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. 

It’s the people, not the places . . .

It’s good to get away, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter where the journey takes us; it’s the break from routine that’s important.

This time, though, it was all about the place. My husband and I, as those who know us (and those of you who read the previous post) know, spent the better part of a summer in Alaska 13 years ago. We traveled the Marine Highway of Southeast Alaska and numerous watery byways that led us to out-of-the-way villages and secluded coves. We went north to Skagway and Haines, west to Glacier Bay and Sitka, spent delightful days in Hoonah and Petersburg and bobbed gently “on the hook” with only stars and lapping waves for company. We visited Juneau, the capital, several times, and we had good times in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “first city.”

At the end of August we returned to the 49th state, arriving in Anchorage on a Friday evening to spend a few hours prior to embarking the next day on a seven-day voyage aboard Golden Princess. The trip would take us past impressive Hubbard Glacier and into Glacier Bay before visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan on a journey slated to end in Vancouver, British Columbia, the following Saturday morning.

It was not a trip we spent a lot of time planning. It was, in fact, a snap decision, made with a “why not” attitude, but with low expectations. We sandwiched it in between short trips to other destinations during August.

Some initial observations:

What we experienced surprised us. We were less than enamored by Anchorage, home to fully 40 percent, if not more, of Alaska’s residents. But, to be fair, we spent only a few hours there and during our brief visit we encountered delightful people. The city, however, is not pretty, apart from its surroundings.

Our appreciation for the spectacular natural beauty of Alaska emerged fully intact. Looking down on the Anchorage area from our airplane and seeing snow-capped distant peaks towering above the clouds was duly impressive. The water and the coastal vistas are incredible and the vast land seems to extend forever.

And the flowers — before I visited Alaska, I would not have believed there were flowers in what I considered a cold and desolate place. How wrong I was. They were — and still are — everywhere. Wild flowers and flowers in public parks; flowers on window sills and in shops, flowers filling huge municipal planters; flowers in airports and on the docks. Wildflowers along the highway. Gorgeous, colorful flowers. Everywhere!

On Saturday, we boarded a bus for the short drive to Whittier, a year-round deep-water port at the head of Prince William Sound. The trip allowed us a glimpse of white Beluga whales in the waters of Turnagain Arm and a herd of Dall sheep navigating a craggy bluff on the other side of the highway.

It’s exciting, to be sure, to wear jackets and knit caps in August, even if we did have to don rain gear as well. We visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see wood bison and musk ox, wolves and porcupines, bear and moose, deer and foxes.

We continued on through the engineering marvel of a tunnel that gives the only land access to Whittier. It is shared (on a one-way basis) by passenger vehicles, buses, trucks and the train!

A floating city . . .

Once aboard, we began to settle in to the life of a floating city with 2,600 other people — not difficult, actually, with the wealth of activities and the pleasant mix of public and private spaces. Every day seems a celebration on board a modern cruise ship.

What we knew we would miss was the feeling of being close to the water — the sound of the waves, the experience of cold fingers and blasts of wind as we dropped anchor or secured the lines of our vessel to the metal cleats of well-worn wooden docks. We missed the camaraderie we felt with fishing boat captains as they put away their gear after a long day; and we missed the hot coffee and good conversation that was always available in cluttered dockmasters’ offices.

We also missed seeing whale spouts and fish jumping just above the swells, gulls and eagles trailing fishing boats and circling above small docks, the occasional family of sea otters looking for refuge in a marina, and eye-level contact with those splashing waves and floating chunks of ice. Looking down on the water from a deck 70 or more feet above it, or searching for native wildlife through binoculars and behind protective glass has nowhere near the same effect.

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What we enjoyed was the companionship of other passengers, especially our delightful dinner tablemates, talking with fellow travelers from not only other states, but from Australia and New Zealand, from Germany and England, from Mexico and from Asia. We appreciated the perfectly prepared fresh fish and seafood that was offered at every meal, the smiling service of bartenders and waiters, the helpfulness of the crew, the variety of outdoor deck space from which to view changing vistas of glaciers and icebergs, mountains and clouds.

We were blessed with sunshine for at least a part of every day, somewhat unusual for this part of Alaska.

We also appreciated having the assistance of other eyes to help spot whales and otters, eagles, bears, seals and porpoises. And, yes, we did spot some, although we yearned to see more! The ship reverberated with a chorus of delight for each occurrence. We were thrilled once again to visit Glacier Bay. The naturalists and Park Rangers who came aboard were interesting and knowledgeable. It was a learning experience, and it was good to have their input.

We heard the “thunder” of glaciers as they calved, and realized anew that listening to the natural sounds of Alaska is mesmerizing.

‘Tis the season . . .

We could have done without the proliferation of t-shirt and key chain shops, furriers and jewelry stores, harborside kiosks and lines of tour buses and waiting guides. But then we realized that they were very much a part of port life 13 years ago as well.

As Alaska residents acknowledge, the season is short and it’s tourism that turns the wheels of commerce in the ports of Southeast Alaska. Life after October settles back into familiar patterns and the majesty of the land becomes once again the personal domain of those who call Alaska home.

Travel is enlightening in many ways. But it’s not the places; it’s the people one meets.

We sought out those people on this trip. And we were rewarded tenfold! Friendly residents are more than willing to talk about their lives, their cities, their families and their experiences. As always, we were fascinated to learn about daily life as it is lived outside the pages of guidebooks.

We always asked for local recommendations for food. In Anchorage, we were directed to a popular local brew pub, and were immediately befriended by a local resident only too willing to share his views on everything from oil drilling to recreational cannabis, from the Northern Lights to politics. The next morning we had cafe au lait and warm croissants at the charming Paris Cafe, a short stroll from our hotel.

In Skagway, there was a wait at “the best place in town to eat,” but the wait was worth it — and we were notified by text message when our table was ready. Skagway may be small and remote, but there’s no shortage of technology! WP_20180821_12_44_28_ProWe were rewarded with perfectly prepared fish, crispy chips and superb local brew.

We took a short bus ride to White Pass, following the path traversed by miners with gold fever, and snapped photos at the border between the United States and Canada, “Gateway to the Klondike.” We walked around Skagway for just a short time before retreating back to our ship as it began to rain. Skagway has changed little, but with four cruise ships in town, it was crowded!

That afternoon, before slipping lines and heading south to Juneau, a program by “real Alaskan” Steve Hites, one of the 1,057 full-time Skagway residents, was a highlight of the trip. Accompanied by guitar and harmonica, the 64-year-old songwriter, storyteller and tour operator charmed listeners with a 40-minute history of “his” Alaska, and the small town he knows so well.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, once again we asked for local food tips and were given the names of two eateries slightly beyond the tourist mainstream. At both, The Flight Deck in Juneau, and again in Ketchikan at The Dirty Dungee, we devoured fresh-caught Dungeness crab, and couldn’t have been happier!

About traveling to Alaska . . .

My heartfelt advice to anyone considering an Alaska cruise?

GO!

My husband and I realize that we were privileged to be able to experience the state as we did — on our own — and that trip will remain in our hearts as a unique experience.

We remember how small we felt while on our boat, especially one morning in Juneau as we awoke to the presence of a massive cruise ship snuggled against the dock directly in front of our vessel.

101_0747As luck would have it, on this trip Golden Princess occupied that slip, and we wondered if the private yacht owners felt as dwarfed as we had that long ago morning.

The allure of Alaska has not diminished for us. We shared the excitement of first-time visitors on this cruise. And we understand clearly the sentiments of those who return again and again. There are many ways to travel to this unique state, from “big-ship” cruises to private vessels, land-sea combos, fly-in fishing or sightseeing trips and active expedition cruises. The Alaska State Ferry runs north from Bellingham, Wash., year round, the the Al-Can Highway provides an unparalleled opportunity for those who love road trips. There are summer work opportunities for college students, and the tourist industry brings part-time residents every season. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for visiting Alaska.

Absolutely, go to experience the place — the stunning scenery with majestic peaks and pristine water, the wilderness, the waterfalls and the icy blue glaciers. Look for wildlife, of course, and marvel when you spot a whale or a group of bears on shore, eagles in the trees, or otters in the sea. Eat your fill of freshly-caught fish and seafood. Snap Selfies. Take tours. Buy trinkets.

But go especially to meet the people! Dinner companions often become lasting friends. At the very least, casual encounters with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, tour guides, ship’s staff, and the people you stop to talk with on the street linger as lasting reminders of the trip  even when memories of specific sights begin to fade.

Cruising is invariably a pleasure, no matter what the ports.  And Alaska still lives up to its moniker as the American “last frontier.” It’s a big adventure!

So, yes, go to Alaska!   

Will we return? Perhaps not. But we would not hesitate to do so. It’s that good!

 

Portovenere: Poetry in any language

My husband and I hadn’t really intended to be in Portovenere. We were driving through Italy with no particular destination in mind. At a small gas station in the port of Genoa, we stopped to ask general directions to the waterfront, with every intention of finding a charming out-of-the way inn along the way, perhaps one with a view of the harbor and a trattoria within walking distance.

We had no timetable. It was chilly. It was the end of January, not the height of tourist season along the Mediterranean coast. The prospect of a good glass of red wine, a simple pasta and a comfortable bed beckoned. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The station attendant pointed — Portovenere, he repeated — along with a rapid stream of Italian, most of which was lost on us. “Portovenere, Portovenere, Portovenere. . . ,” accompanied by hand waving, curliques in the air, motor sounds, big smiles and, once again the repeated word: “Portovenere!”

It was decided. We pulled out the map, pinpointed the location and the route, smiled at our benefactor and trip planner, and were off to Portovenere.

What a Delight!

The little city is nestled into the craggy cliffs that line the sea; it has all the charm and colorful beauty of better-known Cinque Terre villages. Along with them, Portovenere is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. They are all magnificent. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Portovenere is ancient, and it retains the homey aura of a small fishing village, with terraced hillsides above.

Perhaps it was just because we arrived at dusk during a very slow season, but everyone we met, from the hotel desk clerk to local workers on their way to the trattoria, greeted us cordially and made us feel like long-lost friends.

The feeling was not diminished the next day, nor the next. We stayed on, enchanted by everyday life in this beautiful village. We walked the streets, sauntered along the docks, ventured up the steep, hillside cliffs when we felt like it. We breathed deeply of the fresh seaside air, and looked out on the waters of the Med, but felt no need to take the sightseeing boat to the nearby trio of islands that are major tourist destinations.

Familiar Comforts

The truth is that Portovenere wrapped us in the comfort of normal lifestyle, at a point in our three-week trip when we had tired of tourism. In some ways, it felt like going homeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We sipped aperitivos at the local bar, and watched local television with residents relaxing after work, and then we ambled down the street to enjoy fresh seafood, good wine and spirited, if awkward conversation with other diners in the sparsely-occupied room. I’ve forgotten the dishes and the details, but the warmth of the experience, and the certainty that it was a good one, remain. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but I like to think it is still there, awaiting my return.

It’s a fanciful thought, I know, appropriate in some odd way for this Thanksgiving week. Going home for Thanksgiving is deeply ingrained in our consciousness, whether that trip is to Grandma’s house or simply a gathering that brings family and friends together for shared experience, wherever it may be.

Special Places and Times

That first and only visit to Portovenere was more than a decade ago and it still stands out in my memory as one of those places I would return to on short notice! That’s what I have been thinking about this week — the prospect of revisiting favorite spots across the globe, an irresistible urge to experience old delights once again. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pisa is on the list, and Assisi, along with Carrara, where Michelangelo found his stone. The tops of the mountains shine white in the distance, chipped away over the centuries to expose the shining white cores. Counter tops are still quarried here, some of them by old methods. It’s quite an experience to drive to the summit of a marble mountain!

There are other places, too, to revisit, most of them not the subject of travel guides and magazine articles. But that’s what makes travel special, isn’t it? Finding those places that speak to the soul is not something a traveler plans.

If it happens, it’s hard to deny. Portovenere is like that.

Savor the Good Times

In my mind, I can picture my return, just as I picture returning to my former home city of Santa Fe this year for a large family Thanksgiving.

May all of you find a special place in the heart this Thanksgiving. Maybe we can all search out those delightful spaces and places at other times of year as well.

If it’s impossible to return home in a physical sense, however, at least make a point to revisit those special places periodically in spirit. Savor those experiences.