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.

img_0515

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.

img_6767


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.

img_6112

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!

img_6543

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.

img_6652


Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz

img_6666

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Furnas

img_5192

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.

img_5243

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.

img_0330

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

img_5820
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


img_0312

 

Advertisements

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.

iceland-434

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.

044
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.)
turf house
turf house
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.
Iceland 014
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.
Iceland 009

Up next: Jökulsárlón, a jewel-toned glacier lagoon

 

 

Iceland: Reykjavik, Snaefellsnes & Godafoss

I went to Iceland to be alone. I wanted to wallow in melancholy, to eavesdrop but not engage, to pretend the Northern Lights were a supernatural show curated just for me.

In the spirit of independence and grit, I rented a GoCamper in Reykjavik. Not only was it how I would get from the Snæfellsnes peninsula to the hot springs of Mývatn, the golden cliffs of Egilsstaðir and the Jökulsárlón lagoon, but it would be my home for the next nine days, where I’d sleep and eat most meals.

Iceland 213
Cheese, tomatoes and spicy mustard on rye flatbread, with Icelandic yogurt (Skyr) and bananas make for a seriously delicious camper’s lunch

The Ring Road loops the country in it’s entirety. I had plenty of time for side trips to surreal landscapes in those nine days, but I raced against the setting sun each day, with only eight hours of light. Driving in the dark in Iceland is like going to an art museum with an eye mask on–there’s majesty everywhere, and what a waste to pass it without oogling it’s grandeur (evidence below).

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Night also induced in me a fear of meeting a troll. If otherworldly fairytales are what we need to believe to respect and protect the environment, then please tell me a story. When volcanoes and glaciers are raging all around you, magma bubbling below your feet, shifting the Earth, melting hundreds of thousands of years of ice, clouding the sky, grinding flights to a halt for weeks, it’s quite logical to anthropomorphize that power into a troll, eliciting a healthy fear of environmental imbalance.


Reykjavik: The Smoky Bay

I arrived on the bus from the airport to Reykjavik at 5am on a chilly November morning and was dropped off in the plaza of the Iceland 055Hallgrimskirkja, an imposing and futuristic looking church, complete with a statue of Leif Erikson, the full moon casting a mysterious glow upon the city.

I wandered the cold, dark streets, and finally ducked into the Grai Kotturinn (the Gray Cat). It was the heartiest breakfast of my life, so simple, so delicious, so comforting.

Iceland 716
Laser-cut horse hair shoes by Halldora Eydis

Reykjavik is small enough to be walkable, yet incredibly cosmopolitan. Everyone is an artist, even if she’s a plumber by day. The high-fashion shops on Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur are inspired by nature (laser-cut horse-hair shoes! iridescent fish skin purses! volcanic ash pendant necklaces!) while the more practical are stocked with clothing to fend off the same elements. And of course, you can find lopapeysa everywhere. The lambs’ wool sweaters are made locally and repel the rain and cold, hence their ubiquity as a national uniform. Too itchy for me, but the unique patterns in each lopapeysa keep folk art alive and thriving in a very practical way.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I love fashion because it’s wearable art; it makes my daily life joyful. Each day I get to choose what to project and what I repel. There are days I choose sexiness or class, days I choose laziness and sloppiness to repel attention, days dedicated to amplifying my rough edges with studs and spikes I’ve sewn onto my jackets, and coins from the countries I’ve visited. I am the architect of my image; I use it as a powerful spell to chase away a childhood of hand-me-downs that I didn’t choose myself. Still thrift shop threads are often the most interesting finds, and Reykjavik has those too.

Reykjavik Quickies:

Whether you research in advance or just wander the streets, it’s easy to find good food, drinks and live music in Reykjavik, so I’ll give you a bit of the places I enjoyed.

Food:

  • Café Roma for breakfast or afternoon snack. Look at that pastry. My mouth is watering.

Iceland 704

Bizzare fun:

Shopping

If you’re window browsing or at that baller status, you are guaranteed to find something uniquely Icelandic. I liked:

  • Kiosk. Local designers, but quite the pretty penny.
  • Geysir: full of warm wools, beautifully crafted. I got some slouchy chartreuse knee-high wool socks.
  • KronKron: because the shoes are frickin outlandish.
  • Rakel Bloom: a local designer whose current line looks like bad-ass stained glass windows.

Alas, I came to this island to bask in nature, not city life. I picked up my camper, stalled in the parking lot, got lost trying to get out of Reykjavik, but eventually got found and headed toward Snaefellsnes. (Reminds me of Snuffleupagus–anyone?)


Snæfellsnes

Iceland 171

There was a mountain; it’s texture reminded me of the Wooly Willy toy. Fog and rain made for low visibility, and during an hour’s driving I passed only one other car.  Loneliness. Green moss blanketing bulging black lava rock. Big sky. A rainbow. All for me. All mine. Iceland 167

I slept just off the side of the road in a pull-off the first night. A house was lit up on the mountain, but the rest of my surroundings were pitch black, and I didn’t see the other two houses until the sun rose the next morning. I woke, put together a cheese and flatbread sandwich, brushed my teeth on the side of the road, and made my way on to Akureyri and Mývatn. Roughing it, fine, but it was only night one.


Góðafoss Iceland 248

The road between Akureyri and Mývatn yielded the spectacular Góðafoss waterfall. Though winter hadn’t come, it looked like a scene out of Frozen. In fact, I sent a whimsical postcard featuring Góðafoss to my niece, told her I saw Elsa peek her head from underneath the falls. I wanted to create for her some of the magic and wonder I felt. I hope I succeeded.

Iceland 250


Next up on Iceland: Mývatn, the jewel of the north…even if it does mean Gnat Lake.