Azores & Canary Islands

2012 Azores with Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco, Canary Islands & Madeira Field Report

Susan Langley|June 30, 2012|Field Report

Sunday, May 6, 2012 - Granada, Spain / Malaga / Embark Clipper Odyssey: During breakfast we became better acquainted with our traveling companions whom we had dined with the previous evening at our welcome dinner hosted by Lynda Murphy, our Cruise Director for the upcoming adventure. Afterwards, we set off to explore the ancient city of Granada.

No trip here is complete without a visit to what is arguably Spain’s crown jewel; the Alhambra, recently voted one of the world’s New Seven Wonders. The ethereal palace and related Generalife Gardens held us spellbound with jewel-like mosaics at our feet and carved plaster resembling fine lace above. All too soon we had to tear ourselves away and drive through the beautiful Andalusian countryside to Malaga.

In the meantime, the birding group headed off with David Wolf, our representative from Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours, to seek out Spain’s feathered jewels. We came across azure-winged magpies, flamingos, black redstarts, melodious warblers, and blue rockthrushes.

On reaching the port we boarded our floating home, the Clipper Odyssey, and had time to relax and enjoy refreshments before settling into our cabins. We assembled for the lifeboat drill and to formally meet our expedition staff, introduced by our Expedition Leader, Julie Fielding. Julie also briefed us for tomorrow’s activities as we steamed on for Gibraltar before enjoying the first of many fine meals to come.

Monday, May 7 - Gibraltar, United Kingdom: Our arrival on The Rock was greeted with the best weather most of the staff have experienced in this British overseas territory. The birders departed early for the entire day, setting a pattern that would echo throughout the voyage. The rest of us enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before disembarking.

Our first stop was Europa Point, the southernmost point in Europe from which Africa, Spain, and virtually all shipping activity in the narrow strait is visible. Later we visited St. Michael’s Cave, a series of stunning limestone caverns that now houses an auditorium. Though the cavern is spectacular, the stars of the day were the Barbary macaques, the charismatic monkeys that are Gibraltar’s signature animal.

We also visited the Great Siege Tunnels, dug deep to provide sites for hidden cannons. Afterwards, we enjoyed the breathtaking, panoramic scene from the rock-face, which provides a bird’s eye view of Gibraltar’s famous airstrip, crossed by regular roads where the traffic lights turn red when planes are landing or departing. We rode the cable car up and watched sites we had visited earlier in the day slip beneath us until we reached the tiers of platforms at the summit.

Returning to the center of the town, we went our separate ways to shop or explore until it was time for Captain Peter Fielding’s welcome cocktail party and dinner. During these festivities we learned that our birding cohorts had a quick tour of Gibraltar before they set off into southwestern Spain, tallying over 30 huge griffon vultures, as well as six more species of raptors. They were accompanied by a delightful chorus of nightingales serenading them along the way.

Tuesday, May 8 - Casablanca, Morocco / Marrakech: The birders traveled from the coastal plains to Marrakech, up above the tree-line in the High Atlas Mountains, finding birds at every stop. The favorite of the day had to be the beautiful Moussier’s redstarts, friendly little birds found only in northwest Africa.

Those of us touring Casablanca set off first thing to the food market, watching the merchants set up their displays of dry goods, meats, and flowers. From here we drove to the immense Hassan II Mosque; everyone marveled at the exquisite workmanship inside the mosque, including the fabulously tiled ablution rooms and the hamman. From here our local guide took us to see the “Beverly Hills” of Casablanca, including the Crown Plaza Hotel where we enjoyed a perfectly timed break. On the roof terrace we enjoyed a Moroccan coffee bar with tea, coffee, and fresh juices, along with plates of fresh fruit, tarts, and local Moroccan specialty finger cookies. We finished our tour with a display of regional rugs, a visit to an antique shop, and a chat with an herbalist who explained the production of the famed argan oil. After a lively discussion on the use of the oils and spices, we returned to the ship for lunch. Setting sail for Agadir we enjoyed an afternoon of leisure with a terrific sunset barbecue on deck and Casablanca after dinner.

Those who visited Marrakech enjoyed a drive with visual lessons in agriculture, geology, and ethnography. Our first stop was at the central Koutoubia Mosque, a great photo opportunity. After checking into the Hotel Es-Saadi and lunching in the Jardin d’Hiver, we entered the city walls to explore the history of the medina. Our guide Saïd led us through a maze of streets and alleys, where we watched craftsmen create objects with footturned lathes, or snooped through shops piled with ceramics, spices, and bright clothing. We pushed on, entering a courtyard through a narrow tunnel, into the 17th-century Saadian tombs. From here we explored the nearby Bahia Palace, which translates to ‘brilliant’ or ‘beautiful.’ Room after room and courtyard after courtyard are divided into public and private spaces, all gloriously tiled.

Later, we had the opportunity to shop with our guide through the souks or head to the famous Djemaa el-Fna Square to watch the snake charmers. We enjoyed a tagine dinner and compared our thoughts and purchases of the day.

Wednesday, May 9 - Agadir / Taroudant / Marrakech: Those that stayed aboard the Clipper Odyssey enjoyed a continental breakfast before joining Ron Wixman for his discussion on Traditional Life in Morocco, as we came alongside in Agadir. From here we made our way inland to the walled town of Taroudant, also known as Little Marrakech. Keeping an eye out for goats climbing the famous argane trees, we reached our first stop at the Salam Palace for refreshments. Plunging into the souks, we had a chance to observe how argan oil is made, purchase spices, and bargain our way through the shops.

Back in Marrakech, the extension group awoke to the call of the mezzuen and a choir of birdsong that continued through breakfast. Our first stop was the Marjorelle Gardens, an unexpected jewel that included a tiny ethnographic museum of Berber costume and craft, Islamic art, jewelry, and fine art. Next we visited the Museum of Moroccan Arts, better known by the name of the residence in which it is housed, the Dar Si Said. We finished the morning with a visit to a traditional apothecary shop before stopping at the venerable Chahramane Restaurant where we were greeted by a gauntlet of musicians and seated at tables that were soon spread with a large array of mezes for starters, followed by a succulent lunch, as dancers whirled and musicians played for us.

The birders returned to the ship in a state of ecstasy, having seen some of the most special birds of the Paleo-arctic realm—Eleonora’s falcons, Audouin’s gulls, Eurasian spoonbills, and the pièce de résistance, a flock of waldrapps. A total surprise and pure joy as later in the day, they came across the same flock feeding not 40 feet from the side of the road. Pure serendipity!

Dinner was abuzz with conversation as we compared notes with our friends who had elected different adventures and we went to bed wondering what the Canary Islands held in store for us.

Thursday, May 10 - Lanzarote Island, Canary Islands: The morning began with an opportunity to hear John Buchanan lecture on A User’s Guide to Volcanoes. This was followed by a presentation from Susan Langley, Maritime Archaeology and Exploration of West Africa. Before we knew it, we were coming alongside in Arrecife on the island of Lanzarote.

As we left the port we were greeted by a wind-activated sculpture by the renaissance artist, designer, and architect, César Manrique, the Canary Islands’ best known artist and a native son of Lanzarote. We also visited the Manrique-designed Jardín de Cactus and the James del Agua, a lava tube open to the sky.

Winding up and down precipitous cliffs, we stopped for a photo opportunity over Mirador del Rio. Tearing ourselves away, we reached the old capital of Teguise, and visited the Inglesia de la Virgen de Guadalupe and some of the surrounding cafés and specialized shops.

The southern island tour began with a short drive through the arid landscape so distinctive of Lanzarote. Here and there were the famous vineyards where the grape vines are planted and grown close to the ground, behind hand-built stone walls, filled with volcanic ash to hold in the moisture. Upon arrival at Timafaya National Park, we stopped at a restaurant where food is cooked over a hot volcanic vent using the heat of the volcano below. We drove to the coast to overlook magnificent cliffs with various layers of lava and ash, punctuated by the rough sea. We then stopped at a local winery for a tasting, supplemented by slices of goat cheese, bread, and a delicious sauce used throughout the Canaries, called mojo, before returning to the ship for lunch and a well-deserved rest.

Friday, May 11: Tenerife Island Those of us on the half-day adventure began in Santa Cruz de Tenerife with a stop in La Laguna, the former capital of the Island. We started at one of the oldest churches in the Canaries where we observed a religious service taking place. From there it was a very short walk to one of the cleanest, neatest, and most diverse markets we had ever seen. The displays were well-organized and the array of goods was boggling. After spending some time at the central plaza, we drove up to a lookout point in the forest; from here we could see Santa Cruz, La Laguna, and Mt. Teide, the highest point in all of Spain. We drove on and were treated to a refreshing stop in a traditional bodega, where we enjoyed local wine, olives, goat cheese, and sautéed octopus, a terrific way to end an already delightful morning. Afterward, some of us lunched aboard, some enjoyed a local lunch in town, and others chose simply to relax.

For the birders, the undisputed highlight of the day was the lovely blue chaffinch, found only in the remaining stands of Canary Island pines on two islands. After rounding out the day with several more endemic songbirds and a pair of great spotted woodpeckers, we visited the high country of El Teide and enjoyed the multitude of endemic plants to the volcanic zone above the tree-line.

The rest of the group climbed higher into Teide National Park until they reached the parador at the head of many of the hiking trails around the Roques de Garcia. We dropped down to the coastal town of Puerto de la Cruz for lunch in another Manrique-designed park where we enjoyed a parade of endless tapas. We embarked on a delightful stroll through the nearby Botanical Gardens, then walked through the colonial town of La Orotava, described as one of the most “Canarian” places in the Canary Islands. We ended the day on our floating home and met up with our friends.

Saturday, May 12 - La Gomera: An early start to the day saw some of us winding our way up through the mountains. We stopped on the edge of Garajonay National Park and set off with our guide, Chris, along a well-defined track into the forest. It was cool and the sunlight pierced the canopy and danced over the giant dandelion shrubs. We eventually came to the end of the track and stepped out into the sunshine and heat and continued on our way to the village of Arure where we all had a coffee or a cold drink.

The birders went pigeon-hunting this morning, arriving at the laurel forest quite early. After much diligent scanning, they finally had incredible views of both laurel and Bolle’s pigeons. These two endemics were plentiful on the islands when the first Europeans arrived, but are now quite rare and are considered to be endangered.

Those of us on the full island tour headed north into the dramatic highlands. We continued through the village of Hermigua to a coastal overlook of one of the few rocky beaches in the area before walking through the picturesque village of Agulo. Reaching the edge of Garajonay National Park we stopped for rest and refreshment at a local café and proceeded to view the gardens and exhibits. We stopped for a few photographs at spectacular overlooks, but were keen to keep an appointment back in San Sebastián de la Gomera with a young woman named Anna.

Meeting the full group in the Parque La Torre del Conde, Anna joined us to demonstrate El Silbo, a means of whistled conversation that Gomerans developed in order to communicate long distances. Once on the verge of dying out and used by a few old men, it has experienced a renaissance as young Gomerans have rediscovered their heritage. In the time remaining, many of us explored the town.

As the Clipper Odyssey departed La Gomera, we enjoyed lunch outside before we joined Ron to learn about Culture and Civilization in the Mediterranean. After an Ice Cream Social, we listened to Rick Price speak on Why Whales Don’t Get the Bends and How Can They Dive so Deep?

Sunday, May 13 - Madeira Island, Portugal: Almost everyone had to try the one activity unique to Funchal—riding toboggans down the sloped streets of the city! Only mildly hair-raising, the sleds are steered by two men clad in costumes reminiscent of gondoliers. Once we had our thrill for the morning, we set off to follow our respective interests. Those of us who wanted see as much of the island as possible headed up the coast and across the island marveling at the landscape that was as ragged and rugged as La Gomera, but as green as Ireland. En route we made stops over breathtaking vistas of valleys sheltering picturesque villages surrounded by tiny but widespread terraced garden patches. We stopped for lunch at the northernmost point, Porto Moniz. Once a prominent whaling station in the 19th century, the town is now a tourist destination with some fascinating offshore rock formations and natural sea pools. Our lunch included the local delicacy of black scabbard fish, or espada. Prior to returning to Funchal we stopped at an observation point that provided excellent views of the fishing village of Cámara de Lobos. Also prominent is Cabo Girão, at 1,900 feet, one of the highest sea cliffs in the world.

Back in Funchal we enjoyed a walking tour of the town that included part of the Botanical Gardens and St. Francis Wine Lodge, now called Old Blandy’s Wine Lodge. We tasted three different styles of Madeira before returning to the Clipper Odyssey.

Those of us on the half-day tour stopped at Pico dos Barcelos, a scenic viewpoint, for a photo opportunity before returning to Funchal. Some of us returned to the ship, others enjoyed lunch and free time to roam on their own, and others undertook a nature walk of nearly four miles. Our birders returned ecstatic to have seen eight trocaz pigeons and three firecrest kinglets, both species endemic to Madeira, as well as Eurasian collar-doves, gray wagtails, plain zus in the right frame of mind for cocktails and another delicious dining experience. Plus, we had a rare treat—the crew volunteered to put on a musical variety show for us and a few of us contributed!

Monday, May 14 - At Sea: Our day began with John’s explanation of What’s That Hot Spot Doing in the Atlantic Ocean? Susan’s sweet discussion of all things bee-related in The Honeybee from North Africa to the Islands was followed by a tasting of regional honeys collected along our route. This was the perfect day to watch for dolphins, frolicking off the bow. Lunch was followed by a chocolate fondue party and a mandatory Zodiac briefing. Later we listened to Rick’s presentation about the Travels of a Wildlife Cameraman, before donning our most colorful finery for a poolside cocktail party hosted by Zeghram Expeditions, Yale University, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

Tuesday, May 15 - Santa Maria Island, Azores: Today we set foot on the oldest of the Azorean islands, and the third smallest in the archipelago. We began our day in the reconstructed 16th-century Fort of São Brás before stopping to climb up to the tiny chapel of Our Lady of Fatima in Santa Barbara. Arriving in the village of Santo Espirito we broke into groups, visiting in turn the weavers at the Cooperativa de Artisanato Santa Maria, the church of Nossa Senhora da Purificaçao and its colorful above-ground cemetery, and the small but thorough and very interesting house museum. From here we made a stop at Miradouro to overlook the village of São Lourenço clinging to the coast far below. The short walk to the picnic viewpoint was awash with stands of bright purple and pink Agapanthus and Watsonia.

After a barbeque lunch onboard, we split into groups with some of us heading north across the island to the far coast. On reaching the village of Anjos, we stopped first near a statue of Christopher Columbus, marking where he first landed on returning from the New World. We visited the natural and constructed salt water pools on the shore that led to the area being designated a natural preserve, while a brave few actually went for a dip!

Meanwhile, the birders went hiking around Pico Alto and reported common chaffinches, blackcaps, endemic Island Canaries, Berthelot’s pipits, gray wagtails, and Eurasian blackbirds. Back on board, everyone was excited when we had the chance to explore, via Zodiac, the coastal cliffs and the small islet, Ilhéu da Vila. A protected area, we saw roseate and common terns.

Wednesday, May 16 - Terceira Island: We began the morning with a walking tour of Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was beautifully restored after a devastating earthquake in 1980. The Misericórdia Church was our first stop, followed by the historic home of the Count of Vilaflor; to the Town Hall; the Palácio dos Capitães Generais, a former Jesuit Monastery; and the peaceful Botanical Gardens. Proceeding to the Convent of São Gonçalo we were amazed by the chapel, a jewel box of Portuguese blue and white tile murals. Our final stop was the official residence of the President before we dispersed to pursue personal interests. During free time throughout the day our intrepid birders reported a variety of sightings including common buzzards, common moorhens, Eurasian coots, European greenfinches, European goldfinches, and endemic Island Canaries, as well as whimbrels.

This afternoon we arrived at San Sebastião; we stopped to enjoy the plaza and visit the 15th-century church exhibiting rare frescoes, as well as a colorful império decorated with food and hydrangeas. These small houses are associated with the Festival of Espírito Santo, which is connected with the Catholic Church, and appear throughout the islands. Continuing to the town of Praia de Vitoria, we strolled down the high street to the waterfront. As we climbed further up the hillside, we saw some of the island’s famed dairy cows and also fighting bulls. Bullfighting here is a version of Spain’s running of the bulls, where one loosely tethered bull is turned loose on a city street with would-be fighters trying to touch the bull, without the reverse occurring.

On reaching the Reserva Natural Geológica do Algar do Carvão, we descended 227 steps into the cave which is actually part of a volcano’s throat. Returning to daylight, we were rewarded with the opportunity to visit the delightful family wine museum and taste the local limited productions. Our final stop was in Cinco Ribeiras at another family-run endeavor, the prize-winning cheese factory, Queijo Vaquihna. We enjoyed the original secret family recipe and two variations, spicy and salty, all while watching, gasping, and cheering a television continuously showing clips of bullfighting.

Back on board, Grupo Folclórico e Etnográfico entertained us for over an hour with a variety of dances, songs, and music.

Thursday, May 17 - Graciosa Island: Landing at Praia, the ‘white island,’ we were greeted with a handful of windmills. Walking through the town, we enjoyed the architecture of several small chapels and visited the Chapel of Senhora da Ajuda and the Church of São Mateus. Arriving in Santa Cruz, we visited the Igreja Matriz with its wooden floor inlaid with strips of black basalt before a walking tour to the large central park. Winding our way forward, we enjoyed the ethnographic exhibits at the brand new Museum of the Azores and were treated to a viewing of the whaling exhibits, opened especially for us. Nearby we stopped for a wine tasting at the Terra da Conda winery, and stopped at the extreme north of the island to visit the Ponta da Barca Lighthouse. Heading into the interior of the island, we passed one picture perfect village after another until we climbed to the caldera and Furna do Enxofre. Here, John discovered an active mudpot in which we delighted taking photographs. Dinner was enjoyed as the bow of the Clipper Odyssey turned toward Faial Island.

Friday, May 18 - Faial and Pico Islands: After a short stop in Horta to view the talismans left by boaters arriving or departing the port, we drove to the base of a hilltop monument for views over the port. We headed to the westernmost end of the island where villages and the Ponta dos Capelinhos lighthouse had been buried by a volcanic eruption as recently as 1957. On our way back to Horta, we stopped at the Centro de Artesanato in Capelo and saw a full range of the arts and crafts created in the islands. Back on board for lunch, the ship repositioned to São Roque do Pico on the adjacent Island of Pico.

‘The black island’ is dominated by Mount Pico, at 7,708 feet above sea level the highest mountain in Portugal. Due to the low-hanging clouds we were only granted the briefest of glimpses at its full height, but we definitely deemed it majestic. Passing through the old port of Cais do Pico, we soon reached Lagoa do Capitão, a small freshwater lake where we all caught the birdwatching spirit, as a friendly little chaffinch posed for us. A stop in Lajes do Pico at the whaling museum was fascinating, from the graphic documentary to the entire floor of scrimshaw that we delayed departing and found that the wine museum had closed. Luckily, Lynda had already procured the wine and cheese, and we returned to the ship to enjoy these as a prelude to Captain Fielding’s farewell cocktail party and dinner.

Saturday, May 19 - São Miguel Island: Our last day found us at berth in Ponta Delgada on “the green island,” San Miguel, the largest in the entire archipelago. The first stop was an overlook into Caldeira Velha, providing misty views of Lagoa do Fogo, a small lake occupying the central crater. A short walking tour of the second largest city on the island, Ribeira Grande, was followed by a visit to the Cha Gorreana tea plantation. A walk-through of the facility revealed an amazing array of antiquated but still-working processing equipment. The highlight of the day was our visit to the quaint village of Furnas, nestled within a volcanic edifice, including bubbling hot springs, some with a strong sulfurous odor. Lunch was enjoyed at a local hotel, followed by a walking tour through the Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens.

Our morning tour took us past the summer residence of Thomas Hickling, a prominent 18th-19th-century Bostonian whose name cropped up again and again around São Miguel. We began with a walk through the covered market, passed the Câmara Municipal, and walked to the Botanical Gardens. On returning to the city center we visited the Convent and Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Esperança. Workmen were in the process of removing decorations from the recently concluded Festas do Espírito Santo and de São João de Vila. The waterfront was lined with food stalls from the festival so we had interesting options for dining later if we chose. We returned to the Praça Gonçalo Velho Cabral where many of us continued to explore, while the others returned to the ship.

Our last evening together began with a final recap from our expedition staff, and was followed by a terrific slideshow of the entire voyage created by Rick with contributions from the staff. The slideshow provided a memorable and humorous farewell as we exchanged emails and addresses and said our good-byes, while thinking about where in the world we might next meet.

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