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Report from the Field: Azores with Madeira, Canary Islands, Morocco & Gibraltar
Published on Saturday, April 26, 2008
São Miguel, Azores
We arrived from all points of the compass at our hotel, Marina Atlantico, in Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores on the island of São Miguel. Most of us spent a pleasant afternoon exploring this charming town. The busy hubbub of sound during our welcome cocktail party was indicative of familiar friends reuniting and of new friendships forming at the beginning of this unique voyage.
A sparkling and sunny morning greeted us today as we set off to explore the island of São Miguel. The birders headed east to Pico da Vara, a mountainous and little visited part of the island. Their mission was to find the rare and elusive priolo (the Azorean bullfinch), with a population of only 60 to 200 birds remaining. And to their extreme happiness, the famous bird was seen and photographed to prove it! The rest of the group went on a morning excursion to a tea plantation, where all were pleased to note that the machinery installed in the 19th Century was still in full working order. We continued to the village of Furnas, with its unique and beautiful botanical garden founded by the first American consul to the island, Thomas Hickling. After strolling around the gardens, we continued on to the lake of Furnas, a lovely body of water nestled among the green mountains for which the island is so famous. We then went to an area in the village where there is much contemporary volcanic activity in the form of several hot springs and fumaroles. Afterwards, we proceeded to the Terra Nostra Hotel, situated within the botanical garden, for an excellent lunch.
We then drove to the airport for an addition to our itinerary: a short flight to Horta, the capital of the island of Faial. On arrival we transferred to our comfortable hotel, Hotel do Canal, situated right in the center of the charming little town. Many took the opportunity of a quick stroll before dinner and appreciated that Horta was indeed an undiscovered gem of the seven seas.
The morning weather threatened rain, so suitably attired we set off for our excursion to see the sights for which Faial is famous. First we traveled to the extreme west of the island to see the volcano of Capelhinos, which erupted in 1957, destroying several villages in the process. The scenic lighthouse on the point survived and it was fascinating to see the new plants colonizing the fresh lava. We also stopped at a center for local crafts and duly indulged in a little retail therapy. The next place of interest was the village of Varadouro, the bay of which is exposed to the full force of the ocean, and we witnessed breakers crashing onto the rocks sending spray at least 50 feet into the air.
We returned to Horta for lunch at a unique restaurant where each guest was supplied with a variety of ingredients for a meal, such as meat and fish, along with a hot piece of rock on which to cook them to taste. We quickly appreciated the advantages of this uncommon culinary method, and our appreciation was enhanced by the copious quantities of excellent Portuguese wine with which each table was kept generously supplied.
In the afternoon we undertook a further excursion. The hardy hiked around the volcanic caldera situated in the center of the island while those less adventurous, or perhaps wiser, observed the caldera from a viewpoint. Descending the mountain we stopped at various places for stunning views, paid a visit to the town museum, and eventually arrived at our ship Le Levant, which we speedily embarked. The rest of the day was taken up by the usual safety briefings and lifeboat drill, followed by an excellent dinner. We retired eagerly looking forward to our springtime exploration of the fabled islands of the North Atlantic.
Pico and Graciosa Islands
Today we explored two more islands of the Azores archipelago; Pico in the morning and Graciosa in the afternoon. Our good ship docked at São Roque on the former island and after breakfast we proceeded ashore hoping that fortune would favor us with at least one glimpse of the fabled Pico mountain, at 7,708 feet, the highest in Portugal. We boarded our buses and had an interesting tour of the island taking in such sites as the whaling museum in the village, and of the vineyards in which the vines seem to grow from the solid basalt of the island (a World Heritage Site!) We repaired to the winery to sample some of the excellent local wines and cheeses and returned to the ship in good time for lunch. Just before our arrival we were happy to note that the clouds had lifted and we were rewarded with an excellent view of the mountain-top, which even so late in spring, was covered with snow.
The birders had an excellent day, sighting myriads of Cory’s shearwaters as we neared the island, a woodcock on the flanks of Mt. Pico, and a rare Macaronesian shearwater as we departed for Graciosa.
During lunch and in the early afternoon our ship relocated to Graciosa and we went ashore to make the acquaintance of this charmingly named island. Our first stop was the village of Santa Cruz where we visited the excellent museum, affording an impression of what life was like for the residents of the island in the 19th century. We also visited the lovely church in the village with its excellent 18th century azulegos, or Portuguese blue tiles. Then we went to the Furna do Enxofre, an immense volcanic cavern in the caldera at the center of the island. This involved a moderate walk plus the descent of 182 steps, and of course their ascent after the visit. Most of us achieved this descent into the underworld. As we stood in the chamber, we could look down onto a small lake, but the most impressive view was upwards where we could see the solidified plug from which molten lava had once oozed.
After a scenic drive back to the ship we were treated to another excellent dinner and looked forward to the adventures of tomorrow.
Today we arrived at the island of Terceira, so called because it was the third island of the Azores archipelago to be discovered in 1450. Our ship was tied up in the cozy harbor of the capital, Angra do Heroismo, the center of which is a World Heritage Site. We set off on a morning walking tour and visited City Hall, the beautiful botanical gardens, and the town market, where we were impressed with the range of produce and fish. The whole experience was delightful and this was partly due to the friendliness of the people and their ready smiles.
The afternoon offered two options; one concentrating on the culture of the island, the other a hiking tour exploring some of the island’s more remote areas. The cultural tour explored the center of the second town in the island; Praia da Vitoria, and a most impressive wine museum in the village of Biscoitos. The hikers tackled the volcanic cone, Monte Brasil, which was followed by a ride to what the local people called a cave, but is really the throat of a volcano. Small rock formations of silica make this ‘cave’ unique.
The entertainment of the day continued with a wonderful folkloric performance by musicians and dancers, followed by the captain’s dinner.
Santa Maria Island
Today we explored the island of Santa Maria, the least inhabited of the Azorean islands we would visit on our trip. We docked at the little town of Vila do Porto and speedily boarded our buses with a packed itinerary ahead. The highlight was a visit to the little town of Anjos at which Christopher Columbus landed in February 1493 on his way back to Europe from the new world. The little chapel where he prayed is still there, as well as a striking modern statue of the explorer that was erected in 1993. We visited the villages of Espirito Santo and São Lourenco, and a marvellous ethnographic museum where the lifestyles of people in earlier days were well displayed. We stopped at a recently constructed chapel built to commemorate the apparition of the Virgin Mary seen by three children at Fatima in mainland Portugal in 1917. This involved the ascent of nearly 200 steps, as it was on top of a hill, and we were interested to hear that the old tradition of the faithful ascending on their knees was still retained. We also visited a bakery where we sampled delicious local breads and cakes. These together with several stops at viewpoints from which the stunning scenery of the coasts of the island could be seen rounded off our visit to this delightful island.
We set sail for Madeira in the afternoon and our lecture program commenced. Ian Stone spoke on The Admiral of the Ocean Sea: the Life and Times of Christopher Columbus and this was followed by resident ornithologist, Peter Harrison, speaking on Seabirds of the World. We also had the first recap of the trip during cocktail hour.
In between keeping a sharp eye open for sea birds and dolphins, we enjoyed four lectures by our on board experts. Peter Zika spoke on The Flowers of Atlantis, followed by Peter Harrison on Facts and Figures of our Feathered Friends. In the afternoon Ralph Eshelman presented a lecture entitled Leviathans of the Sea; Evolution, Folklore, Hunting. This was followed by Ian Stone’s “The Devil Take You!” Vasco da Gama’s Great Voyage.
We arrived in the port of Funchal, the capital of Madeira before dawn. It was apparent that today the weather would be delightful and that we had arrived in a major city.
The first group set out for an exploration of the city which included an ascent in the famous cable car, to the suburb of Monte, overlooking the city. We inspected the church which is the final resting place of the Emperor Carl I of Austria. After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, he took up residence in Madeira, where he died in 1922. We descended the hill in the famous toboggans which slide down the road ‘steered’ by two men. This is definitely an experience not to be missed! We returned to the ship for lunch and immediately afterwards most returned to the city for further sightseeing.
Those on the full day tour visited the viewpoint at Cape Girov and were rewarded with a stunning view of the coast from a 2,000 foot high sea cliff, the second highest in the world. Then it was off to the coastal village of Riberia Brava, through a heath forest at an elevation of over 3,000 feet, and to the shore town of Porto Moniz for lunch. Afterwards there was a drive up the northern coast road with a stop at a beautiful waterfall before turning south across the rugged mountains of the interior. The final stop was in Funchal to visit a wine lodge and to stroll around the city center.
The birders achieved a red letter day as they recorded all five of Madeira’s endemic and near-endemic land birds.
La Gomera, Canary Islands
Today we awoke to find our good ship bowling over the waves towards the Canary Islands. We had an excellent program of lectures to entertain us this morning. Ralph Eshelman started with his presentation Belching Volcanic Isles and the Crumbling of the Pillars of Hercules: Commotion in the Ocean, followed by Peter Zika with Dispersal to the Lost Islands of the Atlantic.
After lunch we tied up at the port of San Sebastian, the delightful capital of La Gomera. We divided ourselves into three groups for the afternoon’s activities. There was a hiking tour for the hearty, which involved a long and strenuous walk in the famous Garanjay National Park. The birders’ tour was successful in that they saw over 20 species including the endemic Bolle’s and Laurel pigeons. They were also lucky enough to see all six of the Azores endemic butterfly species. The third group had a cultural tour, highlights of which were the visitors’ center of the National Park, and some delicious tapas at the Restaurant Cesar Manrique where there was a whistling language demonstration. This together with some spectacular views obtained from the viewpoints strategically located along the roads of the island made for a rewarding tour.
Today we found ourselves in the prosperous hub of the Canary Islands, Santa Cruz, Tenerife. We fanned out to explore this varied island in several groups. The birders went in search of the elusive and endemic blue chaffinch and were successful in their quest. The hikers explored the flanks of Spain’s highest mountain, El Teide (at 12,188 feet, the highest point in the Atlantic), with numerous historic lava flows and deep, shady valleys. After the hike there was a sumptuous, traditional Spanish lunch of paella at a restaurant near the sea shore. This was followed by a stroll through the historic town of Orotava, noted for its colonial architecture, including beautiful wooden balconies. Those with cultural interests visited the World Heritage Site of La Laguna, the old capital in the northeast with its quaint 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century buildings and townhouses. This group then ascended the precipitous main road across the north of the island stopping at many viewpoints and eventually arrived at the remote village of Taganana, after which they proceeded to Roque de las Bodegas for tapas and coffee.
We divided ourselves into the usual three groups for today’s exploration of the dry island of Lanzarote. One group’s adventures began with a visit to the ‘fire mountains’ of Timanfaya National Park where they were treated to views across a lunar landscape of crumbling lava, cinder cones, petrified lava flows, and lava tubes. They also witnessed the current volcanic heat flow in the park with demonstrations including an artificial geyser produced by pouring cold water down a hole in the ground from whence it quickly came back up again boiling hot! A camel ride was next on the agenda and the tour concluded with a visit to a local winery. The second group visited the town of Haria and examined the interesting church and main square. The next stop was the lava-tube caves of Jameos del Agua, inhabited by small, blind crabs. The tour ended at a cactus garden designed by César Manrique, the famous local artist and architect in the form of an amphitheater. The birders were happy, because due to the east winds, large flocks of colorful migrating bee–eaters and hoopoes were sighted in addition to Houbara bustards, and a marsh harrier.
A group of us started our acquaintance with Morocco by driving inland to the ancient walled city of Taroudant. There we visited an excellent hotel for delicious mint tea and cakes and then wandered through the bewildering alleyways of the souk, which was busy with vendors and bustling with local people. One highlight was a visit to an argan oil factory. This is a women’s co-operative at which the nuts of the argan tree are ground up for their oil which is then used for a variety of culinary and health purposes. This group returned to the ship for an afternoon at sea on our way up the coast towards Casablanca. An afternoon at the movies was on offer and our lecture program continued with Ian Stone presenting Latitude, Longitude and other Mysteries, while the other group traveled overland to Marrakech for a two-day excursion.
Tuesday & Wednesday, April 22 & 23
Marrakech Overnight Excursion.
The hardy birders in this group accompanied Peter to search for species along the west African coastline. The rest of the party headed straight for Marrakech. We had a four and a half hour road trip via Chichaoua and through the stunning scenery of the desert and the Atlas Mountains. On arrival in Marrakech we stopped at the Koutoubia Mosque before checking into the Hotel Meridien. Following lunch at the hotel we set out to explore the sights of this intriguing city, founded in 1062. We visited the Saadiens Tombs, which are the mausoleums for the 16th-century sultans and their families. Next we visited the Bahia Palace with its intricate craftsmanship and carvings. Standing in a two-acre garden the palace was reserved for the sultan’s four wives and 24 concubines. The medina, the souks, and Djemaa el Fna Square, bustled with activity. Everything is available for purchase in the souks from jewellery, leather, brass, and gold items to massive doors and columns. The square, unique in Africa, teemed with soothsayers, snake-charmers, story tellers, and vendors of mystic potions.
The next morning the birders left early to travel to elevations of over 6,000 feet in the High Atlas mountains in their quest to find crimson-winged finches among the snow patches. The remainder of the group visited the Menara, a large square pool set in a vast olive grove, and the Palmeraie before setting off on the highway to join the rest of the group in Casablanca. The birders returned triumphant having seen over 100 bird species over the two days in Morocco, which included singing nightingales, hawfinches, flamingos, and Barbary falcons. The highlight was magnificent views of the critically endangered bald ibis of which there are only 200 or so individuals left.
After a morning at sea, during which Ralph Eshelman presented Smoke by Day, Fire by Night; History of Seamarks and following brunch, we went ashore in Casablanca. There we admired the Moroccan, French colonial, and art deco architecture, and visited the central market. There is no doubt however, that the highlight of the day was our visit to the largest mosque in Morocco (and third largest in the world), the enormous Hassan II Mosque, situated on the sea shore. The mosque’s minaret, the tallest in the world, stands as a pinnacle pointing out the location of this bustling city.
The group from the Marrakech extension returned to board Le Levant before she departed for Tarifa, Spain. A convivial farewell reception and dinner concluded our time on board.
Tarifa, Spain / Gibraltar, U.K. / Marbella, Spain
Leaving the coast of Africa behind us and with Spain to port, we headed to the famous rock of Gibraltar. With time to explore we spent the morning on the Rock, navigating the narrow winding roads and visiting Europa Point, the extraordinary St. Michael’s Cave with its towering stalagmites and pendulous stalactites, and on the flanks of the rock itself, the home of the Barbary Apes. After lunch at a square-side restaurant in Gibraltar we crossed the border into Spain and continued to our luxury hotel overlooking the sea for our final dinner and farewells.
Marbella / Málaga / USA
This morning we transferred along the busy sun-seeker coast of southern Spain, with its crowded holiday resorts, busy marinas, and cloudless sky. Our arrival at the Málaga Airport signalled the end of a busy and varied expedition to an array of remote Atlantic islands, to North Africa, and to the gates of the Mediterranean.