Sao Miguel–Ponta Delgada (Azores)

Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Azores and also the largest municipality, it was here that we docked early on the morning of Valentine’s Day. It was a miserable looking start to the day, the volcanic highlands were shrouded in grey mist, thick rolling clouds marched across the sky and there was a hint of rain in the air. There was a forecast temperature of 17 degrees, but I thought that was being optimistic.

This was to be our third visit to the island of Sao Miguel; a few years ago on a wonderful exploratory week with Sarah before her ‘A’ Levels and last year for just a day as a port of call on a previous cruise. Both Sue and I love this place, friendly people, picturesque settlements and an ideal climate for anyone from Northern Europe, there is plenty to see and do, both on land and in the surrounding sea. It’s a must place to visit for those wishing to add to their list of  whales and dolphin spotting, a fantastic location for volcanologists and for ramblers, the scenery is breath-taking.

We were in no hurry to leave the ship as we had already experienced most the activities offered on the ship’s tours and the city itself had been thoroughly investigated on our last visit. Today, we decided to fill in those bits of the city that we had previously thought uninteresting and had missed out on our last excursion. It was close to 10am when we left the Magellan, warm in thick fleeces and precautionary raincoats dangling from rucksacks. We were met by a gentle breeze and warm sunshine peeping from behind optimistic clouds.

Turning right out of the terminal exit, we headed along a raised walkway that separated the harbour from the city, soon having to take off a layer of clothing to cool down. As we did so, an elderly lady emerged from what looked like changing rooms set into the harbour wall, she had on an inadequately brief swimming costume, resplendent with bright pink hat. We watched in bemused/admiration as she marched resolutely across the quay, down some steps and without hesitation  into the dark waters of the harbour. Diving in, she swam confidently out towards the tug boat that had previously guided the Magellan to its berth. Next, a much younger man of around 20yrs or so, emerged. He struggled briefly pulling up a full length wetsuit over what appeared to be a thick thermal vest, he then too proceeded to gingerly enter the water. A huge contrast in ages and I think courage too!

Moving on, we left them to their aquatic madness and carried on along the walkway until the city began to peter-out, crossing the coastal road we plunged into suburban Ponta Delgada. Here, was the familiar and ridiculously narrow cobbled streets of the city centre, but the buildings were not so well maintained and the shops here lacked any interest for the average souvenir hunting tourist. Delighted, we came across an antique shop with an intriguing dark and dingy interior, a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of delights. Diving in, Sue  confidently swam along the narrow aisles, methodically working her way along the shelves and artefact strewn floor. I followed, more cautiously, enjoying looking at the thingies and whatsits, I knew there was a fortune to be made here but I had neither the suitcase space or knowledge to spot it. I guess Sue would easily have spent all day here, digging for that little teacup or small sketch that would fetch tens of thousands of pounds, if not a million at a London auction house. Forty minutes later we left with exactly the same wealth as in which we entered, no speculative purchases made and sadly resigned to continue a life of poverty.

Our wandering eventually took us into the centre. We revisited the Collegio Hotel  where we had once stayed, to see what had changed and for Sue to use its facilities. Afterwards, we sat for quite awhile in a pretty little park, enjoying the sunshine and logging onto free WIFI. We chatted to Sarah  back in the UK on her lunch break at work, until the rain came. We hurried back to the ship through streets affording no escape from the downpour, buildings that do not possess guttering, empty their collected contents in cascades onto hapless pedestrians below. Without drains, the road surface rapidly became a rushing stream, turning the flint cobbles into a skating rink. They look very pretty when dry, but lethal when wet. Like two drowned rats we eventually took lunch on board.

We ventured out again during the afternoon. This time turning left, once again under a blue sky with gentle breeze inviting a guarded optimism of a dry remainder of the day. Arriving at Ponta Felgada Fort located by the old harbour, we ignored the small internal military museum as we had visited it previously, in preference to finding out if we could walk all the away around its outside. Three quarters of the way  we diverted to climb the huge sea wall that protected the port from the onslaught of the Atlantic Ocean. We stood for quite a while cooled in a light gentle spray spewed from waves that pounded the huge interconnecting concrete blocks of the breakwater, crashing rollers making the sound and ferocity of cannon fire. We watched a pair of seagulls play a game of catch-me-if-you-can with the breaking waves as they swooped to snatch small titbits from the crests of swirling, rolling walls of water, sometimes thinking they had been caught, but thankfully not.

Returning to our wandering of the city, we rested awhile seated in one of the splendid plazas fringed with leafless, pollarded trees that the city boasts in abundance. I was explaining to Sue the artistic concepts behind a large modernist sculpture, suspended inside the frame of a metal cube set to one side of the cobbled square, when Ken and Chris appeared. Ken looked decidedly ill and confessed to feeling so, they had been on a ship’s tour that morning and like us had come out to see the sights of the city. They had been looking for a café that sold custard tarts, something which they had been told were delicious and they must sample. We pointed them in the right direction and continued with our discussion. Disappointingly, Sue couldn’t progress further than, “It looks like a bird,” failing to understand the symbolism of the plaza trees and the stark, trunkless suspended shapes within a cube, within a square. Simples, if you ask me!

We continued drifting until the first spattering of a shower could be felt. Quickly, fearing another downpour, we relocated to a convenient harbour-side restaurant, picturesquely suspended over the water and opposite lines of colourful fishing smacks. It was  5pm and the place was empty of customers, the inside tables had been decorated beautifully for Valentine’s Day; red paper roses, red glasses and set ready for the evening meal. With the rain lashing down outside they couldn’t turn us away, Azoreans are much too nice to do that. We sat alone with our drinks, watching a couple of windsurfers scud around the harbour, slicing  through grey squalls of rain, enjoying their sport and oblivious to the conditions. With the parting of the clouds and the return of the sun, we paid the bill and made our way back to the ship.

BREAKING NEWS: After the evening show there was an important announcement form the captain. Storm Dennis, due to cause havoc in the UK over the weekend, was going to have an affect on us. We would be passing through the Bay of Biscay in a few days time, the conditions would create waves in excess of 15m. It had been decided that we would put into the port of Vigo in northern Spain for a day, then continue our journey. Instead of arriving in Tilbury on the 19th, we would now arrive on the 20th!

You can imagine the panic that bit of news caused among our fellow passengers, principally because any taxi/bus/car/flight arrangements which had been made,  now had to be changed. The atmosphere seemed to have mostly settled down by the following morning as people quietly got to grips with their rearrangements. “Better to be safe than sorry,” seemed to be a common phrase used during the following days.

We shall see. Good luck UK, fingers crossed.

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