Another Dailystoke writer and I spent a week in the island paradise of The Azores. What blew us away on our visit to the Portuguese island chain, was how high the “waves to surfers ratio” was. Not that there are many surfers on the island to begin with, but as you'll see, when swell lights up the coast, there are numerous places to be alone. Like many remote island communities whose economy is driven by fishing, and whose folklore and bedtime stories are fed by sailors that did not return, the Azorians are afraid of the ocean that surrounds them. Even our fearless guide seemed to always be talking about how sharky our sessions felt. Thanks Ricardo…
But one thing we did do on our trip was hunt for waves. If I could somehow get back every dollar I've spent on gas driving up and down the California coast looking for waves, I would be a rich man. Not surprisingly, surfers all over the world operate similarly. From the minute we landed, we were frothing for waves and started putting miles (kms) on the rental car, and there was lots to see.
Like I had mentioned in the previous post, The Azores is a volcanic island chain with an amazingly varied coast. Exposed to swell from all directions, there's rarely a flat day if you know where to look. The main island of Sao Miguel is about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, so you're never farther than an hour away from any surf spot. Our surf guide has been on the island for about a decade, and knows every nook and cranny that pulls in waves. In the week we were there to explore, we saw about a dozen spots that can turn on with the right conditions. We saw some flat, and we saw some firing, and we never saw a crowd.
I'm going to give a rundown of the spots that we visited, but I do so with the understanding that some will be impossible to find without the help of someone with local knowledge. Let's start with the most obvious, and end with the mysto.
Santa Barbara: The main surf beach on Sao Miguel is a half mile long black sand beach on the north coast at Ribeira Grande. It's the only place we ever saw other surfers, and it's easily marked on every map. Shifty sand bars, a rock cliff and reefy wedgy on the west side, and a rocky reef on the north side, if there's north swell, there will be a wave (or many) here. There's even a deep water big wave spot about 200 yards offshore that can hold 20 foot+. We heard stories of the only time someone tried to ski to it, got stranded outside the beach break, and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. Are you man enough to be the second to try?
Spinach: Directly to the east of Santa Barbara, this is another large stretch of beach with a (dirty) river mouth sandbar. We never surfed it but we were told it can be as good or better than Santa Barbara, and since it's tougher to find down a scary narrow alley, can be less crowded.
Milicias: This is the closest beach to Ponta Delgada, about 10 minutes west of the harbor. The parking lot is just past the cliffside church in the photo below. This steep beach break is south facing and we were told, can be as good as beach breaks get. Think wintertime perfection at Blacks, but with predominantly offshore winds and board shorts in the summer. There is a deep water canyon, lots of peaks, and no crowds. You convinced yet?
The Slab at Maia: At Ponta de Maia, on the north side of the island, there is a reef slab left that was created by a landslide from the cliff above. We never saw it break, and it's more of a bodyboard spot, but when conditions are right, it's the most critical wave on the island.
Ponta Formosa: This small beach break to the east of Ribeira Grande was dead flat when we were introduced to it on the first day. There is a small cafe called “The Mill” at the bottom of a steep hill. Parking is tough, but we're told theyserve the best burger on the island. We can't speak to the burgers, but the post-surf beers were some of the best, and most earned, we had ever had the pleasure of drinking. Needless to say, we saw a lot of action there later in the week. We had solid N swell, 12 feet at 15 seconds, with SW wind at 25 knots, gusting 50. Challenging doesn't begin to describe it, but bombs were had. Anyone want to volunteer to sit on the beach and shoot next time?
Monsteiros: Pronounced moose-trrey-oosh, which took us a week to learn to say, means “The Monastaries”. It's named for the rock formation at the mouth of the harbor that resemble, you guessed it, rocks. The harbor is on the Northwesternmost tip of the island. This was the longest spot to travel to, as the coastal roads are windy and meander through the countryside. Gorgeous, but less than direct. The mouth of the harbor has both a left and a right reef point, about 20 yards away from each other. The makings for a pretty epic wave park if you ask me. We had W swell when we saw it, but also W wind and too much tide. I want to surf this spot when it's on!
Rabo de Peixe: Just to the West of Ribeira Grande, is a small fishing village with a harbor. Unfortunately, the story is not all good here. This used be the most perfect and lengthy left rock point on the island, but a new addition to the existing break wall has caused the wave to be less than perfect. The Surfrider foundation got involved during the engineering of the addition, but the builders ignored the recommendations. The result is the wave energy and sand now have no exit, resulting in a wicked backwash on the inside. We saw swell here, but surfed elsewhere. Keep meddling civil engineers out of our precious resources people!
Ribeira Quente: This is another south facing break that we saw totally flat, but with amazing potential. Down the mountain from the volcanically active town of Furnas, this remote fishing village is far from the surfing population. The wave is an a-frame reef that breaks off the break wall of the harbor. The right (we were told) is a hollow and shelfy short wave that closes out into the rocks, and the left is equally hollow but is much longer, makable all the way down the length of the jetty and finishes in a channel. Apparently, the thing to do in summer is surf until you're noodled, then drive 20 minutes up into the crater and have a soak in the volcanic hot springs with the visiting Norwegian co-eds (which we did, sans waves, and the girls, unfortunately). I've got my summer flight booked already, do you?
Santa Iria: I culminate our wave tour with the most remote, and basically impossible to find spot on the island. The irony is that you can very easily see this wave break from the road, at the bottom of a 1,000 foot cliff. In fact, there is a parklike viewpoint just off the highway that teases you to try to navigate the drop below. It might just be worth your life to try, with a hundred yard cobblestone barreling point on the left, and a shorter right barrel on the opposite side of the cove. When we finally saw it break, we were led to the 1.5 mile goat trail, but even if I wasn't sworn to secrecy, my directions would be worthless to you. Over a river, through some woods, dodge electric fences, you get the idea. Not to mention the rocks on the point (the last 300 yards) are so slippery, you have to wear shoes to navigate them. We got some great waves this day, but only saw about 10% of its potential. This is another spot I will surf perfect and alone one day in my life. Just me, a buddy, and the hammerhead sharks that come from thousands of miles to breed in this cove…
Well, that was partially more comprehensive than I had planned, but as far as I'm concerned, if you have the balls to fly over 2000 miles to an unconventional surf destination, you should have the tools to score. There's no doubt that this is a world class surf destination, and will be popping up on surf travel sites sooner than you might think. But what makes it world class isn't how amazing the surf can be but rather the combination of surf and the things to do on the island when conditions are less than perfect. There's no better way to take your mind off not surfing than soaking in a 100 degree hot spring in what feels like the set of Jurassic Park. More on that, in the next post…