A WEEKLONG AUTUMN BREAK TO THE AZORES
Sunday 8th October: Cardiff to Ponta Delgada
The 0500 alarm came too soon but after a quick shower and packing the washbags into our already packed luggage, we were on the road soon after 0530.
A brief stop at Reading Services and we were into LHR T4 but sadly didn’t have our Purple Parking instructions printed out and frustratingly drove in and out of the Short Stay Car Park twice before getting on to Level 4 to hand over the car to Purple Parking.
Check in for our TAP Portuguese Airlines flight was easy enough and we were through formalities without any problems and into the lounge for breakfast.
TP1367 was an A321LRNEO with very comfortable seating and a friendly crew with a slightly delayed take off. TAP have 20 of these new airbus aircraft.
Inflight service and entertainment was better than I’ve ever experienced with our more frequent BA short haul flights. On this particular morning I read that no BA short haul flights from LHR would have any catering services on board, even in Club World.
We landed on time into Lisbon and passed through immigration into a very crowded domestic terminal. After a brief refreshment stop we went to the departure gate for a very sloppy and lengthy boarding process onto an older A321NEO for TP1863. With moderate turbulence for the second hour of the flight (with the crew strapped in as well) and a descent through cloudy skies, it was a relief to land. I noticed the cabin crew firmly gripping their seats so I did the same for a slightly hard landing. I was pleased we managed to land as the nearest alternate is back to Lisbon! Other nearby islands can accept aircraft of this size if the weather is better there though.
There were no formalities to pass through after the domestic flight and one of our bags appeared quite promptly on the luggage carousel but when it ground to a halt without our second bag we filled in the required forms before meeting our driver for the short drive to our hotel.
Our Charming House (Casa do Pãteo) accommodation was very centrally located so a good choice. Reception checked us in and showed us up to our room after a briefing about the facilities. Room 9 was on the second floor and very nicely appointed. We unpacked our one bag which had shared contents so we had enough clothes for both of us. The Casa do Pãteo, located in Ponta Delgada’s main street, is the result of an intensive renovation of an old 19th century building and combines unique architecture with elegance to provide comfort for guests like us.
The bed was very comfortable so we slept well and the air conditioning was effective. The bathroom had a double shower unit which I’d never seen before!
Monday 9th October: A day exploring Ponta Delgada
After a good breakfast we set off through the narrow and quaint streets and through the Campo San Francisco square to the 16th century Fort São Brãs which is also the military museum. It cost Euro 1 (senior citizen rate) each to get in and it’s worth a visit, particularly to walk around the ramparts which provide good views over the city and harbour.
Ponta Delgada is the largest town in the Azores and is set against a wide sweeping bay with a history of centuries old trade between Europe and the New World.
Continuing eastwards along the wide, tiled corniche we spotted the Varandas Avenida Bar/Café at the back end of the Praca Vasco Da Gama square and which looked appealing with both outdoor and indoor seating. We sat inside and enjoyed a beer (me) and fresh orange juice (Yolande) which cost Euro 4.60 which we thought was reasonable.
Our next stop, still heading eastwards, was to look around the Portas da Cidade dating from 1783, the old town gates (just the three main arches remaining). With the corniche now a bit less inspiring we headed inland to the Farmer’s Market, known locally as Mercado da Graça, but it was hardly worth visiting as only a few fruit stalls could be seen on the lower level, with no sign of fish or meat on the upper level. This market was due to be renovated but at present no work is being done. In abundance was the Azores Pineapple, introduced from South America in the mid-19th century.
Heading back to our hotel we popped into the Spar to pick up a few picnic items for lunch on our south facing veranda. We spent the afternoon there before deciding on the Namaste Indian restaurant which was just across the road. Sadly, dinner was disappointing with the Indian food not much better than average. Not to be recommended although the Chicken Tikka (a main dish) we shared as a starter was excellent.
After dinner we walked around the area surrounding our hotel and back via the corniche looking across at a small cargo vessel offloading containers. Cars from the mainland were perched on the top layer of containers which was something I’d not seen before.
As we were getting ready for bed, there was a knock at the door and our missing bag was delivered to us!
Tuesday 10th October: A Viator Tours 8hr 4WD exploration to the Caldeira das Sete Cidade
The birthday girl and I enjoyed half a bottle of champagne with breakfast not long after 0800 and we met our Driver/Guide on the doorstep, promptly at 0900 and set off in a slightly aged Toyota Landcruiser.
Arriving into the clouded highlands we stopped to look at the old 4km aquaduct before driving the eastern volcanic crater rim which surrounds Lago Azul. The track was a dirt track and there were a few other 4WD tour vehicles on the same route. Towards the Miradouro das Cumelras viewpoint we were able to get all round views but it was a shame it wasn’t a bright sunny day for my photography.
The volcanic crater of Sete Cidades is located on São Miguel’s northwestern shoulder and dominates the island. With a 12km circumference, it encloses two lakes which are of slightly differing colours, one is blue and the other is green due mainly to the depths of the lakes.
Descending into the crater we explored a couple of areas before enjoying lunch in Sete Cidades, at the Restaurante Lagoa Azul which offered typical Azores food including their delicious Beef Stew. We had to queue for the buffet but not for long and there were a wide range of dishes available. We both ordered wine but ended up with 500ml each of the red and white wines, more than a glass! The bill for the three of us including our wine was Euros 60 and Yolande and I had sampled traditional local foods. I'll find a recipe for the amazing Azores Beef Stew when we get home.
After climbing out of the crater we drove along the north coast, through Capelas and on to the lighthouse at Ponta das Calhetas before turning southwards back to Ponta Delgada.
One final stop was made at a waterfall which was ok but hardly spectacular. Our driver/guide was very knowledgeable and it had been an enjoyable day out, even if the Toyota Landcruiser was somewhat elderly.
Sete Cidades Horse Riders are a company offering riding tours around the crater (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Back in our room, the management had left a bottle of Mateus Rose for Yolande’s birthday which was a pleasant surprise. Years ago, we used to treat ourselves to a bottle on Sunday evening if we had 99p left after shopping for the week!
Dinner was out of town, beyond the airport, at the Taberna Saca Rolhas after our receptionist made a reservation and booked a taxi for us (Euros 10). This was very much a restaurant frequented by local people but the staff spoke good English. Yolande showed her Portuguese GF advisory card which impressed the staff. She ordered mushrooms as a starter and duck as a main course whilst I started with hake tempura followed by a fish dish which was excellent. Portions were overly large and I think the local tendancy was to share dishes. My hake tempura wasn’t really tempura but a coating of breadcrumbs. My fish came with a creamy rice served in a Le Creuset type casserole and most of it went back. Too full for desserts, staff arranged a return taxi for us. I’d be happy to eat there again now we’ve learnt the ins and outs of the menu in a restaurant with a lovely local atmosphere. Note that duck is served very rare……
Wednesday 11th October: Another day exploring Ponta DelgadA
Waking to a grey and overcast day we enjoyed breakfast and relaxed in our room before going out. Interestingly, the room isn’t made up each day but can be on request and the WiFi is very unreliable as well.
As we’d brought a cafetiere and coffee with us we had coffee in our room before venturing out into Ponta Delgada. Of importance today was looking for restaurants for our evening meals.
We walked up through the Jardim Botãnico António Borg where there were some odd looking trees and plenty of shrubs. We didn’t linger too long as all this vegetation was dripping rain onto us.
Next stop was the Parque Atlãntico shopping mall as we needed to pick up a few GF snacks for Yolande. The Continente Modelo Ponta Delgada supermarket was an amazing place and had a comprehensive GF area. The fresh fish counter was very impressive. We had a light lunch in the food court there. For anyone with any form of food allergies then this is the best place to shop.
With the rain having eased a bit we chose a circuitous walking route back through Ponta Delgada to our accommodation, booking a table for dinner in a restaurant close by. Back in our room, we found that housekeeping had made the beds and cleaned around.
Dinner was just around the corner at the Adega do Maestre André where friendly staff had taken my reservation earlier on our way back to our hotel.
Thursday 12th October: Our Guided Walk Day in the east of the island.
Gary Travassos, the owner of Azorean Tours (www.azoreantours.com), picked us up outside the hotel for our day tour to the Furnos area which lies to the east of the island. The vehicle was a grey Mercedes Viano van which was clean and comfortable. The fee for the day was Euros 165 compared to our Viator Tours 4WD tour to the Caldeira das Sete Cidades on Tuesday which cost Euros 250. We can highly recommend Gary and Azorean Tours for a good day out.
We stopped at an ocean viewpoint near Villa Franca do Campo for an introductory talk about the Azores before driving up to the impressive chapel of The Ermida de Nossa Senhora do Paz which provided fine views over the southern coastline.
Driving on we reached the parking area for our 2 hr circular walk around the Lagoa das Furnas which is the largest lake in the east of the island. There were toilets near the start of the walk and parking appeared to be free of charge.
The Vale das Furnas is a landscape within the rim of a huge caldera, centered around the pretty village of Furnas hot springs belching mud and smelly gases are clustered around the town centre.
Soon after we started walking we passed a Neo-Gothic funerary chapel known as Ermida de Nassa Senhora das Vitorias which is the final resting place of Jose do Canto (1820 - 1898), a famous botanist. Continuing onwards, we passed a high ropes course (similar to GoApe) before arriving at a geothermal area where underground cooking (for 7 hrs) was taking place and we were fortunate enough to see the staff from Tony's in Furnas, digging up the huge pans to take back to the town restaurant (reservations needed) where I thought we'd enjoy lunch after our walk.
Our 2hr 12minute (6.8km + 135m ascent) walk around Lagoa das Furnas was very enjoyable and we saw a variety of wildfowl with plenty of ducks and coots. Gary kindly provided a relive video account of the walk but I wish I'd known in advance as I'd have asked him to include some of my images......
Finishing the walk we drove into Furnas for lunch with my expectations for the fabled Cozido das Furnas (Chicken, beef, pork, spicy chourico, sausage, black, pudding, yam, sweet potato, carrot, cabbage and kale all of which had been geothermally cooked below ground for 7 hrs). Gary and Yolande had agreed on, however, a pleasant local taverna where we shared a pleasant Cheese/Meat platter with wine. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable lunchtime experience.
After lunch we looked around the town, hot springs and then bought a bottle of a locally produced coffee liquer.
We then drove up to the Miradouro do Pico do Ferro for stunning views over the Vale das Furnas and our walking route around Lagoa das Furnas.
Driving back along the north coast we stopped for a cup of tea at the Porto Formoso tea plantation. Having walked around tea plantations in India and Indonesia, we politely declined the offer to walk around these, preferring to head back into Ponta Delgada and our accommodation.
Dinner was up at a small local restaurant near the Farmer's Market which we'd found on our exploratory walks around Ponta Delgada, the Super Prato Restaurante. I enjoyed a choice of fresh fish whilst Yolande enjoyed a pork steak (which later caused her to be twice ill in the night sadly - possible caused by an unidentified cooking process which might have included gluten?).
friday 13th october: another lazy day in ponta delgada
Sleeping through to 0900, I woke to hear that Yolande had been ill in the night, to which I'd been oblivious.......After breakfasting together, I went for a walk up to the Farmer's Market and returned at around 1100 to join Yolande for coffee. As she was still feeling frail I popped over to the Spar and brought her a simple salad for a light lunch.
After lunch we took a taxi up to the Plantaceo de Anananas dos Azores/Pineapple Plantation but it was all rather a disappointment, shabby and not too much to see as it was hardly set in a plantation like environment. I bought one pineapple for a friend back home and the Pineapple Technician selected one for me which would be ripe by the end of next week. I don't really think it was the plantation we'd hoped to visit. It seems the plantation to visit is the Arruda Azores/Pineapple Plantation, which we might get to tomorrow, our last day.
We walked down to the seafront and along to the Varandas Avenida bar/cafe on Praca Vasco da Gama square for a drink before returning to our accommodation, on the way booking a table for dinner at a nearby seafront restauarnt, Cais Da Sardinha.
Reception booked us onto the 1030 guided tour of the Gruta do Carvao, the island's largest cave system for tomorrow.
We walked over to the Cais Da Sardinha and were pleased to be sat at a front window seat overlooking the harbour. I ordered sardines as a starter which were very yummy followed by spaghetti with prawns and this was good too. Yolande enjoyed chicken with mashed potato (which could have been hotter!) I ordered an Irish Coffee after the meal but the waitress bought me a miniscule espresso! I mentioned this to the Maitre'd who was annoyed by this and then made me the best Irish Coffee I'd ever experienced and told me it was on the house!
saturday 14th october: our final day in Ponta Delgada
After breakfast we took a taxi up to the Gruta do Carvao for 1000 to be ready for our 1030 guided tour of the underground volcanic lava tubes which stretched for 1912m to the coast and is the longest lava tunnel on Sao Miguel island.
Thankfully we'd made reservations for our guided tour and it was just as well as people were being turned away or waited on a standby list. Our guide later told me that only about 150 people a day descend into the complex so early reservations are essential. A highly recommended tour.
Donning helmets into the cave in a group of about 15 people we explored two sections of the cave system and the different colours and shapes of where lava used to flow were quite amazing. The tour lasted just over thirty minutes before we returned to the surface.
Light rain had set in and as we headed back into town we stopped at a friendly cafe (Snack-Bar Pizzaria Paraiso) for a coffee. We decided to head back to the Garten im Prasidentenpalast which are the botanical gardens surrounding the presidential palace which had been closed on Monday. Sadly, they were still closed to us as we couldn't provide appropriate identification to register and gain access as the palace houses the presidential offices. None of the guide books had mentioned we needed our passports to gain entry here.
We walked back down to the seafront and decided to lunch at the Cais Da Sardinha. Another good meal here, overlooking the harbour, with a nice bottle of wine to finish off our holiday. Yolande enjoyed her mushroom rissotto and I enjoyed red snapper.
After a final walk we returned to our accommodation for the rest of the day to pack and had a simple picnic type tea before going to bed early, ready for our early 0330 wake up.
sunday 15th october: flights from ponta delgada to lhr
I slept well but Yolande didn't but we were out on the doorstep for our 0415 taxi to the airport and were checked in soon after. Boarding the A320NEO was on time and the 2 hrs flight to Lisbon was ok with breakfast served soon after takeoff.
The three hour transit in Lisbon was a bit boring as it's not the greatest airport in the world and was crowded.
At the departure gate we were bussed out to our aircraft, another A320NEO and quite a good lunch was served soon after take off. This flight was about 2 hrs as well but we were circling west of LHR for quite some time before landing. Both bags arrived on the carousel this time and our drive home was about 2.5hrs.
We both enjoyed our week in the Azores and accommodation and flights were good although a direct flight would have been better but we were out of season for BA who apparently run a summer flight schedule.
The accommodation offered a great room in an excellent location but management need to bring services up to a higher standard in our opinion.
Following on from retirement, more time will be available for hill and mountain walking on a personal basis with friends.