Clear, deep blue eyes in a tanned face, and dark hair, our guide for the day, Velomar Carváo, couldn’t be anything but an Azorean. He was waiting for us at the little agency we found, by the waterfront at Horta, a gentle smile lighting those intelligent eyes. We hadn’t known what to expect, but were treated to a personal tour of a very beautiful and beguiling island. First stop, the ferry terminal, and a small inter-island ferry.
We went ‘up top’ and he went inside, and we basked in glorious sunshine. Out in the bay we picked up the breeze and the boat bobbed and rolled, riding the waves triumphantly. ‘Are you sailors?’ asked Velomar, as we disembarked. There’s always a strong current between the islands. We had kept our gaze firmly on the horizon, scanning for those still elusive whales.
Into a hire car, we swiftly left the little port of Madalena, and in seconds were among the vineyards. Mile after mile of them, enclosed by lava walls. Briefly we left the car to walk between them, as Velomar explained some of the history. Out on the lava rocks, punished by the tides, we saw the grooves where the wine had been ‘barreled’ down from the vineyards, to the waiting boats, for shipment to neighbouring Faial and beyond.
The volcanic soil produces a very special wine, which we were to taste, later. Pico is the second largest of the Azores, and there was much to see in just one day. On our way to the next stop Velomar kept us richly entertained with the history and politics of the islands, emphasizing the rivalry between Pico and Faial, the latter having grown rich on the pickings and its situation as prime distributor.
We were to stop at the Sanctuary of Sáo Mateus. Yet another church, I remember thinking, but you should never make judgements in advance. The beautifully carved wood was unlike anything I have ever seen. Bom Jesus Milagroso is worshipped by thousands of pilgrims from the islands.
We were now only a few kilometres from Lajes and a planned lunch stop at ‘O Lavrador’. The views down to the bay should have been special, but the clouds had rolled in. We consoled ourselves with silky soft island cheese, served with a piquant ‘molho’, and a vast buffet, washed down with island wine. The grey skies seemed to fit the mood as we drove down into Lajes. This was the main whaling station on the island, with a museum dedicated to those sad creatures. For Velomar, whaling was a part of his family history, and he was proud of his grandfather, whose name appeared on the monument to whalers. An article about the industry had been featured in National Geographic, with a photo of the grandfather for whom he had been named. Much changed on the islands after the earthquake of 1920. The ruins of many a family home still wait for the return of their owners, fled to Canada and Newfoundland to start a new life.
Inland, and up over the mountain, fresh and green, to the town of Sáo Roque on the north of the island. Bathing platforms tempt the adventurous.
Probably my favourite part of the island next, a wine refinery co-op, ‘for the people’. Rustic and very beautiful, the village by the sea, the stark slabs of lava lifted with rich red and dark green doors and windows and defiant white walls.
Arguably, Velomar had saved the best for last, but the clouds consented to part again as we made our final stop. I had read of the beautiful and innovative Cella Bar, and agreed eagerly when he suggested ending there, a mere 10 minute sprint from the port at Madalena.
What can you say to a view like that? Sleek external lines with a stunning deck, the inside a pleasing mix of island stone and cedar wood. We deliberated over which of the fine wines would best celebrate our day in this beautiful place.
All too soon we were back on board and skimming swiftly across the water to Faial. Rarely have I spent such a memorable day, the charm and personality of our guide adding much to our experience.