Faial – Horta (Azores)

Since leaving Antigua nestled serenely in its warm and calm Caribbean sea we have been making our way steadily north east through the choppier Atlantic Ocean. As each day passes the outside temperature has decreased from a fatigue inducing mid 30’s  to a more comfortable mid 20’s and lower. As we have been heading into quite a stiff wind, being on unsheltered sections of the outer decks can be quite unpleasant as the wind chill factor can turn a healthy looking tan into a less appealing blue. I personally enjoy the feeling of hair wafting vigorously in the breeze, massaging the scalp as follicles are tugged this way and that, I am surprised that this feeling is not shared by Sue or for that matter any of the other women with long hair on the ship, they seem to avoid the more exposed sections of the ship, preferring to pay extortionate prices in the ship’s Spa for a similar scalp treatment. Makes no sense to me.

Leaning over the bow of the ship waiting to catch sight of flocks of flying fish skittering across the waver tops has now become a thing of the past. The colder Atlantic is the province of whales and they are much less common, frustratingly it wasn’t until the last couple of sea days that both Sue and I caught sight of ‘the blow’ from a whale, too far out to catch more than a glimpse, but the flash of white steam against the dark blue of the sea leaves a lasting imprint on the retina and memory. One afternoon, Sue did spot two very large turtles from the stern of the ship, desperately flapping their limbs as they were buffeted in the back wash of the ship. I caught sight of them using binoculars but they were soon gone from sight, with no time to grab the camera. The closer we got to the Azores we began to see pods of common dolphins racing to play alongside the bow of the ship, a very dangerous game if you ask me. It was during one of these dare-devil games that I at last managed to photograph a dolphin in flight as it left the water. Each evening I seem to have deleted hundreds of similar photos of rippled sea, where a dolphin once was. Early one morning I spotted a shark lazily swimming alongside, interested in the huge noisy metal tin can that had invaded its home,  being just under two metres in length I suppose it decided that we were just a little too big to have a nibble at.

More often than not we make port whilst we are are having breakfast and Horta was no exception. The difference being that on deck it felt decidedly chilly and there was a breeze, the highlands were shrouded in cloud, as was the volcano on the island of Pico, visible from our berth in the harbour. The Azores are nine volcanic islands and our island, Faial was settled by the Portuguese in 1645 until the Spanish attacked it in 1583. The British heavily influenced the island in the 18th century when we introduced the production of oranges, however disease in the 19th century wiped out the orange trees and whaling took over as the prime source of income.

Horta, is the only large city with a population of around 7000, with around 15000 in all inhabiting the island. In 1957, the Capelinhos Volcano  erupted,  destroying many buildings, at the time the population was around 35000 and around half of these left the island to live in America and Canada. They still get earthquakes, the largest one being in 1995 when 600 families lost their homes. You could say that the Azoreans like living on the edge!

Sue and I were intrigued with the volcanic past of this island so we took a trip that would take us to see the devastation left by that eruption 60 years ago. We joined a party of around 30 other similarly minded people on a five and a half mile coastal hike of the Capelinhos.

We boarded our coach at the port of Horta and drove for around 45 minutes to the opposite, eastern side. We left under thick cloud and stiff breeze but emerged into bright sunshine as we part circumnavigated the island. We had a concern that our hike may turn into a slow, stop, start drag where there would be frequent stops waiting for those to catch up who (if they had read the literature) would know that they were in no condition to undergo such an activity. However, we were pleasantly surprised, all the members of our group were more than capable of a bit of strenuous exercise and I suppose were regular ramblers like Sue and I.

The drive through the green and lush Azorean countryside was a delight, pretty cottages hugging steep inclines, fields of staring, cud chewing cattle pondering the passing traffic and vertical darkened cliffs being pounded by Atlantic rollers, often breaking many 100’s of metres off shore. Now and again we would pass by square hedged enclosures inside which bananas would be grown to protect them from the harsh Atlantic gales. No oranges now, but something just as tasty!

We stopped for around 20 minutes at a beautiful park that due to its location and geography of the surrounding landscape had a micro-climate all of its own that ensured that its temperature and humidity remained constantly high all year round. There were picnic benches and BBQ’s galore set alongside winding pathways which made their way to hidden secret woodland glades. You could easily get lost here. In one we found several tame deer, not bothered in the slightest by our presence. I picked grass and fed them for a while. The paths are edged in volcanic rock, as was the surface of the path and the structures that held the BBQ’s. I thought it was magic, never seen anything like it before and a wonderful place to have a picnic. I was disappointed to leave so soon, I could easily have spent all day exploring here and I don’t think I was alone with that thought.

Arriving at the Capelinhos we set off on the ash track that was to be our route to the abandoned lighthouse on the cliffs that was once the end of the island. At first we passed though lush undergrowth that has since reclaimed the land that is now covered to a great depth in ash. Gorgeous white alliums that would cost a fortune back in the UK grew every where. Eventually this began to give way to more sparse and hardier shrubs as we neared our goal. We passed the ruins of ash covered houses, their outbuildings and garden walls, reminiscent of my trip to Chernobyl and the newly forested towns and cities there. Stopping all the way to take a few snaps. We could see the lighthouse and the new land beyond, looking like a saddle for some long departed giant slowly getting larger as 30 sets of feet ate up the distance. The promise of 17 degrees, cloudy and a possibility of rain, forecast by the Magellan’s captain that morning had not materialised (well, not on this side of the island), clear sky and sunshine soon heated bodies clad in trousers, shirts, fleeces and light raincoat. It wasn’t long before coat and fleece were wrapped, bandana style around my now slightly burgeoning girth and shirt sleeves rolled up to expose as much heat radiating forearm as possible.

As we closed in on the lighthouse, the landscape became as described in the brochure, “A unique landscape said to be reminiscent of that on the moon.” Having never been to the moon, not even on a previous cruise I suppose I will have to accept the writer’s description as being accurate. The stark contrast between sea, sky and drab, dusty and rocky landscape (if you squint a little) could easily be taken for some alien landscape and with a little imagination the abandoned light house could be taken for a waiting rocket to speed 30 souls back to the mother ship.

Yes, it’s true, the scene before us seemed more than a little unnatural to we creatures from a little island in the North Sea that hasn’t seen an active volcano for several millions of years, but kicking up the greyish brown dust and leaving footprints the size of Neil Armstrong’s left moonboot did seem quite normal after such a very short time. We humans are so adaptable. It’s funny how heat, exhaustion and a bit of flippancy can play tricks on the mind!

The coach arrived to to pick us up and all too soon we were back on board, engaged in our now guilt-ridden habit of cramming calories into a mouth while the stomach is still engaged on the previous repast of just a few hours earlier.

With fat to burn we ventured out again, this time to discover Horta and sample its delights. First stop was at the supermarket to purchase necessary supplies of refreshments for those long hard days at sea. With several bottles rattling in my rucksack we wandered the pretty narrow cobbled streets, regularly meeting fellow cruisers doing exactly the same, those that hadn’t already replenished their liquid stocks were keen to discover where they could. Having been to the Azores (Sao Miguel) on two previous occasions, the layout of the streets are exactly as we had expected so after a quiet pilgrimage to one of their exterior black and white churches (lots of inside bling) we weren’t surprised to find ourselves at a bar alongside the marina, I to take on further vital refreshments and Sue to peruse the harbour wall paintings. These are painted by the crews of yachts etc. who are engaged in sailing across the Atlantic, it is seen as a good omen for a safe voyage to leave some sort of pictorial mark. There are 100’s if not more, and in various stages of decay. I could see them well enough from my little table in the bar, I didn’t feel the need to accompany Sue for a closer inspection.

We completed our day in Horta at a round 5.30pm as we boarded the ship. She slid from her moorings around an hour later and headed through the dark to Sao Miguel.

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