In the previous article in this series, Rod took us with him as he crossed the Atlantic on a solo passage. In this fifth of nine articles Rod highlights the beauty of the Azorean archipelago.
It was late in the afternoon on July 23 and there was only a few hours of sunlight left. Ahead, rising steeply out of the sea was the first land seen in 13 days. The northwestern cliffs of the Azores Islands of Corvo and Flores towered above the foaming waves breaking at their bases. The final decision of my Trans-Atlantic passage was whether to pass north of Corvo, or take a shorter route between the two Islands. My destination was Lajes on the southern tip of Flores, but I had already ruled out taking the southern route directly to Lajes – I wanted to see the spectacular cliffs at the northern ends of each of these islands from the sea. It would mean another night at sea but that could not be avoided anyway. I was reluctant to enter the small port of Lajes at night with its variable holding and rocky patches, and without any knowledge of how crowded the anchorage would be. The forecast was for light winds from the northwest, so sailing around the northeastern tip of Corvo would allow me to drift slowly down wind in the lee of each island while I waited for sunrise and caught a few naps.
The setting sun lit up Corvo’s towering cliffs and the green slopes of the caldera. The colors were brilliant, but something about the colors was off. The Island was laced with miles and miles of bluish grey lines. As I rounded the northern tip of Corvo it became clear, they were rock walls covered with hydrangea. My first thought was – what an unbelievable amount of work it would have been to build all those walls one rock at a time. Miles upon miles of stone walls one rock at a time and all by hand! Piled high and lasting centuries with no cement, the rock walls were all dry packed. It was my first impression of these islands, but it would not be the last time I would marvel at the hard work, perseverance and special nature of the Azorean people and the Azores. Let the adventure begin!
The Azores are made up of nine large islands and many small islets and rocks. They lie just east of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, 750 nm. (nautical or statute miles) west of Portugal. They are spread out over an area that is 180 nm. north to south, and 300 nm. east to west. The islands were first colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th century and were uninhabited prior to that. They are made up of a succession of shield volcanoes that over time have left behind many large calderas as a result of the violent eruptions as their tops exploded off. The sole exception is Pico Island whose giant towering summit is still intact. The long history, although short in a geologic time frame, of volcanic activity is evident everywhere and is still active today. The most recent major eruption was on the Island of Faial in 1957. That eruption played a major role in both the immigration and emigration of Azoreans, as well as the adventures we would enjoy as we cruised the Azores engrossed in the magic of these islands.
The reason the 1957 eruption was so influential was that it created a wave of emigration to Canada and the United States. However, the Azoreans that left have kept deep roots in the islands and many have returned to either retire, or spend a large portion of each year back in the Azores. Much to our delight, many liked to work as tour and taxi drivers. So we had many wonderful adventures and tours with semi-retired Azoreans that spoke excellent English. As you can imagine, they had a long history of their lives within the islands 60 years ago, and also of their adopted homes that they would willingly share as we toured around. I had originally thought I would spend 3 weeks to a month in the Azores – that turned into three months and not wanting to leave at all. In a single sentence, “The Azores are spectacular!”
Flores and Corvo are the western most Islands in the Archipelago and are both rural and unspoiled by mass tourism. However, they do have wonderful eco-touring operations that have developed out of their whaling history and the unique geological and geographical settings of the islands. Both Islands have suffered from a continual decline in permanent residents as the younger generations leave for higher education and jobs elsewhere. As a result the villages often seem almost deserted, yet well kept. These islands have a slower pace and relaxed lifestyle that makes them a great place to get away. Several entrepreneurial types are renovating the old lava stone and terracotta roofed homes into upscale lodges and vacation residences for hikers and people who just want to get away – but get away with the ability to still be in touch with the world. These dwellings have all the comforts of a charming place to settle into each night, and a very quiet and spectacular island to explore.
The Islands are incredibly clean with almost no litter, recycling is found everywhere, even at trail heads and the sense of pride the locals have in their island is clearly evident in the well-kept homes, abundant flowers and clean towns. The close association with Europe is also evident. Just as we found in the Caribbean Islands, that are still a part of the Netherlands or France, the Azores, as part of Portugal, have benefited heavily from European money, and it shows in the excellent roads, services, very inexpensive food and well developed cultural and tourism venues. Despite their small populations there are many interesting and excellent museums highlighting the cultural, geographic, geological, natural and whaling histories of the islands and Azorean life.
I was fortunate to enjoy an extended spell of settled weather and got to stay on anchor at Lajes for 16 days. Both the Lajes harbor master and Silva, (the taxi driver I regularly used who had immigrated to Canada as a young man and returned to retire back on Flores), were amazed on multiple occasions that I was still there. “Most people only stay a few days and leave”, they would say. My response was I couldn’t leave, it was just too relaxing and wonderful…and I still hadn’t seen everything!
The added benefit was fantastic internet access. I purchased a small unlocked portable wireless router for $50 euros that included 15 GB of data for 15 days. That meant I could have full internet access 24 hours a day at high speed while hiking, sailing, or touring the islands. After the frustrations of dealing with the choppy and irregular internet access of the Caribbean, this was a dream come true – and it was inexpensive and easy to just keep recharging. Canada has a long way to go to catch up with this kind of convenience. It actually disgusted me when I returned home for a week to see how badly serviced we are and how expensive Canadian internet access is in comparison to these sparsely populated and remote islands in the Atlantic.
The Azores have a long and proud history of whaling and they are preserving that history. Many of the techniques they developed to spot the whales and direct the whaling boats to them during the last century are now employed with great success and modern communications to direct the new fleet of eco-tourism whale watching boats. It would be a poor day in the summer for a whale watching boat not to get their clients several good sightings of a variety of whales and dolphins. Throughout the islands there are reminders of the importance whaling played in the economy of the Azores over the past 150 years. There are many abandoned or converted whale processing plants, boat launching areas, the whale watching huts (from where spotters would spend their days with powerful binoculars and rocket flares to direct the boats to pods of whales) and plaques or monuments that celebrate the prowess of the Azorean whalers.
The connection to the sea is also apparent in the fishing and recreational pastimes of the islands. One of our favorite breaks was to visit one of the dozens of ocean side natural swimming areas for a refreshing swim. Any area that has a some natural rock enclosure is often developed with walkways, access ladders, a sun bathing area, change areas and outdoor fresh water showers. They allow people to swim in the warm waters with easy and safe access to the sea despite the rocky and dangerous shorelines of the islands. It is not uncommon to enjoy the spray or even breaking waves in these pools that turn them into natural Jacuzzi spas when a wave breaks into them.
Having spent 16 days anchored in the tiny harbour of Lajes, and enjoying the culture of Flores, I really didn’t want to leave. However, Oh! needed a new port lower shroud and I wanted to catch up with my friends, David and Mary, in Horta. We planed to climb to the summit of Mt. Pico, the highest point in Portugal. So, reluctantly I weighed anchor and sailed and motored overnight to the island of Faial.
The overnight motor/sail was fabulous – light airs and a calm sea under a canopy of billions of stars was engrossing. The air was warm and I had an experience that was one of those rare occasions you just never forget. At about 3 am, a pod of pilot whales or dolphins came to visit Oh!. In the black of the night, and with calm seas, the only traces of their presence were the bioluminescent streaks that developed each time they broke the surface and the sound of their blow holes as they breached to breathe. It was like watching rapid fire shooting stars in a sea of black – a truly memorable sight.
Horta is the main harbour and city on the island of Faial. It is a world away from the rural settings and tranquility of Flores. Horta is a bustling city that is the center of yachting in the Azores and host to the annual week long Yachting Festival. During this week its famous promenade is filled with outdoor dining venues, a concert stage and decorative lights. It is also home to the famous Sailors Bar and several highly rated restaurants like Genuino’s. The owner, named Genuino, is well known in the Azores for his two solo circumnavigations. At the time he was one of only 11 solo circumnavigators to have rounded all of the world’s southern capes solo. His restaurant features a traditional Fada each week that is an evening of dining and live traditional folk singers and musicians. Besides the good food and admiring the memorabilia in his restaurant, we enjoyed a wonderful evening of entertainment and friendship with Mona and Arno, our Norwegian friends on their second Atlantic circuit.
Aside from the island of Faial’s natural beauty and many interesting sights, it is also home to Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services (MAYS) which was a prime reason for visiting the Island. Duncan Sweet is the owner and he and his staff went out of their way to help get the rigging repairs done on Oh! quickly and efficiently during festival week so she could get back to being a sailboat. They also replaced aging rivets in the gooseneck and have continued to provide ongoing service and counsel as we cruised throughout the Azores, Madeira, Canary and Cape Verde Islands. Hat’s off to a great group of people who provided exceptional service in the Mid-Atlantic!
There is so much to do and see on Faial that a person could easily fill a month and still want to stay longer. There are geothermal areas, the site of the Azores most recent volcanic activity in 1957, museums, dozens of seaside pools, great restaurants and café’s to visit, plenty of interesting hiking trails, beautiful architecture, festivals, and of course an almost endless procession of visiting yachts and crews to meet. By the time we needed to leave we had made friendships with crews from Norway, Australia, Switzerland, the United States, Great Britain, France, the Canary Islands and Finland. We spent many days hiking with them, enjoying wine and cheese sessions, dinners together and touring the island by scooters and taxis. The marina at Horta is a meeting place for yachts from all over the world and like all the marinas in the Azores; it was inexpensive with friendly staff who spoke many languages.
The last and possibly most important tradition that had to be completed on Faial before leaving was to find a spot on its crowded sea wall to paint yet one more mural before we departed. It is a tradition going back decades that a visiting yacht should paint a mural to enjoy a safe voyage upon leaving the Azores. A trip to the local paint store revealed that there had been a run on small cans of suitable paints due to the growing number of yachts that are now visiting Horta each year. So multiple paint stores and hardware stores later, we finally assembled the required colors and over several days of prep, base coats and painting, completed our mark.
Oh! Canada! was ready to leave for the Island of Pico. That was where David and Mary were eagerly waiting for David’s climbing partner (me) to arrive so we could knock another item off his huge bucket lists of goals. That adventure will be detailed in the next article in this series.
References from: Atlantic Islands Sixth Edition – RCC Pilotage Foundation, Imray books. Authors Anne Hammick and Hilary Keatinge