Azores

Itinerary: Sao Miguel, Flores, Faial, Pico & back to Sao Miguel

From Boston to Sao Miguel…..

We departed Boston on Sata Airlines daily evening flight to Ponta Delgada on the Island of Sao Miguel on September 20, arriving at 6:30 a.m., just before dawn on the 21st. The flight was uneventful, which made us happy after having read less than stellar reviews of Sata. We booked a 2 bedroom house in Nordeste on AirBnB, and also arranged a car through the host of the property.  While it worked out fine in the end, communication with the host and directions to the house were seriously lacking. All we knew was the house was in Nordeste and to look for blue signs marked “Casas do Frade.” Easy enough to get to Nordeste, as the highways are great and there are many signs pointing you to Nordeste. What the host failed to mention is that there is a Nordeste Region and a Nordeste village. We started looking for the signs when we reached the village, when we should have started looking several kilometers earlier. Turns out the house was actually located in Lomba da Cruz, which is so tiny it’s not on the map but trust me, it’s not in Nordeste village. After stopping numerous pedestrians, most of whom spoke little to no English, we figured out where to go. A lady who spoke exactly no English saw us wandering around and after much wild gesticulating on both our parts, we realized she was the local caretaker of sorts for the property and she realized we were trying to check in. She called Antonio, the owner, who explained that we couldn’t check in until 2:00 (notwithstanding that I had emailed several times to confirm that we were arriving early in the morning.) Long story short, the lady let us in, Antonio arrived at 2:00 bearing some nice groceries for us, and spent about an hour with us and a map, explaining all the sights we shouldn’t miss. Since our bodies were still on U.S. time, much of his explaining didn’t sink in but we appreciated the effort. On the plus side, the house was a lovely 2 bedroom stone with its own driveway and a big yard, set high on a hill with a magnificent view of the Atlantic.

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Sunrise view from AirBnB in Nordeste
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AirBnB rental in Nordeste

Nordeste is just beautiful. It’s somewhat removed from the more happening parts of Sao Miguel and lacking in notable restaurants and shopping. But the area more than makes up for what it lacks with really breathtaking landscapes. Driving around you feel like you’ve discovered the real Jurassic Park.  Overall the roads are excellent and it’s easy to get around.

That first day we were exhausted, so we settled on visiting Farol do Arnel, the Nordeste lighthouse. If you decide to do the same, I recommend walking down from the main road, as it is an incredibly steep and terrifying little road, and I’m not sure your average 4 cylinder rental could climb back up. The walk back up was no picnic but we were getting our hiking muscles warmed up so we didn’t mind.

On day 2, September 22, we decided to drive to Furnas and check out the thermal baths. We drove south from Nordeste along Highway 1-1A, which sometimes felt like we were in the Amazon with all the lush vegetation and almost no other cars. We walked around the big lake at Furnas, which was nothing special. But then we went to Poca Da Dona Beija, probably the most manicured of the hot springs on Sao Miguel. There were 4 or 5 baths and we enjoyed trying each one. The water was comfortably warm, and again, we thought of the Amazon with all the beautiful wild landscape all around us.  Afterwards we grabbed cold showers and changed back into our clothes.

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Baths at Poca Da Dona Beija

We also visited Parque Terra Nostra, which has famous gardens and a gigantic thermal bath that sits in front of an old mansion. The Terra Nostra Garden Hotel is there too. Looked nice, but we preferred to stay someplace with a view of the ocean.

That evening (and the next) we dined at O Cardoso restaurant in Nordeste, which was recommended by our AirBnB host. This is a family-owned establishment that clearly has a very regular and devoted clientele, judging from the people we saw just hanging about on the porch, drinking beer, playing cards and looking very much at home. The restaurant serves typical Azorean fare, grilled or fried fish, green salad, boiled potatoes. The owner knows his wines and we enjoyed a nice Alvarinho that he recommended.

On day 3, the weather was not looking great, so we decided to look for the famed Azorean bullfinch, known locally as the Priolo. The Priolo is said to be found only in the Azores, and  even then, only in Nordeste. We drove to the Centro Ambiental Do Priolo, a nature center that is devoted to, you guessed it, saving the Priolo. We were the only visitors, and the guide was more than happy to give us a tour of the little center (it’s tiny. You need about 8 minutes) and tell us where we were most likely to spot the elusive bird. “Just drive to Tronqueira until you reach Pico Bartolomeu,” she said. “It’s a dirt road but you won’t have any problem.” What she views as no problem is clearly not what I view as no problem. In short order, we found ourselves driving up a steep and winding road, and I use the term “road” loosely here, as it was dirt, potholed and unmarked. There were no signs, and no other people or cars in sight. We drove and drove, the expletives were flying, and I wondered aloud (my husband says “panicky” would be an apt description of my state of mind) what would happen if someone was driving toward us, as there were no turnaround options, and one side of the road dropped off steeply into Jurassic Park. I envisioned earthquakes, landslides, they would never find our mangled bodies. (OK maybe I was a tad panicky.) After about a half hour of this, out of nowhere emerged a little parking area with a sign that said “Pico Bartholomeu.” We got out of the car, looked through the binoculars, listened for the Priolo’s distinctive chirp. Nothing. But I must tell you, it was gorgeous, and had I known that we were in fact on the correct road, I would have enjoyed it more.

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Map marking Priolo sightings in Nordeste
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Seeking the elusive Priolo…Pico Bartolomeu

Fun fact: The Tronqueira is a challenging part of the European Rallye. Google and decide for yourself if you want to try it. Check out this video I found. About 7 minutes in I think you’ll understand why I lost my composure a bit!

Driving down was much easier than driving up. From there we drove to Faial da Terra, and did a nice little 1.8 km hike to Salto Do Prego to see a waterfall, and had nice little lunch at a local place called O Miroma that served cozido, a distinctly Azorean dish of meats and vegetables cooked for hours underground using the heat from the earth itself. On the drive back to Nordeste, we stopped at one of the many Miradouro (lookout points) and thrilled in the fabulous views. We literally stood at the top of a rainbow. This particular Miradouro was called Miradouro da Ponta Do Sossego. Pretty darn gorgeous.

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Miradouro da Ponto Do Sossego

Day 4, September 24, we were treated again to a magnificent sunrise from our little house. In the morning we drove to Lagoa Fogo just to see it, as we planned to hike down to the Lagoa later in the trip. Wow, beautiful. Then we drove to Praia Moinhos in search of Formosa Beach, recommended to us by locals. It was a nice drive down, where we found a great little restaurant right on the beach, and enjoyed cheeseburgers and fish soup while watching the waves. That afternoon we drove to the town of Maia on the north coast, where we had arranged a hike with Rimi and João, proprietors of Minuvida, a newly established “travel experience” business that features an orchard lodge and guided hikes and much more to come. We hiked for about 2 hours, after which Rimi and João treated us to a local wine tasting, along with cheeses, meats, jams and chocolate. Wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

By this point we had seen about half of the sights we had planned on for Sao Miguel, even though that was really just a small fraction of the many places to check out on the largest and most populated of the Azores. The next day we were off to Flores but we would return to Sao Miguel on the flipside.

From Sao Miguel to Flores…..

September 25, the 5th day of our vacation, was spent on a quick visit to Ponta Delgada, the capital city, which we really hadn’t seen yet. More on Ponta Delgada at the end of the trip. We returned the car and jumped on our flight to Flores, where we would spend the next 2 days.

The flight to Flores took about an hour and a half, on a Sata propeller plane. The flight was easy and on time. The airport at Santa Cruz in Flores is, as you might guess, tiny. As we were coming in for a landing, I wondered where was the runway? The plane touched down at the very beginning of the runway, which is to say just feet from the island’s edge, and stopped at the very end of the runway, which is to say just feet from another edge. We rented a beat-up car with 86,000 miles on it that had very little power, which made driving some of the steep hills of Flores quite a challenge. We spent a lot of time in first gear. Weather was extremely foggy, like driving in the clouds, which felt hair-raising since you couldn’t see 3 feet in front of you on steep unfamiliar roads. But we had no trouble finding our accommodations on the other side of the island. We booked a little stone house at Aldeia da Cuada, which is part of an old abandoned village that has been reincarnated as tourist lodging. To say the place is rustic would be an understatement. While it is visually stunning, our unit, dubbed “La Quinta” was like sleeping in a barn. Low ceilings, dampness, flies. The bed was very tiny for the two of us (husband is over 6 feet tall). There aren’t a lot of options for accommodations in Flores, but I would not stay here again, since I value sleep. But other reviews on Trip Advisor are positive, so to each his own, I suppose.

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Aldeia da Cuada with the clouds rolling in

The first night on Flores, we dined at Papadiamandis. Husband had octopus, which was a first, and I had some kind of fish that was very good. We also tried limpets (locally called lapas), sort of a cross between clams and mussels, served with butter and garlic in the shell. We dined with another couple that we met there, people who were decidedly….well, you decide. The husband thinks women have destroyed education and the wife is a horse masseuse who’s angry about the way Americans treat the native population. We declined an invitation to join them for dinner the next night.

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Dining on Octopus at Papadiamandis on island of Flores

Day 6: We arranged a 3 hour hike with West Canyon Tours. Marco picked us up at 9:30 a.m. and we enjoyed magnificent views as we hiked around Lajedo and Faja Grande. Hiking level was about medium. Marco was a terrific guide, and after the hike he took us to a little lunchstand run by his buddy down near the water (isn’t everything there by the water?), and we scarfed down some kind of meat sandwich and a beer. We didn’t care what it was, since we were starving from the hike. After Marco dropped us back at Aldeia da Cuada, we took a very short drive to Ribeira do Ferreiro, a wild and beautiful place that is well worth the hike of about 600 meters from the road. Loved it.

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Hiking around Lajedo and Faja Grande on island of Flores
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Ribeira do Ferreiro

That evening we enjoyed a lovely dinner on the patio at Aldeia da Cuada (pumpkin soup, fish, the usual boiled potatoes and green salad, nice bottle of red Douro wine and panna cotta for dessert.)

Day 7, September 27: We had breakfast at Aldeia da Cuada and drove around the island looking for famous lakes before our afternoon flight to Faial. If you are considering a visit to Flores, just realize that you will be far out in the Atlantic and it can be foggy. One moment it will be sunny and dazzling, and literally one minute later you are standing in a cloud that you can see wafting toward you. This made driving a challenge and also made seeing anything at all hit-or-miss. So our visit to the lakes was more or less a bust since visibility was nil. Even though we didn’t see much of Flores, we really enjoyed the experience of being on a remote island in the Atlantic amidst some of the most stunning landscapes we have ever seen. That afternoon it was back on a plane, this time bound for Faial.

From Flores to Faial…..

We arrived at Horta after a short flight (again on a Sata prop plane) and rented a car. We felt like we were returning to civilization! We had no trouble driving from the airport to the apartment we had reserved called Apartamentos Kosmos, located on the main street, about midway between the marina on one side and the ferry terminal on the other side. Great location and plentiful free parking. The apartment was beautiful and so comfortable, with a king size bed, a nicely equipped kitchen and a little private balcony where we could enjoy a glass of wine (and hubby his cigar.) The only downside was no laundry, but we were directed to a laundry service a few blocks away that washed all our grungy clothes (priced by the pound) for a very reasonable 8 euros.

That first day in Horta, we wandered around the marina, enjoying the glorious weather (No fog! Brilliant sunshine!) and lots of street art. We checked out Peter Sport Café and the Scrimshaw museum above the café. I thought that would be boring but it was actually really interesting to see some of the beautiful work produced by mariners on their long voyages. Definitely worth the 3 euros to get in. That evening we dined at Medalhas in Horta. This restaurant was recommended by the tourist office and has good reviews on trip advisor, but we were disappointed in the quality. We had ribs and chicken, plus the ubiquitous boiled potatoes and side salad. It was truly average.

Day 8, September 28: After a great night’s sleep at Apartamentos Kosmos, we headed to the marina to meet the guides at Azores Experiences for a pre-arranged whale watching trip. (We are told that Azores Experiences is being merged with Horta Cetaceos but Portugal being Portugal, much red tape has delayed the finalization. We booked by emailing azoresexperiences@gmail.com. Very professional and responsive.) Perfect weather for heading out on the zodiac, a/k/a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) with 8 other people across the waters, looking for whales. Unfortunately, we arrived at the very end of the whale season, and no whales were to be found, although we did see up close a huge pod of common dolphins (“common” because they are found worldwide, but actually uncommon to spot). We were out on the water for about 2 hours, and even though we were short on whales, we still thoroughly enjoyed the trip, especially the magnificent view of Mt. Pico a few kilometers away.

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View of Mt. Pico from the Zodiac

After the morning fun, we grabbed a quick lunch at the Iceberg Café near our apartment. Do not go there unless you are a fan of wonder bread. Worst meal of the trip.

That afternoon we drove to the Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Center where, again, I had somewhat low expectaions but it was actually fascinating to learn about the formation of these islands and the volcanic explosion in the late 1950’s that increased the size of Faial island and sent thousands of Azoreans to the Americas. Then we headed over to Castelo Branco, which has a nice little hike and stunning ocean views. Husband enjoyed the bird watching from here, especially the shearwaters. It’s just a gorgeous spot to stop and enjoy being alive.

We dined that evening at Taberna Pim on an outside patio. This is a lovely spot for a drink at sunset. Dinner was respectable, with calamari, olives, rare tuna, green salad and a carafe of red wine. Service was slow, but having an unhurried dinner is a pleasure when you are in a setting as nice as this. (We did, however, give our extra bread to the table next to us because they waited a looonnnnggg time and seemed hungry!)

Day 9: We wanted to take the ferry to Sao Jorge because that island is said to have the most beautiful hiking trails. After what we had seen on Sao Miguel, Flores and Faial, that is a tall order. Unfortunately for us, the ferry schedule from Faial to Sao Jorge was unfavorable as they had switched to off-season times a few days before our arrival. So we contented ourselves with a day on Pico. The morning was rainy, so we opted to visit Gruto das Torres, lava tubes that remained after eruptions eons ago. The tours can only accommodate 15 people at a time, so it’s a good idea to reserve in advance. We arrived before they opened and were first in line, so we succeeded in getting in the first tour of the day.  Loved it! We donned hard hats and were given small flashlights to help guide our steps as we descended into the tubes. The tour took about 45 minutes, and by the time we emerged, the sun was out.

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Emerging from the lava tube at Gruto das Torres

We drove to Ponta da Ilha restaurant, which is on the eastern tip of Pico island. The drive allowed us to see a lot of the island; the restaurant was well marked but requires driving down some winding local roads that are a bit tricky. But it was worth the effort. This is a nice little local place with a buffet of typical Azorean foods (fish, chicken, beef, green salad, boiled potatoes). Great service and relaxed atmosphere. As we drove back to the port of Madalena, we stopped at various lookouts and swimming holes formed out of lava. Finally, before returning the car, we stopped at Cooperativa Vitivinicola da Ilha do Pico, which promotes regional wines. They give tours and wine tastings, and of course they sell wine. Highly recommend if you are into wines.

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Cooperativa Vitivincola da Ilha do Pico, in Madalena
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On the ferry leaving Pico Island

We returned the car and took the ferry back to Horta, and decided we really need to revisit Pico some day. A few hours was not nearly enough. We thought about climbing the mountain but after seeing it, decided we probably were not in the right physical shape. Next time!

Back in Horta, we were craving some American style food, so we got a pizza to go from Pizzaria California a few blocks from our apartment. That was a win! What can I say, sometimes you need a taste of home.

Day 10, September 30, we were ready to visit the Caldeira, rated at the top of must-do things on Faial. We donned our hiking gear and drove up, past the beautiful Pont da Espalamaca, through the little picturesque town of Flamengos, winding up and up and up until we reached the rim of the Caldeira. There are a bunch of hikes up there, well-marked with distances. We opted for the 8 km hike around the rim. Wow, talk about scenery! The Caldeira reminded me of Crater Lake in Oregon, only this one is full of lush vegetation instead of deep blue water. On one side of the path, you have a steep drop down into the green mouth of the thing; on the other side you have verdant pastures full of cows munching contentedly on the landscape, which gently rolls away from you down to the crystal blue ocean. I’ve never seen anything like it. The hike itself is billed as easy by the folks at www.trails.visitazores.com but I would rate it as medium. Definitely needed our sticks and good hiking shoes.

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Trail signs at Caldeira on Faial
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Hiking around the Caldeira, loving awesome ocean views. Doesn’t get much better than this….

After the hike and a shower, we headed to Genuino, a locally famous restaurant in Horta, renowned for its namesake owner, who has circumnavigated the globe in his sailboat. Alone. Twice. Lunch for me consisted of a plate of the most delicious prawns ever. We returned again that evening for dinner. The restaurant is quite elegant, with great service and fine food. While my evening meal (veal) was good, my dining partner raved about the giant hunk of rare tuna he was served. We dined with a German couple seated next to us and had fun talking politics, both U.S. and German. Sensitive subjects all around but we enjoyed it.

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Prawns for lunch at Genuino in Horta

Day 11, October 1, our last day in Horta. We checked out of Apartamentos Kosmos and decided to have a leisurely day exploring the island before our late flight back to Sao Miguel. We started with a great hike that began at Porto Pim beach and winded up some steep steps near the Dabney home, ending up on a beautiful outcropping overlooking the ocean on one side and Porto Pim bay on the other. This was another hike rated “easy” but as you can see from the picture, there were a whole lot of steps.

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Hiking above Porto Pim Bay on Faial

We followed up the hike with a great lunch at a little joint next to the beach called Café Porto Pim. Looks like a dive but oh my, what a great lunch! I had some kind of chicken baked in puff pastry with green salad and…rice! No boiled potatoes! We sat outside on their little patio in orange plastic chairs, admiring the street art and the shimmering bay. Seek this place out. After lunch, we drove to the Faial Botanical Garden, where we were treated to a personal tour. Once again, lots of interesting info about the fabulous flora all over these islands. Very low key and enjoyable. We rounded out the day by driving to an oceanside pool that lies just under the airport runway near Horta. Undoubtedly the strangest pool location we’ve seen yet, but despite the chilly temperature, plenty of locals were enjoying a dip. At 7:00 we jumped back on a plane for our return to Sao Miguel.

And Back to Sao Miguel….

Now back in Sao Miguel, where we rented the second floor of a house in Capelas that we found on VRBO. Although it was dark by the time we arrived, Antonio had provided perfect directions. When we arrived at the not-so-impressive looking façade, I was a little worried about what we would find, but I judged too soon. Antonio greeted us, pressed a button and the gates opened into a little private paradise dubbed Vila Alegre. Antonio provided plentiful groceries and wine for our arrival, which was much appreciated. Even more appreciated was the immaculately maintained and decorated apartment, with 2 bedrooms, a sunroom, a fully equipped kitchen and living room, and French doors leading from one bedroom onto a patio overlooking magnificent gardens. Oh and beyond that, the ocean. Hello Vila Alegre!

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View from Vila Alegre bedroom

Day 12 October 2: We had checked out Lagoa Fogo the prior week, but today was the hike down from the top. It was a foggy day so visibility wasn’t great, but it was now or never. The hike down to the lake is steep but not really difficult. When we reached the bottom, the fog was even thicker. The scene reminded me of Loch Ness, looking eerie and as if a sea creature was about to emerge from the dark water. The hike back to the top, surprise, was more of a challenge, but we were up to it. The whole venture took about an hour.

To sooth our sore hiking muscles after Fogo, we drove down the hill to Caldeira Velha, where we found incredible hot springs in the middle of more crazy Amazon-looking landscape. (I must note that at this point, Hubby asked if I wasn’t going to take a picture. I just couldn’t. It was so beautiful, I thought I’d rather just enjoy the moment. Now I kind of wish I had taken at least one, but alas, I did not.) We donned our bathing suits and hopped in. Even the waterfalls were a soothing warm temperature.

Afterwards, we showered and changed (facilities provided but water is cold!), and drove to Bar Caloura in Lagoa and enjoyed my favorite meal of the trip. At mid-afternoon, the place was packed with both tourists and locals but seemed predominantly locals. We enjoyed fantastic grouper and some other fish that we had never heard of, plus a buffet consisting of the usual green salad and boiled potatoes, but they also had black-eyed peas that were just delicious. Service was excellent, prices were reasonable, and the setting was wonderful, on a patio overlooking the ocean. One of the cool things about Bar Caloura is it is right next to a swimming area that consists of a large swimming pool like you would see anywhere else, but it’s built practically on the ocean, allowing the waves to crash over the swimmers. You can stand on the edge of the swimming pool and dive into the pool, or turn around and dive into the ocean instead. People were swimming down there, then coming up to the restaurant for lunch.

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Pool next to Bar Caloura

October 3, our last full day in the Azores, it was time to visit Sete Cidades, consistently ranked #1 or thereabouts on Trip Advisor under Things To Do. The drive there from Capelas was pretty and the roads were good. We arrived to find a charming little town and of course the two lakes of blue and green. Was it nice? Yes. Would I rank it #1? Not at all. After two weeks seeing so many lovely, interesting, dramatic, cool things in the Azores, Sete Cidades is nice but for us did not rise to the level of “WOW!” like so many other places. We did not check out the hiking there, so perhaps the trails above the lakes would provide a better, more dramatic perspective.

The last thing we wanted to see and maybe experience was the Ferrarias, natural thermal pools located on the far western tip of Sao Miguel. Of course there are plenty of thermal pools around the island. What distinguishes the Ferrarias is that these thermal pools are in the ocean, so you have warm water bubbling up even though you have cold ocean water washing in. We really wanted to try this but made the mistake of going at high tide (unintentionally). The waves were so high it was too dangerous to venture in, even with the ropes strung across the pool to hang onto. This is definitely on our list for our next trip. Beware that the road to the Ferrarias from the main highway is very, very steep and winding. Just hold your breath and do it!

A little aside, on our way to the Ferrarias from Mosteiros  (more natural pools worth visiting but again, we arrived at high tide, the worst possible time to attempt a swim but it’s gorgeous), the road was great until we hit a detour sign indicating road work. “Desvio” they called it. This Desvio took us literally on a dirt road carved out of the jungle. There were no signs, no workers, no people, nothing once you got on this Desvio. Our rental car really took a beating over several miles but we emerged unscathed. So if you find yourself driving contentedly along a lovely paved highway and road work sends you on a Desvio, hold onto your hat and know that it ends, eventually.

Our last night in the Azores, we drove from Capelas to Ribeira Grande on the northern shore of Sao Miguel. Even though Ribeira Grande is one of the larger cities in the Azores, we had not yet seen it. The drive there was an adventure. Although the highway was perfectly fine, it took us through a little town that was preparing for some kind of festival, and people were milling around the streets, which had piles of flowers up and down the center, and some people had buckets of brightly colored material (Pellets? Flower petals? Confetti?) that they were pouring in thick lines down the center as well. We could see people setting up various booths on the sidewalks too. Fortunately we made it through the town before they shut down the streets.

Once in Ribeira Grande, we headed to Alabote, one of the better known restaurants. It’s right across the street from the ocean, and again there was a big swimming pool with ocean waves crashing over it.

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Pool across the street from Alabote restaurant in Ribeira Grande

We dined on the patio and watched a magnificent sunset, regretting that there was so much we hadn’t yet seen and done, and said we’d just have to return. Food at Alabote was good, not great, but the setting is what made it special.

Finally, on October 4, it was time to pack up and head to Ponta Delgada for a few hours before our afternoon flight home. Even though Ponta Delgada is the capital city, we really hadn’t had a chance to do any exploring there. We spent the morning visiting the Museu Carlos Machado, which includes a long term exhibit devoted to the Azorean sculptor (Carlos Machado!) located at the Santa Barbara Center that is lovely and FREE, as well as a church and a natural history museum one block over that has some of the most bizarre stuff (taxidermied two-headed calf, anyone?) and very cool specimens, flora and fauna, from nature both in the Azores and beyond.

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Shark specimen at Museu Carlos Machado

We wrapped up our morning with lunch at O Tasca, a great little restaurant a few blocks from the Ponta Delgada gates. The food was terrific, as was service and ambience. We wished we had time to linger over a bottle of wine, but alas, we could not tarry.

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Menu from O Tasca in Ponta Delgada

We headed to the airport, returned the car, and prepared for the flight home. All told, a wonderful trip. And like so many of our trips, we left vowing to return. We never got to Sao Jorge and we missed the whales! Great reasons to go back….

 

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Juliet

I love to travel and I love to write, so what could be better than writing about travel?

One thought on “Azores”

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