An Azorean Adventure: Part 1
Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal.
Have I been living under an igneous rock? How had I never been to the Azores until last week? The facility of the whole thing was boggling. To think that one moment I could be cruising along the Boston harbor front and not 7 hours later plunging into a natural hot spring pool in a jungle in EUROPE…well that would just be asking too much of the universe. Turns out it’s not at all an outlandish request, it’s entirely possible and even better than I had imagined. This paradise is readily accessible, dynamic and beautiful, cheap and cheerful, and what’s more, the people there speak the most intoxicating language in the world: a very shwishy European Portuguese.
A 4 hr and 20 minute direct and painless flight from Boston carried my adventurous friend Char and me to Ponta Delgada, capitol of the Azorean archipelago, located on the largest of its islands, Sao Miguel. Within 20 minutes of landing, we were snugly strapped into our rental Peugeot, weaving towards Sete Cidades, a sleepy town on the banks of a teal green lagoon that lines the bottom of a volcanic crater. Where the water ends, the hydrangeas begin, blanketing the steep crater walls in a dense flush of blues, pinks, purples, and greens. It seemed our Peugeot had lept off the road and into a snow globe that sprinkled with berry-hued hydrangea petals. In lieu of traditional fencing, thick hedges of blue hydrangeas carved up the hillsides. I couldn’t imagine a lovelier way of enclosing one’s livestock, and I mused as to whether this level of horticultural form and function would be feasible back in Virginia.
We pulled over at what appeared to be the only restaurant in town in hopes of finding breakfast. Their morning selection was scarce, just coffee, beer, and pastries, so we opted for all of the above while we spread out our road map on a patio table. Our plan was to seek higher ground in order to catch a better view of the lagoon. Confident in our navigational skills, we clambered back into the car to tackle the ascent. The car rolled along smoothly on a well-maintained road, that is until the pavement abruptly ended and we found ourselves skidding and bottoming out on loose gravel and deep trenches. To make matters worse, a heavy fog set in, dashing any hope of seeing the lagoon from above. Not that we were too concerned with sightseeing at this point. Our leisurely Sunday cruise had morphed into a white knuckled fight to stay on the road and return our wheezing little car back to the crater base in one piece. When at one point Char was forced to pop the right side wheels onto a 3 foot high embankment to avoid a wide gully that gashed through the center of road, I clenched my eyes shut and silently cursed my foolhardiness in declining additional rental insurance.
Our car kept climbing and we gleaned from our map that we must have somehow picked up a tertiary road used only by the local tractor-equipped farmers. Every once in a while a lone horse would emerge from the fog as an ominous reminder of our solitude up there on the ridge. Graciously and gradually the angle of the road tipped in our favor and we began a delicate descent. As the fog slowly lifted our car nosed its way into a mossy pine forest reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. What a bizarre transition, we thought….happy green lagoon to terrifying road in the clouds to peaceful pine forest in the span of 30 minutes.
Over the next four days we would discover that Sao Miguel is abounding with such curious topographical and meteorological shifts. We would also learn that the only other people crazy enough to drive the crater-top road around Sete Cidades are professional rally car drivers in the annual SATA Rally Azores. Our reaction to this news fell somewhere between horror and smugness, as you’d expect of two young blonde American tourist chicks who got lost and were too stubborn and stupid to turn around like sane people.