A March 18 Travel article incorrectly said that the Azores are the "closest chunks of Europe to North America." The French islands of St.-Pierre and Miquelon are about 15 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
A Man for Off-Season
Sunday, March 18, 2007
On the face of it, my trip to the Azores doesn't sound as if it went too well.
Only four hours by plane from the East Coast, the Portuguese islands -- nine volcanic siblings arcing across 372 lonely miles of the North Atlantic -- are the closest chunks of Europe to North America. They're cradled by the Gulf Stream, so even in the endless October-to-May off-season the islands remain pleasant.
Of course, it depends on how you define "pleasant."
I went in late March, keen on saving some money with a cheap package deal out of Boston and unbending in my conviction that even though I might not experience Ultimate Azores, I'd at least get a reasonable facsimile. Besides, I'd be flying to Europe (and untrammeled Europe at that) in less time than it takes to get to Phoenix. Who wouldn't love that? It is, however, called the off-season for a reason: Time it wrong and, despite the savings, you won't even want to look at your pictures afterward.
We took the chance. For six days, my wife and I bounced among Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands, and Faial and Pico, connected by ferry in the center of the chain.
We soon discovered that the Azores in early spring can be bright and balmy one day and downright unpleasant the next, with pounding rain and lacerating winds. Flowering bougainvillea clung to farmhouses, but much of the rich, deep palette of summer remained dormant. Rough seas and a dearth of other tourists precluded snorkeling, diving and whale-watching, and it was too chilly to swim.
Then again, hotels and restaurants were largely deserted, as were the roads outside the main towns and cities. Sunglasses trumped umbrellas. Museum docents doted on us, and priests welcomed us into churches as if we were prodigal parishioners. Instead of comparing notes with other harried travelers, we interacted almost solely with Azoreans, who graciously directed us when we were lost and helped us navigate menus written in Portuguese.
On this trip, guilt-free naps and solitary walks along seaside promenades replaced single-spaced itineraries and impatient mobs at tourist hubs.
Hmm. Maybe it doesn't sound so bad after all.
* * *
Isoura Furtado, a pert brunette with a mean pouring arm, breezed into the tasting room at Mulher de Capote, a distillery in the pastel-washed town of Ribeira Grande on Sao Miguel. She slid a shot of passion-fruit liqueur across the bar, then asked me in broken English if I spoke Portuguese. Sorry, no. She shrugged, then asked if I'd visited the Azores before. Again, no.
This time, no shrug. Just astonishment.