The fourth day my travel companion and I spent on the beautiful island of Sao Miguel, we shared one of the most memorable and unique experiences in our lifetimes. I don't throw that phrase around lightly either. Both of us have traveled the world surfing some pretty epic spots, visiting and interacting with different cultures, and generally, spending time in places more beautiful than we deserve. The volcanic crater of Furnase and all that lies within it was no exception.
The islands were created much like their Pacific Ocean counterparts, the Hawaiian Islands. A tectonic plate scraping over a hot spot of liquid hot magma (Dr. Evil voice) created the 9 majestic islands in the chain. Major eruptions later in the life of the islands created calderas, or craters, if you will, that now contain the islands' most picturesque, and aforementioned attractions. The volcanoes are still active, which will come into play shortly.
Before traveling to the Azores, I had seen my freakin' hero, now renowned food travel writer Anthony Bordain visit in an episode of No Reservations. Let me first say, that our experience was a bit less, um, sterile, than Tony's. It's hard to be incognito when you have an entourage and film crew of 15 trying to experience all the island has to offer. Led my our fearless leader Xolim, we got the real experience.
The day began early, with a quick pre-dawn surf check to make sure we weren't missing anything by spending all day in the crater. Our fears were confirmed as we squinted in the dark to see only chest high onshore slop. A day inland was just what we needed. We climbed the hydrangea-lined mountain switchbacks up to the crater's edge, marveled at the epic view from the top, and descended into the caldera, with no expectation of the day to come.
The first stop once in town was the obligatory coffee shop, which was still very sleepy at 8:00 am. Ricardo, like most of the islanders, runs on high octane, and without his morning caffeine is a bit quiet. After mainlining a couple espressos each, we ventured to the market to build our menu for the day. In case you've missed something, our plan was to use the geothermal energy from the still active volcano to cook a godly feast. We filled a basket with beers, handcrafted cheese, bread, local meats, and a few more beers (they were little). All told, we spent about 15 euros. Next stop was the veggie truck. Parked in the city square, an elderly man and woman sell their daily haul of locally grown veggies and we loaded up with many familiar, and some unfamiliar greenery.
We loaded our bounty and headed down a narrow alley to a nondescript parking lot with a small fountain in the corner. The natural freshwater spring would be our prep station for the morning. We spent the next hour peeling, chopping, cleaning, and assembling the meal.
Important side note. Remember when I mentioned we bought some veggies I did not recognize? Well, being the curious guy I am, while peeling a certain root veg I had never seen, I took a small piece and chewed and swallowed. No sooner than I could swallow the piece did Ricardo yell, “NO! That's poisonous!”. I had not been informed that the local taro root is very unpleasantly toxic when eaten raw. Great. The guys had a good laugh, I pounded 2 beers, and had pins and needles in my throat for the next 3 hours…
When everything was ready, we had a feast of local cinnamon blood sausage, chorizo, pork, chicken, and all of our veggies to look forward to. Well, I wasn't too excited about eating taro again, but it was out of my control. A little salt and pepper, seal the lids, and off to our next destination.
We circled the small lake in the crater and ended up in a bizarre grove of mossy trees with a La Brea Tarpits-looking landscape beyond the trees. The smell of sulfur was powerful and it's tough to imagine anything cooked there would taste any good. Our executive chef wrapped up our meal in a table cloth, expertly tied a rope around it, and we went to find our sous chef (who in all reality is just a man you pay 5 Euros to make sure no one steals your food). We dropped our care package in a steamy hole, our new buddy did some quick work with a spade and told us to return in 6 hours.
So, what is there to do for 6 hours in the bottom of a volcanic crater? Lots, as it turns out. We started with a quick walk around the lake, ending up at a mysterious looking church and boat house. Our guide informed us that 200 years ago, a Portuguese prince proposed to his princess and there wasn't a church in all of the land worthy of being wed in, so he did what any prince would do; he built himself one, as well as a botanical garden and estate 900 miles from the mainland. Sounds convenient. We enjoyed another picnic in the apple grove adjacent to the estate de Nossa Senhora.
We jumped back in the car, only to realize that the automated gate in the pay parking lot was not working. After some creative problem solving, and our rental SUV climbing a flight of stairs, we were on our way to our next destination. We pulled into a parking lot at Terra Nostra, paid 5 Euros, and went into the park. This 18th century estate built by the American Consul is nothing short of breathtaking. The sprawling estate and botanical garden is built around the unquestionable centerpiece, a 300 ft x 200 ft geothermally heated swimming pool. Tinged a Willy Wonka chocolate brown from a particular algae, the stone-lined pool was pretty trippy to swim in. We spent over an hour alone floating around in the 100 degree water, soaking up the minerals, reflecting on the day, and enjoying the sounds of songbirds and the running spring water.
After our water therapy, we took a stroll around the gardens, which were an amazing collection of species from all over the world. Unfortunately, we were there during December, so the flowers weren't as spectacular as they could have been. Still, there was plenty to see. I even found the world's largest sombrero.
Having consumed all of our tiny beers, we quickly traveled down the mountain to rectify this situation. The quaint fishing town of Ribeira Quent cured what ailed us. Apparently, during summer south swells, the harbor jetty goes off with a perfect a-frame wave. Something I'd definitely like to come back to.
With sunlight waning, and our 6 hours not quite over, we left the park in search for one more ecotourism gem. We arrived at the hot springs at Poça da Beija at dusk, so there's no decent photodocumentation, but what a way to end the day. These naturally fed rock-lined terraced hot tubs were the hottest we experienced on the island. Could you imagine surfing your brains out at Ribeira Quent, then driving 15 minutes to soak your weary bones? I can! A very kind Azorian couple runs the small hotel and gift shop on the grounds and sell some really nice hand made jewelry and crafts.
Partially drunk, and exhausted from all the relaxing (I know, tough day right?), we finally were able to collect our dinner in the dark. The only eventful part was driving home 45 minutes with a sulfur steamed tablecloth in the backseat. We were convinced our meal was ruined…
To our great amazement, everything was cooked perfectly! Our gracious hosts Ricardo and Kaisa invited us into their home for was was to be an amazing meal. The beer flowed like wine, festivities ensued, we were merry. I have a hard time believing that Anthony Bordain had a fraction of the fun we did this day. Sitting at a restaurant having this meal brought to you doesn't hold a candle to peeling the veggies with your own hands, poisoning yourself in the process, having some laughs, a couple of good soaks, and finally enjoying the fruits of your labor. So what are you waiting for? Get out there, try something new, have an adventure.