On a quest of adventure, temperate climes and some dramatic scenery we opted to spend our family summer holiday on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. With direct flights of only 3 hours from Madrid and many other European Cities the archipelago of the Azores is an attractive option. You can now impress your friends at the next pub quiz with your geographical knowledge that this volcanic string of islands lie 1500 km off the west coast of Portugal in the mid-Atlantic, well above Madeira which lies off of the coast of Morocco.
On our first day, relieved to be out of the intense heat on the Spanish peninsular, we enjoy the gentle sunshine as we step onto a large boat in search of whales. Moments later the clouds have rolled in and the boat is now keeling over. I hastily banish thoughts of the Titanic out of my mind to concentrate on the Marine Biologist´s shrieks of excitement as a 10 metre sperm whale glides past. By the time Moby Dick is in range for my camera the boat is dancing the Bossa Nova at full tilt with the horizontal rain driving everyone below deck where most people are heaving up lunch into small plastic sick bags. Weatherwise, the Azores and Scotland have a lot in common as you can often experience four seasons in the same hour.
The following day we went out in search of smaller marine mammals. Snorkelling with dolphins requires Swiss horological precision as you have to slide into the sea splash-free to see them play under the water. We caught sight of a mother and a baby with the stripey fetal folds still in evidence down her side as well as some turtles.
After 2 days of seasickness we stay on dry land, visiting the fascinating Gruta de Carvao where we clambered through volcanic rock caves in hard hats. The grotto had previously been used as a welcome cold storage in the days before fridges were commonplace.
A tasty light lunch of chicharros (fried baby mackerel) ensued with boiled yam and yuca followed by Queijada (bean cake pudding). After which we waddled up to Caldeira Velha thermal springs and waterfall to let off steam. The area is akin to a natural spa with lots of hot pools nestling amongst the lush, verdant vegetation.
Later on, in a desperate bid to inch my way up the scale in the Mummy cool-ometer I booked us onto a few adventurous sports excursions. The first one had us all rappelling down ravines in chains and a giant yellow plastic diaper. The plastic nappy is supposedly to protect your nether regions over your wetsuit as you bump down on your bottom over fast flowing waterfalls over rocks (keeping your arms glued into your sides). This proved a lot less terrifying than rappelling down ravines and jumping into narrow rock pools from vertiginous 5 metre heights but I did feel a tremendous sense of triumph over adversity when the terror trip (mercilessly) ended.
After that I felt ready for another bucket list activity to cross off….Stand Up Paddle Boarding. So we took a jeep to Sete Cidades where clusters of Swiss-style chalets cling to the shores of a volcanic lake and carefree cows wander aimlessly through pine forests. Goodness knows why it´s called Stand Up Paddle Board as our guide advised me to kneel down on it until I mastered my equilibrium. As it turned out there was quite a little current going on in the lake and the board had a mind of its own so there ensued a Mr Bean moment as I attempted to steer it away from reeds near the shore whilst in full genuflection.
Eventually I got the better of the board and the soles of my feet developed limpet-like suction superpowers so I steadfastly paddled around, half expecting Julie Andrew´s dulcet tones to ricochet off the emerald slopes of the volcanic crater at any moment.
I´m afraid there is no surviving photographic evidence of me indulging in this particular activity as I discovered, much to my chagrin, that one´s “smattering” of cellulite on the back of one´s thighs is vastly exaggerated when in the kneeling position.
The Azoreans are a resourceful bunch and we shall be extremely envious of their ability to make full use of the free natural resources with which to cook their food while we struggle with ever-rising energy bills this winter. It turns out that Sao Miguel´s natural geysers make for a handy free oven. Local chefs in Furnas think nothing of rising at 5.30 am to lower gargantuan pots of “cozido” on chains into gaping holes through the Earth´s core as geysers hiss noisily around them.
Seven hours later the pots are hauled up ceremoniously and a tasty lunch of slow-cooked meat, sausages and cabbage, kale stew is served in the nearby restaurants. As with so much Iberian fare, it is bigger on taste than it is on beauty. Especially when you spatter the soggy cabbage leaves with some local spicy pepper sauce.
The mineral content of the thermal springs also give rise, literally, to the “bolos levados” or fluffy local muffins. Azorean dairy products account for 30% of Portugal´s dairy production with creamy butter and artisanal ice creams enjoying a much-appreciated position in the gourmet fridge section on the mainland.
Sumptuous squid, “lulas” and its baby version, “lulinhas” were devoured by our children wherever we went. I particularly enjoyed them doused in salsa verde. Taberna Açor in Ponta Delgada has a delicious Feijoada de marisco e lapas which is a red bean stew with limpets, another local delicacy. Other super foods include sweet potato and stalls of pineapple juice from Europe´s only pineapple plantation which used to be one of the main crops before dairy farming took hold.
So, what type of people succumb to Sao Miguel´s multifarious charm? Well certainly hikers, nature lovers, maritime mammal fans, plucky kids of 7+, adrenaline-junky teens and anyone looking for gentle geothermal adventure, short distances between breath-taking sights and oodles of blue and lilac hydrangeas. Just remember to leave your Dolce and Gabbana bikini behind as the sulphurous hot springs will nuke the elastic of the top half and dye the bottom half oxidised orange.