In 2011, my wife Mia and I crossed the far north Atlantic. We sailed from Annapolis, bound for Ireland, finally taking our departure from St. Pierre, a tiny French island ten miles south of Newfoundland. Twenty-three days later, we landed in the village of Crookhaven, just around the corner from Fastnet and the famous rock.
It was a conscious decision to go north. To go via the road less traveled. We went north because we hoped we’d get to see the southern regions professionally one day.
Less than a year later, we did.
After departing Bermuda, we spent 12 uneventful days at sea aboard Kinship, a Saga 43 we were asked to deliver with its owner, and two remarkable weeks exploring the Azores, an archipelago in mid-Atlantic that I scarcely knew existed prior to the trip, and which held zero expectations for me. I … we, all of us, including Kinship’s owner and Ursula, our fourth crewmember – we’re blown away.
Horta, on Faial’s east coast, is the traditional landfall for boats crossing the Atlantic from points west. The large marina is nestled in a sheltered basin with the town front providing a backdrop and 7,000ft Pico rising to the east, across the channel.
What was most startling was how lush, how green the island and its neighbors are (the storm a week later gave us an indication as to why). What a refreshing juxtaposition from the flat scrubland of Bermuda, where people go for the color of the water and not the landscapes.
Mia and I rented mopeds – cheaply, I’ll say, at 30 Euros for 24 hours – and covered the entire island with our friend Darren leading the way on a moped of his own. We raced around the surprisingly nicely paved roads, stopping in several villages along the way for coffee and fresh bread, or zipping down to one of the black sand beaches for a quick look at what the fisherman were up to. The altitude, as we ascended the volcanic island, brought with it cool air and we wore jackets and beanies to ward off the chill.
I yearned to get beyond the scenery – which is astounding – so along with Kinship’s crew, we spent many an evening touring the back streets of Horta looking for local culture in the island’s cuisine. Mia had asked a young lad at the chandlery in town for a good place to eat ‘a bit off-the-beaten-path’. He complained that all the yachties only ever see the marina, Peter Café Sport and the half-kilometer of road connecting the two. While Café Sport is legendary in sailing lore—we had our first celebratory beers there—we longed to see the real Horta. The guy at the chandlery directed us down a few back streets – the sidewalks all paved in iconic stone patterns – where we found the Atlantica Snack Bar, which, despite the informal name, was a fantastic local seafood restaurant offering fresh-caught fish and cheap, delightful Portuguese wine.
On Pico, we learned how they grow wine in local vineyards; plots no larger than a small bedroom terraced into the volcanic hillsides. There’s a fascinating cheese culture in the islands – the free-ranging cows produce plenty of milk, which they use to make cheese, and each island has their own version of it.
Terceira turned out to be our favorite island. We wandered up the hillsides and into one of the many villages to watch their version of the running of the bulls (they don’t kill them), then came down again and discovered alcatra, a dish local to the island which is basically a beef stew slow cooked in an iron pot and served with boiled potatoes. We liked the place so much we ended up staying longer, choosing to dive deeper into the culture we’d all fallen in love with (and I didn’t even mention the whaling history that has since evolved into an incredible scrimshaw culture).
The Azores will exist whether sailors and tourists go there or not. At their core, the islands thrive on the will of the hearty fisherman and rugged, self-sufficient attitudes of the people—being some 900 miles from mainland Portugal, they have to.
Two weeks simply wasn’t enough time to spend in a place I initially thought was just a waypoint en route to something better (indeed we met many cruisers who come down from the UK or Europe and spend an entire season). Having now been both ways across the Atlantic, I’m not sure which I’d choose if we did it again. But I know this – I’m thankful that we got that opportunity to visit the beautiful islands of the Azores.
Andy Schell is a sailor and journalist. He and his wife Mia recently took their yawl Arcturus across the North Sea to Sweden, where it will spend a few years in the Baltic. Follow them online at andyandmia.net.