Five volcanic islands in the Azores

Our time in the Azorean archipelago was filled with trips up dramatic volcanoes, to picturesque towns within lush green fields and forests, diving in chilly Nothern Atlantic waters, swimming on black beaches and climbing over volcanic rocks. The scenery of all Azorean islands that we sailed to was even more beautiful than what we expected.

But most important of all: we are back in Europe! Which means good cheese again and better, non-oily Nutella. The Azores situated in the middle of the North Atlantic were our first stop after leaving Bermuda on the other side of the Atlantic. After weeks at sea we were excited to make landfall, to walk around and explore. During the crossing we kept telling each other what we are most looking forward to and what we miss most, which definitely increased our excitement even more, if that was still possible.

Our first port of call was Horta. The small harbour on the island of Faial is probably the most iconic harbour for sailors in the Northern Atlantic. We were lucky to get a berth in the crowded marina as many other boats were asked to stay at anchor. It is the busiest time of the year and everyday there were new boats arriving. As we knew we would stay for almost 4 weeks because of friends visiting, we were assigned a spot rafted up next to ceased, half-rotten drug trafficking boats, which have been neglected for many years at the very end of the concrete pier. For us this spot was perfect. Not only did we have a perfect view on Pico, the tallest mountain of Portugal, from our cockpit, but we were also close to the bathroom facilities and very sheltered from any swell that is known to creep into the rest of the marina. Plus nobody was living on or even cared about the boats that we had to walk over multiple times a day. Once we had Porky secured to the other boats with sturdy dock lines, we jumped on land and limped on our stiff sea legs along the famous marina pier, which is fully decorated with colorful boat murals of sailors who have passed through. Many creative murals of friends and sailors we know caught our eyes. Even before our first shower – and believe me, we were filthy after the 3.5 weeks at sea – we went to the legendary Peter’s Café Sport to get a drink. The infamous Peter’s Café already exists since 103 years and has been a hotspot for sailors to meet, have mail delivered to, and to celebrate the last passage with your and other crews. We even added our Porky sticker to the large collection of boat decals on the classic wooden bar. The small bar room is lined with many courtesy flags, club flags and pictures of boats and regattas. From now on Porky’s sticker is part of the traditional decorations.

Once we were done celebrating our arrival with a much needed drink and we were all freshly showered, we started working on the repairs of things that broke across the Atlantic. Mainly the refrigerator, mainsail and Bimini had to be fixed. Luis, the very competent sailmaker who passes by the marina every day in his van to collect ripped sails or canvas to be repaired, heaved our big mainsail onto the back and partly on the roof of his pick-up truck. Only a few days later he dropped everything off, neatly repaired. The fridge was not such an easy fix as the repair from Honduras did not hold and the cooling liquid was leaking again. We had to bite the bullet and order a completely new fridge, which we later found out never arrived in time before we left the Azores. Yippie, this means we do not have cold drinks, can’t keep any dairy products or leftovers. Fortunately we always were near supermarkets to buy fresh food on a day to day basis.

During our first walks through the small harbour town we appreciated the green landscape with dramatic black volcanic rocks. The neighboring islands appear as high peaks on the horizon rising from the deep blue ocean. Even though it is usually overcast the sun usually finds a way through the cloud coverage at some point during the day. And as soon as the rays of sun warm up the volcanic rocks and Porky’s deck, the temperature turns very pleasant. After being used to sweating most nights in the tropics, we especially enjoy the mild climate at night, covered in our blankets for the first time in a long time.

We somehow hoped that our few months in Spanish speaking countries in Central America also improved our communication skills in Portuguese. However, it turned out that apart from reading, we could not talk nor understand anything the Portuguese were saying. Who knew Portuguese sound like drunk Russians? Luckily almost everyone living on the Azorean islands is fluent in English making our lives much easier. A few days later we were surprised to see white decorations being hung up everywhere in town and stages being set up. The White Ocean Festival in Horta turned out to be one of the biggest events on the island with live music for several days and even a TV broadcast of the stage near the marina with Porky in the background. Everybody was wearing only white and we stood out a little with our dark clothes when we walked around to enjoy the festivities.

Another day we rented scooters to drive around the island. We stopped at viewpoints, natural pools, lighthouses and volcanic craters. A bumpy ride along a dirt road brought us through cow fields up to the main caldera (volcano crater). We also enjoyed the good food at a local restaurant. Vivi, our crew for the last few weeks was so kind to treat us for dinner. Max finally got his steak, which he has been dreaming about during the crossing. The rest of us devoured delicious vegetarian skewers.

As we kept seeing dive boats leaving the harbour and dive shops advertising dive trips so we got curious and did some research online. It turns out that the Azores are on the list of the best European dive destinations. And so we signed up for our first dive outside of Caribbean waters. Little did we know how cold it was going to be. All excited and confident that the 7mm thick wetsuit will keep us warm enough we backrolled off the dive boat and felt the cold water creeping into the openings of the wetsuit. The dive spots were just outside of a volcanic crater. Never ever have we spotted so many eels in one dive. Large groupers were hiding in the large rock crevices. After 15 minutes it got already chilly. We required some serious willpower to jump into the water again for the second dive after the surface interval on the boat. But good thing we did as the dive guide took us inside this huge cavern inside the volcanic crater. We went so far in that at some point we only saw whatever was in the beam of our dive lights and it got too narrow to swim next to each other. We saw lobsters, scorpion fish, eels, octopi and many fish. It took a long hot shower and tea for our bodies to get warm again, but it was so worth it. The other days we spent hiking up the various volcanoes, along cliffs, explored the northern coast of Faial on horses,went swimming in natural pools or relaxed on the black beach.

When our friend Jon arrived we decided to hike up the 8 km to the peak of Pico. A ferry brought us to the neighboring island and we took a taxi to the foot of the highest mountain in Portugal. At the trail head we were inspected with a stern look as we apparently did not meet the gear requirements for this trail. We were handed GPS tracker that showed the rangers if we wandered off trail. After hiking many miles and mountains in Switzerland, Canada and other countries these were by far the strictest rules for hiking a day trail. Turned out our sneakers were just fine. Even though we were out of breath at the summit, we thought the whole tracking and insurance talk of the rangers a little exaggerated. Along the trail we had great views of all the central 5 islands. We happened to chose a perfect day because on the majority of days the mountain‘s summit is in the clouds.

Most importantly we spent a few days to paint our mural on harbor pier. Traditionally since many years boats that make landfall in Horta paint their boat’s name with creative designs. Finally we drank one last beer at Peter’s Café Sport, the most famous sailor pub in the world, and set off to the next island.

With the Spinnaker hoisted in light winds we passed by Pico headed for São Jorge. All around us we saw rain clouds in the sky but somehow we stayed dry for the few hours it took us to reach the next island. We dropped anchor next to a high cliff that was filled with funny sounding sea birds, the Cory‘s Shearwater. If you want to have a good laugh look up their sounds online. On São Jorge we did an impressive hike to a remote village, which can only be reached by the narrow, steep footpath we followed down and up the cliffs. A huge wire rope taut from the top edge of the cliffs down to the shore serves for transporting goods or building materials to the few houses. A few small traditional houses built with black volcanic rocks sat in this what appeared to us like “the garden of Eden”. Around the houses we strolled through well-kept gardens and flowerbeds. Although the houses today are only used as weekend accommodation, until recently people apparently lives in the village cut off from any civilization for up to 90 years. The hike led us to the neighboring village with the most beautiful natural pools in the ocean, which we have seen in the Azores. The swim in the refreshing water felt very good after the climb up and down the steep coastline.

After a few days we set off to the next island, called Terceira, only a daysail away from São Jorge. Our friends on SV Argo (also a Wauquiez) sailed at the same time with us when we left the anchorage early in the morning. Unfortunately we did not have much wind and even the Spinnaker sometimes collapsed and unfortunately had to start the engine for a few hours. However we were accompanied by a playful swarm of dolphins and had a very nice warm summer day on the water. Anchored in front of Angra do Heroismo, we first were disappointed of how ugly the supposedly most beautiful city looked from the water. We later found out that the huge ugly hotel complex is the culprit as it ruins the whole waterfront. Apart from that the city indeed was beautiful with impressive history as well. We walked around the streets and went geocaching which brought us to parks, lookouts and historical landmarks. For the first time in a long time we also went freediving again. The water was cold even with our wetsuits on. So we did not even spend 30 minutes in the water. The wreck from 1878 which we explores had sunk in the bay next to the anchored boats. One night we invites our friends from SV Argo and SV September for drinks. What started as a relaxed apéro turned into a wild birthday party on Porky. There was a lot of drinking, laughing and dancing involved.

As excursions on the island we hiked to Monte Basil and the interior of the island, where we went inside a volcanic cave and saw hot sulfur vapor emerging from springs in the earth. On the way back to Angrar the taxi driver told us about the local bullfights in the city center of Angra. We lingered with the crowds of locals on the streets and observed the traditional bull fighting of the Azores, which is very different from what you see in Spain. The bulls is tied to several ropes held by a group of men who control the animal on a 500m section of a road while mostly young men try their luck dancing and running around the agitated bull. If the bull comes to close to the boundaries marked by white lines on the street, the men pull on the rope and don’t let the bull run any further. The whole village stood on the streets with beer and sausage in hand, which were sold from small trucks on the street until a starting signal was fired. Most people ran rapidly behind temporarily constructed barriers in front of the houses or behind the painted lines to be in the safe zone. An old Portuguese man with a red cap saw my hesitation about where to go and immediately noticed that I was an ignorant tourist. He was so kind to pull me with him wherever he went making me feel comfortable as I was sure I could outrun him if the bull suddenly charged our way. During the few hours of the event Franky, the local with the red hat and I became friends. Since we were only wearing flip flops, my tactic was to stay close to the older men in the village, which seem to have figured out exactly how far they have to keep away from the bull to watch everything, but without problems to run back to the safety line within in a few seconds. Max and Daniel were a bit bolder and wanted a closer look. It happened a few times that they had to sprint away when the bull suddenly charged into an unexpected direction. Allegedly, the animal does not get hurt and after the stress of the event the bull gets at least a week break on the pasture. Apart from the fight I liked to come into contact with the local crowd. Several times I was approached in English and have learned a little about the inhabitants of this island and their traditions. People Watching is always entertaining.

Since Bermuda we never refueled and were alowly running low in diesel. It turned out that getting diesel by boat is not easy on the the Azores as fuel pumps are often unoccupied or not functioning at all. So we decided to walk the 2 km up the hill to a gas station with the canisters in hand. A very kind man in a van stopped next to us and said he would drive us to the gas station and back. Adriano is the mechanic for diesel engines for boats and said he knows the struggle with the fuel dock and felt bad for us to carry the heavy jugs. In general, we felt the people of the Azores were extremely friendly and open to visitors and tourists.

When we were pulling up the anchor to sail to the biggest and for us also the last island in the Azores, we hoisted a rusty old anchor that was wrapped around the chain. After a little unraveling, we were able to pick up our anchor and made us on our way with no wind at all to Sao Miguel. Without any wind or waves it was a quiet crossing overnight to Ponta Delgada. The largest city of the Azores for sure was a big change for us after visiting so many small villages. It started with the very big and busy marina right in the city center, lots of traffic, more people and especially tourists, shopping malls, and a Decathlon where we obviously stopped a few times. Apart from the city of Ponta Delgada São Miguel is known for its beautiful nature so we took advantage of the reasonable and cheap bus system and took the bus for day trips to Furnas to swim in the hot springs and to the picturesque volcano lakes in Sete Cidades.

The trip to Sete Cidades was especially memorable as we walked over 20km along the ridge of the volcano crater in which a small village is located next to the lake. Daniel’s ankle was still hurting from his accident in Mexico but he pushes through and we were rewarded with beautiful views all around. The town itself was very quiet and not busy at all even though this was one of the main tourist attractions of the island. When we started our walk back down to catch the last bus of the day back to the city, two very friendly kids ran towards us talking in Portuguese. After some initial confusion trying to understand what they were saying, we understood that they were looking for their pony that ran away. We did see fresh hoove prints along the hiking trail but didn’t see any horse. We kept looking until we made it back to town and hope they found it eventually.

A few days later Max and Ross, a friend of Mac and our crew for the crossing to mainland Europe, arrived and we were desperately waiting for a favorable weather window. To pass the time we went swimming at the public pools in the harbour, went bowling in a small arcade, took the bus to a hiking trail up the Lagoa do Fogo, prepared the boat for the crossing and hoped that the fridge would arrive before we leave. But it never did and we mentally prepared for not having a fridge until we reach the UK. While the weather was still not looking good for more than a week, we were invited by lovely older German couple for dinner at a nice restaurant. Their boat was docked near ours in the marina and we did have short conversations on the dock. For no reason at all they said they also have kids and wanted to make sure we do get some good food and a decent meal in our bellies. How nice that was of them and we enjoyed a lovely evening sharing sailing stories over good pizzas.

Next up we wait for a favorable weather window and prepare for our passage to mainland Europe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: