Pineapples and Whales: Three magical days in the Azorean paradise of Sao Miguel

We arrived at our hotel in Ponta Delgada on Wednesday several hours late, due to a 6-hour delay in our flight from Boston. Azores Airlines, our carrier, clearly believes in ‘island time’ – our flight, SA200 has an on-time record of a measly 33%! Wandering around the outside of our hotel, Casa das Palmeiras, bedraggled and exhausted, looking for the entrance, a young woman burst out of one of the doors. “We’ve been waiting for you!” she said.  “You were supposed to be here at 7:00 this morning!” She introduced herself as Anna and ushered us in to the hotel.

I had booked the hotel for the night before and asked the staff to hold our room since our plane was supposed to arrive at 6:00 a.m.  It never occurred to me that anyone would notice whether we actually arrived or not.  What I soon found out is that this is not the way the Casa das Palmeiras operates.  Anna showed us to our room and then invited us to come down for breakfast.  The breakfast serving officially ended at 10:30. By now it was past 11:00, but the staff had held the breakfast for us. In our days here, we found that the staff consistently went out of their way to help us so many ways, offering suggestions for outings and meals and including offering to help us figure out how to pay a local parking ticket.

Casa das Palmeiras

The Casa das Palmeiras operates in a building that was built in 1901 by the Empress of Cuba, who was also an author, although no one seems to know what she authored and we don’t even know what her name is.  After falling into disrepair for a few decades, the building was refurbished and eventually opened as the Casa das Palmeiras hotel.  With its beautiful hardwood floors, high ceilings, and ample, floor-to-ceiling windows, it evokes a feeling of early 20th century Cuba.  It even has a lovely little crow’s nest at its peak. Beautiful.

Exploring Ponta Delgada

We stopped at tourist information on  our first afternoon and a really sweet young man gave us lots of ideas for things to do the next day after we picked up a rental car to explore the island.  When he found out we have roots in the U.S. South he got pretty excited and said, “I want to go to Georgia.  My favorite show is The Walking Dead!” 

Next, we strolled around town just taking in the sights.  The streets had the quiet hum of locals going about the business on a cool spring afternoon.  While we were out, the weather shifted from light rain, to sunshine, to the two combined, and nobody seemed to even notice.  The locals talk about ‘four seasons in one day’ and it doesn’t seem to be too far off.

Birds of Paradise were all over the island

We noticed a cruise ship docked in the harbor, but where were the throngs of tourists?  The small, volcanic island of Sao Miguel is an unusual destination, filled with glittering, caldaras, geothermal features, and lush, green mountains.  And, the flowers here are not to be believed – there are clumps of the loveliest tropical beauties: Birds of Paradise, Calla lilies, Agapantha, and so much more, growing wild on the side of the road. In addition, there is so much to do and all over the island: sightseeing, hiking, whale watching, and so many other ways to spend time, we figured the town of Ponta Delgada, as charming and historic as it is, paled in comparison to the many other activities that the cruise ship folks could choose.

St. Sebastian Cathedral in the center of Ponta Delgada

Ponta Delgada’s heyday was in the 16th century, in fact, it turns out that the city just celebrated its 437th anniversary as a city earlier this week on April 2. In our initial tour of the city, we took a walk through the St. Sebastian church built in 1533, and Jarim de Praca 5 de Outubro, a lovely town square with an incredible tree called a Metrosideros Robusta, or Northern Rata, a New Zealand cultivar.  The one in Ponta Delgada is 150 years old and at least eight feet in diameter.  The thing is huge!  More than the sights themselves, we just enjoyed the walk, being on a little island in the middle of the Atlantic in a quiet, historic little village.  This is exactly why I wanted to visit Sao Miguel.

Sao Miguel Island is the largest in the Azores, an archipelago of nine small, volcanic islands.  It has a land area of 287 miles, about the size of Singapore, and a population of around 140,000.  It is literally possible in some areas to stand in places one sees the Atlantic Ocean on the North and South sides of the island. We know this because we just did it yesterday!

Ponta Delgada city gates at night

One of the most impressive features of this island is the variety of its local products.  Of course, there are plenty of varieties of seafood, but also a tea plantation, citrus fruits, wine, dairy farming (including production of delicious local cheeses), beef production, and even pineapples!  What a rich culture.

Some of our favorite experiences on Sao Miguel Island

Taking a tour of Ribeiro Grande

We enjoyed a short tour of this small city on the north side of the island that has a river with a garden alongside the river, a beautiful church with a bell tower (which we ascended for a great view), and an oceanside boardwalk.  The ocean itself is a hot spot for surfers and has a gorgeous coastline.

Bell Tower in Ribeira Grande

Visiting Lagoa do Fogo, or Lake of Fire

According to some, this is the most beautiful lake on the island, and also one of the most seldom actually seen, due to the frequency of low-hanging clouds over the lake.  This is the youngest caldara on the island at 15,000 years old.

Lagoa do Fogo, or Lake of Fire – we were lucky to see it!

At the time we were there – and the time DOES matter, since weather systems roll through constantly, it was not only clear of clouds, there was even a little sun shining on it, showing of its beautiful green coloration.

Visit to a tea factory

Just beyond Ribeira Grande is the Goreanna Tea Plantation, one of the only tea plantations in all of Europe.  The plantation and factory went into operation in 1883 following the loss of an orange export industry caused by a blight and subsequent death of most of the orange trees.  It’s possible to roam freely about the factory as the workers process the tea and all are invited to enjoy a free tasting at the end of the self-guided tour. 

Tea factory
Tea plantings

Geothermal features at Furnass and eating lunch cooked in the earth

Furnass is a geothermal hot spot (pun intended) that draws visitors, many of whom want to soak in natural hot springs.  We skipped the soak – there were many reports that the minerals in the water would stain our swimsuits – not something we wanted to do in our first week out. We did, however, visit an area that has several geothermal features and saw the places in which geothermal hotspots are used for cooking hot stews in the earth.  This type of cooking was done for family get-togethers on Sundays in past generations but is now primarily the purview of restauranteurs. The restaurants set up their pots, labelled with the restaurant name, in public areas, pull the pots up out of the earth, to the delight of audiences of tourists who have travelled by bus to witness the event. The restauranteurs then take the resulting stew to their restaurant to feed to patron groups made up primarily of the tour bus passengers.

Stew pots are buried in the ground in a geothermal hot spot
Pulling the pot out of the ground
Our lunch of the stew, cooked in the ground

We happened to be on hand when a couple of pots were pulled from the ground and couldn’t quite resist the novelty of eating some of the stew, at once a time-honored practice in the region, and a side show for tourists.  The stew was delicious and included pork, beef, chicken, and two types of sausage, in addition to cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and collard greens.

Terra Nostra Gardens, also in Furness

Flowers at Terra Nostrra
There was a huge Northern Rata tree at Terra Nostra Gardens
Biggest hot tub ever!
LOL! This one cracked me up!
Terra Nostra Gardens

These gardens, which are part of the Hotel Terra Nostra, date back to 1775 and over the centuries has been tended by noted horticulturists and arborists of a number of generations.  Among its unique features, it has an avenue lined with Ginko Baloba trees and a collection of over 600 different cultivars of Camellia, one of the largest in the world.  It also includes a serpentine lagoon stocked with Koi, a topiary garden (which are not really topiaries, but concrete sculptures with vines allowed to run over them), and many other charming features.

Huge Koi in the Serpantine Pond at Terra Nostra Gardens

And, of course, the food

We’ve had some amazing food. Apart from the stew cooked in the ground, we’ve had a number of local cheeses, fresh sardines, grilled octopus, traditional fish stew, and a traditional Azorean dish with bread crumbs, garlic, olive oil, and herbs with a poached egg on top, which is vigorously mixed (by the waiter) into the dish.  Not everything has been an absolute hit, however.  At a highly-rated restaurant in town, the Fish Egg Salad caught our eye.  Ooohhh.  With so many whales, this must be Beluga heaven!  The reality ended up being something akin to Spam with salad dressing on it.  Yuk!  They can’t all be winners.  In all case, however, the local wines and beer have been quite special.

It’s a small island and we have experienced a lot, but…

In some ways I feel that we are just getting into the rhythm of being here.  We’ve fully enjoyed all that we’ve done, but would it be fun to spend a few more days? Absolutely. Oh, and, by the way, we somehow missed seeing any actual whales or eating any pineapple.  Next time…

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