William Gray ventures out into the remote Atlantic and stumbles upon the whale-infested waters of the Azores
"In this one we boil mice.” Martim Cymbron nodded at the flatulent geothermal pool at our feet. It was surrounded by sulphur-stained boulders and reeked of the earth’s bowels.
“Oh,” I said, glancing at my guide, wondering if he was about to whip a rodent from his pocket for an impromptu demonstration. This was, after all, my first day on São Miguel, the largest of the nine islands in the Azores. How was I to know what quirky customs might have evolved in an archipelago stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? But Martim just stood there.
“So,” I said, breaking the awkward silence. “I guess you just hold them by their tails and dunk them?”
“Tails?” This time it was Martim who looked perplexed. Clearly we were experiencing a language problem. It didn’t help matters when I put two hands on the sides of my head and stuck out my front teeth. Martim’s stern Hispanic features twisted into a frown and it suddenly occurred to me that I might have made some terrible faux-pas – a traveller’s taboo, like pointing your feet at a Nepali fireplace. Perhaps rodent impressions just weren’t the ‘done thing’ in the Azores. But instead of reprimanding me with a quick dip in the zillion-degree water, Martim began smiling. “No, I mean mice,” he said, “like this.” And he held up his hands and pretended to nibble from side to side. “Yellow mice.”
I blame the sulphurous fumes for holding back the penny for at least another five seconds before it finally dropped and with huge relief – like a pustule of mud popping in the volcanic pits all around us – I spurted, “Maize! You mean corn-on-the-cob, don’t you?!”
Poor Martim. He was stuck with me for two whole days. What he really wanted to be doing was painting exquisite Azorean scenes of wild flowers and brooding sea cliffs but, alas, like many artists he needed to supplement his income. So there he was, standing among the hot springs of Furnas with a strange turista who did mouse impressions.
I like to think we gelled after our initial misunderstanding. Painting aside, another passion of Martim’s was mountain biking – one of the things that had lured me to this isolated archipelago that straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, 1,500km from Lisbon and 3,900km from New York.
As we left behind the stench of the fumaroles and pedalled out of Furnas, one thing which immediately struck me about the Azores, this oceanic outpost of the EU, was just how very European it all was. Until arriving here, my only other Mid-Atlantic landfall had been Tenerife, a dusty, sun-baked place that at least had a feel of North Africa about it.
The island of São Miguel, on the other hand, kept reminding me of Cornwall. We cycled past meadows filled with black-and-white-splotched cows and neatly trimmed hedgerows full of flowers. There was even a quaint little fishing village huddled around a harbour when we reached the coast. A small group of men were offloading a catch of tuna and conger eel onto the wharf, but otherwise Ribeira Quente appeared deserted.
Martim led me to an empty restaurant where the menu arrived curled up in a bottle. We ordered goat’s cheese and olives with a slab of maize bread, followed by grilled jewfish and octopus salad. It was going to be a long uphill slog back to Furnas and we needed all the energy we could muster.
We delayed the return journey by dawdling around the village. At the far end of the seafront was a black sand beach which Martim said would be quite busy in a couple of months’ time at the height of summer. “But not like the Canary Islands,” he added quickly, fearing, it seemed, that I was about to run away with some reckless idea that the Azores were a mass-market beach destination. Clearly they were not. I was already beginning to subside into the islands’ relaxed tempo and tune into the subtleties of their landscape and culture.
A softly-spoken woman with sad eyes unlocked the door to a single-room museum in which a traditional open fishing boat was on display with its paraphernalia of nets, hooks and knives. The walls were lined with photographs of people, young and old, holding aloft prized catches. A strong sense of pride and community spirit pervaded the room. I thanked the woman as we walked outside to our bikes. She forced a smile and locked up behind us. “I hope we didn’t put her to any trouble,” I said to Martim, but he shook his head. “There was a landslide here in 1997,” he said. “Nearly 30 people were killed. She lost some family – a daughter, I think.”
I hadn’t noticed the partly-healed scar of jumbled boulders and tentative vegetation when we first arrived in Ribeira Quente. On the slow ride uphill to Furnas I took a closer look at the scenery I had so quickly pigeon-holed as quintessential Europe. There was far more to it than the meadows and hedgerows I had glimpsed earlier. Waterfalls plumed from steep slopes smothered in verdant, almost tropical-looking, forest. And back in Furnas, a river crowded with yams bordered the rampant Terra Nostra Gardens where a global cast of Californian sequoias, Norfolk Island pines, Chinese gingkoes and New Zealand tree ferns added to the exotic feel of São Miguel.
The following day, Martim and I drove to Povoação where the island’s first Portuguese settlers arrived in 1429. We had coffee and cream-filled fofa cake at a pastelaria in the quiet town square, before driving to the village of Faial da Terra where a hiking trail probed the interior. We hadn’t walked far before the plots of banana and wild ginger on the village outskirts gave way to brooding, humid forest.
Ferns, still wet with the previous night’s rain, lined the path. We forded streams and scuttled through tunnels in bamboo thickets. And yet, just when I was on the verge of regaling Martim with how it all reminded me of Borneo, we emerged on a section of well-worn cobbled track. There was an old hay meadow to one side and the air was suddenly filled with the familiar song of blackbirds and chaffinches.
A short distance further we reached the abandoned village of Sanguinho – left to decay in the 1950s to a derelict maze of drystone walls and skeletal buildings when a nearby road project didn’t come quite near enough. Martim told me there were plans to restore part of the village as a tourist attraction. As we were talking about the potential economic benefits this might bring to locals, an elderly man arrived to drink from Sanguinho’s still-intact spring. With a nod of acknowledgement he shuffled off to one of the neglected houses, behind which I could just make out neat rows of newly planted crops. It appeared one local, at least, was reluctant to let go of the past.
The rain returned that evening and with it a low pressure front that jostled the sea until a bright filigree of spent surf rimmed São Miguel’s basalt shoreline. Martim had returned to his easel and paints, while I had moved on to the coastal settlement of Caloura for some diving. It was not looking promising. I’d been told that, underwater, the Azores boasted a surreal seascape forged from all kinds of volcanic shenanigans, but the dive operator at Caloura left me in no doubt as to where I might end up if I went diving that day. Jerking his thumb to the west, he enquired if I’d ever been to Manhattan before, and I left it at that.
There was no let-up in the weather the next day, so I decided to move on. A short flight north-west took me to the island of Pico where taxi driver-cum-tour guide Carlos Fernando greeted me with a cheery smile. “When it rains and the sea is rough,” he said, “it is time for a long lunch.” Carlos was keen for me to sample Pico’s famous wines and it seemed churlish to refuse.
Terras de Lava was a good white and the reds, Basalto and Curval Atlantis, weren’t bad either – particularly when accompanying a traditional meal of linguiça es euarmes (smoked pork sausage and fried yam) and pudim naõ sei which, literally translated, meant ‘pudding with no name’. Basically, though, it resembled something that one of Pico’s occasional earthquakes might do to a load of chocolate mousse, sponge cake, peaches and cream.
Pico is dominated by a dormant 2,351m volcano – a fact you must take the locals’ word for when the cloud base is practically at sea level. But even when Ponta do Pico is obscured from view, the island’s rugged coast bears ample testament to its volcanic past. As we drove along the island’s northern shore that afternoon, Carlos showed me swathes of lava, black and crusty like burnt apple crumble. In places the basalt had a dusting of vegetation (the so-called mistérios); elsewhere it had been used to create a honeycomb of drystone walls, each tiny plot sheltering a grapevine. Buildings, too, were mostly forged from basalt, the most imposing being the churches with their striking contrasts of whitewash and black volcanic stone.
At the town of São Roque was another of Pico’s distinctive features. Commercial whaling ended here as recently as 1987, and the processing factory and slipways where sperm whales were winched ashore have been preserved as a museum. After cringing amongst the factory’s huge blubber-boiling vats and other gruesome tools of the trade, I paused outside next to a bronze statue of a man, harpoon poised as he stood at the prow of one of the longboats that whaling crews once set out in.
It was a fitting memorial to their bravery and the losses they suffered, but I couldn’t help but wonder why there wasn’t also a memorial to the whales.
Mine was a typically over-sentimental reaction, according to Serge Viallelle, the following morning. Serge, a tanned Frenchman with a ponytail and sharp wit, ran whalewatching tours out of Lajes on Pico’s south coast.
“I don’t like people who are too green, people who are too against the whalers,” he told me. “They weren’t hunting whales for fun. They did it because they had to earn a living.”
Serge now employs local men to station the same lookout towers that once directed whalers to their quarry – only now it’s Zodiacs with camera-toting tourists that go in pursuit of the 25 species of cetacean (from blue whales to bottlenose dolphins) that are found around the Azores. I asked Serge what our chances were like that day.
“We’ve sighted maybe one sperm whale, one mile out,” he said, before adding, with a solemn flick of his ponytail, that the visibility was also one mile and that we’d be lucky, very lucky, to see anything at all.
Half an hour later, we were skipping off the backs of Atlantic rollers, our Zodiac guided by outbursts from the radio as lookouts on the coast struggled to keep in view the erratic blows of our sperm whale. Soon, we were drifting in a translucent cocoon of sea mist, with just the occasional shearwater floating idly by. The radio remained silent for over an hour.
Then two things happened almost simultaneously. A faint outline of Ponta do Pico emerged behind us and watery sunshine seeped through the receding fog. Within minutes, the radio crackled back to life and we had in our sights a young sperm whale slapping the surface with its tail. Serge told us it was probably calling the rest of the pod, and sure enough, we suddenly found ourselves at the converging point of at least 20 sperm whales, young and adult. Retreating to a respectful distance, we watched them coalesce into a tight social group, their backs touching.
Later that afternoon, I caught the ferry to the neighbouring island of Faial. Arriving in Horta, we passed hundreds of yachts nuzzled in the marina, their rigging sprouting a dense thicket of masts, cables and spars against the town’s historic waterfront.
There was something enigmatic and intriguing about that crowded marina in the middle of the Atlantic. More than anywhere I had been in the Azores, it seemed to exude the sheer remoteness of the islands. Strolling amongst the extraordinary fleet, I noticed a Speedwell, a Catalyst, an Impossible Dream – poignant names that pulsed with defiance.
Covering every inch of the marina’s walls and walkways were painted inscriptions of past visitors – a kind of ‘yachtie graffiti’ graphically portraying each vessel’s global wanderings. Many had scrawled simple maps tracing trans-Atlantic or round-the-world routes, and at the epicentre of each would be the Azores. Lines drawn from Cape Town, Southampton, New York and Buenos Aires all converged on this tiny archipelago. Here, at least, the Azores lay at the very centre of the world.
You can have all four seasons in one day, so expect warm temperatures (up to 27°C in summer; around 13°C in winter), humidity averaging 80-85% and a chance of rain in any month. May to September is good for whalewatching, sailing or fishing. To witness the island’s famous azaleas and hydrangeas in flower, June and July are best.
All islands, except Corvo, are linked by the domestic airline, SATA. Transmaçor (www.transmacor.pt) run ferries between Faial, Pico and São Jorge, as well as between Terceira and Graciosa. During summer, ferries from Açorline (www.acorline.pt) connect all islands except Corvo. Taxis and rental cars are widely available; buses operate on most islands.
Flores is claimed by many to be the most beautiful island, with its spectacular hydrangeas. During summer, a boat makes the daily one-hour 45-minute crossing to Corvo, the remotest island in the Azores.
Graciosa is renowned for the Furna do Enxofre, a sulphur lake located in a cave. On Faial, the historic port of Horta is worth exploration, as is Capelinhos, where an eruption in 1957 added 2km2 to the island. With its dramatic sea cliffs and deep valleys, São Jorge is a magnet to walkers, as is Pico with its challenging ascent of Ponta do Pico. Whalewatching is also excellent from Pico (www.espacotalassa.com).
On Terceira, highlights include Angra do Heroísmo, a town that once formed the hub of Atlantic trading routes. The twin volcanic lakes of Sete Cidades – one blue, one green – are certainly the most photographed of the attractions on São Miguel, the largest and most diverse of the islands. However, be sure to also visit Gorreana’s tea estate, the spa town of Furnas and the wonderful cliff views around Nordeste. Dramatic scenery is also a drawcard for Santa Maria. This peaceful island has terraced vineyards at Maia and a white sandy beach at Praia Formosa.
Influenced by the Portuguese motherland, Azorean cuisine includes locally made sausages chouriço (a spicy version) and morcelas (a black-blood sausage), as well as bacalhau (dried cod). Caldo verde, potato soup with cabbage, is popular.
Try the tasty local wines and Maracuja, a passion-fruit liqueur.