Beacon in the Atlantic

Paul Sheehan returns to the Azores, the isolated archipelago that has sheltered adventurers for centuries.

One of my favourite places in the world is Peter's Cafe Sport in the Azores. Not just for what it is, what it serves and how it feels, but for its proximity to what is outside the front door: a snug harbour bristling with the masts of yachts, and the whales and dolphins that live year-round in the deep water just beyond.

It's not easy to get to the Azores, especially for Australians, but its remoteness is part of its magic. Christopher Columbus stopped here on his way to the unknown. Sir Walter Raleigh raided in these waters. It is where ships have always sought shelter in the vastness of the North Atlantic.

The Azores sit on the crush point where giant tectonic plates meet in the middle of the Atlantic. So there are volcanoes, hot springs and bubbling natural cauldrons where people cook lunch. Vulcanologists love the Azores. They are the peaks of a submerged mountain range comparable to the Himalayas.

A visitor needs to fly to Lisbon, a wonderful city in itself, then take a two-hour flight to Ponta Delgada or Terceira, the largest cities in this necklace of nine islands, which is an autonomous region of Portugal. I've been to four of the Azores and my favourite town is Horta, on Faial.

Horta is a place of renown to ocean sailors and so is a stone building painted blue, Peter's Cafe Sport. The walls of the cafe - a dozen tables and a bar - are dense with the memorabilia of sailors: pennants, photos, flags, cards, maps and nautical instruments. An enormous carved wooden eagle is open-winged above the cluttered bar. Dozens of pennants hang from the ceiling. Its habitues are a mix of locals, sailors and visitors. You could call them tourists but the Azores, distant from everywhere, attract travellers rather than sightseers.

A short drive from Peter's are extinct volcanoes, crater lakes, lushness, an island bristling with local pride. The roadsides have been turned into gardens, with kilometres of flowers carefully tended. You will never be crowded on the Azores; that is the beauty of remoteness. And you'll never be stranded; that is the beauty of scale.

This year I travelled to the Azores for a second time, which freshened the memories from my first trip in 2008 when my wife and I discovered Peter's. We had dinner and returned for lunch the next day. "We were going to come back for dinner but we couldn't wait that long," my wife told the owner.

Peter's became part of our routine. It makes a difference when the owner runs the place and this latest "Peter", Jose Azevedo, is friendly and, conveniently, has good English. We dine on grilled fish, squid stew, eel chowder, cod cakes, grilled limpets, crunchy chips, Azorean salad, garlic bread, apple pie, chocolate nut pancakes, draught beer and good Portuguese wines, including the singular vinho verde (green wine), a slightly bubbly, young, fresh white.

At least one of us has the eel chowder every day. The conger eels in these deep waters can grow into big, dark, mean bastards with razor teeth. After they are hauled onto fishing boats, they need to be killed by a device that grips the neck and pierces the head with a nail. The conger eels die hard but eat easy.

Peter's has been a family business on this spot since 1918, started by Henrique Azevedo, handed to his son, Jose Azevedo, and now run by the grandson, also Jose Azevedo. (None of the family who run Peter's Cafe have been named Peter.

The name stuck to Jose's father after a Royal Navy officer began calling him Peter because it made him think of his own son.

Horta is our comfort zone but another island, Pico, a short ferry ride from Horta, is the launch point for the specialty of the Azores: whale and dolphin watching. Sperm whales are resident around the Azores, as are several species of dolphins and giant squid, living as far down as 3000 metres.

Dressed in oilskins and lifejackets, we bounce across a rolling swell in high-speed, high-spray inflatable Zodiacs for 30 minutes with a Portuguese couple and some German girls hanging off the side of the boat. We all spring to attention when the first spout is sighted. A pod of sperm whales. For the next hour we track their movement and five times see whales slide into sight, small fins on giant bodies curving gracefully out of the water, then diving. They would not resurface for 15 to 30 minutes. What whales leave behind when they dive has always fascinated me; a circle of still water remains for several seconds, quite distinct in rolling swell. It remains a beautiful mystery.

Two species of dolphin, common and striped, are fishing as our Zodiac tracks several pods. They leap out of the water in pursuit of fish, or race past in formation, surfing beside our vessel, or passing like grey bullets beneath it.

Did I mention rolling swell? Being in a Zodiac in open ocean is not for the faint-hearted and after two hours I've succumbed to the dreaded nausea. I'm told the latent freckles on my face are visible when I get seasick and my wife says she could have counted them. Fortunately, by then it's time to head back to Pico. I lie on the grass beside the harbour to recover and fortify with an ice-cream.

There's another bonus on Pico. Every island of the Azores has a festival and on Pico it is the festival of Sao Roque do Pico, held in the last week of June. The annual parade is led by two little girls high-stepping and baton-waving ahead of a brass band and what appears to be the entire population of Pico.

With a population of 247,000 and far from anywhere else, Azoreans entertain themselves. They have eight annual festivals, most in June, July and August, when the weather is warm and reliable. For the rest of the year, the weather is temperate but highly changeable.

On Jose's recommendation we have lunch at a restaurant in Pico called Ancoradouro, which is difficult to find without local knowledge. We tuck into a rich fish soup; grilled prawns in a luscious sauce that demands to be mopped up with bread; then a pot of seafood and rice. We wash it down with a bottle of rose made on this tiny island and a bottle of white. Lunch lasts all afternoon.

Back in Horta, after dinner we stroll across the street to the marina to look at the art on the docks, the hundreds of paintings left by hundreds of crew, and watch the latest sailor-artists adding new bits to the giant tapestry of works painted on the stone walls and footpaths: boats, mermaids, islands, lighthouses, birds, fish and names from many countries.

From Horta we fly for 40 minutes to the tiny island of Flores, appropriately named, and drive through green, treeless valleys and hills. We pass four cars all afternoon. Yet even in this remote speck, population 3700, we find ourselves in an airport terminal that seems almost as new as the gleaming Joao Paulo II Airport at Ponta Delgada.

The Azores may be exotic and remote, but they're not backwater.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Lisbon from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1940 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Lisbon (8hr 45min); see emirates.com. TAP Portugal has a fare from Lisbon to Ponta Delgada (2hr 15min, code share with SATA International) for about $320 return, including tax.

Bookings for hotels, car rentals and inter-island Azores flights are best done by travel agents based in the Azores. I recommend Eunice Costa (azoresliaison.blogspot.com.au) and Melo Travel (melotravel.com).

Staying there

Hotels and guesthouses range from four stars to none and many can be surveyed online. My most recent stay was at the Hotel Acores Atlantico, a large, modern, four-star hotel on the central waterfront of Ponta Delgada for $250 a night.

Eating there

Peter's Cafe Sport, on the waterfront of Horta, open every day for lunch and dinner, is a bit touristy and a bit delightful. Seafood comes fresh from the markets.

Ancoradouro is an authentic, unpretentious seafood restaurant at Madalena on the island of Pico.

More information

See azoresweb.com.

Comments