Thursday, August 30, 2012

Azores - Sao Miguel

Azores – Sao Miguel – August 22 to 25, 2012
Starlet timed the overnight run from Terceira for a morning arrival in Ponta Delgada located on the south side of Sao Miguel, the largest city on the largest island in the Azores. But for the capital city, clearing in was a bit clunky compared to most other Azore islands – no one stop shop! In addition to the harbormaster, we did need to visit customs, immigration and policia maritima. And what do you mean, there’s no free marina WIFI? But the floating docks were in good shape with long finger piers. That means easy on/off for the 4 legged crew members.

Our first impression was “uh-oh, this is Disneyesque!” The marina is inside a cruise ship pier lined with shops/restaurants/bars/game rooms catering to the one day tourists. Segway riders zipped past shops offering whale watching and glass bottom tours. A large swimming pool overlooks the marina, there’s also a popular salt water swimming area within the marina basin.

True to form, the main street facing the water was built up with more restaurants and shops for the tourists. But our second impression was that Ponta Delgada is much lower key than other cruise ship city’s we’ve visited (St. Thomas?). Walking around town, nobody targeted us with the hard sell, trying to drag us into their shop to buy a Rolex or designer purse. Our usual defense is to take Mitch and Tori through those towns – nobody thinks you stepped off a cruise ship when you are escorted by two 40 pound dogs! We didn’t need their help here.
We had a day before our friend Allison’s arrival. Time to hit the marine supply houses! Both of them were more like fishing and diving equipment shops with boat stuff on the side. But Mark found something Starlet “needed!” The swim platform typically is positioned close to the dock to ease access. She now has a special fender that can be lashed in place to protect the edge of the platform.

 On the way he also located the farmer’s market – we’ll need to stock up on fruits and veggies for the run to Portugal.

Allison’s plane came in at 7AM on Friday the 24th, and we moved into high gear.  Weather forecasts for the passage to the Portugal mainland showed a good weather window on Saturday and a possible window on Tuesday. We knew that if the forecast didn’t hold, we would need to leave the next day giving Allison just one day to explore the Azores. So after a morning walk through historic Ponta Delgada, we grabbed a rental car.

We made our way up to Furnas, a town located smack in the middle of the eastern most of three caldeira’s on Sao Miguel.  This volcano still has geothermal activity with some 22 geysers and hot springs in the area. Next to the Lagoa das Furnas, an area about the size of a football field is littered with fumaroles and geysers. The ground is too hot to walk on barefooted! Locals have taken advantage of this, installing concrete pipes underground over the hot vents. They lower 5 gallon pots filled with meats and vegetables into the pipes; cover the pot with a towel and then sand. Six hours later the stew is ready!
Of course after visiting the lake and fumaroles, we had to stop by one of the restaurants that serves “Coizado das Furnas”. And of course when we were seated, they had just sold out! Probably just as well, the dish basically looks like pot roast but commands a high price because it's cooked underground.

After lunch we drove through the winding and narrow streets in Furnas, stopping at the Terra Nostra Park.  Below the estate house, a swimming pool is fed by thermal water. Signs around the pool warn parents to keep hold of their children since the naturally hot water is also naturally muddy! Over a couple of centuries, trees and plants from around the world have been transplanted to the surrounding gardens. A Jurassic looking tree from Australia and giant lily pads stood out.
Sao Miguel's north coast
After Furnas, we drove along Sao Miguel’s rugged north coast, visiting the villages overlooking the water. Then back to the marina to catch up with Carole and Jim on Nepenthe.  We polished off some South African wine on their boat then they joined us on Starlet for a bite to eat followed by warm chocolate chip cookies. Allison did great on less than two hours sleep during her "red eye" flight!

Carol from Nepenthe serving South African wine

Saturday morning's weather update made it obvious that Starlet needed to start the passage to Portugal that afternoon – no time to lose. We raced to the other end of the island to Sete Cidades, another town located in a caldeira with two large lakes.  Driving and hiking along the steep ridgeline overlooking the town was striking, lots of Kodak moments.  Then Jennifer’s “best pizza ever” in a café on the way back to Ponte Delgado. After dropping Jennifer and Allison off at the farmer’s market to stock up for the passage, Mark dropped off the rental car just an hour and a half late. 
Sete Cidades
Even the cows enjoy the view
Bob and Janice from Tsamaya helped us cast Starlet off, but we had one last stop before setting course for Portugal. Ilheu da Vila just off the south coast looked from the charts like it had good underwater profiles for diving. With Starlet anchored next to a 200’ high pinnacle splitting off from the rest of the island, we suited up. Underwater it was the land of the giant boulders – many as big as a good sized house! These probably were left there when previous pinnacles toppled. At 7PM we pulled anchor and pointed Starlet for the city of Porto in Portugal.
Ilheu da Vila dive site

Azores Perspective – June 25 thru August 25, 2012
From the 1958 eruption
The Azores have many ties to the US, starting with New Bedford whalers. During WWII, the US built an AF base on Terceira employing many locals. Eisenhower created a special immigration status for Azoreans after the 1958 volcano. Even today it appears easy for Azoreans to move back and forth, many making a living in the US then retiring back home in the islands. In general the Azoreans are very welcoming to Americans and English is widely spoken.

There are plentiful high quality and cheap local foods including oranges, pineapples, plums, seafood, bread & pastries, cheese & yogurt, wine (less for a bottle here than for a glass in states!), beer (a glass of wine and a beer in a restaurant would typically be between 2 and 3 Euro). Most meals include both rice and French fries.

Pizza is a universal language; there is no problem finding ice cream. Cafes serve coffee, pastries, sandwiches – and a full bar! Beer, wine and liquor are available everywhere. Smoking is also everywhere, with cigarette machines in many café’s.

The Continente in Horta is one of the nicest grocery stores we’ve ever seen anywhere! The hospital in Angra was beautiful, efficient and cheap! Most towns have a “Chinese store” run by people of oriental descent and filled with inexpensive home goods and clothing.

Flores is pristine! Most of the islands have no litter, no graffiti and almost every home has a waterfront view.  Waterfalls everywhere.

Intricate tile walkways, cobble stone streets and fences and stone houses abound. Red tile roofs are standard. The islands do have distinct architectural features: chimneys, door handles and styles, roof tiles and wall colors, possibly because of settlement from different countries and during different time periods. Most windows have high quality shutters that actually work!

The geography varies between islands, from steep and rocky Flores to much larger and flatter Terceira and Sao Miguel. The geography dictates the crops – apparently rain generated by the high peak on Pico creates a perfect microclimate for vineyards. The volcanic history is evident in numerous lava caves and calderas.

The rich volcanic soil supports agriculture, flowers and interesting plants everywhere though the majority of the flora has been imported.

Whale watching has a big positive impact on the economy on Pico and Faial, with Azoreans transferring the skills developed over centuries of whaling.

Many cruisers miss out, just using Horta as a rest stop on their Atlantic crossing. We heard on several of the islands that Starlet was the first cruising powerboat to visit. Starlet does get lots of drive-bys, boats that circle her to check her out.  Lots of questions too.

Two 40 lb dogs are quite an attraction. Most other dogs are smaller, possibly because of the high price of imported dog food?

There are excellent asphalt roads, many with stone guardrails. We heard gripes that they were paid for with loans from Germany?? Picnic spots and scenic overlooks are common along the roads.

It looks like they took the first step and “killed all of the lawyers” (sorry Gary)! There are very few signs prohibiting activities, there’s no need for floats to keep boats off swimming beaches, parks do fine without guardrails at every cliff.  Common sense applies!  Cars actually stop when you approach a marked cross walk. Traffic circles are used instead of stop lights, perfect!
There are lots of sunny days with temperatures moderated by the ocean. Maybe not so much in the winter… There is very little A/C – you find people hanging out on their stoop when it’s a warm day.

The Roman Catholic religion is an accepted part of Azorean society, with village festivals to honor saints, the prominent bank is named Espirito Santo, the government sponsors religious statues, etc.

Lots of people get around on crutches. Toilets have buttons for #1 & #2. There are all kinds of funky little trucks and cars. You can actually walk and get somewhere…

The Azores: a friendly, clean, scenic bit of Europe out in the Atlantic.  Direct flights from Boston!

Photo album link:  
Azores - Sao Miguel

View Starlet in the Azores in a larger map

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Azores - Terciera & Graciosa

Azores – Terceira & Graciosa
We spent more time on Terceira than any of the other islands in the Azores. This island is the second largest with two major towns and the second largest population in the Azores.
Starlet at anchor in Angra do Heroismo
Angra do Heroismo – August 1 to 3, 2012
After an easy 52 nm run from Sao Jorge, we anchored in the harbor off the beach at Angra do Heroismo. This quickly became our favorite town in the Azores with busy cafés & shops and stunning views overlooking the harbor. Angra means cove in Portuguese; the town is built in the valley above the natural harbor created by the “tuft cone” of Monte Brasil projecting out from the main island.

The beach in Angra
With backpacks and good walking shoes we took off to explore the city.  Lunch out at a cafe, lots of nice shops, everyone busy with the days business. We found upscale homes with perfect gardens, churches and museums.
Looking up at Angra from the anchorage
Young love
We stumbled on a huge farmers market with good prices and high quality fruit and vegetables.  Next door there was a very clean meat market - we stocked up for the first time since leaving the States.  The fish market had all kinds of fish including whole octopus and moray eels.
Farmers market
Fish market

Overlooking the town, the Outeiro da Memoria has a pyramid erected to honor King Pedro IV’s visit to Terceira during the constitutional revolt of the mid 19th century. From the memorial, a beautiful park follows the hillside down into the town.

Overview of Angra

Praia da Vitoria - August 4 to 6, 2012
Starlet made the quick two hour run east from Angra to the second town on Terceira, Praia da Vitoria.  Sited on a natural cove, breakwaters were installed during WWII to create a large harbor to service the US air base nearby. Praia has become the party town in the Azores with vacationers drawn to the large beach.
Marina at Praia do Vitoria
After Rhett Barker arrived from Lisbon for a 9 day visit, we headed to an open house at the Lajes Air Force Base. Jennifer’s father was assigned here in 1951 during the Korean War.  He had a cushy job  - education coordinator for the troops. 
C5 at open house
Time to be scared!
Well behaved oxen
Our visit to Praia was during a major festival. A huge tent in the marina houses temporary restaurants from all over Portugal and the Azores. The park close to the marina is the music center. The entertainment starts at midnight and the DJ starts at 2:00 AM - way past our bed time!
A festival parade featured locals dressed in traditional clothing from several eras.  They brought along ox carts, cows, a hog and two donkeys. One group staged a picnic and dancing - both Rhett and Mark were invited to dance in the streets.
Time to dance!
Traditional clothing

Angra do Heroismo – August 7 to 10, 2012
We ran back to Angra to give Rhett a chance to see this city. Rhett is traveling before starting at the University of Florida this fall. He spent a week in Portugal before joining Starlet. In Angra on a hike to Monte Brasil, we saw the Castle of Sao Filipe. Built by the Spanish to protect ships returning from the New World, it includes 4 km of walls and gun placements ringing the bluffs.
Looking up at the Castile
Fortifications around Monte Brasil

Don't mind us...
 Rental cars were in high demand on Terceira. We ended up with a 4 door pickup truck with room for 5, so we were able to invite Bob and Janice from Tsamaya to join us for an island tour. We ran up the south and west coasts, past beach hotels and villages. In search of a cheese factory, we happened across an Azorean family transplanted to California that was back in Terceira for a visit. They dropped everything to escort us to our destination.

Later we made our way up the central peak to check out geological features of the island. Gruta do Algar do Carvao has a vertical lava tube leading down 125 m to two large rooms. 

Looking up at the entrance/exit?

Furnas do Enxofre is an area of fumaroles venting volcanic gasses. The Gruta do Natal is another cave system with hundreds of meters of passages winding through various structures created by lava flow.
Venting at Furnas
Wandering through Gruta do Natal

Graciosa – August 11 & 12, 2012
With Rhett on board, we made a side trip to Graciosa, a smaller and less populated island about 40 nm NW of Terceira. We anchored in the main harbor at Sao Mateus, and took off with the dogs to explore the quiet village.
How can I get up there?

Historic windmill
At anchor in Graciosa
The next day we found a cab to take us up to the calderia of the main volcano. If you look in the dictionary for calderia, there should be a picture of this place! A tunnel penetrates the sheer calderia wall providing access into the 1 km x 1 ½ km bowl. A cavern in the middle is accessed by a winding stairway leading down 100 m.

Stairway down
Below the opening

It opens up into a 130 m diameter room with an 80 m high dome ceiling - the most impressive cave we visited in the Azores.
Big room
Bubbling mud

The same taxi picked us up and drove us down to the main town, Santa Cruz. A large town square was being prepped for the procession at the end of their festival. This involved creating a walkway of multicolored wood chips and petals. 

Creating the design
Almost ready

Terceira – August 13 to 20, 2012
We made the 52 nm run back to Praia da Vitoria on Terceira in time for a final dinner out with Rhett. After he flew out on the 14th we ran Starlet back to Angra, the place Jennifer wanted to celebrate her birthday. Shopping, a mani/pedi – this town met the requirements! Before heading out for a birthday dinner, we had an impromptu gathering on Starlet with Bob and Janice from Tsamaya plus new friends Jim and Carole from Nepenthe. Those two are easing their way north through the Atlantic after spending 13 years going west from the US through the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Africa.
At anchor in Praia and ready for Gordon
The buzz around the docks was that TS Gordon was aiming for the Azores and predicted to become a hurricane. We had planned to leave on August 18th for Sao Miguel, 120 nm to the SE, but that would put us closer to the predicted path. Not wanting to face weather from the storm in Angra, we ran Starlet back to the protected anchorage inside the harbor at Praia.
We dropped the hook in 25 feet of water and 300+ feet from any other boat. Mark dove on the bottom and found the Rocna anchor nicely buried in firm sand. We had a day and a half for the storm to approach – so we went exploring!

Having missed the north side of Terceira on our driving tour, we took the bus to Biscoitos.  It was just under an hour away with stops through the villages along the way. In Biscoitos we walked to the harbor and found a crowd of beach lovers on the rocks and concrete platforms.  
Swimming hole
Concrete beach

Not a grain of sand anywhere.  The seas were very rough but rings of boulders break the waves and form channels for swimmers. After lunch by the swimming rocks, we visited the local wine museum.
Wine museum
Museum grounds

Gordon ended up no big deal!  The eye passed right over Santa Maria, coming at closest 120 nm from us. We felt some swell in the harbor but saw at most 25 kt winds. No major losses in the other islands. On the 21st, a day and a half after Gordon passed, Starlet left for the overnight run to Sao Miguel.

Photo album links:  
Angra do Heroismo
Praia da Vitoria 
Festival Parade 
Lajes Air Force Base 

View Starlet in the Azores in a larger map