April 22: Ponta Delgada, Azores.
After another night of heavy seas, we docked this morning in the city of Ponta Delgada, which is on San Miguel Island, in the island group Azores, which is part of the country of Portugal. Sometime during the day yesterday, we got word from the Captain that we would not be able to call in our second Azores port because of an impending storm system. So we will be in Ponta Delgada for an overnight instead. About the Azores: This is a group of nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean, each island having its own unique landscape, traditions, cuisine, and architecture. According to a tourist brochure, “the Azores are considered to be a sanctuary of biodiversity and geodiversity and one of the best locations for Nature Tourism.” During our excursion today, I saw nothing that would make me doubt that statement. It’s a beautiful island, lush with vegetation, orderly, well cared for, free of litter, with awesome natural areas that people on our bus today were comparing to Oregon, the Amish country in Pennsylvania, and Switzerland. Anyone interested in hiking in this spectacular setting might want to visit www.trails-azores.com.
We started our day at the port, of course. From our vantage point on the ship, we could see the main street of the harbor area. It was lined with apartment houses, hotels, and shops. There was also a marina, but many of the slips were empty. Maybe it’s too early for sailors to be here. Included in the harbor were a recreation area with a swimming pool and children’s play yard and a waterfront promenade with several restaurants and souvenir shops. The green mountains behind the town completed this pleasant scene. Everything seemed to be well designed for the comfort and convenience of the cruise tourist.
The focus of our excursion today was a drive around the island to visit the crater of an ancient volcano which has given its name to the small village of Sete Cidades (Seven Cities). We took a four-lane highway out of town but soon turned off on a two-lane road into the countryside. Once we left the houses of the city behind, we saw mostly lush, green pasture land, dairy cows, and cultivated fields. Often, the fields were bordered with high stone fences, maybe 6-7 feet high. The guide told us later that different materials had been used for windbreaks over the years, so I assume these high and perfectly straight walls served that purpose as well. One detail I noticed during our drive struck me as particularly charming. Road and street signs were often made of white tiles painted with blue lettering and decorative flourishes. These tile signs were used not only for street names but also for signs which explained the history of a monument or the importance of a scenic vista. We were also taken with the fact that hydrangeas and azaleas had been planted along the entire mountainous portion of our route today. The azaleas were just starting to bloom, and April is too early for the hydrangeas, but I could just imagine how spectacular that drive would be in a few weeks with all the hydrangeas in bloom. Another interesting fact about the plants we saw, such as Japanese cedar, bougainvillea, tree fern, and lily, is that none of them are native to the Azores. Our guide said that Europeans brought them here from all over the world and that native plants are found in only a few remote locations on the island.
Our drive took us over the lip of the eight-mile-wide crater and down its steep sides to the village of Sete Cidades. We had a short stop here where we could walk around the town park, visit the very clean public restroom, order a drink or snack from a nearby restaurant, inspect a local church, or just admire the small stone houses that look like they could stand forever. Looking up at the greenery-covered crater walls from the vantage point of this town was quite a contrast to our view at Mt. Vesuvius a few days ago. Even though this village seemed to us to be in a truly remote location, it was nevertheless able to participate in one of the prerequisites of the modern world – garbage collection. A garbage truck was making its rounds as we were taking our break there. This service particularly struck me, I think, because of all the countries we’ve seen on this trip which seemed to have no concept of public cleanliness. Our route then took us back up to the rim of the crater where we could have a beautiful view of the two lakes which lie at the bottom on one side of the rim and a similarly spectacular view of the ocean on the other side.
The second part of our excursion was to visit a pineapple plantation, where the fruit is grown in hothouses. Pineapple has become an important export crop for the Azores, and one purpose of this plantation is to help tourists understand and appreciate this key product. The guide explained the growing cycle of the pineapple and its propagation and led us on a tour of several hothouses with pineapple plants in various stages of growth. FYI, it takes almost two years for a pineapple to reach maturity! As is usual with such excursions, we also got a chance to do a little shopping in the pineapple store: pineapple jam (I bought some), pineapple embroidery, pineapple jewelry, pineapple scarves, etc., etc.
As the last port on our itinerary, Ponta Delgada did not disappoint. It was another amazing part of the world which we can now claim to have seen and loved.