Sight for Azores eyes

Roger Crow has a whale of a time in the At­lantic wa­ters around this vol­canic is­land par­adise

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - GLOBE TROTTING -

BOOM! I crash through the umpteenth wave, and my stom­ach lurches. Crash! My rigid in­flat­able boat (RIB) de­scends into a val­ley of mer­cu­rial spray, and ploughs on, slic­ing a path through the swell.

I’m not the first per­son to feel that sense of ur­gency in this part of the world, rac­ing through the Azorean waves with fel­low trav­ellers in search of whales.

Th­ese north At­lantic wa­ters, more than 1,500 miles from the UK, were once the hunt­ing ground for mag­nif­i­cent mam­mals of all shapes and sizes. Lo­cal fish­er­men spent decades hunt­ing them for their oil and meat, and that legacy is ever-present in the Azores’ cafés, stat­ues and art­work.

The whalers’ lives are charted in a se­ries of mu­se­ums scat­tered around the nine vol­canic is­lands, such as Museu dos Baleeiros, an old whal­ing boat house-turned-whal­ing mu­seum, and Museu da In­dus­tria Baleeira de São Roque do Pico, a for­mer whal­ing fac­tory.

They make for a com­pelling and, at times, disturbing ex­pe­ri­ence, il­lus­trat­ing the con­tro­ver­sial his­tory of this in­dus­try on en­graved bones (scrimshaw) and via props such as har­poon guns and boats.

Th­ese days, whale hunt­ing is an hor­rific prospect, not least be­cause th­ese be­he­moths have been surf­ing on the shores of ex­tinc­tion for decades.

For the past 30 years, how­ever, life in the is­lands – Pico, Santa Maria, São Miguel, Ter­ceira, Gra­ciosa, São Jorge, Fa­ial, Flores and Corvo – has been rather dif­fer­ent, partly be­cause of those mighty whales who pa­trol its wa­ters.

The last com­mer­cial whal­ing fac­tory closed in 1984 and, thank­fully, whale-watch­ing boats have re­placed fish­er­men’s barges.

To­day, the whale is cel­e­brated rather than hunted in this, the western-most part of Europe. In Au­gust, for ex­am­ple, Se­m­ana dos Baleeiros – a tra­di­tional Azorean fes­ti­val on Pico – will once more high­light the ar­chi­pel­ago’s whale her­itage.

It’s one of the world’s best re­gions for whale spot­ting.

I set off in a small RIB from Ponta Del­gada (São Miguel). Choppy wa­ters, a small break­fast and a long trek have left my stom­ach do­ing back flips as we lurch up and down, and side to side. That said, it’s worth ev­ery sec­ond of un­ease as the sights are glo­ri­ous.

Blue whales soak up the sun, sa­lut­ing the skies with enor­mous flip­pers, show­ing off like red car­pet celebri­ties for the cam­eras. I’m keen to cap­ture ev­ery wa­ter spout and fin in all their glory.

We go out again, this time from Pico, for a glo­ri­ously dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. As we boom and crash from wave to wave, I soon start en­joy­ing my­self. John Wil­liams’ Jaws score is play­ing in my head as we speed from one sight­ing to the next.

As­sorted whales spray jets like wa­tery ex­cla­ma­tion marks on the hori­zon, moist mark­ers for our cam­eras.

A fel­low trav­eller had been in the Azores for four days and this was al­ready her fifth whale-sight­ing trip.

could see why – it’s ad­dic­tive get­ting that elu­sive, per­fect shot.

Of course, it’s not just whale watch­ing and swimming with dol­phins that have helped turn the Azores into a must-see des­ti­na­tion for trav­ellers.

This scat­ter­ing of is­lands boast the sort of stun­ning land­scapes that would be at home in a James Bond film, whether be­cause of vast basins of fo­liage, or the Mount Pico vol­cano, Por­tu­gal’s tallest moun­tain.

Given those epic, jaw-drop­ping vis­tas, it’s a won­der film crews aren’t work­ing around the clock, film­ing thrillers or sci-fi epics.

There’s some­thing oth­er­worldly about parts of the Azores; they’re alien with­out be­ing alien­at­ing, such as the vol­canic vine­yards: miles of cob­bled

Ien­clo­sures, nur­tur­ing vines that draw min­er­als from the ig­neous rock spewed out cen­turies ear­lier.

Some of the re­sult­ing wine, such as Frei Gi­gante, is among the best I’ve sam­pled, es­pe­cially with fish.

Azorean cheeses, such as São Jorge and Isla, are also fab­u­lous, and I en­joy two of the best steaks of my life. One I cook on a hot stone at the won­drous São Pe­dro Restau­rant, in Ponta Del­gada, and the other at the beau­ti­fully de­signed Terra Nos­tra Gar­den Ho­tel, in Fur­nas.

The lat­ter is another of those des­ti­na­tions that, once seen, is never for­got­ten. A 45-minute drive from Ponta Del­gada, it fea­tures smoking gey­sers and ‘fu­maroles’ – vol­canic fis­sures in the earth. Lit­tle won­der all that free en­ergy is ex­ploited by lo­cal ho­tels.

It’s a great gim­mick bathing in a nat­u­rally heated, min­eral-rich pool, such as the one at the TNG Ho­tel (a per­sonal favourite), or hav­ing your din­ner cooked in a nat­u­ral un­der­ground bar­be­cue.

It cre­ates happy mem­o­ries, es­pe­cially if you watch from the start of the process, un­til a few hours later when the cooked food is un­earthed and brought to your plate.

And there’s no short­age of ac­tiv­i­ties to en­joy on São Miguel alone, whether cy­cling round the lake at Fur­nas (a mostly flat seven-mile jaunt); em­u­lat­ing those I’m A Celebrity… mo­ments un­der the ther­mal wa­ter­fall at the sub­lime Caldeira Velha (for a mere two euros); or ca­noe­ing at Sete Ci­dades, a wa­tery ex­panse so glo­ri­ous, it makes parts of the Lake Dis­trict look mun­dane by com­par­i­son.

As well as ab­sorb­ing many of the over­land won­ders, it’s also an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence go­ing un­der­ground to ex­plore the lava tun­nels at Gruta das Tor­res on Pico, a net­work of caves cre­ated when the molten land­scape was cool­ing.

When the Azores were blasted into ex­is­tence from un­der­wa­ter erup­tions mil­len­nia ago, they also helped form lit­tle worlds full of sparkling mem­o­ries that linger long after you’ve put your pass­port away.

The Azores de­serve a lot more at­ten­tion, es­pe­cially as you get a lot for your euro. If you like some­thing more off­beat, they of­fer a wel­come break from the nor­mal hol­i­day, with the sort of life, ex­pe­ri­ences and land­scapes that can recharge even the most ex­hausted bat­tery.

A view of the coast on São Miguel; (in­set) play­ful dol­phins and whales are a common sight

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