The first stop on the current itinerary finds us 850 miles due west of Portugal on a volcanic archipelago consisting of nine major populated islands. The islands are a possession of Portugal but are characterized officially as the Autonomous Region of the Azores (in Portuguese they are Açores). Considering the autonomy we found it odd that there appears to be an independence movement declaring itself with stencils on a number of walls. One local described that as people with nothing better to do and few take it seriously.
Geologically the archipelago sits over an ancient hotspot on the Gibraltar Ridge near the eastern side of the Mid-Atlantic Rift. There is still geo-thermal activity on the islands in the form of warm springs and mud baths. A short drive outside the city of Ponta Delgada are the blue and green twin lakes in a dormant caldera which have become a major tour destination.
Because of their proximity to the Gulf Stream the archipelago has an amazing climate. Year round the average high temperature ranges from 65° to 78° and it rarely makes it to the low eighties. There has also never been a recorded temperature near freezing. Because of this the foundations of the economy are agriculture, fishing and dairy farming with tourism recently developing into a major new sector. One of the major cash crops is pineapple with grape vineyards also being important.
Ponta Delgada is the largest city in the archipelago and you have to admire a city where all the streets and sidewalks consist of mosaics of black and white rock pavers. Maybe this has a practical explanation but the artistry involved left us stunned. I’m not sure we have seen anything like these before. The pace of life here seems relaxed with numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants. As is expected, seafood is the cornerstone of the diet with a decidedly Mediterranean flavor.
Not surprisingly the islands occupy a strategic position in the North Atlantic with a fifteenth century fortification protecting Ponta Delgada harbor. During the Second World War the Allies used the islands as a base to protect the sea lanes and were a base for airplanes hunting German submarines. Even today the United States Navy uses them as a refueling station for ships and aircraft heading back and forth across the Atlantic.
Because of the location of the archipelago it is on the migration route for a number of whales and other sea mammals as well as a favorite wintering location. Blue whales, Sperm whales and Humpbacks are frequently sighted and whale watching is a growing attraction for tourists. The city has a number of impressive Catholic churches and a beautiful theatre which seems to favor ballet, symphonies and opera singers. Ponta Delgada is also a favorite stop for yachts and ocean racing sailboats and the waterfront and Yacht Club area is a good place in the evening to sit and enjoy a coffee or glass of local wine or port.