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Postcards from a Caribbean Winter - Part 6, Cruising the Azores Islands

Rod Morris

Oh!
2006 Robertson and Caine Leopard 40’ Catamaran
April 9th, 2019

In the previous article in this series, Rod shared with us some of the beauty of the Azorean archipelago. In this sixth of nine articles Rod continues to cruise these Portuguese islands and highlights how easy it is to get lost in their rugged beauty.


Cruising in the Azores archipelago just seems to get better with each passing day. Every island is unique and yet they share so many basic traits, making exploring these islands a delight. The common threads are the people (whom I found to be genuinely warm and welcoming throughout the islands); excellent infrastructure that makes it easy and comfortable to explore on foot, by bus, scooter or by car; excellent food variety, both local and imported; and a community that enjoys the outdoors and an active lifestyle. The islands have exercise parks, well-marked trail systems, natural pools along the coasts and warm clean waters to swim in. Culturally, each island has a history that they preserve and present in museums, on information plaques and at historical sites. There are frequent festivals, sports and cultural events throughout the islands, where visitors are welcome and encouraged to participate. Add to all of the above the natural wonders that abound on every island or in the warm waters surrounding them and it is very easy to fill each day with new adventures.

The Azores are young geologically, and shield volcanic islands are not typically blessed with an abundance of natural harbours. Therefore, good anchorages are limited and even then they are usually exposed to weather in at least one or two directions. The larger bays or leeward areas that offer some protection are typically enlarged with massive breakwaters or “moles”. These have been built in order to enhance and expand on the limited natural protection of the bays. The Azores have put a lot of effort into creating man-made harbours, or enhancing the limited natural harbours. By building concrete, rock and tetrahedron-faced walls, they have greatly enhanced the limited protection offered in the natural harbours. The results are good marinas for local fishing and pleasure craft, as well as more options for visiting yachts.

However, it still is a planning task to ensure the harbour you are in, or want to visit, has space and offers protection from whatever direction the winds and waves are forecast. During the height of the season, this can be difficult as the larger marinas are quickly filled by visiting yachts, and the smaller ones often have very limited transient space available. Plus, anchoring may not be allowed in all areas or within the areas protected by moles. Therefore, for extended cruising in the Azores, it becomes a game of shuffling around the few available anchorages to match the changing weather, or getting dock space reserved well in advance.

For us sailing on Oh!, our 40 foot catamaran, the Islands of Pico, São Jorge and Graciosa were a tale of three anchorages. These Islands work very well as a group, since they are close together and their limited number of anchorages, each offers good protection from different directions. We spent two weeks on Oh!, exploring and enjoying these Islands and always finding shelter as weather patterns changed.

The Azores Archipelago. The semi-dormant 2351m summit of Mt. Pico dominates the skyline of Pico Island. Madalena harbour on Pico Island viewed from Oh! was one of our favorite Azores anchorages.

Madalena is the main harbour on Pico. It has a beautiful, although small anchorage inside the moles, with room for half a dozen boats over a good sand bottom. The harbour has a lot of commercial traffic, with shipping and ferries, but the small corner in which you can anchor remains quaint and picturesque. The waters are clear and warm for swimming, or you can enjoy the natural pools and sunbathing areas that have been created along the jagged volcanic rock shore line. The town’s main square, church and the towering summit of Mt. Pico created a wonderful backdrop each morning, as we enjoyed breakfast on Oh!’s spacious aft deck.

Pico has been known for centuries for its excellent wines. At one time, its wines were highly sought after by heads of European states and from even as far away as Russia. Unfortunately, blight decimated much of the wine industry and Pico is now in the process of resurrecting its heritage of wine making. Together with our Norwegian friends, we took a scooter tour of the Island. The route along the east side of the Island took us past many abandoned vineyards. They were easily recognized by their prominent dry pack lava stone walls that created hundreds of small square plots in which maybe two to six vines could be planted. It was sad to see so much labour invested in creating miles of rock walls, all built by hand, one stone at a time, that are no longer productive vineyards. The walls were necessary to retain heat and moisture, as well as protect the vines from the winter storms.

As we toured the Island, we found many operating vineyards along the north and northwest coasts. We saw extended families and groups of friends working in the fall sunshine, harvesting barrel loads of deep red grapes. Wherever we stopped, we found the workers happy to give us samples of the delicious grapes. It almost seemed sad to see them being crushed for their juice! The harvest was being done as it has probably been done for hundreds of years. Extended families and friends gather to hand cut the grapes and haul them in buckets made from ½ of a wine barrel, or large plastic tubs, to a waiting flatbed or pickup truck that could just as easily have been a horse or donkey-pulled cart. Then they were crushed and pressed with the same screw style presses we had seen in the museums. It is not uncommon for family members who live in North America to return each year to help with the grape harvesting and to maintain their attachments to family and the Azores.

As we rode around, we saw ruins of round rock bases that marked the many windmills that were used on the Island. Several of the windmills have been restored and are open for visitors. The internal gearing and mechanics of the mills are fascinating and the beautifully built wooden gears are like works of art. Our Norwegian friends told us the word, “Saboteur”, was coined in Dutch from people jamming wooden shoes (a “Sabot” or shoe, in Dutch) into the wooden windmill gears to destroy them. If it is true, it is a great sample of how languages evolve!

A restored windmill located on one of Pico’s many grape growing areas. Traditional equipment like this press is still used by some of the smaller family run growers. There are hundreds of miles of small plots surrounded by 4-6 foot high dry pack rock walls that protect the vines from the North Atlantic storms.

For much of the past two Centuries, whaling was a big industry in the Azores. There are dozens of abandoned whale processing plants scattered around the islands. Many of the smaller plants are now simply ruins, while larger ones are museums and are an important contributor to the economic livelihood of so many Azoreans. The smell of the whale carcasses being butchered and the blubber processed for oil extraction was apparently pretty strong, and I spoke with several people who remembered the “welcome odour” from the processing plants, as it was the smell of good fortune for everyone. The benefits of whaling were felt throughout the communities, not just by those directly involved in the catching and processing of the whales. Grocers to bankers knew the importance of whaling in the Azores. The whaling era ended in the late 1960’s as whale populations declined, and international pressure mounted to end the practice of whaling. Today the industry has evolved into whale watching, and museums proudly keep the history of whaling in the Azores alive through multimedia presentations and displays. One of the very best museums we saw was in Lajes do Pico, on the western end of Pico Island. The museum had the best displays of Azorean whaling equipment, tools, products made from whales, multimedia presentations and information of any museum we saw in the Azores.

A beautiful replica of an Azorean whaling boat under construction at The Whaling Museum in Lajes Do Pico. The insert shows a scrimshaw on the inside of a whale bone that is well over 1m long.

Pico’s biggest attraction is the towering summit of Mt. Pico at 2,351 m. Unlike the shield volcanoes that created the rest of the Azores Islands, Mt. Pico has not “blown its top” to become a large caldera. As a result, it is a completely intact massive cone that creates a very distinctive profile. Today this sleeping giant is ringed with seismic monitoring stations to provide advance warning if the volcano re-awakens and becomes active. As a geologist, I found it was impressive to look at Mt. Pico from São Jorge, and compare its volume above the calderas on the surrounding islands such as Horta. The power that must be unleashed to literally blow a third or more of Mt. Pico into the sky and then down its steep slopes is almost incomprehensible – yet it happens. We saw the aftermath of the power of volcanic eruptions and just how devastating they can be in St. Pierre on Martinique and again at Monserrat.

History has many examples of the awesome power of volcanoes, with the most famous being Pompeii in Italy. For now, Mt. Pico is taking a rest and offers energetic hikers an opportunity to enjoy a great day hiking to the highest point in Portugal. The hike to the summit is regulated to no more than 200 people at a given time. If you book a hike, it must be with a guided tour. If you are the fiercely independent type, like David and I, and you want to go up without a guide, you need to show up at the mountain base, get a number then wait patiently until your turn to replace someone who has just hiked down. An 8 am arrival found us 33rd in line, with an 11:30am start time for the climb. We enjoyed chatting with people from all over the world, who were all eagerly waiting for their names to be called as well.

Standing on top of Mt. Pico, which was the second major summit of the Atlantic circuit. View from the top “above the clouds” but warmed by the fumeroles, a welcome surprise at 2351 m! The “Art of Nature” lava flows in an infinite variety of forms like sculptures with variable colors and textures. Shown are three of hundreds of rock forms that kept the steep trail interesting.

The climb up Pico was something that had not been on my bucket list, but it was a big goal for David (from the catamaran, Adventurous). David is packed with energy and determined to live life to the fullest and I enjoyed his infectious enthusiasm for knocking items off his long bucket list. The trail starts in small scrub trees and quickly climbs through lava flows from long ago, and past exposed lava tubes. The views are spectacular right from your first steps and once past the tree line, you enjoy incredible 180 degree panoramas with each foot step. Along the way, the “Art of Nature” is displayed in the various types of lava flows, the colouring of the weathered lava and the artistic geometry the molten lava forms as it cooled and solidified. There is everything from the tuffs and bombs of lava that have been blown out of the top of the active volcano, to beautiful sinewy flowing patterns formed as lava flowed and cooled on its way down the mountain. At the top, Mt. Pico is truly a peak that ends in a point about 10 square meters in size. You truly are on “the peak” of Mt. Pico. The biggest surprise was to arrive at the top expecting to be in cool, high altitude air, only to be greeted by the warm moist air of the fumeroles, or steam vents. Mona and Arno had climbed Mt. Pico overnight to catch the sunrise. After a cold night on the mountain just below the summit, they were surprised and especially happy to be warmed by a steam bath as they waited at the summit for the first warming rays of the sun.

Our leisurely hike up and back took almost the same time up and down- just under three hours each way to traverse the 1,051 meters of elevation change, from the Interpretation Center to the peak. It is steep, with an average grade of 25% and steepest grades over 40% near the summit. One of the most satisfying moments came the next morning as I looked up at Mt. Pico while enjoying breakfast in the anchorage, recalling so many great memories of the hike. I now had a much more personal attachment to the beautiful setting surrounding Madalena harbour.

When the winds shifted around to the northeast, it was time to leave Madalena and Pico Island for the protection offered at Vila das Velas on São Jorge Island. You can anchor there outside the small well protected marina, but still be within the protection of the outer mole. The anchorage is comfortable for about 6-10 yachts and is in a spectacular setting with steep cliffs, where Cory’s Shearwater birds nest. The town of Velas is beautiful, with large mosaic tiled pedestrian areas, café’s, waterfront promenade, natural pools and well preserved architecture. Velas is a wonderful place to enjoy the sunsets behind the towering summit of Mt. Pico just 15 miles away. The marina allows anchored yachts to use its dinghy dock, showers, laundry and restrooms for a small fee. As with all of the islands in the Azores, you must check in when you arrive and the officials are always welcoming and happy to talk about their Island.

In Velas, we discovered the portable wireless router that works off the cellular network, with inexpensive data plans that are available throughout the Azores and Portugal. It was fantastic to finally have reliable, high speed secure internet. The portable routers meant we could take them with us everywhere and even had connectivity up to 15 miles offshore as we approached or departed islands. This same inexpensive and reliable internet service was also available on our portable routers in the Madeira and Canary Islands. One of the biggest frustrations I have had throughout the Caribbean was the difficulty in obtaining good secure internet service, since each island is a different country and has different service providers. In the Azores, it was one of our fondest wishes come true and it made cruising and exploring the islands so much easier and enjoyable!

Spectacular views from the steep cliffs of the caldera near Vila das Velas, on São Jorge Island. Mosaic stone pedestrian malls in the town of Velas. Faja da Caldeira de Santo Cristo is located at the base of steep cliffs along the northeast side of São Jorge Island. Throughout the Azores we found exercise parks or exercise trails like this one on São Jorge at Sete Fontes Forest Reserve.

São Jorge is a long relatively narrow Island like Pico, but also very unlike Pico. Where Pico is younger, more rugged and dry, São Jorge is older and filled with pastures and open agricultural lands along its upper plateaus. These plateaus were once covered in thick stands of trees that were logged, and the land eventually turned into large rolling pastures. Several areas are still covered in stands of native forest, and are now natural parks like the Recreational Forest Reserve of Sete Fontes. These forests are a stark contrast to the wide open spaces that cover most of the island. São Jorge is highly regarded for its cheeses and agricultural products that come from these beautiful pastures.

There are also many beautiful hikes and small villages to visit. The northern side of the Island is dominated by tall steep cliffs, with a few flat areas along the coast called fajas, that were created over time by landslides. Faja is Portuguese for any flat area that you can build on. The roads are impressive engineering works, winding down steep slopes and cliffs, and are fun to ride on scooters. At the bottom of these roads is usually a small village with a restaurant or café, and one of the many trail heads for the Island’s well-defined trail network. There are many beautiful hikes that originate on the plateau, 400m above sea level and end at a faja. One of the most spectacular and popular hikes is to the Caldeira de Santo Cristo, where the small village is tucked below towering cliffs on a former landslide that created a lagoon and beautiful faja. It is also well known for surfing.

The central part of the Island is a high plateau of open rolling fields and rounded hilltops, which allow you to enjoy fabulous vistas of Pico Island just 15 miles to the west, or open views of the length of São Jorge. We visited São Jorge several times while in the Azores, taking advantage of its snug harbour to explore the Island.

When the weather shifted again to light winds from the west, we had a short weather window to visit Graciosa Island. The marina at Vila da Praia is well protected by two large moles; however, if there are no other visiting yachts, it will still be almost full of local boats, with room for only a few monohulls of modest size and maybe one small catamaran. So Oh! was restricted to using the bay, open to the south and east, with only limited protection from the mole outside the marina. That was fine as the weather was forecast to be settled for at least 2 days, and it gave us time for a quick two-day exploration – and what an adventure it was!

The cave in the volcanic core at the Furna do Enxofre on Graciosa Island. Grapes in the vat ready to be crushed, by foot of course. Sampling last year’s vintage. Monitors showing the concentration of CO2 and air temperatures at various levels in the Furna do Enxofre cave.

Graciosa is a small Island and although there is a lot to do and see, a single day’s guided tour will certainly cover the highlights. The only problem is that that just wets your appetite to spend a lot more time exploring the Island. In a single day, we visited the thermal spas, toured the west coast, stopped and explored the Furna do Enxofre cave and underground lake, had a wonderful lunch, explored the town of Santa Cruz, took an impromptu wine tour and tasting, and ended the day with a cruisers dinner on Oh!. Each of these could easily have been made into at least a half day’s outing if we had the weather window to remain at anchor in the harbour, or had found room in the marina. As with all of the Azores Islands we had visited, there were excellent museums to visit, plenty of public artworks, and residents that were very proud of their culture and their Island’s history. Everyone we met was friendly and more than willing to talk about life on Graciosa Island.

One of the many highlights of a taxi tour were two, totally unplanned events that came together as the day unfolded. The first occurred when we stopped in Santa Cruz for lunch and to explore the town. It led to a chance discovery of a museum dedicated to the Graciosa agriculture and wine making industries. The displays were excellent, with beautifully restored examples of the implements Azoreans traditionally used for hundreds of years to create arable land, till the fields, harvest a variety of crops and process grapes into highly sought-after wines. There were multimedia and graphic depictions of how life on the Island evolved through the centuries of Portuguese settlement and the importance of agriculture to the economic growth of the Island. As we found in all the islands, the museums were inexpensive, so there was never any hesitation to enter and they are so well done that you look forward to finding the next one.

The second part of the afternoon’s chance encounters occurred as we were leaving Santa Cruz. We passed a group of men unloading a pickup truck full of overflowing half barrels of deep red grapes. We asked our taxi guide if we could make a brief stop and take some pictures and he happily agreed. It quickly led to an impromptu tour of the owner’s small family wine making business, which was simply a large door to a small, single garage-sized room packed with all the required equipment to make wine. We were welcomed with broad smiles, as our taxi guide played interpreter for our many questions. Without prompting, the owner proudly offered several handfuls of the freshly picked grapes for us to taste from the barrels that were ready to be crushed. Then out of nowhere a picnic table appeared, complete with glasses and a jug-sized bottle of last year’s vintage. That quickly led to an impromptu “wine break” for his friends that were helping him with the harvest, and a sampling session for us. There were smiling faces and happy people all around as we enjoyed the owner’s wines and learned about winemaking on Graciosa. His garage size winery was a working set of the same artifacts we had just seen in the museum. From this year’s harvest, the owner expected to make about 11,000 liters of wine, which would almost entirely be consumed by friends and family. The entire experience was fabulous and left us with wonderful memories and a strong desire to return and spend more time on Graciosa.

A restored traditional ox cart in the Agricultural Museum on Graciosa Island. Each Island has teams that compete in rowing and sailing races with traditional whaling boats, these are on Pico Island at Lajes do Pico. Whale rock on Graciosa Island and the beautiful clear waters of the Azores. The rugged west coast of Graciosa Island with its steep cliffs and flat fields above.

Unfortunately, the calm weather we needed to safely remain anchored in the harbor at Vila da Praia was forecast to change, so despite our desire to stay longer, we needed to move to a more sheltered anchorage. We made one more stop in Velas on São Jorge Island before heading east to the Island of Terceira. If I could have only one wish in the Azores, it would be to have more time on each island. However, as fall approaches the weather becomes less stable and that means moving among the islands to find suitable anchorages in ever shorter time frames. Plus, our Schengen visa clock was ticking and we still had three more islands to visit before the onset of late fall weather and possibly gales. After a very tasty bite-sized sampling of Graciosa Island, we left with great memories of a jam- packed visit. I am looking forward to returning one day and spending more time exploring Graciosa.

References from: Atlantic Islands Sixth Edition – RCC Pilotage Foundation, Imray books. Authors Anne Hammick and Hilary Keatinge

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