My week on the island of Sao Miguel was a whirlwind. Not only because it was a short trip, but also because I was thoroughly blasted by ocean gales on more than one occasion. It was early spring in the middle of the Atlantic, so I'd expected some unsettled weather. What I hadn't anticipated were gusts powerful enough to take my breath away.
Hot springs heaven
When the forecast calls for wind, clouds and rain, it’s time to head for the hot springs. The orange-tinted water in the main hot springs pool at Terra Nostra Park didn't look or smell appealing, but we hoped the iron, sulfur and other minerals would do us some good.
Descending into the steamy pool felt amazing, especially given the cool air temperature. It was easy to stay warm while mostly submerged in the shoulder-high water. Spouts on one end of the pool gushed hot water with enough force to provide an excellent shoulder massage.
The pool was surrounded by gardens containing specimens of hundreds of different trees and shrubs, some from the islands and others from around the world. Our guide Hugo called it Noah's Ark for trees, since the species were usually planted in twos. Botany nerds could spend hours exploring the park
Before leaving, we waded into a natural hot tub carved into the rock. The water was hotter and clearer than the big pool, but just as sulfurous. It was sheltered by shrubs and trees, giving it a lovely 'surrounded-by-nature' ambience. It would have been idyllic if not for the woman stretched out with her book blocking access to the prime spots near the fountains. No matter, we were almost due to meet back with Hugo.
A most primordial stew
At Furnas, our senses were assaulted again. The smell of sulphur. The sight of steam rising from fumaroles and cats lying on warm patches of earth. The sounds of bubbling streams, gurgling puddles, and ducks quacking around the picnic tables. Judging by their girth, they’ve enjoyed good pickings in the area.
The fumaroles took various forms. They were both magical and foreboding at the same time, as if Mother Nature was giving us a stern lecture. Here's a sampling:
We were just in time to see the pots of stew (calzido) being pulled out of the fumaroles. Two men dug the covering soil away and used hooks to pull the kettles up from their hot cooking holes. The heat of each hole varies, but the stews had been cooking for about six hours. The pots were loaded into waiting vans for transport back to the restaurants that had prepared them.
We weren't far behind. Almost as soon as we arrived at the restaurant, a family-style platter of stew was plopped on our table. Hugo explained that the chicken, beef and chorizo sausage had been placed on top of the potatoes, turnips, carrots and cabbage in the pot so that the juices would moisten the vegetables. Very little other seasoning was used -- only salt and pepper. It was hearty and satisfying, but -- to be honest -- fairly plain. We had tastier food elsewhere on the island.
A hot river runs through it
More fun Furnas finds:
Steaming hot roadside streams channeling the mineral-rich spring water all through town
Pretty blue and white tiled street signs for even the smallest alleys, including one with a nod to Canada
Cats napping on the warm ground near the fumaroles
Public mineral water taps dispensing multiple types of spring water with varying temperatures and mineral profiles. The one I tasted was sweet and almost fizzy at first, but the after-smell was pure sulfur. Pee-ew!
An electrical sub-station masquerading as an upside-down house
Tea factory time machine
Visiting the Gorreana tea plantation was like traveling back in time. Hugo took us up to the tea-drying loft, which was hauntingly empty given it was the off season. He explained the sorting and drying process, then took walked us through various rooms of vintage machinery used for further sorting and oxidizing.
We passed a table of women hand-sifting through a towering mound of tea, picking out stems. They got to take the chafe home as part of their compensation. I was surprised at the manual process, but it must be cheaper and/or or more socially responsible to keep the women employed instead of buying a fancy machine to do the job. It seems not much has changed at Gorreana Tea since 1883.
We shared a pot of lovely orange pekoe tea, perfectly balanced and aromatic. The mini coconut cookies secured from the owner by Hugo were a sweet accompaniment. On our way out, we took a look at the green fields of tea bushes – a pretty sight on a misty day.
Church with a view
Nossa Senhora da Paz Sanctuary sits dramatically atop a hill overlooking the sea and the town of Vila Franca do Campo. It took a brisk climb up 100 steps to reach, but the reward was a stunning panorama of blue ocean, green pastures and the terracotta-roofed homes of the village. Plus a good number of gray clouds on that particular day.
Hugo told us about the town's tragic history. It was the capital of the archipelago until a devastating earthquake in the 16th century killed over 5,000 people, burying most of the village.
Eventually, people started to move back and rebuild. The town is now a production hub for the island's pineapples and frequent host to Red Bull's cliff diving championships. The daredevils show off their tricks on an islet just offshore.
Back in town, Hugo pointed out some good restaurants for us to try during our stay. It was hard to say goodbye when he dropped us of. He was so passionate, funny and fiercely proud of the Azores. He joked with us and teased us throughout the day, but when we found out he was still living with his mother at 30, we teased right back.
4-wheeling around volcanoes
The Azores archipelago was formed by volcanic eruptions, and Sao Miguel has three active volcanoes. We saw two of them – Fogo and Cete Cidades – on a full day jeep tour. Our driver-guide Nuno expertly navigated wild cliff-side curves and rutted tracks to transport us to the best viewpoints. In some cases, the clouds stubbornly refused to lift, but the island is packed with so many stunning views that we didn’t lack for them.
There were dramatic steep cliffs pounded by crashing waves, lush green hillsides, calderas and volcanic peaks. We saw blue and green crater lakes, misty forests and windy roads lined by bright pink azaleas and gracefully tall Japanese red cedars. And many contented cows grazing and lounging in luxuriant pastures. Along the way, Nuno regaled us with facts about the geology, ecology, history and economy of the island, only some of which I retained.
And there was the wind. At the top of one cliff, I had to lean into the gusts to avoid being blown backwards. Tammy had gone back to the jeep for shelter, but I couldn't tear myself away from the exhilaration of it. The sleeves of my windbreaker puffed out like wings. For a moment I felt that if I jumped, I'd surely fly.
We visited the shore of Lagoa Azul and the sleepy village of Sete Cidades, both of which lie completely within the crater of Sete Cidades volcano. The name translates to 'Seven Cities'. Legend says the community was established by seven Christian bishops and their followers fleeing the mainland in fear of a Muslim invasion. We saw only one church in town - a small gothic structure dwarfed by the giant cedars surrounding it.
At Caldera Velha we walked through lovely botanical gardens to two different hot pools fed by steaming waterfalls. It was the same iron-rich brown water we’d encountered at Furnas. We opted to forego swimming, instead following a forest path to a “relaxation area”. We spotted wild mushrooms, whistled at birds and listened to the wind rustling through the trees.
How great thou wast
The town of Ribeira Grande was a neat grid of pastel buildings. A funeral was just ending at the large Gothic church. Pallbearers gently lifted a casket into a waiting van, and others loaded up a never-ending stream of floral wreaths and bouquets. We were told it was a very reserved service compared to traditional funerals. In days past, paid 'wailers' were often hired to cry and moan throughout a funeral to demonstrate how well-loved the departed had been.
Yes Sao Miguel Island, you were breathtaking in more ways than one. Tchau for now, but I hope to feel your wind in my hair again some day.