A FEW PRACTICAL INFORMATIONS
(Hiking in the Azores (Flores, São Jorge, Faial) - August 9/26, 2011)
The Azores : what are they ?
The Azores is more than home of the anticyclone... The Azores are an archipelagao of 9 islands, divided into 3 very dictinct groups.
The islands are small : 11x15 km for Flores, 53x7 km for São Jorge, 20x15 km for Faial. But the altitudes are significant : most of the islands culminate around 1000 meters, with steep cliffs towering above the sea - often accessible through very steep paths - more like stairways...
We hiked, but many visitors like diving, and/or whale and dolphin watching.
One of the less visited islands. It is also the farthest to the West. Its neighbour Corvo is very small, and more isolated yet.
We met very few tourists : 4 or 5 hikers per day.
Another hiker's paradise. There are more visitors than in Flores, but it is still far from a crowd.
Much more crowded than the other islands we visited : airlines come to Horta directly from the continent, and many sailors stop there as they cross the Atlantic.
Traffic comes as a chock, after Flores and São Jorge (yet, not many cars on the roads outside the city : could it be that people just drive around for fun ?)
The islands enjoy a network of hiking trails, all of them very well marked. Their description may be found on the site www.trails-azores.com (in portuguese and english). The descriptive flyers are supposed to be available locally, in the Visitor's Centers, but we figured it was safer to download them before leaving home.
The hike numbers shown on my main page refer to the numbers on these descriptions.
A few practical comments.
(No "Routard" as of 2011, and no "Lonely Planet" either, but there is a French Petit Fûté 2010-2011).
Not very easy to find info on the Internet : the Azores are not (yet) a very popular destination. Let's take advantage of that !
I have said the same for other countries (Argentina and Cabo Verde)... Here also - and may be even more so - we have been amazed at the kindness and availability of the people we met !
Many Azorians work and live abroad (Europe and USA), but many come back often to their islands, during their vacations (be prepared : the planes may be full during those periods).
Many speak French, or English : not very difficult to get around when you don't speak portuguese.
Great travellers, they are very interested in the countries of origin of the visitors.
For the time being, relatively few tourists go to these islands. However, hikers are aware of the potential (Flores, São Jorge, Faial and Pico seem to be the islands most visited by the hikers). Thus, there are relatively few hotels, and it is recommended to make reservations in advance, particularly during the vacation period.
Trip from the continent
The archipelago is located in the middle of the Atlantic, west from the continent, about 2 hours away. We went throught Lisbon : the Azores are part of Portugal. From Lisbon, there are direct flights to Ponta Delgada (São Miguel), and also to Horta (Faial).
To go to Flores, one may take a ferry (transmacor), but it is often better to fly (a bit expensive, if you buy the ticket locally). On the other hand, it is best to take the catamaran from Horta or from Pico to go to São Jorge.
Flights between islands are expensive, if the tickets are purchased separately... We have found a solution : eDreams offers a circular flight from Paris, including 2 intermediate stops, for a much better price : Paris - Santa Cruz das Flores - Horta - Paris.
No problem : the currency is the Euro. ATM are frequent in the cities, and credit cards are accepted.
Getting around in the islands
Public transport are rare : in Flores, we used the bus once, but the timetables and stopping points are made for local workers, and may not be convenient for tourists.
Most of the hiking trails are not loops : one must then find a way to get to the start of the trail, and to get back at the end of the day. Fortunately, hitch hiking works extremely well : farmers go tend their cattle, and they always agree to take hikers along. And they do it very kindly. Super !
Distances are not great, and a taxi is also a reasonable alternative.
We did not rent a car : there are few rental agencies, they have very few cars, and their prices are a bit high. But, most important, renting a car is not really a solution : anyway, one has to find a way to get back to the car, if it was parked at the start of the trail. And hitch hiking is so nice !
Not easy to find on the Internet : most search engines will only return hotels - rares and rather expensive. There are Hospedarias and B&B's, but they are not always easy to find.
- In Ponta Delgada, in transit between Lisbon and Flores : Residencial Alcides, easy to find through a travel search engine. Very good. Good restaurant in the hotel. 70 € for a double w/private bath.
- In Santa Cruz das Flores, I had contacted Teresa Malheiros (firstname.lastname@example.org), very kind but completely desorganized : at first, she accepted my reservation, but cancelled it later, and eventually promised to find a place to stay. Only problem : the room she found costed 65 €, when her own room costed 40 €... We ended up staying at the hospedaria Acquamarina, 6 brand-new rooms, perfectly clean. 65 € for a double w/bath (breakfast included, in a nearby cafe). Don't expect to sleep there during the day : the cleaning ladies talk non-stop, shouting to be heard from one room to the next...
- In Fajã Grande (Flores) : free campground by the restaurant (cold showers and toilet in the restaurant). A bit crowded over the week-end : local people come here to camp with friends or family. We ended up leaving our backpacks in the tent, to sleep out in the open by the sea, a short distance away...
- In São Jorge, we spent the first night in the Urzelinas campground, which enjoys a superb view and perfectly clean facilities (3 € a night, per person). But it was a bit too crowded to our taste, and we left... The Calheita campground looks very nice, from the outside, but it is very far from the city, and from the shops.
- In Horta (Faial), we stayed in a B&B (actually only a B) which we found through Homelidays. 30 € a night, for a double w/shared bathroom (but we were alone), breakfast not included (to be taken outside).
- It is notable that everything is perfectly clean, not only hotel, restaurants and rooms, but also road sides and paths. A rare thing !
- There are many restaurants, the prices are quite reasonable, and grilled fish is absolutely delicious ! Of course, one must sample the Pico wine, and the São Jorge cheese...
As a general observation, we were surprised by the quality of public investments : roads, airports, airline, ferrys... Everything is recent, and well built. In Santa Cruz das Flores, I am not sure of whether there are 3 or 4 brand new sport complexes... Thank you Europe ?
We were of course aware of the fact that rain is frequent in the Azores (as a matter of fact, it is well known that hydrangeas need a lot of humidity). But rain does not last long, and is usually very light (at that time of the year, that is). We had taken along a windbreaker, which we used a couple of times, no more... And we could have done without it... We never wore our sweater... Our biggest mistake was to carry a sleeping bag which was too hot : a light blanket would have been more than enough to camp. Fortunately, we had Goretex bivi sacks : we used the tent to store our backpacks, and we slept outside, in the bivi sack, using the sleeping bag as a matress... We were never disturbed by the very light night showers...
Gaz for the stove
I had inquired before leaving, asking the Tourism Office if CV type Camping Gaz (with a valve) cylinders were available locally. They answered that there was no problem, these cylinders were available on all the islands. Not so... In Santa Cruz das Flores, we did find some in the Movipesca store (in the upper part of town, close to the airport strip). But nothing in Horta or Velas, except the classic cylinder (which cannot be removed from the stove, an inconvenience when travelling by plane).
As a general observation, we found that the Tourism Office employees are very nice persons... but not really competent, except to answer classic questions.