While cruising to England to follow my 1831 diarist’s trail, Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas docked for a day at Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel in the Azores (pronounced “Ah-sor’-esh” in Portuguese). No one knows for sure why, but this island chain was named after a soaring bird which doesn’t inhabit it.
The Azores’ nine major islands straddle the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the geological hotbed that created them and is still nurturing their growth. Measured from the ocean floor, they’re some of the tallest mountains on earth. My son Birch summed up our first look at São Miguel—a combo of Ireland’s grassy green on Hawaii’s mountainous terrain, a compact package about 900 miles west of mainland Portugal.
With my first few steps onto Ponta Delgada’s dock after a rough week at sea, I expected to feel the strange sensation of stepping onto a surface that doesn’t move. I vividly recalled my only other cruise twenty years ago, when my internal balance compensation switch had been stuck in the ON position for hours. This time my land legs returned as if they’d never left. After a while I missed the rocking of the ship, like the letdown you get when the music stops after a rousing dance.
As we embarked on our tour, the swaying of the bus relieved the boredom of being on stationary footing. On the south coast where the port city of Ponta Delgada is located, we passed small farm plots delineated by walls of black volcanic rock. Other rural areas used hedgerows of a tall shrub as fences. Many of the plots contained a scattering of stocky folk cultivating their crops by hand. The island’s primary economy is based on cattle, which slightly outnumber its human population of 140,000. The country has gone through many changes, drawing immigrants from Portugal, the Netherlands, and France, only to lose them to the U.S., Brazil, and Canada.
Most of the streets were so narrow that I was thankful not to be one of the pedestrians on the three-foot-wide sidewalk when our bus passed by. While threading us through one small town, our driver got well-earned applause after inching that huge bus into a left turn from one single lane street onto another—less than an inch to spare on either side. In spite of the protruding stone façade on the corner building that nearly scraped the bus’s windows, we emerged unscathed. (to be continued…)