Filling up on island time . . .

Note: A previous post, about a stopover in the Azores, was the first in a series of posts that chronicle a recent trip to Portugal, heavy on relaxation and good food, undertaken as a sort of “experiment” by two couples. As cousins, we have more than just family ties in common, but had no previous experience traveling together. It was a unique adventure.

We had embarked on the planning with gusto. We all agreed that daily schedules and strict timetables would not govern our trip. We would take the days as they came, giving in to whims, and choosing to explore both together and sometimes separately. We also agreed that picnics and snacking would be every bit as welcome as “reservations-only dinners,” and that off-the-beaten-path attractions held more appeal than guided tours or noted museums.

I hate to admit that our appetites guided our island activities, but that’s pretty much the truth of it. We heartily endorsed seaglass expeditions100_2530 on lonely beaches, long lunches with accompanying local beer or wine, and lazy afternoons with our books, sometimes interspersed with naps. Even though early dawn light was beautiful, we felt no compunction to be overly active early each morning.

We overindulged in fresh fish and seafood prepared in traditional ways, and we sampled sardines, octopus, local mussels, sheep’s cheese, and plenty of olives. We did, unfortunately, miss the experience of eating cozido, a meat or chicken dish slow-cooked underground in the hot volcanic soil. And we did not venture a soak in the mineral-laden volcanic pools, although they are a highlight of the visit for many tourists to Sao Miguel Island.

The marina drew us . . .

After spending a morning exploring the town, we were drawn by the water, and the prospect of having a view to accompany a light lunch. We were walking along the rocky shore in what will someday be a revamped marina district of Vila Franca do Campo. Deadlines seem both non-existent and unimportant on this island, so there are no signs proclaiming a targeted completion date. 100_2211

With a couple of eateries to choose from, we picked the one closer to the water, Atlantico Restaurante & Grill, and were ushered upstairs to a pleasant dining room with a stunning view. It was late by island standards, apparently; other diners were close to finishing their meals, but we were welcomed nonetheless by a server who smilingly said we had plenty of time. The kitchen would not close until 3 p.m.

And so our first encounter with Portuguese dining began:

First the obligatory sampling of bread, olives, cheese, and this time, paper-thin sliced ham and a tasty sweet jam. Our orders came and were consumed, along with a bottle of chilled white wine, and the minutes ticked by.

 

It was well after 3 p.m. when we finished, and we bade goodbye to Michael, our waiter, who had spent time in Chicago, as we recall, and spoke perfectly idiomatic English. He seemed not to mind being kept after “quitting time,” and actually invited us back for dinner, but then told us the restaurant would be closed for the next couple of days due to an annual — and, apparently, quite raucous — fisherman’s celebration. Indeed, while we ate, workers continued to decorate the street outside; we suspect it was quite a party!

Another day, we visited Mariserra, once again for a late lunch, in Sao Roque, nearer the large city of Ponta Delgada. We had yet another delicious taste of island life, this time highlighted by a shareable fish stew, served with pasta in a tomatoey sauce, as well as perfectly-prepared garlic shrimp (two orders) and flavorful mussels.

 

Crafting a memorable visit . . .

We kept busy, but we relaxed completely, interspersing long beach strolls and walks along cobblestone streets with short excursions to the market and a day trip to Sete Cidades at the far end of Sao Miquel Island. We drove winding switchbacks to the rim of the now quiet volcano, and marveled at the sight of twin pristine lakes, one blue, one green, that fill the caldera. There are numerous hiking trails, with plenty of scenic overlooks for photo ops. 100_2257

We acted as “traffic cops” when a mama duck and her brood strolled through a lakeside parking lot, and we stopped to gaze in awe at an abandoned structure. Now covered in graffiti and spreading greenery, it must have once been an architectural gem. We never learned its history.

 

Another day we visited another shore, thoroughly enjoying a leisurely excursion to Cha Gorreana in Ribeira Grande. Family-owned and operated since 1883, the only surviving tea plantation in all of Europe is still farmed and harvested by time-honored methods, completely organic and pesticide-free. The tour and tea samples were free of charge, and we lingered at the site.

 

The story of how tea farming came to the Azores is fascinating, affirming that a volcanic island in the North Atlantic was a well-known destination to voyagers from the Orient and India, and by dealers in exotic spices and fruit, long before any of us might have guessed. Tea plantations arrived later, however. The tea harvest and processing is still done by hand, labor-intensive and a labor of love, as well as a booming business. Both black and green teas are wonderful.

A simple question . . .

“Meat or fish?” the proprietor asked, after he had brought our wine to a table perfectly situated near balcony windows, open just enough to let a light breeze waft through. 100_2440

We chose fish, but the meat platter served to nearby diners looked equally tempting.

We had stumbled, quite by accident, upon Fim de Seculo Restaurante in the heart of Maia, a coastal village not far from the tea plantation. We had hoped for a quiet late lunch in a cafe along the shore, but instead we found this charming upstairs dining room, accessed via the outdoor patio and ground floor bar, complete with blue and white tile murals, white linen tablecloths and a dark wooden staircase that has borne its share of footsteps over the years.

 

This was to be a leisurely lunch, punctuated with laughter, good wine and interesting conversation with the proprietor and his daughter, who, we learned, had just graduated with a degree in hospitality management. It ended on a sweet note: a platter of freshly-sliced Azorean pineapple, perfect in its simplicity.

We will not soon forget the experience, and we did not eat again that day!

Three days on this island only whetted our appetite. A twist of scheduling became a highlight of our trip. We boarded our flight to Lisbon with a twinge of regret, at the same time looking forward to a planned cork forest tour and some highly-anticipated beach time on the mainland, in addition to more good food in faraway places.

The Azores: Volcanic rocks in the pond

It was a spectacularly gentle touchdown on the runway that stretched along the coast of Sao Miguel Island. So smooth, in fact, that it prompted applause from the passengers as a slightly-longer-than-four-hour non-stop flight from Boston set us down on a small volcanic island in the Atlantic still about 900 miles from mainland Portugal.

It was also only 6:30 in the morning local time, and the island looked sleepy in the slightly drizzly dawn. We had boarded in Boston at 9:20 p.m. the preceding evening, thinking that we could get some sleep on the flight, but dinner service with complimentary wine and coffee, along with a growing sense of excitement, combined to keep us awake. Any nap would have been brief.

We looked forward to picking up our rental car and were hoping to enjoy a traditional Portuguese breakfast prior to making our way to the lodgings that were to be our home for the next three nights.

An unexpected greeting . . .

Our plane stopped on the tarmac some distance from the terminal. Surprised to realize that there would be no modern jet bridge, we gathered our belongings and deplaned down the aircraft stairs, walking through the drizzle to retrieve our checked luggage in the still quiet terminal building. Even customs and immigration officials seemed less than fully awake, but they obligingly stamped our passports as they welcomed us to their island home.

A row of smiling men with hand-lettered signs awaited our arrival, and our group was transported quickly and efficiently by mini-van to pick up our rental vehicle. Once there, we were offered a home-baked treat — a cross between pound cake and tasty breakfast bread. Our hopes for a nearby eatery and a hearty early-morning breakfast, however, were dashed.

Island life, it seems, does not begin early. And, by any reckoning, 7 a.m. in vacation land is early! However, other delights followed in quick succession as we were invited to follow the man who had greeted us at the airport. He willingly led us in his own vehicle to our reserved seaside villa, even transporting some of our luggage and waiting with us until someone with a key could be located. “No problem,” he insisted, “I live nearby.” We felt welcome and already “at home.” We were charmed by the accommodations, the lush landscape, the seaside view, an outdoor covered patio, and a resident rooster!

When Afonso Mela, who manages the family-owned property, arrived, he won us over by also bringing juice, milk, crackers and local beer along with iconic Portuguese WP_20190428_07_08_50_Pro (2)pasteis de nata to accompany our morning coffee. For the next two weeks, those custard treats would be a staple of our daily diet, for breakfast and at other times during the day.

Unfolding an adventure . . .

The four of us had picked Portugal as a vacation destination for a long-awaited “cousins trip” because neither couple had been there before. It was as simple as that; akin to the way we traveled in our younger days, choosing destinations by throwing darts at a map. We knew only that Portugal is still relatively inexpensive, and that English is widely spoken.

The reason for a stopover in the Azores was equally simple. It was a logistical solution to the dilemma of getting two couples, one from Texas and the other from Maine, to a destination half a world away at the same time. In checking flight schedules, we found that Azores Airlines allows a no-extra-charge stopover in the islands for travelers who book a flight from Boston to Lisbon. We couldn’t say no to that! Besides, we knew no one else who had previously visited the Azores.

About these islands . . .

It is said that each of the nine islands in the archipelago has a distinct personality, as well as the similarities of black volcanic stone, pleasant climate, hot springs, whales and dolphins in the surrounding waters, and no shortage of friendly people.

The Azores are part of an island group that stretches across about 370 miles in the North Atlantic. They have been known since the 14th Century and were depicted on early navigational charts, notably the Catalan Atlas, drawn in 1375.  Today, the Azores constitute an autonomous region of Portugal, as do several other island groups.

Life is lived simply on this island. Tourism is increasingly important to the economy; some major cruise lines have added calls to Ponta Delgada to their itineraries. Traffic is manageable, even in the largest city. Ubiquitous “roundabouts” regulate the flow of vehicles, rather than traffic lights. Driving the island’s highways and back roads, we never heard a horn; nor did we see an accident, or encounter any speeding.

The architecture is unique. Black and white churches seem unlikely and jarring at first encounter, then beautifully appropriate. They are visible from far off in the craggy landscape, even on the slopes of steep hillsides. Every village has at least one, and they seem just waiting to be explored.

Apart from the churches and an occasional impressive municipal building, predominantly low-slung homes and buildings grace narrow streets. Some have colorful stucco walls and clay-tile roofs; others are white with simple metal roofing. Most homes and public spaces display colorful, lush flowers and gardens. Commercial buildings are typically functional and nondescript. Congregated in larger “warehouse-like” structures, “one-stop shopping” seems convenient and efficient for groceries and the basic needs of daily life, including clothing, electronics and banking.

A charming introduction to Portugal

Green hillsides, terraced and manicured, grace the landscape; the sea is everywhere close at hand, and there is an almost total lack of hustle and bustle.

The cadence of life is comfortable. People stop to chat along the streets, or sit on seaside walls and benches just to enjoy the sunshine and the sounds of crashing surf. Locals smile at strangers, and everyone we encountered was helpful, despite our trouble with pronunciation of Portuguese words. Diners linger over lunch, and waiters never present a bill unless asked for one. Restaurants close for the afternoon, reopening again around 7 p.m. for dinner. Getting around is easy, if confusing at times, but getting lost on a small island is almost impossible.

Three days on Sao Miguel were not only a suitable introduction to Portugal, but an open invitation to return. Because of the location along the Atlantic gulf stream, the climate is moderate, and Azorean vacations have been perennially popular with British and European vacationers. Although we did not see all that the island offers, we understand why travelers return again and again to savor island life.

The appeal extends beyond the natural beauty and the welcoming vibe. There is an ambience that exists only in rare places. We all felt privileged to enjoy a few days on a unique volcanic island. I, for one, would be happy to return to the Azores, and I heartily endorse the stopover offered by an accommodating airline.

Note: We arranged our stay at Casa da Cancela in Vila Franca do Campo on San Miguel Island through booking.com, and found the property to be exactly as described. Based on comments by other guests, it consistently lives up to its ratings, and we do not hesitate  to recommend it. Although I book lodging often with this company, I am in no way connected, nor do I receive consideration in any form from them, from the airline, or in any other manner for the mention.