Surfers, 'the lost continent of Atlantis' boasts big waves & affordable beer
The Azores, Portugal, are high on a surfer's bucket list - and offer much for the land-lover too, writes Andy Davis
When you drink beer in the Azores, the preferred bar snack is a broad yellow lupini bean, pickled in brine and chilli, known as tremocos. It's high in antioxidants and vitamin E, apparently.
It's a Mediterranean snack enjoyed in the middle of the Atlantic, but that kinda shows where the Azores sits in terms of its dominant influences. This is Portugal, twice removed. A set of nine islands often thought of as a kind of European Hawaii.
So you bite the tremoco, twist and suck the bean out of its rubbery skin, flick the skin into the rocks, chew and wash it down with a crisp slug of Sagres cerveza from a 200ml bottle.For the average beer drinker, it's all about size and value. We prize our 750ml beers. Out here, though, big beers tend to get warm before you finish them, whereas a 200ml bottle is more likely to stay cold for every sip.
This is luxury. This is decadence. For the full effect, this should be done while sitting on a harbour wall in the late afternoon glow.
WHAT'S LEFT OF ATLANTIS
This island chain in the middle of the Atlantic - a veritable swell magnet roughly halfway between Lisbon and New York - was considered by ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato to be all that remains of the lost continent of Atlantis.This series of nine volcanic outcroppings is blessed by a jet stream wind, heated over the Sahara and lifting moisture from the vast expanse of sea in between, to create an almost perfect garden micro-climate.
Rows of hydrangeas line the roads. Mint and lavender grow wild in fields where fat herds graze. Steam rises from the many thermal hot springs and drifts through verdant forests punctuated by giant ferns.
THE BUBBLING EARTH
Now imagine old-world, 17th-century fishing towns, established in the valleys, hugging sheer cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, with cobbled streets and market squares.
Give us tremocos, tuna steak, artisanal pulled-pork sandwiches and roadside espressos with a stick of cinnamon to use as a spoon. Give us small cold beers and salty eyes from long days at the beach.
The colour of the ocean in the Azores is unique. A clear cobalt blue, the water is clean and luke-warm accentuated by dominant grey skies and the black volcanic sands beneath.
The drive to the quaint southern town of Ribeira Quente is spectacular as it winds up through the forest and over the hills into the plush thermal spa town of Furnas; a steamy valley surrounded by thick forest and alive with boiling mineral water that gurgles from the earth in springs and rivers, the air thick with the smell of sulphur. But there's no time to stop and soak the bones. Waves are breaking just over the volcanic ridge and our travelling companions are hungry to surf.
The tide changes and flattens the waves out, so we head west to look at a spot in the town of Vila Franca, once the island's capital, a maze of cobbled streets and churches.
Out to sea is an island shaped like a crescent moon, embracing a perfectly circular blue lagoon, like something out of Game of Thrones. The waves are considered sub-par at Vila Franca so we scoot back to the Wedge in Ribeira Grande to surf the beach break in the onshore.By the end of the day we've retired to the wooden deck of the beach bar, pushing back pints with the local guys.
The swell dries up so we take to sightseeing, and the island delivers on all fronts.
Volcanic crater lakes in two distinctive shades of green and blue at Sete Cidades.
Western beaches with offshore island rock formations like Star Wars locations.A hot spring bubbling up in a rock pool in the sea at Ferraria, people hold onto ropes and drift in and out with the motion of the ocean.
A cascading series of hot springs in Furnas.
A natural pool in the forest at Caldeira Velha. With this much volcanic action, it's no surprise that the island derives all of its electricity from the boiling magma churning beneath its crust.
There is a slab off the back of a small fishing harbour in the picturesque village of Maia.
We meander through the congested cobbled streets in search of the wave, and maybe some breakfast, committing various traffic infractions, which are quickly noticed by the local moustachioed traffic cop, who tails us to make sure we respect the small town's traffic rules and austere catholic dignity.
ALL'S SWELL THAT ENDS SWELL
Finally we chance upon a view of the harbour and stop to look at the slab, blocking the empty road. The cop rounds on us. Move along, he threatens wordlessly with his moustache. He's about to reach for the fine book, to do the Portuguese/English charade. But there is no wave. The tide is too full and the swell is not big enough, so we move on, the wrong way up a one way and out, to freedom.
Finally the swell is here and the much fabled Wedge of Ribeira Grande is absolutely firing.Later there will be yoga on the beach, pulled-pork sandwiches, tremocos always tremocos and beers on the deck of the Boa Onda (Good Wave) bar at sunset, then drinking games with some Russian learn-to-surf girls back at the Surf House. Everyone stays up late making too much noise.
In the morning, it's one last kiss of the cobalt sea before the long-haul journey home.
As the plane lifts off and banks towards Lisbon, we get a final view of these last vestiges of Atlantis, the surfers become specks, already heading towards their next event.PLAN YOUR TRIP
Flights were roughly R17,000-R20,000 via Dubai to Lisbon and then to the Azores. You can also fly via other European hubs such as London and Frankfurt. Contact an agent at Flight Centre for deals.
WHEN TO GO
For surfers, the best time to visit is during the northern hemisphere winter, when huge swells roll up. Spring and autumn are the best bet for the traveller/surfer looking for the best of both worlds.
IS IT DANGEROUS?
The Azores were born to be mild! There is little to fear in terms of snakes, thorns or gnarly diseases. Rocky shorelines and volcanic rocks can be hard on unprotected feet. The main place to take caution is while driving on the single-lane, country roads.
Although there is a European-style bus system, you'll want a rental car. There are several hire companies to choose from and rates are reasonable. For trips to other islands in the archipelago, there are (slow) ferries, but it's best to fly.
IS IT EXPENSIVE?
Accommodation cost us around R300 per night at the Azores Surf Centre Surf House in a comfortable four-bed, shared room (R750 double). A beer costs R25, an espresso R20 - always ask for a piece of cinnamon to stir it with - and a decent dinner is around R120.