After five days at Sea, we are docked in the Azores in the Atlantic. The volcanic islands of the Azores are considered part of Portugal, although 950 miles (1525 km) off the continental coast. They independently run their country as long as it is not in conflict with the Portuguese constitution. We are visiting two of the nine islands that make the archipelago, Faial and Sao Miguel.
Our first stop is Horta on the island of Faial. With a population just over 15,000, Faial is the third most populous island of the Archipelago. The nine islands of the Azores are divided into three groups and Faial is part of the Central Group. Within that group, it is in the westernmost corner of the so-called ‘Triangle Islands’, which also include São Jorge and Pico. Within all of the Azores, Faial and Pico are the closest islands to each other. The canal between the two near the harbor at Horta is a migration route for whales. Lots of sightseeing tours leave from Horta.
We saw the tall volcano peak on Pico, the highest point in Portugal, much of the time we drove around the island. Pico is less than 4 miles (6 km) away from Faial.
The Marina of Horta is our docking destination. It is the main recreational harbor in the Azores and the marina, a popular linking point for international regattas, is one of the busiest in the world. In Horta, you find the Sao Salvador Church built by the Jesuits. The buildings surrounding it became the government offices for the settlement. Located in the middle of the island, the Caldeira is a deep volcanic cone. It is a nature preserve and home to rare flora species. There is also a volcano visitors’ center. In addition to the water activities, hiking is very popular on Faial.
We were lucky to get off the wait list for a circular tour of the island. By the structure of our tour, it was pretty clear that Faial is not yet set up for large group tourism. The main two-lane road that circulates the island offers picturesque views of the water, beaches, and the island hills. Unfortunately, our driver couldn’t stop for any of these. There were few places to park and for safety reasons a large bus wasn’t allowed to stop at the cutaways in the road. (So maybe not so lucky we came off the wait list.) I don’t know the cost, but I recommend hiring a guide to take you around the island if you want to be able to stop and take some incredible pictures. I did what I could out of the window of the moving bus.
Less than 45 minutes into our tour, we made a 20-minute stop at a grocery store that also offered a coffee shop and toilets. While guides like to call these “necessary” stops, I felt it unwarranted. The next stop (complete with toilets) was only about 30 minutes away. Would have much rather stopped to take a few pictures.
While the island currently has just over 15,000 inhabitants, there are more than 30,000 cows on the island. Cattle are everywhere. The mild climate means that they enjoy beautiful weather and green fields most of the year. Grassland for feeding is everywhere.
While the houses sported wonderful red tile roofs, I also spotted lots of ceramic markers on the houses and in the town, mostly of a religious orientation. We drove through many small villages, all very picturesque. Children go to school in these small villages through the 4thgrade and then go on to upper schools in Horta.
The main stop on our tour was the now dormant volcano that erupted on Faial in 1957. The eruption began underwater creating a new outcropping. We stopped here first before going to the lighthouse and museum. Our water’s edge view gave us a look at the land mass created by the volcano. You could see where the original harbor was and some of the original houses are beginning to come uncovered after years of erosion. At the time of the eruptions between 1957 and 1958, all the buildings were completed covered. Everyone was able to evacuate unharmed.
We spent an hour at the lighthouse museum, the Capelinhos Volcano Interpretive Center. At the conclusion of the eruption, only the top two windows of the lighthouse tower remained uncovered. The structure was two stories high with the tower above that. Often two lighthouse keepers and their families lived within. With erosion, the first story of the structure is now uncovered. The lower level remains covered. Rather than dig it out, it is all now part of the interpretive center.
The islanders are justly proud of this modern museum. If you are interested in geology or volcanic eruptions, this is an excellent stop. The museum is set up for an uneducated audience and you will be quickly be brought up to speed by displays, holograms, and videos. The hologram showing the progression of the eruptions and the slides from the 50s from amateur photographers were particularly interesting. I wasn’t the only one who was initially unhappy that we were spending an hour of our tour here, but we easily filled up our time at this well-done museum.
The Azores sit at an intersection of the earth’s tectonic plates so it is unlikely the area has seen the last of this type of activity. At least the islanders made use of the material; the volcanic rock is used in construction all over the island. Volcanic eruptions are not the only natural disaster the Azoreans live with. The island is also racked with hurricanes. We saw the destruction left by previous storms, mostly in the remains of destroyed churches.
The Azores are famous for the beautiful flowers that grow wild on the island. We saw lovely Easter lilies and calla lilies along the highway. It is too early for the vibrant blue hydrangeas that give Faial the nickname of the blue island. They bloom during the summer months and peak between mid July and mid August. Not surprisingly, this is the when the island is the busiest. Tourism is a major industry for the island.
We concluded our circular drive of the island, ending up back in Horta at the Fort of Santa Cruz. The fort is now a hotel and this was a stop for tea. We could see our ship less than 5 minutes away. When we found out we were there for an hour, some people walked back to the ship. Boris and I enjoyed the sandwiches and cookies and the incredible views of the Marina and Ponta de Pico from the fort’s old parade yard, now a lovely lawn and swimming pool, complete with remaining cannons.
Then we walked around the marina area. Boris headed into Peter’s Café Sport. According to Yachting World, this is one of the most famous yachting pubs in the world. The grandfather of the current owner, Jose Azevedo, started it in 1918. He called it Café Sport because his hobbies were football, tennis, and water polo. The first patrons were traders, then whalers, then the crews who worked on the transatlantic communication cables based in the Azores.
The current owner’s father worked on the RMS Lusitania and one of the officers started to call him Peter because he reminded him of his son back at home. The name stuck and became associated with the bar. Even the distinctive blue paint on the outside has a story. It came from some blue paint given to “Peter” by the workers on the Smit Tech tugs. The company was based on Faial and the color was that of the company’s flag and livery.
We left Horta and the island in the evening headed to our second stop in the Azores, Sao Miguel. After getting out the gray sand and ash blown into our hair at the volcano, we went to dinner and enjoyed the lovely sail away view from the dining room windows. While I was disappointed with some aspects of the tour, I found Faial utterly charming with its red tile roofs, patterned stone sidewalks, volcanic construction materials, scenic vistas, green fields, ceramic touches, and beach fronts. And you gotta love those cows! I recommend a visit.