The Atlantic’s Floating Kingdom
A thousand miles from anywhere, the Azores are a natural layover for voyaging sailors and adventurous pilgrims. But beware: the island group's hydrangea-drenched hillsides and mist-shrouded volcanoes may capture your heart forever.
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THE GPS READS 39°32′ N, 31°33′ W. In real terms, we’re 17 days east of Bermuda in the middle of the Atlantic when Flores, the westernmost of Portugal’s Azores islands, suddenly appears in the haze. Sheer green cliffs and a spray-spattered shoreline materialize eerily off our bow, as if they’ve been there all along.
The nine volcanic islands of the Azores are the highest peaks of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the European and North American plates. Roughly 2,500 miles east of the United States and 1,000 miles west of Portugal, the islands have been a mid-oceanic rest stop for ships making passage between the Old and New worlds for more than 500 years, since Portuguese sea captain Diogo de Sevilha reportedly discovered them in 1427. In the 19th century, the Azores hit pay dirt when the price of whale oil skyrocketed; by 1830 they were overrun with American whalers who followed the prevailing winds and currents as they chased herds of sperm whales.
Since the international ban on whaling 21 years ago, cruising sailboats have replaced whalers as the primary visitors to the islands. Each summer an armada of blue-water sailors, emboldened by GPS, Weatherfax, and high-tech emergency equipment, departs the East Coast for the three- to four-week trip across the Atlantic to the Azores, tracing the old whaling routes either as part of an Atlantic circle cruise or on their way to the Mediterranean. Of course, plenty of travelers also arrive via the tarmac, ready to reel in monster tuna, trek the hills, and take in the views without wetting a toe. But visitors who forgo sailing altogether miss the islands’ special magic.
One June morning, my wife, Lani, and I leave Bermuda in our 38-foot ketch, Lucy. To relieve the pressure of 17 days of four-hours-on, four-hours-off watches, we’ve enlisted Lani’s brother, David—who’s just graduated from college and seems sufficiently aimless—as crew. Our plan is to spend a couple of days on Flores, cruise the rest of the Azores for a few weeks, then push on to the Mediterranean before winter sets in. We assume the islands will be a waypoint rather than a destination.
We know we are mistaken as we tack around the southern end of Flores and bring Lucy to rest among half a dozen other salt-encrusted sailboats in the slate-bottomed harbor of Lajes. Late in the afternoon, we drop anchor beneath the island’s precipitous cliffs and, possessed by a powerful craving for a cold beer, row to the fish-stained docks.
The next day, it becomes obvious why this 58-square-mile island is named Flores: The entire side of the ridge above the harbor is sprouting roses and hydrangeas. The hills beckon, and after a quick stop in town to pick up a wheel of sheep cheese and a dollar bottle of local wine, we set off on a cow path that was once the island’s main transportation route. To our right, carpets of flowers reach up to a thick cloud cover. To our left, jagged rocks drop to the breakers. Our rubbery legs hobble along for an hour before we all agree that after braving the open ocean for 1,800 nautical miles, it seems stupid to slip off a cliff on our first day ashore. So we choose an outcrop, uncork the wine, and take in the view of Lajes, 800 feet below.
Home to just 550 people, five bars, two markets, and four restaurants that offer dorado and potatoes almost every night, Lajes can be a little limited. After a week and a half of catching up on sleep and drinking enough wine to prop up the economy, we begin thinking about pushing on to the island of Faial. But before we can weigh anchor, Flores erupts into Festa do Emigrante, a blowout party celebrating Azorean emigrants’ annual return to the islands, beginning in July. A ferry arrives one afternoon to disgorge a gaggle of youth from neighboring islands. DJs from Amsterdam are flown in with knee-boot-wearing go-go girls. An enormous sound system is erected on a basketball court behind the town hall, and grandmothers, soccer hooligans, priests, and goatherds dance in the open air until early morning.
The highlight of Festa is the running of the bulls. In the Azores, it’s a drawn-out affair lasting two hours or more. People drink a lot, and I’m told someone dies every year. I show up at the running with Eddie Harary, a young entrepreneur who recently sold his environmental consulting business in Cincinnati and is now cruising with his girlfriend on their 44-foot catama-ran, Yebo. Eddie is a veteran of the Pamplona running.
“Don’t space out,” he advises. “Bulls are fast.”
The crowd jeers, hollers obscenities, and engages in not so politically correct behavior—such as taunting the bulls.
It’s at this moment that I realize I’m spacing out, and when I come to my senses, bull number two is out of his pen and racing directly toward me. I dart for a makeshift wall of shipping palettes. Luckily, number two flashes past me, intent on better game—namely Eddie, who is kicking up some serious turf in an effort to escape. It’s pretty obvious, however, that no human can actually outrun a bull, and within a few seconds this one has his hot, snorting snout within inches of Eddie’s rear. He dips his chin, and just as an expectant gasp ripples through the crowd, Eddie launches himself over the wall into a bramble of wild roses. A muffled cry rises from the thicket. The crowd cheers ecstatically. Eddie is a hero.
OUR TWO-DAY stopover has morphed into two and a half weeks by the time we finally tear ourselves away from Flores and set sail for Faial, which lies 120 nautical miles to the southeast—an easy 24-hour passage. A boomtown during the heady whaling days, Horta, the island’s main hub, is the traditional port of call in the Azores for cruisers. Besides several bars and a decent array of restaurants, Horta boasts a full-service marina. After 2,500 miles, it’s a rare vessel that doesn’t show up here looking for something.
The harbor is crowded when we arrive. The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers Europe—a rendezvous organized by the World Cruising Club, for the swarm of boats crossing the Atlantic from the United States each summer—arrived a few days ago. The marina, where we land in our dinghy, A. Robustus, is surrounded by a tall concrete seawall covered with multicolored murals left by sailors who’ve passed through. According to tradition, it’s bad luck to fail to add your boat’s name to the wall. Thousands of names, crew lists, and tattoolike cartoons of ships, whales, and sunsets pepper every inch.
We head toward the inner harbor, where Horta begins to lose a bit of its Caribbeanized, this-could-be-any-port character. Peter’s Cafe Sport, which served gruel to whalers in the early 20th century, still stands on the main street, now serving wine to Belgian and Dutch hikers who come here to explore the rolling hillsides. Farther along the wharf we find a small fleet of fishing boats bobbing in a slick of diesel, their grizzled crews eyeing us suspiciously. A few gleaming sportfishing boats sit among the old rusted hulks. One has a sizable tuna strung from a halyard, evidence that the waters around here offer some of the best sportfishing in the world.
Later, on a slope above town, we find the studio of John Van Opstal, a Dutch scrimshaw artist who immigrated to the Azores 20 years ago. As we share tea on his terrace, I ask Van Opstal if he thinks the islands have been ruined by the recent inundation of visitors. He points out that beginning with Portuguese trading posts in the 18th century and American whaling stations in the 19th, the islands have always been more connected with the outside world than one might assume.
“Horta is very cosmopolitan,” he says, patting his handlebar mustache. “We’re very far from anywhere, and yet I get visitors from all over the world all the time. They bring me news.”
Then he asks about George W. Bush and pours another cup of tea.
Those who don’t come to Faial to fix a mainsail or to hook a deep-sea trophy fish come to cross the deep straits to the neighboring island of Pico and climb its 7,711-foot volcanic cone. Along with several others in what’s becoming a transatlantic clique, David, Lani, and I take a water taxi over to Pico one rainy morning to test our mettle against the mountain.
When we arrive at the base, it’s already 60 degrees, about ten degrees colder than when we set out, and the spiked peak of the cone is now veiled by a thick, swirling mass of clouds. We set off into the mist.
The lush green landscape soon begins to change. Pastures give way to rocky crags, and hydrangeas are replaced by sheer nodules of black rock. Within an hour the gentle slope has careened skyward, and with each step loose bits of scree tumble down on those unfortunate enough to be bringing up the rear—usually me. The mist gives way to drizzle, which in turn gives way to rain. A second later, the sky is split by lightning that illuminates the hillside, followed by an earsplitting clap.
The next second, we’re sliding through mud toward the bottom, warding off our sense of collective failure with the promise of a warm glass of mulled Azorean wine and the thought that we just crossed the Atlantic in small boats. Who needs mountains?
When we finally extricate ourselves from Horta, it’s ten days later and early August. Since the fall gales will begin in a few weeks, we decide to aim for Terceira, one of the Azores’ easternmost islands.
At 153 square miles, Terceira is also one of the larger islands in the chain. Its town of Angra do Hero’smo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has attracted the attention of the European Union, which is pouring money into the tourism infrastructure here—namely, expanding the marina, in order to steal some of the cruiser pie from Faial. Still, despite the wonderfully protected harbor, we’re the only boat hanging off the beach. We spend a few days swimming in the cool water of the bay, fishing along the rocks by dinghy, and enjoying the village of Praia da Vit-ria’s take on Festa, which includes bull running on the beach.
In 1985, Azorean writer Fernando Aires observed that his fellow islanders live in a state of continual mutability: The islands are neither here nor there—as he put it, they’re “a spiritual synthesis of both the old and new worlds. Alpha and omega in permanent ambiguity.” After six weeks, I can’t discern whether this is true—the islands’ magnetic charm makes everything seem ambiguous. When Lucy is ready and we’re pulling away from Terceira and its gentle slopes fade into the haze, my question is whether they ever existed at all. By then, of course, they’re gone.
GETTING THERE Certainly the most interesting way to arrive in the Azores is by sailboat. Unless you own a boat and want to outfit her to cross the Atlantic, the alternative is to hitch a ride as crew. Boatcrew (email@example.com) matches needy yachts with willing bodies. Another option is to fly to the Azores and try to talk your way aboard a passing yacht. There are commercial airports on Faial, Terceira, and S‹o Miguel. TAP, the Portuguese airline, runs a daily flight from Newark to Lisbon, starting at around $550 round-trip (011-351-707-205-700, www.tap.pt). From there, SATA flies to the islands for about $215 (011-351-218-437-701, www.sata.pt). During the busy summer, SATA also organizes charter flights direct to the Azores from Boston, Toronto, and Oakland. AcorLine (011-351-296-302-370, www.acorline.pt), based on Sao Miguel, runs inter-island ferries.
WHAT TO DO The Azores’ cruising grounds are some of the best in the world, and several individual boat owners rent sailboats by the day or week. Octopus (011-351-295-628-706, www.azoresdive.com/octopus), based out of Angra do Hero’smo, on Terceira, rents 31- or 36-foot sailboats for about $50 an hour or $200 per day. If you’re sailing from the United States on your own, buy the Imray E1 chart of the Azores ($27) and Anne Hammick’s Atlantic Islands pilot guide ($94; both available from Bluewater Books & Charts in Fort Lauderdale, 800-942-2583, www.bluewaterweb.com). There are whale- watching and sportfishing companies based in just about every town with a harbor. Fish for marlin, tuna, shark, and swordfish with Xacara Big Game Fishing (www.azoresmarlin.com/xacaraindex.html) in Horta, on Faial. Onshore, trekking is the main form of recreation. Camp anywhere, but it’s polite to ask permission from the landowner.
LODGING On Flores, the 36- room Hotel Ocidental (doubles $35-$80; 011-351-292-590-100) is near the island’s natural lava pools and has its own big saltwater tub. In Horta, choose a mountain or ocean view at the Residencial São Francisco (doubles $65-$80; 011-351-292-200-980). On Terceira, try the Casa Bela Vista (doubles $45-$80; 011-351-295-908-975, www.viaoceanica.com/belavista) in the village of Biscoitos. The Azores tourism office (011-351-292-200-500, www.drtacores.pt) has a branch on every island.