The Azores part 1: Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel: city and sea

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The Azores. Part of Portugal, but then again, quite far from the mainland. Halfway between Europe and America, my son pointed out. I am not quite sure what to expect. We booked the trip, looking for a beautiful island, that offered more than packed sun drenched beaches. I quickly feel trapped on an island especially if the island is small and getting a sun tan seems the only point going there. We chose the Azores over Madeira, choosing the lower amount of tourists, the local feel and abundant nature over better established tourist centers with greater choice of shops, restaurants and tours. We can easily do with small local eateries instead of international cuisine, if I will get unspoiled scenery instead. I am not a beach dweller, so I never count the number of white sand beaches I can visit on my trip. Plus the Azores have great marine wildlife. Good for diving, and the possibility of whale and dolphin watching. The islands are extremely green, but of course that comes with a price, it rains quite often on the Azores. Can’t have your cake and eat it too. Beautiful nature needs to be fed. Also because of the volcanic underground the earth is bound to be fertile ( when it is not covered in lava that is).  There is an abundance of flowers , hence the name Flores of one of the islands. Another downside: there is still a lot of volcanic activity and the possibility of earthquakes, but that does not scare people away from Iceland either. And the climate is temperate, it should be comfortably warm, never too hot, never too cold. But it does ask for a wide variety of clothing, light summer clothes, but also enough sweaters for the evenings, a raincoat, comfortable walking clothes and footgear, bikini’s and other swim and beachwear, sunglasses and an umbrella sum it up.

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The next question: which island(s) do we want to visit. We only go for one week and it is our first time, so we follow all advice on this topic, for a short first time visit: stay on Sao Miguel. It is enough for one week. And then the last question: where to stay on the island? It mostly depends on what you want to do. If you want sea and sand, diving and whale watching, stay on the coast, with Ponta Delgada having the most choice in hotels, restaurants, shops and tour operators. From there you can easily  make trips to other parts of the islands, the easiest way is by renting a car. If you look for more quiet beach resorts there are other choices on the island. If you are more into walking, you can stay more at the centre at one of the lakes of the island like Sete Cidades or Furnas. It al depends on what you are looking for. But the island offers many quiet places in the middle of nature, if you want to get away from it al. We chose to have a bit of both by staying half of the week in Ponta Delgada, to enjoy the sea and to go diving, possibly whale watching. The second half of the week we would rent a car and stay at a villa at Lake Furnas in the centre, from where we would drive around the island and make walks. This way we would be able to discover the different parts and sceneries of the island. If the Azores are living up to our expectations, we can visit one of the other islands on our next trip. There is a two hour time difference with Belgium, it is GMT-1.

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The temperature is 25 degrees Celsius when we land. We take a taxi from the airport for ten euros to Ponta Delgada. ( there is a bus that goes to all the hotels but it costs 5 euro per person, so a taxi is the better option, in 5 to 10 minutes we are in front of the hotel). We booked a room in the Marina Atlantico hotel, just in front of the marina and with a seaview. The rooms are really nice, with all the possible amenities like TV, hairdryer, shampoo and shower gel…, and a balcony with seaview! The beds are very comfortable! The only downside of the seaview is that you also get the street noise with it, and it can be disturbing early in the mornings, so earplugs might be an idea. We receive a welcome with local cheesecake and a bottle of water. The breakfast is plenty and varied with a good selection of breads and sweets, fresh fruit, yoghurt, eggs and bacon, local cheeses…. Breakfast is served from 7 AM to 10:30 AM.

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We walked around the small downtown of Ponta Delgada in search of a good fish restaurant. We went into A Tasca, but they were full, and to be honest I was not impressed with the place. So we continued but not really finding something to our taste we ended up at Bar Barcarola and ate on the terrace in front of the church. We chose the catch of the day: grilled red snapper with potatoes, we took a glass of very good white azorean wine with it, and as a dessert, cheesecake and chocolate panacotta. The food was good, but nothing more. We took the local coffee: galao which is a large coffee with milk. If you ask escuro, you receive a stronger version, which is very close to a good cappuccino, and sometimes costs only 1 euro!

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We had booked a diving trip for the second day and possibly the third day with Best spot Azores diving shop, which has a boot almost right in front of our hotel. After our breakfast (the hotel has a breakfast buffet), we went over to the dive shop. We would do two regular dives the first day. We wanted to know of we could go diving to Formigas; a marine reserve, the day after. The guy responsible was out diving with a group, so the people in the shop told us they would confirm this the next morning, and it would depend on the number of divers. They needed a minimum of six divers, and on that moment only four people had booked 😦 . A bit disappointed we returned to the hotel and decided to make a walk through Ponta Delgada. We passed some small restaurants and snack bars at the seaside and because it was about lunch time decided to take a small lunch before venturing out. We took an octopus snack with bread and a tuna sandwich, some very good Azorean white wine and a ginger tea at Confeitaria A Colmeia. Again good but nothing special.

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We walked past the city gate; Portas da Cidade on the main square, with on the right side the town hall; Camara Municipal, with in front of it a statue of the archangel Michael, patron saint of Sao Miguel island. On the adjacent square stands the main church; Igreja Matriz from the 16th century and built in Emanuel style (after King Emanuel I) and in the typical black and white color of the island. Ponta Delgada is famous for its gardens, so we walked up to Jardim Antonio Borges, created around 1860.

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There is a large rubber tree close to the entrance, and the gardens has a tropical feel with rock gardens. Walk through the garden and take the exit on top of the garden. When you turn right you find two more gardens further on, on the left hand side: Jardim do Palacio de Sant’Ana, the garden of the residence of the president of the Azores.

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And right next to it is Jardim José do Canto, dating back to 1840. Both have entrance fees, while the Antonio Borges garden is free of charge.

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We walked back down into the centre of Ponta Delgada and drank a coffee in the most attractive coffee and tea shop: in rua Antonio José d’Almeida, close to Igreja Matriz on the central square. We went to refresh ourselves before heading out for dinner at Calcado do Cais (Rua Dos Mercadores) where you can sit in or outside.

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We shared a great appetizer of tomato and azorean cheese with olive oil. After that we had a Sirloin Azorean steak. Tender and tasty with unpeeled baked potatoes. Some cheesecake as dessert and a red berry tea and a local Brandy.

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A place to recommend in Ponta Delgada. If you come too late you will probably be disappointed, so best reserve a table. The next day we had to get up in time for our diving trip with Best Spot Azores. We would do two dives. We had to fill out a form and show our certification, before being fitted with our gear. The waters are quite cold, so you get a full wetsuit with cap and boots. They use medium sized rib boats, which are ok, but not always comfortable on the rough seas. Luckily the weather was good, so the 15 min. ride on the boat was good. I was a bit disappointed with the very short brief before the dive. The visibility was not very good, and the water not very warm. But what was really disappointing was the marine life, which was very few and far between. We did see a very beautiful octopus and one large tuna, but there was not much more too see further than a Murray eel and a crab in a seashell. No complaints about the material or safety, but the dive masters were not very warm in their guidance. Divers who got low on oxygen were sent up, while others were asked to join other groups who still had enough oxygen to continue, I got separated from my buddy this way. It felt a bit too much focused on the technical than on the enjoyable side of diving. The second disappointment was that they would not go to Formigas the next day, even though the weather was good. Not enough people had booked to join us. We felt let down, especially because we had booked with them months in advance, and had paid a down payment to confirm our reservation. It felt like we had kept our side of the deal but they had not. We came ashore between the two dives, to go to the toilet and have a drink and snack. ( coffee, water, cookies)

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We changed our planning and would try to go whale watching instead of diving the next day. We decided to rent a small motorbike and drive to see if we could book a whale watching trip for the next day with Terra Azul in Vila Franco do Campo. After a shower we first took our lunch at Taberna Acor a bar for tapas and wine. They have a terrace outside on the street. We had white Azorean wine from Pico island, with some seafood salad and bread as a starter, and then three Azorean tapas on toast: cheese, tuna and paté. As dessert a wonderful azorean pineapple and a Galao escuro coffee: yummie.

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We rented a motorbike for a day for 30 euro with ANC-Moto rent, just in front of the hotel Marina Atlantico. We decided to drive over to Vila Franco do Campo in the evening. We booked a trip with Terra Azul for the next day at 4 PM. They have three trips a day, one at 9 AM, one at 1 PM and one at 4 PM. The first two were already fully booked since they only take 12 or 20 persons a time. The trip costs 57 euro per adult. Advantage of going out from Vila Franco is that they are closer to the places where whales and dolphins are usually spotted, so the trip on the boat is shorter. We returned to Ponta Delgada for dinner. On both ways we had to make detours because of religious processions in the street, for which they lay flower carpets on the streets, and traffic is blocked. After some discussing with the police they let us pass anyway, since our motorbike was too small for the highway. This way we watched one of the processions pass by:  couleur locale. We decided to stay close to the hotel for our dinner and went out to 100 Espinhas, at the seaside Marina in front of the hotel. I took a cocktail: caipirinha, and we both had grilled octopus. Decent but not extraordinary.

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The next day we slept in, and after our breakfast headed out to Vila Franco, making a detour to the beautiful Lagoa do Fogo. The lake fills a Caldeira (crater) which is 6 km wide and was created after an eruption in 1563. The way up is really beautiful, with one beautiful vista after the other.

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We arrived a bit more than half an hour before the start of the whale watching trip. They could not yet confirm if the trip would go through. It depended on the weather and on the sightings. We decided to eat a snack in the bar of the small Marina. We had a quick tomato and fresh cheese salad. We eventually had to wait for over an hour, only to be told they would not go out on sea because there were no sightings of dolphins and/or whales. We could choose between getting our money back or booking a trip on another day. The weather forecast was not too good for the following days, so we asked our money to be returned. Be aware that when you book a whale watching trip you will not always see whales. On many trips they only spot dolphins. We decided to return to Ponta Delgada, so we could return our motorbike in time and have dinner in Boca de Cena.

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We ordered their famous grilled tuna with honey dressing, with vegetables and baked unpeeled potatoes. The owner advised against two appetizers since the restaurant already offered a complementary fresh salad. (it was the first time we had that many vegetables on our plate!) So we chose the spicy octopus as a starter to share. And of course white wine. The octopus was very good and the tuna, still raw on the inside, the best I had up until now. We let the waiter convince us to take a coffee-chocolate mousse, we shared one.

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They only serve small expresso coffee. The wine was really good, the restaurant is great for good fish and seafood in Ponta Delgada, so best reserve your table because tripadvisor leads many tourists to the restaurant. We finished the evening with a drink in the Reserva Bar.

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I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to drink a cocktail, but went for the Fork Port- tonic instead ( variation on gin-tonic), and a brandy. The setting is nice, but for a restaurant a bit dark.

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