So, as I mentioned, going to Portugal was just as cheap including a stopover in the Azores, so we did that last Thursday through Sunday before dan's conference in Porto this week.
Recommended vacation? Yes! It's the most tropical place I've visited, though it's only in the subtropics. It's amazingly green and alive. Nearly every rock face on the island is covered with moss, and most of them are then covered with grass or something flowering. The island we were on, São Miguel, has about 140,000 residents (half the population of the 9 islands) and it's been lived on continually since the 1400s. Stone construction is common; just about all the wood we saw was in some stage of mossiness and I can't imagine wood structures last long.
From the airplane, you can see these green tall fences that look like shrubbery, and that's what they are- to keep larger animals in or out, including people. There are a lot of farms on São Miguel- besides tourism, the economy runs on fishing, dairy, and livestock exports to the mainland. Driving around the island for three days, we were stopped a few times by cattle being driven down the road, just enough times that it was still charming; especially when one driver tried to pass around them in the other lane and was promptly stopped by a few strategic cattle (I suddenly imagine a Critical Cattle demonstration, mooing "whose streets? our streets!")
Renting a car was the right idea. There were tour-busses, but dan was happy to drive us all over, and the roads are usually well-signed (except they really need a few more "steep road" signs, maybe including one or two "don't even try it"). The island is 65km by 15km, and we were able to tour most of the bigger towns and attractions in three days. It would have been even nicer if we'd had Thursday to tour as well, but Hurricane Nadine would have made things difficult for us even if we had landed, so three days of visit is all we got.
There is a new superhighway from Ponta Delgada in the south-west to Nordeste in the north-east. It means a traveler could make a day-trip out of visiting all of the towns along the north coast, returning on the highway instead of having to turn back just halfway. We took the winding and twisty roads along the coast, which had so many gorgeous views (more dramatic than Cape Breton- don't take away my citizenship for saying that, Canada!) After making it to Nordeste, and an ill-conceived attempt to view a lighthouse down a steep road, we headed back to Ponta Delgada for the night.
There are beautiful (and free) attractions all over the island, that are kept in remarkably good condition given the amount of work it must take to trim back all the aggressive greenery. My favourite visit was to a roadside waterfall and park called "Ribiera dos Caldeirões" near Achada in the north, with lots of beautiful flowers, old water-mills and many levels of stone aqueduct.
There was also Furnas, a town centered around hot springs and bubbling pipes coming out of the earth. DId I mention the Azores are situated on volcanic mountains? They are at the union of three continental plates, which are moving outward very slowly. It's amazing that the only net effect on the surface today is a few hot springs; apparently in the 1800s somebody discovered a brand new island, which he claimed for England; only to have the next explorer report that it had disappeared underwater again. Fun. Anyhow, Furnas had outdoor hot springs which were awesome, and there were claims of three indoor springs to go and bathe in, only two of them were closed and the third one was empty and creepy, so we didn't bathe in it.
And there was a neat little hike at Calderia Velha, around the middle of the island where a waterfall and hot-springs-warmed water coincided in a pool. Again didn't swim, but it was a nice hike.
We spent a morning driving to the west corner of the island, up Pico da Cruz, only the weather was foggy enough that we could see nothing but white mist. We descended into Sete Cidades, a town centered on three lakes (gorgeous views from above- or so we're told) and then had a lot of twisty roads back along the coast.
The city of Ponta Delgada would have perhaps been more interesting if we had been there on a different set of days: Friday was a regional holiday, and many shops are closed on weekends, so we mostly only visited restaurants. There were a few museums that weren't open. We went to a pineapple greenhouse, which was a "must see", but touring dozens of nearly identical greenhouses wasn't so exciting. There was pineapple liqueur, though. Oh! And Sunday afternoon, I came across a 4x4 truck rally, which was really great for people-watching.
There were also requisite visits to cafes, where we had some tasty sweets though I fear I didn't do nearly enough lounging in traditional Portuguese style. But I tried. I think will try for more lounging in Porto, where we are from Monday through Sunday.
I hope to post photos once I've done some processing, which may happen after I am home again.
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