A long weekend in the Azores

The Azores is one of those mystical places you hear about and want to explore before the masses ruin it. Think Cuba without the communist dictatorship and plonked in the Atlantic rather than the Caribbean.

With the advent of Ryanair’s low-cost flight routes from destinations across Europe, I may be a little late – and just part of the masses ‘ruining’ it. But the promise of seeing whales in the wild and floating in volcanic-heated springs to the soundtrack of crashing waterfalls pushed all sustainable citizen ideals out of my mind. I know. I’m a horrible person.

What is it Groucho Marx said? I have principles, but if you don’t like them, I have others.

We touched down at Aeroporto João Paulo II on Sao Michel island on a Saturday morning. It was reassuring to see everything and everyone was called João here, too. And the massive billboards at the airport eased you into island life with the comfort blanket of a Continente supermarket.

After a clinging-to-the-seat-and-closing-your-eyes taxi ride to the hotel, you could be forgiven for thinking you hadn’t even left Lisbon. The only giveaway being not all the streets have pavements and the front doors open straight onto the road, where we were cruising at 60 mph. Maybe you have to get your kicks differently here.

When we arrived at the hotel, our room wasn’t ready so we had to leave our bags in a storage room nestled in a corner of the lobby. No biggie, as we were all starving and ready to explore Ponta Delgada’s vegan options.

IMG_2543.jpg

Vegan stuff in Ponta Delgada (or lack thereof)

The vegetarian/vegan Happy Cow app was only showing one vegan place open, and it was a 10 minute drive away. So no sooner had we recovered from a drive with Jason Bourne than we were putting our lives in the hands of another Azores taxi driver.

We turned up at the rather unusually named Happy Veggies. There hardly seemed to be any vegetables in sight and the ones we did spot didn’t look that jolly. What the burger lacked in bread and the general appearance and taste of something edible, it made up for in oregano straight out of the packet.

They might skimp on the vegan mayo and just throw some leaves straight from the bag onto a plate and call it salad. But where else is your fork going to accidentally stumble upon a landmine of oregano beneath your croquette potatoes?

We left empty-walleted and empty-stomached, hoping a health food shop might have some goodies we would let us cobble together some semblance of meals for the rest of the trip. The Happy Veggies place had 5-star reviews, so I was a little apprehensive about the place lauded ‘best health food shop’ on the island.

Another 5-euro taxi trip there, and we were starting to feel like we’d walked into Groucho’s ‘A Day at the Races’ ice cream sketch. I certainly felt tutsi frutsi-ed.

A Day at the Race - I'm getting a fine tutsi-frutsi-ing right here
I’m getting a fine tutsi-frutsi-ing right here

 

My heart sank as we swerved up beside the shop.

(Side note: you’ve got to applaud the brashness of Portuguese drivers. If you tentatively remark that “anywhere here is good”, they slam on the breaks and bring the entire street to a standstill..)

The shop’s fruit and veg boxes were empty and only a handful of sad-looking shelves lined the walls. Unless you’re into those weird, dry soya pieces I’ve never worked out what you do with or vegan stickers, this place isn’t for you.

But what did I tell you? Continente in Parque Atlantique shopping centre would come to the rescue. Some oat milk, gluten-free cereal, peanut butter, gluten-free crackers and crisps and I was all set for my weekend carb fest.

At this point, I must admit I had nothing positive to say about Ponta Delgada, aside from the fact it stocked aforementioned oat milk. It was as though you couldn’t get anywhere without a car, making me think – not for the first time – that the Azores was the Isle of Arran with some sun.

It sounds crazy but there just weren’t always pavements or if there were, they involved edging your way alongside roads that resembled Formula 1 practice tracks. Or drawing up intricate Great Escape plans to navigate flyovers and roundabouts. Oh yeah, and there’s no such thing as Uber. City kids, brace yourselves.

So grumpy me was relieved to come back to a comfortable hotel room. We were a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the tiny streets of the centre, but still only a 3-minute walk to the harbour. In fact, we could see it from our balcony. Bliss. Can I move in??

Ponta Delgada streets
Old streets of Ponta Delgada undergoing reconstruction

Whale watching in the Azores (Sao Miguel)

The following day was our first trip out on the water. Initially, the organisation at Futurisimo left a bit to be desired. Nothing seems to run on time here and everything is a bit blasé. They don’t figure it’s worth telling you they’ve moved you to a different boat, which leaves at a different time.

That aside, the trip was fabulous – definitely the best whale watching tour I’ve been on. If you go in high-season, which is May to September then you’re almost guaranteed of seeing something.

Over the course of the two days we saw four pods of dolphins, three different types of whales, a flying fish and my highlight: a huge turtle I caught bobbing past the boat. Although the whales didn’t go for a deep dive (where you catch sight of their tail as they jump out the water), we did spot their fins as they arched against the waves.

Do you even call it a fin? I hope no zoologists are reading this. Either way, it felt quite fitting to spot a mama whale and her little one out on an afternoon jaunt, as this trip was a birthday pressie for my mum.

Whale watching in the Azores
We didn’t even have to leave the shore too far behind to spot our whale and dolphin friends

When to go whale watching

I’d recommend booking afternoon trips rather than morning ones, as the whales seem to stretch breakfast time out till lunch – creatures after my own heart. I was pretty jealous to see from the Futurisimo Facebook page that the afternoon group had snapped several photos of jumping whales. And even an orca.

But as my mum always likes to remind me, if you got everything you wanted, where would you put it all?

 

Ponta Delgada/Sao Miguel guide

Getting there 

From Portugal (Lisbon, Porto, Faro), you can fly directly with TAP, Ryanair, SATA and Azores Airlines to the main island of the Azores, Sao Miguel and to some of the other islands, such as Tereceira Lajes.

From Europe, Ryanair fly direct to Ponta Delgada from London Stansted and Frankfurt Hahn.

From the US, you can fly direct with TAP from New York to Ponta Delgada. SATA also fly direct from Boston.

 

Island hopping

I did spot a cruise liner-style boat docked in Ponta Delgada harbour that serves the Azores archipelago. See Atlantico Line if you feel up to spending between ten and 13 hours bobbing about the middle of the Atlantic.

By far the quickest way to reach the other islands is by plane with Azores Airlines and SAPA.

 

Where to stay

Hotel Ponta Delgada – 90 euros per night for a spacious double room with balcony and ensuite. On each floor, rooms 12 to 20 have been renovated and leave you feeling spoilt. We only stayed in this hotel one night. I’d have moved in if it were possible.

Apparently the breakfast wasn’t great, but they did leave us complimentary water and fruit bowls. The staff were pretty grumpy, but everyone on the island seemed to be permanently peeved.

Vila Nova Hotel – This was just a few doors down from Hotel Ponta Delgada in the direction of the sea. The rooms are fine, if a bit tired. Think wall-to-wall MDF and conference room carpet, everything either a pukey shade of ochre or oppressive navy. In its defence, I’d just spent a night in one of Hotel Ponta Delgada’s upgraded rooms so anything would have seemed a let-down.

The breakfast here was better and it’s certainly no bad hotel. Just if you can, try and snag a room in the neighbouring one.

 

What to do

Futurismo – whale watching tours

We picked this company over others because they believe in respecting the animals. They follow certain guidelines and don’t go off chasing them or scaring them as though they were a circus act.

The staff on board were also incredibly knowledgable and approachable, always happy to chat and give you tips for what to see and do on the island.

Futurismo – walking tours and swimming in waterfall pools

We never managed to book any excursions as everything was fully booked months in advance, but we’d definitely try these next time . Ponta Delgada is just a port town, so it looks nothing like the beautiful shots in all the marketing material of people gazing over lakes or floating in pools with cascading waterfalls.

 

Where to eat

Rotas da Ilha Verde – vegetarian restaurant

This seemed to be the most popular vegetarian restaurant in Ponta Delgada – particularly with locals, which was encouraging. As is standard in Portuguese restaurants, they offered two or three dishes of the day (all veggie, not all vegan) and one soup at lunchtime.

In the evening you can choose from a larger menu, I believe, but we couldn’t get a reservation. It is a tiny place so if you’re going for lunch start queuing before they open. As for dinner, you have to book.

This isn’t my favourite veggie restaurant by any stretch of the imagination, but the staff were lovely, attentive and most accommodating. They didn’t have a dish that was gluten-free and vegan one day so they offered to change it up a bit and give me rice instead of couscous. Another day I had a salad instead. Really, if you’re vegan this place is your only option.

But be warned, eating out is pricey. A simple salad of just leaves and tofu with red onion and bits of avocado cost 8 euros!

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