The Azores & Canary Islands

2015 The Azores & Canary Islands Field Report

Mark Brazil|July 22, 2015|Field Report

Tuesday & Wednesday, April 28 & 29, 2015 - Depart USA / Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, Azores: From a diverse array of states and nations, 68 intrepid adventurers set out to celebrate a quarter of a century in the adventure travel industry. All arrived at the charming island of São Miguel in the Azores and checked in at the Hotel Marina Atlantico. In the early evening we joined our fellow travelers for our welcome reception and dinner at the adjacent Açores Atlântico Hotel. Expedition Leader Mike Messick introduced our staff team, including his fellow cofounders and inveterate travelers Jack Grove, Shirley Metz, and Peter Harrison. Mike also briefed us on the following day’s activities, commencing with our exploration of São Miguel, the largest of the islands in the Azorean Archipelago.

Thursday, April 30 - São Miguel: In heavy overcast and rain, we embarked on a full day tour of São Miguel’s northeastern and eastern coasts. Scenic views were shrouded in mist and gusts of wind battered at us but, undaunted, and with excellent local guides, we set off around the island. First on our agenda was a fascinating visit to Gorreana, where we retreated indoors from the rain and were shown around the tea factory, and tasted the local brew. From Gorreana we proceeded to Ribeira dos Caldeirões where we enjoyed a beautiful waterfall and the gardens—the local azaleas were in full bloom and highly photogenic in the damp atmosphere. At the eastern end of the island we viewed the steeply eroded volcanic cliffs of Ponta do Sossego and admired a wide range of flowers in bloom. A tasty lunch of local dishes was served to us in Povoação, after which some of us took a short constitutional walk around the village. Proceeding onwards and clockwise around the eastern part of the island we headed for Vila Franca, the town that was the first capital of the Azores. We admired the picturesque church, visited elaborate statues being decorated for the upcoming holidays, and photographed the fishing vessels, decorated with pictures on their bows, in the town’s harbor. Completing our circuit of the eastern part of the island brought us back to Hotel Marina Atlantico, where we gathered again for our dinner and briefing on the following day’s activities.

Friday, May 1 - São Miguel: Once again faced with heavy rain, we separated this morning into two groups. A mini-group of bird adventurers set off into the foggy cloud forest of the eastern end of the island, and we hoped they would return having seen their quarry. The majority of us set off with our two superb local guides, Birgit and Alex, who astounded us with their English, and their knowledge of the geology, history, and daily life of the island. Despite the rain we set off on our tour of the central eastern part of São Miguel bound for Caldeiras Furnas, stopping on the way at Pisão Belvedere to see the view over Caloura.

The scenery of the island consisted of lush green fields with dry stonewalls and numerous herds of dairy cattle dotted the landscape. It is no surprise that the islands have a number of tasty cheeses! Furnas, famed for its hot springs and fumaroles bubbling up from the ground, and the Terra Nostra Garden, allowed us the options of a swim in the iron-rich waters of the hot spring, tasting the natural waters emerging from various spring-fed faucets, and a walk in the magnificent botanical garden. With all of its wide variety of exotic flowers, shrubs, and trees, the highlights, especially given the weather, were the magnificent giant tree ferns. Refreshed after our walk or swim, we tucked into another local lunch in Furnas before setting off to Pico do Ferro Belvedere for the view out over the volcanic scenery of Furnas, the caldera lake, and the Santa Iria Belvedere. The focus of our afternoon however, was our walking tour of the old town of Ribeira Grande with its attractive 18th-century architecture.

We returned to Ponta Delgada, boarded the Sea Adventurer and re-grouped for our first recap, at which we heard from world seabird expert Peter, that his intrepid group of birders had been extremely successful in sighting the Priolo, or Azores bullfinch, the rarest breeding bird in Europe!

Later, Mike broke the unfortunate news that the engine repairs, which the ship was undergoing, were taking longer than anticipated and we would be basing ourselves in Ponta Delgada for longer than originally planned—expedition travel at its finest!

Saturday, May 2 - São Miguel: Today, we had the choice of touring the western coast and inland areas of São Miguel, or taking a morning at leisure before going out on a local whale-watching boat in search of sperm whales and migratory baleen whales. Those who chose the scenic tour set off first for Carvão Belvedere to view the central part of the island, Vista do Rei Belvedere, and the village of Sete Cidades. In the midmorning, we visited the Escalvado Belvedere for a view over Mosteiros e Ferraria on the western coast, experiencing along the way the steep-walled calderas covered in lush vegetation and the crater lakes within them. We then stopped in Capelas at a viewpoint on the coast to see the Pedras Negras (the black basalt cliffs) being battered relentlessly by crashing waves from the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way our geologist, Ralph Eshelman, explained the numerous volcanic features and their formations for us, while our cultural geographer, Ron Wixman, discussed the cultural aspects of the Azorean islands.

Our lunch today at a local restaurant called Caldeiras da Riberia Grande had a distinctive island touch—some of the traditional dishes had been cooked in the local fumaroles. Continuing after lunch, we viewed Fire Lake and returned in the late afternoon to the Sea Adventurer. Unfortunately, our whale watchers had been less successful as poor weather offshore had led to the trip’s cancellation.

At our briefing this evening we received further news that our ship’s repairs had not been proceeding at the pace the engineers had promised, forcing us to remain based in Ponta Delgada for another night. Nevertheless, Mike and the expedition team had been working hard on a back-up plan that would continue to allow us to visit the islands on schedule.

Sunday, May 3 - Graciosa Island: Mike’s approach was if we can’t visit Graciosa Island by ship, we can visit it by air! So, having chartered an aircraft, we made an early start from the ship to the airport for an unexpected adventure. At first the day seemed to promise yet more rain, so we dressed in rain gear and brought our umbrellas along. Naturally, the skies soon cleared revealing beautiful vistas of the small, lush island of Graciosa, 45 minutes to the northwest by air. Our tour of the island took in the extraordinary Furna do Enxofre, a cavern 328 feet deep cavern 426 feet in diameter, into which we descended by a long spiral staircase to reach a cavern that is under the plug of a former volcano. This famed volcanic feature contains gas detectors because it still exudes fumes—we were descending into a truly active feature of the island, complete with bubbling mud pots!

We ate a hearty, traditional lunch at an excellent local restaurant. It consisted of special dishes relating to the feast of the Holy Ghost, with local breads and stewed meats forming the main ingredients. Our afternoon’s tour continued through the beautiful scenery of the island with its contrasting green meadows, dark volcanic features, and blue sea. We visited the main church in Santa Cruz, a local museum, and passed through the attractive villages of Guadalupe and Feteria before flying back from Graciosa to Ponta Delgada in the late afternoon. We were anticipating that we would be sailing this evening for Pico Island; however, our plans had to be changed yet again. But never fear—once again, Mike chartered a plane!

Monday, May 4 - Pico & Faial Islands: With an early start, we set off once again for the local airport and this time flew a little further northwest across the archipelago to Pico Island. Our morning tour not only took in the highlands for views of the beautiful spring flowers, and Lago do Capitão on the east coast, but also a visit to the historical whaling museum. Housed in the original 19th-century boathouses in Lages, it included not only an impressive collection of scrimshaw—the traditional art practiced by sailors of scratching images onto sperm whale teeth—but also whaling boats, harpoons, and other associated tools. Pico, after which the island is named, is not only the tallest volcano in the Azores, but at 7,713 feet, it is the highest mountain in Portugal. Fine weather allowed us impressive views of this spectacular peak with quaint windmills and vast vineyards in the foreground.

After lunch at a local restaurant, we embarked a ferry for a short journey to the island of Faial. We visited the viewpoint at Espalamaca, where we took in the vista across the port and the charming old town of Horta, before driving on to view the enormous Caldeira that dominates the center of the island. We walked through a tunnel cut through the caldera wall, and saw a spectacular view of the crater lake that is so often shrouded in mist.

Continuing our tour we passed through various villages before Ponta do Capos, where there had been a volcanic eruption in the 1950s that covered a local whaling town. The black lava flowed from the volcano into the sea, and we found tide pools with sea jellies before ending at the Faial Airport for our charter flight back to Ponta Delgada and the Sea Adventurer.

Meanwhile, several keen whale watchers set off by local boat from Ponta Delgada and came back with tales of Cory’s shearwaters and several kinds of cetaceans—not only common and bottle-nosed dolphins, but also false killer whales, and a mother and calf fin whale very close to the boat. Our evening briefing was not until 8pm, but to our delight Mike was able to share the great news that tonight we would be sailing!

Tuesday, May 5 - Terceira Island: Underway by ship at last, we set off for the island of Terceira. With a morning at sea, Ron kicked off our lecture series with his cultural history of the region entitled, Islands Between Four Continents. Heavy seas at our planned port of call, Angra do Heroismo, led us to sail a little further around the island to the next port.

Upon arrival, some of us made cultural excursions, including walking tours of the World Heritage Site of Angra do Heroismo, with its small but extremely attractive botanical garden, and visits to the cathedral and the town’s central square. Some visited a wine museum at Biscoito, for far more wine than is usually available at a tasting! And others of us carried on from downtown Angra do Heroismo up to the top of Monte Brasil, threading our bus through the narrowest of archways before descending on foot in torrential rain. Perhaps most spectacular of all was our visit to Algar do Carvao—there we walked down into the extraordinary chimney, cathedral, and cavern of a collapsed lava tube. The upper walls were lush with ferns, moss, and liverworts, while deeper in the caverns the walls were encrusted with beautiful siliceous stalactites. Almost as soon as we returned to port, we set sail into rough seas bound for Vila do Porto on the island of Santa Maria and concluded our day with a recap and briefing before dinner.

Wednesday, May 6 - Santa Maria: Heavy seas overnight slowed our progress towards Santa Maria, allowing Ralph to give the first of his lectures entitled, Belching Volcanic Islands and the Geology of the Azores and Canary Islands.

Once ashore we set off on tours of the oldest of the Azorean islands. Not merely old geologically, it is also one of the smallest and one of the prettiest, with a thriving population of some 5,500 people. Much of the island was lush and green, very suited for beef production, and we saw innumerable Charolaise cattle in small fields with dry stonewalls. Our tour took in views across the bay of São Lourenzo, and gave us views of attractive whitewashed stonewalled houses with bands of color around their windows and neatly terraced vineyards up the slopes behind them.

Meanwhile, a group of hikers spent their time on the island admiring the scenery on foot. On the main tour we visited Anjos and saw the statue of Christopher Columbus and dropped in at the tiny chapel where Columbus and his men had mass after their miraculously safe return from the Americas.

We shuttled in taxis back to the ship for our mid-afternoon departure. This afternoon we said farewell to our excellent guide Birgit and left the Azores bound for Madeira.

Thursday, May 7 - At Sea: At sea between the Azores and Madeira, our staff kept us entertained with a series of lectures:  Facts and Figures of our Feathered Friends, by Peter; Marine Mammals, Local and Global: A Look at Conservation Issues and Solutions, by Rich; and Folklore, Exploitation, Utilization, and Yankee Whaling, by Ralph.

Friday, May 8 - Madeira Island: Our morning at sea allowed us to hear lectures by Mark Brazil, Crossing Continents: Understanding Bird Migration, and Ron, Language, Religion, and Nationalism, before reaching Madeira for our afternoon’s excursion. Some set off on a countryside tour to enjoy the scenery of the island, while others enjoyed a tour of Funchal city including a ride up the cable car and a thrilling descent in wickerwork and wooden toboggans propelled, steered, and braked by two ‘tobogganeers’ in traditional uniforms. We ended the exciting tour with a calming and restorative tasting of Madeiran wines at Blandy’s, in their historic building, and dinner ashore at Z’Acros Restaurant, complete with folkloric show.

Saturday, May 9 - At Sea: Our second day at sea began with Rick’s lecture, Why Don’t Whales get the Bends?, followed by Peter’s A Rare Event: A Story of Discovery and Adventure. After lunch, we gathered in the lounge to join Mark to learn how to take advantage of the photo functions of our smartphones, while others watched flocks of Cory’s shearwaters and Bulwer’s petrels around the ship. We enjoyed afternoon tea, followed by Ron’s lecture on the Cultures of Morocco. This being the 25th-anniversary expedition, in the early evening we gathered for a special recap presented by Rich called, The 25th Anniversary Ultimate Recap. Our leaders reminisced about the fun times exploring that the cofounders, their friends, and teammates have had in 25 years of adventure travel.

Sunday, May 10 - Lanzarote Island, Canary Islands: The birders set off very early with Peter and Mark in search of three difficult to see species (stone curlews, coursers, and bustards), which, amazingly they found while enjoying a coffee break! Meanwhile, some of us set off after breakfast for a ‘Fire Mountain’ adventure among the geological features of Lanzarote, taking in picturesque villages and the extraordinary Timanfaya National Park, followed by a camel ride. Others still, opted for a more cultural excursion, visiting the Jameos del Agua paradise in a lava tube and the fantastic botanical garden, Jardin del Cactus.

We stopped at Mirador del Rio, designed by Manrique and built into the precipice of the Famara Mountains, commanding a view out to the small island of La Graciosa as well as Montana Clara and Alegranza. Manrique was instrumental in helping Lanzarote become world-renowned for its dramatic scenic beauty. Returning to the Sea Adventurer in time for lunch, we were soon at sea again, now bound for Agadir in Morocco.

Monday, May 11 - Agadir, Morocco / Taroudant / Marrakech: We sailed into Agadir through a thick, cooling sea mist and as we set off inland, the coastal fog helped keep us cool, before the heat of the day built steadily. While those bound for Marrakech set off by highway, some of us drove inland to visit the mini-Marrakech of Taroudant. There we paused for ‘Moroccan whisky’ (mint tea) before passing through the city gates and wandering through the souk. Returning to Agadir we sailed for Casablanca. In the midafternoon, Rick gave his lecture presentation Travels of a Wildlife Cameraman.

Our friends inland enjoyed a beautiful drive from Agadir, seeing the tree-climbing goats in the Argan trees along the way. In Marrakech, our visits included the Bahia Palace, were we saw magnificent examples of Moorish architecture and design; the tombs of the Saadien dynasty; the Koutoubieh mosque with its huge decorated square minaret (the symbol of the city); and walked through the traditional souk with its warren of alleys and byways with every manner of traditional products. We ended our afternoon tour in Djemaa el Fna square with its snake charmers, performers, fortune tellers, and fresh fruit juice stands. Of particular interest was that local law dictates that every building and structure must be in the same pink shade as the city walls, and that no building may be taller than half of the Koutoubieh minaret.

Tuesday, May 12 - Marrakech / Atlas Mountains / Casablanca: Those of us on board enjoyed a leisurely morning at sea and a lecture from Mark on Islands of Isolation: Understanding Island Biodiversity before landing in Casablanca. Our tour of the city took in visits to the French quarter, a market, and the current king’s palace, but focused on the enormously impressive Hassan II mosque (the third largest in the world). This mosque, built out over the sea, can accommodate more than 100,000 worshippers during Ramadan.

Meanwhile, in Marrakech, the high Atlas excursion departed before dawn bound for Oukaimaden to enjoy the views of the peaks, the landscapes, and geology on the way and the various birds of the cooler mountain habitats. In Marrakech itself, our tour included the Marjorelle Garden (formerly owned by Yves Saint Laurent) and the Berber museum with its exquisite collection of folk items, examples of regional dress, jewelry, weaving, and art. Some returned to the souk for shopping and exploring. Our lunch was in a traditional restaurant where we not only sampled delicious Moroccan foods (meze appetizers, couscous, and tajine of chicken with olives and preserved lemons) but were also entertained by a quartet of Berber musicians, three women who performed traditional dances and songs, and a belly dancer. One of our highlights came when the Berber women enticed Rich and Ron to dance with them. Each of our tours ended in Casablanca in the late afternoon and soon we left Africa bound for Europe.

Wednesday, May 13 - Faro, Portugal: The last full day of our expedition came around and found us sailing northwards for Portimao, our final stop before Lisbon. During our leisurely morning at sea, Zegrahm cofounder Shirley described one of her past adventures in her lecture: A Journey to the South Pole. Ashore in Portugal we divided into two groups, those going on a walking tour of Faro, the capital of the Algarve, visiting the oldest cathedral in the country and taking a walking tour through this characterful city, and the other taking a natural history tour on the Ria Formosa in traditional saveiro boats through the wetlands in search of water birds of the salt marshes.

Thursday, May 14 - Lisbon / Disembark / USA: Overnight we sailed from Portimao to Lisbon and as we breakfasted we had charming views of the city—once the capital of half of the known world. We disembarked in Lisbon, said our farewells to the officers and crew of the Sea Adventurer, to the staff from Zegrahm, and especially Mike Messick who had done so much to navigate us through this extraordinary expedition. It was not quite what we had planned and certainly not what we expected, but it was great fun with great companionship nonetheless, and what more can one ask of an adventure!

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