Azores: Exploring Sao Miguel

The streets of Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel are lively, but I suspect most people come to Sao Miguel for the natural beauty, plenty of which you’ll find below.

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I’ve written on what to eat and what you need to know about renting and driving a car because duh, food is good, and driving is the most efficient way to get to all the otherworldly places in Sao Miguel, from the hot springs to the hilltop church to the hiking trails and back into town to sing along with traditional dancers.


Caldeira Velha

Between Ribeira Grande and Lagoa do Fogo (the Lake of Fire) sits Caldeira Velha, naturally heated hot springs in the middle of a tropical forest. It’s a img_0295 visual feast for the eyes: rich green plants and rust colored boulders span the hot springs, while birdsong echoes throughout the jungle. Absorbing this surreal scene from a pool of hot thermal water is curative for body and soul.

Tips:

  • The official parking lot is small, so use your parallel parking skills, and finagle a spot along the steep switchback curve of the mountain.
  • Entry is super cheap: only 2 Euros. It’s worth much more.
  • Changing rooms and showers are available, but there aren’t any lockers. They provide a basket to carry your items between the two springs. I had to remind my NYC state of mind that I was in the Azores, and it was highly unlikely someone would steal my stuff while I soaked.
  • There are two pools-one hot, one warm (and more photogenic because it has waterfalls, but I preferred the hot one).
  • Wear a dark colored bathing suit. The water’s minerals stain light colored suits.
  • Take a waterproof camera.
  • Caldeira Velha is very touristy, but it’s unlike any place I’ve every visited, a tropical rendition of Myvatn hot springs in Iceland.

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Vila Franca Do Campo

Vila Franca Do Campo was the most developed town on the island until the 1522 earthquake destroyed it and buried thousands of locals alive in a landslide. The rebuilding efforts were slow to advance, so the capital was transferred to the current seat in Ponta Delgada. Today, Vila Franca Do Campo is known for two incredible landmarks: a hilltop church, and a surreal volcanic islet just off the town’s shore.

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Ilheu do Vila Franca

The islet was immediately visible when I pulled up along the waterfront. I’d never seen such a magical landmass, and have never had occasion to use the word “islet.” It’s fitting. The islet is a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sao Miguel Island, centered around a crater lagoon where a volcano imploded and collapsed in on itself. Radical!

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Ilheu do Vila Franca is perfect for an afternoon of snorkeling in the crater lagoon and picnicking on the narrow beach. You can rent snorkel gear along the waterfront. A ferry leaves the pier every hour, though I was supremely unlucky: Hurricane Gaston was headed towards the Azores, making the water choppy and rough, and the ferry was cancelled. Enjoying the weather from under a tree near the pier, a tan, rotund, shirtless man wearing a gold chain offered his opinion that it would be at least two days until the sea would be calm enough for the ferry to cross. I’d be gone by then, having moved on to Graciosa Island. I was so disappointed, but that’s the thing about the Azores–the weather can dash your best laid plans.

Tips:

  • If you like to plan ahead, you can buy the ticket online for six Euros.
  • You’ll need to bring all your own food and beach supplies, as there are no amenities. Like much of the Azores, the charm can be found in the tranquility of nature.
  • Snorkel gear is for rent along the waterfront.
  • Check out videos of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships to virtually explore the majesty of the cliffs.

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Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz

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Visible from the center of town, Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz (the Chapel of Our Lady of Peace) sits on a mountaintop over looking Vila Franca. I set off to walk (the New Yorker in me wasn’t used to all this lazy driving), but I soon realized the sun was too hot and the road too steep to do so without a hat, sunscreen, or water, so I went back to the car and drove up. Good thing, because the road was steeper and longer than I suspected, perfectly designed to hermit religious scholars away from the villagers and temptations below.img_6670

The parking lot is bursting with hydrangeas, a bouquet of gratitude to the holy woman who exemplifies peace. Ten flights of stairs before the entrance to the church symbolize the Hail Mary prayer and the tilework (azulejos) depicts the mysteries of the rosary. The view is amazing, and so worth the pilgrimage up the mountain.

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Furnas

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Furnas is a town in the eastern section of Sao Miguel Island. The area boasts a chartreuse colored lake, an enchanting mossy forest, volcanic vents that shoot boiling water and mud to the surface of the earth, and a relaxing hot spring.

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The lake, Lagoa das Furnas, sits on the edge of the main attraction, the Caldeiras das Furnas. Steam emanates from cracks in the Earth’s surface and the bubbling mud, boiling water and smell of sulfur is a reminder that I’m walking on a volatile volcano. Why would people live here?! It’s fantastic and mind-boggling.

Thirty minutes at the caldeiras will do, and if you’re hungry afterwards, get yourself a plate of cozido das furnas, the local stew. Curious about the cooking process and ingredients? Check out my post here.


Poca de Dona Beija

The more hot springs, the better! Poca de Dona Beija hot springs aren’t as wild or natural as Caldeira Velha, but they’re still soothing after a day of hiking.img_0329 Amenities include a parking lot, changing rooms and lockers, and at 4 Euros for the entry fee, it’s a bargain spa experience. The sulfur will stain your bathing suit orange, so wear an old or dark one. Five different hot pots offer a range of temperatures, from hot to warm, while artificial waterfalls massage your aching neck. There’s also a gift shop with artsy jewelry, a rarity aside from the airport shops. They’re open until 11pm, and if you don’t have a towel, you can rent one there.

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I visited at night, after a day of hiking. I would have gotten better photos during the day, especially of the rust colored rocks, but bathing outdoors at night is so romantic, and I prefer romance to evidence.


Salto do Prego hiking trail

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Roca de Velha

If you’ve ever wished Avatar was real life, this trail is for you. Moss shrouds thick sinewy roots while leaves as large as my torso, thick and deep green, sway in the light breeze. I breathe in the unfamiliar perfume of Roca  de Velha. In yet another nod to Portuguese exploration, the flower is endemic to India. Since it’s arrival in the Azores, it’s become an invasive species. img_5730

Like a crescendo, the trail rose and the roaring, soothing sound of falling water became unmistakable. The forest opened up to spaciousness, to a jungle amphitheater, the star of the show a picturesque waterfall above a chilly rock bottom pond.img_5912

Point your GPS to the village of  Faial Da Terra. It’s a relatively easy hike, only 30 minutes to the waterfall, and under two hours roundtrip if you swim or have a picnic, though it is steep at sections and can be muddy.


Traditional dancing

After dinner one night, I heard music in the open air plaza of Igreja Matriz de Sao Sebastian, the Church of Saint Sebastian in the middle of town. Rows of locals sat in chairs facing a raised stage where traditional dancers in white shirts, the men in tweed pants, the women in bright pink and blue woven skirts, twirled in a complicated partner dance. The women’s hair was covered by blue woven fabric, looking very “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Azoreans are incredibly ethnically mixed as roving bands of sailors stopped over in the islands, and these outfits were reminiscent of their Flemish heritage.

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Some songs were joyful, others measured and tempered. The song that resonated most deeply with me was full of saudade, a word that cannot be fully translated into English. It is simultaneously melancholy and nostalgic, somewhere between our romantic notions and salty reality. As thousands of immigrants, like my great-great-grandparents, left the nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean and made a home in the USA, they certainly must have felt saudade at the distance between homeland and adopted home, not just in geography, but in yearning for lush jungles, verdant vistas, fresh sardines for dinner, and a shared history and language.

116 years, 5 generations and 4 planes later, I was making my way to tiny, remote Graciosa, my ancestral homeland.


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Iceland: The Eastern Fjords

The Eastern Fjords

I was anxious to move on to the Eastern fjords, so I drove the two hour trip from Mývatn to Egilsstaðir after the 5:15pm sunset. I may have missed some stunning features of Icelandic geology as I passed the hills, valleys and peaks in the darkness, but my restlessness was rewarded: glimmers of green danced and disappeared, lighting up the craggy volcanic rock in front of me. I peered over the steering wheel, doubting my perception until the evidence became so bright that I squealed aloud. Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, like shape-shifting spirits, pulling and pushing against invisible forces, dancing and waving, disappearing, reappearing, eerie green, sumptuous pinks and purples, arching across the entire sky. I’m Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I’m Dorothy, on a journey to explore a mystical world that communicates to me through electrons.

Folk tales explaining the Aurora range from sinister predictions to communing ancestors to playful heavenly animals. Apparently it’s “just” electrons, but as far as I see it, the scientific explanation is no less mystical–both versions make us wonder at the magnificence of what is.

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I arrived at Egilsstaðir giddy from the light show, pulled into the N1 gas station and ate a salty, but deliciously warm burger and fries at Soluskalinn, the fast(ish) food joint inside and used their free wifi to contact home.

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Thank the Norse Gods for explanatory signs, because “Snyrting?!”

The campsite was just down the street with only one other camper van in the lot. I quickly fell asleep in the cold, peaceful, dark camper. The next morning I showered in the campsite’s facilities, even washed and dried my hair, though I mashed it right back into my hat.

As I was finishing up, I chatted with a young Danish woman Iceland 219eating breakfast. She was travelling alone and aiming to drive around the entire island in 4 days. It’s possible to drive the entire Ring Road in just under 20 hours, though not a goal I feel any desire to complete. I wonder if she succeeded.


Seyðisfjörður

Intrigued by descriptions lauding residents’ creativity, I veered off the Ring Road onto Route 93 to Seyðisfjörður, a fishing town nestled at the base of one of the Eastern fjords, accessible by only one road, or a ferry. Talk about isolation. The switchback road rose up a mountain and gave me a gorgeous view across valleys and more mountains before it opened onto a flat, straight road surrounded by oily looking swampland and narrow fjords. Eventually, I saw Seyðisfjörður below me, and a harrowing descent on acute switchback roads.

Ogling the dramatic vistaiceland-4382, I almost missed the waterfall in my review mirror. Not so spectacular, but gloriously unexpected. It wasn’t mentioned in any guide books I read, and I cherish surprises, especially from Mother Earth. This journey, the unexpected beauty and transitions around every corner, were just as fulfilling as the destination.

Most every shop was closed in Seyðisfjörður because it was a Sunday. Tea cups lined windowsills and families in golashes and yellow raincoats pushed prams through the brisk streets. It really was that quaint.


A Camper Van and No Plan: The Scenic Route

From Seyðisfjörður I drove back to Egilsstaðir and took Route 92 toward Reyðarfjörður, then Route 96, through the 5km-long mountain tunnel to Fáskrúðsfjörður. This detour from the Ring Road allowed me to drive the elongated tongue of each fjord, providing eye candy galore. No stop lights. Not a single passing car for an hour. Only a shepherd with his flock, the site of a hairy turf house, devilishly sharp mountains and a unicorn siting persuaded me to stop.
At Breiðdalsvík, a 2km long tunnel joins Route 96 back to the Ring Road. Around the bend of the next fjord were some of my favorite views. A small turf house, fit for an elf, sat at the tip of the swampy inlet at Berufjörður. Made entirely from nature itself, this type of construction has been around for at least a thousand years. (An in-depth article with great visuals here.)
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To top off my Eastern Fjord roadtrip, PIRATE STORIES! Further south along the Ring Road, the village of Djúpivogur. It was raided in 1627 by North African pirates, who plundered the farms and took villagers as slaves. I’m curious how Icelanders think and feel about this today.
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Brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 1700s, Icelandic horses have 5 gaits (walk, trot, canter, plus tolt and flying pace), 2 more than the average Mr. Ed!
As I passed Djúpivogur, I thought I saw a glacier rising from the Atlantic. Turns out it’s a fairly isolated island named Papey whose first settlers were Irish monks, and is now a haven for puffin. You can hop on a tour boat to set foot on the rich green and black volcanic islet, and to get a closer look at the silly creatures. As for me, I kept driving.
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Up next: Jökulsárlón, a jewel-toned glacier lagoon

 

 

Iceland: Hiking and Soaking in Mývatn

Mývatn

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, then you may recognize the volcanic formations and steaming water-filled caves of Mývatn as “beyond the wall.” The Earth here is leaking, steaming, bubbling, emitting and exploding. Short, relatively easy hikes, walks really, allow you to experience it all, including the pervasive smell of sulphur in the air.

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Leirhnjúkur

I started on the western side of Mývatn with a sunset hike, and then on the southeast the next day, moving north and eventually east back onto the Ring Road. Two days allows a leisurely pace of hiking, shooting (pics, not guns) and soaking. I visited in November and thankfully there wasn’t a gnat in sight. Visiting during warmer months won’t allow such luck.


Vindbelgjarfjall

I made it to my first hike an hour or so before dusk: the extinct volcano, Vindbelgjarfjall. A small, barely marked path pointed the way up the gravel mountain, about a 45 minute hike. In every direction, a feast for my eyes. All around me it looked like meteors hit the Earth, exposing craters I imagined would swallow me whole if I dared stepped foot in them. I was wrong, but the scientific answer was even more fanciful–they were explosion craters, the Earth ejecting magma and volcanic rock from the inside out. Breathless from the severe incline, I shared the mountaintop with no one. I breathed. I laughed at the incredulity of the Earth. I signed the guest book.

The sun set at 5:16pm, and I raced it down the mountain, back to my warm mobile home.

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Hverfjall

Hverfjall is a tuff ring volcano, another result of an explosion about 2,500 years ago. From the parking lot it’s about a 10 minute walk up the steep path to the top ridge. I imagine a construction worker pouring gravel, the pebbles strewing down the sides of the pile, creating a peaks and valleys. Standing on the ridge was terrifying. The wind was so strong that it jostled me, at one point pushing me like a sail toward the crater. I sat in protest and avoided certain imagined death.

Isn’t it amazing how volcanoes create so many different types of formations?! Beyoncé would be proud.

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Dimmuborgir Lava Formations

I’ve never heard the words “lava tube” before visiting Iceland, but the hour walk around Dimmuborgir allowed me to get up close and personal.

iceland-381It’s another impressive Icelandic site that leaves you in awe of what the Earth can do, given a few thousand years.

iceland-231There are longer and shorter walks; depends what you’re up for. If you’re a kind person the Yule Lads, Iceland’s 13 mischievous Santas, won’t snatch you into their lair even if you “happen” upon it by following the green signs pointing the way.

 


Grjotogjata

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There are so many places in Iceland where photographs don’t do reality justice. Grjotogjata cave is one of them. Besides the craggily, intimidating entrance, there’s the smell of sulfur, the steamy warmth and finally, the subtle jewel tones bouncing off the water. Entering is tricky, but people used to bathe here before the water became too hot (over 109F/50C) after the latest volcanic eruptions at Krafla. Since then, Jon Snow and Ygritte made it internationally famous. Sword play anyone?


Leirhnjúkur

Leirhnjúkur should mean “this is a smelly version of Mars.” How the Earth varies this much in such a small space, I cannot comprehend. Around every corner of this easy 5km hike is a new spectacle. Geothermal pools, fuming fissures, ashen fields, mossy mounds…it was surreal.

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To start the hike, park at the lot just past the Krafla power plant. To avoid melting your shoes, don’t go off the vaguely indicated path. Lastly, let your mind wonder at the spectacle of Mother Nature.


Myvatn Nature Baths

The Myvatn Nature Baths are the perfect ending to a day of hiking in the cold. I went when it was least crowded, after sunset, and used the opportunity to get clean and warm before bedtime in the camper. I actually stowed my camera and phone to be more in the moment than documenting it, so there is only one photo. Guess you’ll have to get a glimpse yourself! Entry prices range depending on the season, and you can rent a towel, an option I chose because I wasn’t looking forward to drying a wet towel in a cold camper van overnight. I stored my hiking boots outside the changing rooms, my belongings in a locker, showered, and walked out into the freezing cold in my bathing suit.

Iceland 332One thing I wish I would have known: while the minerals in the natural hot springs are great for your skin, they settle in your hair and create knots for days, literally. I recommend slathering your hair in conditioner without rinsing and tying it up.

There’s a sauna, which I nearly fell asleep in, and two pools to choose from-a smaller, hotter one, and a vast steamy one. I oscillated between both, and eventually the 30 second walk between each in the bitter cold wasn’t so brutal. I’ve only ever heard it said, “I’m chilled to the bone,” but the heat of the hot spring settled so deep in me I felt loosey goosey, almost high.

The darkness made the experience mystical and relaxing as it dulled most visual stimuli and forced me to go within. I could see steam rise from the surface, feel soft moss along the edges of the pool and volcanic sand under my feet. It was marvelous.


Hverir

Hverir is bizarre and not to be missed, but a quick view, rather than the full hike, was all I felt I needed after Leirhnjúkur. I visited on my way out of Mývatn, before heading to Egilsstaðir. The parking lot was quite crowded with huge tour buses, and the boardwalk full of tourists, including me, oooo-ed and ahhhh-ed at the bubbling mud and scalding water. Iceland 409

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Next on The Noble Bee: Iceland’s East Coast (East siiiiide!)