly quiet and we dipped into the Spar to get some supper. These shops are terrific. There is no superstore out of town to go to so everything you need is right here; tinned goods, frozen fish, plumbing parts, tools, sacks of potatoes, huge oranges and bread made that morning. We got a bit of everything for supper. Though Philippa made me put the plumbing parts back. 

Just out of town was a sign for a lighthouse which we followed, parking at the top of a steep concrete road where a sign advised us to walk. It was unbelievably steep, zig -zagging down to a compact lighthouse perched on top of a bunker-like building where the keeper lived. Beyond it, further down, was a miniature fishing community with tiny houses set into the cliff and huts for storing the gear. There was no real harbour and the cobbled slipway was short and so steep that a giant winch was used for hauling up the boats and parking them in the street.  It was the unlikeliest, most inaccessible place for a fishing village and it looked as if it no longer had a permanent population, but it was still in use. As we walked back to the car rain fell in a fine mist and the lighthouse was crowned with a ragged rainbow. 

Ponta Delgada and whales

Ponta Delgada is far and away the biggest place on the island - a city I suppose but a town anywhere else. It's pavements are marked with designs picked out in white stones, mostly straight lines like tram tracks but sometimes a street name or a symbol of some sort. One of the squares has a swirling whale and it's what I have always associated with the Azores. You can see all sorts here; sperm whales and humpbacks and even the blue whale which I have always wanted to find. We took a zodiac whale-watching tour lead by a Swedish marine biologist with a mane of curly hair bleached by the sun. She spoke softly about what we might or might not see; "we don't know either". And after changing into wetsuits (in case the dolphins proved friendly) we cruised out of the harbour in brilliant sunshine on a twelve seater boat. The sea was a ripple of melted blue-green glass, the swell lazy and unthreatening with no white-caps anywhere. It wasn't long before we saw dolphins flipping and leaping almost all around us. Some were jumping high out of the water, flanks flashing in the sunshine and splashing back into the sea. There were turtles too, their shells breaking the water like little brown Islands, only swimming down once our boat was alongside them. The water was so clear we could watch them dive. Jasmine and her partner were in touch with their whale spotter on the shore and all of a sudden the boat turned around and we bounced back the way we came to see two whales spouting and diving ahead of us. A fluke flipped slowly out of the water, curled and sank back into the sea as the whales dived and we bobbed about trying to guess where they would surface in a few minutes time. They appeared a few more times, heading out to sea before we let them go and returned to the harbour. We didn't swim with the dolphins; Jasmine was apologetic but they have a strict policy of only letting people into the water with them if the dolphins appear happy to remain around the boat. We didn't mind a bit. It was a lovely morning. 

Lunch was in what felt like an old stable of some kind. No horses but no windows either. The restaurant had a good reputation and was hidden in a backstreet. Tom had a rich dark octopus stew while P and I had fish we had never heard of because that was what was fresh that morning. We ordered two glasses of Azorean wine and the waiter poured them and then left the bottle with us... It was a thoroughly good lunch with thick pieces of pineapple cake for pudding and we staggered out blearily into the sunshine. 

One of the nice things about Ponta Delgada is that it is full of small businesses with none of the ubiquitous conglomerates we have become so used too. In a tiny, musty, shoe shop with boxes stacked up around the walls, we bought €5 water shoes for walking around the jagged lava rock pools. It was like shopping used to be in my childhood; rows of small shops run by the owner with exactly what you needed.