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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…
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.
As you’ve probably surmised from the previous posts, there is unlikely to be a lack of surf while you visit this island paradise. That being said, with open ocean conditions, shifty winds, wild tide swings, only so much paddling you can do before you’re noodled, and lots of time in the day, it’s a good thing there is much more to do on the island than surf.
There is so much to see, in fact, that you may even stumble across the most beautiful vista you’ve ever seen just traversing the island to check a surf spot. I can’t even count the number of times we jumped out of the car, jaws agape, saying, “are you freakin’ kidding me?”
Because of the island’s unique geographic features, there are microclimates all over the island that each have their own points of interest. Here’s a rundown of the ridiculously beautiful places we went, and things we did.
Tea plantation and factory at Gorreana: Founded in 1883, this is the only operating tea plantation in all of Europe, producing world class single origin black and green teas. Walking through the operating factory was like stepping back in time. Plus, we visited at the perfect time because the unlimited free tea was perfect for our jetlag/hangover.
Crater Lakes at Sete Cidades: Have you ever seen a landscape in a photograph that was so beautiful it looked fake? This is one of those places. Collecting rainwater over the millennia, the two lakes in the western crater of the island look almost fake. Legend tells of a prince and princess, star crossed lovers if you will, whose love was forbidden. Their tears left one lake blue, and one lake emerald green. Take a walk around both, maybe stop for a picnic (no homo).
Abandoned Hotel at Vista Do Rei: A photographer’s dream, this 200 room concrete hotel was abandoned about 15 years ago and the forest has started to take it back. We wandered around the mossy ruins taking in the view and imagining the story of the hotel’s demise and subsequent abuse by partygoers.
Ocean Hot Spring at Ponta de Ferraria: There is as spot on the far eastern tip of the island where a hot spring runs into the ocean. Because of the morning high tide and large west swell, the pool was cold, but we were told that with a long low tide it can get to a skin melting temperature if you’re not careful. Ever seen Volcano? There is also a world class spa, restaurant, and art gallery on the grounds.
Mingle With the Locals at Ribeira Grande: Want to get the best beer in Europe? Well, they happen to be serving it at whichever of the countless neighborhood bars you wander into in each small town. We enjoyed several cold ones, some snacks, and some tall tales outside a 500 year old church, but anywhere there is a “bar” sign, you’re sure to meet friends, and learn something about the unique island you’re visiting.
Hot Spring at Caldeira Velha: Remember I mentioned having a swim in a Jurassic Park-esque landscape? Well, I wasn’t joking. This was another, “are you freakin’ kidding me” moment where the view seriously overwhelmed us. Right off the road there is a manmade pool fed by a volcanic waterfall. This “warm pool” is for the elderly and infirm. For those a bit more adventurous, there is a steep path that rises into the ravine to another pool that is much warmer and even more picturesque. Soak your paddle-weary arms, peacefully reflect on your travels, and your blessed life. Seriously, this site is not to be missed.
Lagoa do Fogo: The views just kept getting better this day. After the hot spring swim, we stopped at a view point looking over an absolutely ridiculous lake with the ocean in the background. This rain-fed crater lake has a sand beach voted one of the most beautiful in all of Europe. We didn’t have time to hike down (the surf was firing), but it would be a great place to visit.
Are you convinced that there’s plenty more to do here than surf? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat on a desert beach in Mexico, watching the Pacific do its best impression of Lake Michigan, wishing there was something more to do than rotisserie my skin and drink warm beer. I haven’t even gotten to the best part. The next day we spent on the island really necessitates its own post, as it was one of the most unique (have I used that word enough?) days I’ve ever experienced. Anthony Bordain ain’t got nothing on Dailystoke! Stay tuned! (here’s a teaser photo)…
Now, I had heard of this little volcanic island chain in the middle of The Atlantic Ocean, but amongst all of the worldly traveled surfers I know, I’ve never even heard of anyone going there. Imagine a 500 year old charming Portuguese city and countryside making sweet sweet love to the Hawaiian Islands. Breathtaking doesn’t even begin to describe it. Well, me and another dailystoke writer were lucky enough to spend a week finding out what this special place had to offer.
Approximately 900 miles from Lisbon, Portugal, and 2200 miles from the East Coast of the US it’s quite literally in the middle of the ocean. Exposed from all sides to deep water, open ocean swells, and with an extremely featured coastline, the place is a swell magnet. In the 6 days we were on the main island (of 7) of Sao Miguel, we saw black sand beaches with perfect sandbars, cobblestone point breaks, slab reefs, deep water big wave reefs, harbor jetties, lefts, rights, a-frames, all capable of firing when the conditions are right. Not to mention it has a similar climate to Central California, but because of the Gulf Stream, the water never drops below 65 or so, and is as warm as 75 through the summer.
If you don’t know already, Portuguese is a tricky language, and the dialect they speak on the islands is even trickier. We were told that native speaking Portuguese have trouble with it a lot of the time. If you found yourself deep in the Louisiana Bayou, would you be able to understand Cajun? Or even call what they speak English? Similar. Good thing almost everyone on the island, especially the younger generations, speak excellent English, as well as a half dozen other languages.
Traveling there is relatively simple. We flew from San Diego to Boston, then direct to Ponta Delgada, the only city on Sao Miguel. The population is about 100,000 and when you’re in the city, it feels like it. Busy streets, restaurants, and bars. But drive 10 minutes in any direction, and you’re all alone to explore. Important to note, rental cars all have manual trannies, so make sure you, or your boyfriend can drive stick.
The economy on the island is not one I would call “booming”. It is mostly local agriculture and dairy farming, with the main export being big game fish. They’re trying to push tourism pretty hard, and for good reason. There is LOTS to see there. And with daily flights from all over Europe, there is quite a population to draw from. The island is on the Euro, which stings when you exchange dollars, but for an island, everything’s CHEAP. We spent more cash in one day in Boston on the way home than we spent the whole week in the Azores (Guiness and Jameson ain’t cheap!).
The island of Sao Miguel is only about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, but it’s incredibly diverse geographically. Misty volcanic peaks and craters, rolling green hills, therapeutic hot springs, jagged coastline, picturesque lakes, all lie within a few miles of each other. Luckily, negotiating the island is pretty easy since a modern highway system was built. Not so luckily, the city, and all of the towns were built before cars existed. Signage is laughable, the roads are one car wide and carry two way traffic, and the grid looks like a spider on acid laid it out. We, however, had the benefit of a very experienced surf guide that made exploration fast and easy. Unless you have a month to learn the island on your own, I would seriously suggest doing the same. Pay for my flight and maybe I could be persuaded to show you around 😉
The next half a dozen posts or so will outline some of the amazing experiences, and great surf we had on the trip of a lifetime. Stay tuned!
Somewhere in Indonesia. The contest was a phenomenal success, though the end result had virtually no bearing on the world title race (Slater down in the 3rd round, but still 1100 pts ahead). Was that the best they could really come up with? I mean, don’t get me wrong; I’d love to surf the “secret location” in Bali alone with just a few of my closest friends. But, come on!!! Couldn’t they find a place a little off the beaten path? Couldn’t they take a cue from Billabong and throw in for a seaplane to find a more secretive location?
How about a cold water contest? Real cold water… not the West OZ or South Africa variety. The Search scored amazing surf in the Lofoten Islands off of Norway back in April:
The Search takes a very “seek and ye shall find” approach in its marketing. Though the contest was a success, it could have been held in any number of unknown places. The last few years, they gave us a death ledge a-frame in Chile, a perfect right pointbreak in Mexico, the previously well documented spot in Reunion. Mexico and Chile kept with that spirit of invention; Reunion, not so much. Next time, they should try: Peru, any African country other than South Africa, Kamchatka peninsula in Russia’s far East, New Zealand, any non-mainstream island in the Pacific, Sri Lanka, anywhere on the Pacific coast of Central America, Canada, Portugal, the Azores, etc.
Seek and ye shall find!