I rarely leave my ranch and studio in New Mexico for very long. But I have a thing for animals, and I've always wanted to see whales up close. So a few months ago, I set off with my daughter, Maggie Trakas, for the Azores, a group of nine islands 800 miles west of Portugal's Atlantic coast. I knew little about the place, except that it was rural and that pilot and sperm whales could easily be spotted in the waters around Pico, one of the smaller, less populated islands in this volcanic archipelago. What follows is an account of our eight-day journey and some of the drawings I did, shown alongside my daughter's photographs.
At the Lisbon airport, we board a flight to Terceira, one of the larger islands in the Azores. We will stay there overnight before heading on to Pico the next morning. The 12-seater deposits us in misty, rolling terrain with vaguely discernible gray rock houses, hydrangea hedges, and shadowy, spotted cows. Unfortunately, our accommodations do not live up to the promise of the landscape. We arrive at the ugliest hotel I've ever seen and are greeted in the lobby by a grotesque array of gelatinous food. After showering in our cardboard rooms, to the sounds of honking cars and scooters, we manage to order a barely adequate meal by pointing at other people's plates. It is not a propitious beginning.
Back to the airport and on to Pico, once again on a rough-and-ready 12-seater. After an hour and a half of heart-stopping cloud-popping, we cross our fingers for a safe landing and for a room with a view. Pico, our home for the next six days, is bright, stark, black. Everything seems to be made of black lava rock: pastures, houses, gardens, churches. The taxi ride to our hotel takes us past jungle-like forests of twisted cedar and pine shrouded in fog; we catch a glimpse of the volcano's summit, collared by clouds. It's nearly an hour before we reach Silveira, on the south coast, and our lovely hotel, the Aldeia da Fonte, a collection of stone buildings on a cliff above the sea.
Sick of planes and automobiles, Maggie and I explore on foot. We find rock pools, protected by a water gate, in which to dangle our feet and briefly submerge them. There are no sand beaches, and the seawater is cold, black, and deep, smashing against the lava outcroppings. (Our newly acquired snorkeling equipment is doomed to remain at the bottom of our suitcases.) Some of the black lava buildings are whitewashed with lime, and all the private houses have gardens in lava enclosures. We spy patches of sweet potatoes, corn, kale, and cabbages, and imagine them served with fresh tiny fish. After six days, we will realize that such food is only for those who grow it or catch it. Restaurants serve leathery meat, boiled potatoes, and nasty, wet sections of big, tough fish. (It turns out our only good meal on this trip will be the picnic from Balducci's that Maggie brought with her on our flight from JFK.)
Days Four and Five
A five-minute taxi ride brings us to the port of Lajes do Pico, where a small selection of whale-watching boats is moored. The local company's fleet consists of four orange inflatable rafts. With Nelson, the captain, Maggie and I pile into one of the small vessels. Our gear consists only of life jackets, and our job is to hang on to the rubber handles and wheel console for dear life. An hour or two later, slapped silly by the waves, we sight a school of dolphins. To our utter delight, they surround the boat—leaping and diving around us, crossing underneath. They are inches from our fingers. And then, big finback and pilot whales, four or six of them, surfacing and disappearing under the blue-black waves. In truth, we never get very close; Nelson tells us that a respectful distance must be maintained so as not to disturb the animals. But we see sounding and blowing and fluke display and sections and humps of whale. It is so exciting we nearly cry. The battle and barnacle scars on the older whales flash white. A baby cruises by its mother's side. The next day we get up and do it all over again.
We go in search of sperm whales. They are bigger and apparently more common than the finback and pilot whales, and the parts that emerge from the sea seem to have more complicated contours. This is what we really see: fragments of whales, glimpses of hugeness and freedom that bring us feelings of great happiness.
Days Seven and Eight
We explore the highlands of Pico—deep green craters filled with algae, more pastures with spotted cows, dwarf cedars and pines: Bonsai World. We take a ferry to the island of Faial, where we walk the narrow streets of Horta, the chief town, which has a surprising number of 15th-century churches. (Two weeks later this charming town will be devastated by an earthquake that strikes the channel between it and Pico.) At the far end of Faial is an island landmark, Capelinhos, a black sand mound, covering an acre or two, that was spewed from the sea by an underground volcanic explosion in 1957.
Our time is up. We wish we could have seen all the islands—São Jorge, Corvo, Santa Maria, to name a few we missed. I hear that each one is different. We'll go back when Balducci's delivers!
Susan Rothenberg is represented by the Sperone Westwater gallery in New York.
Blessed by moderate temperatures year-round—and plagued by more than a little fog—each of the Azores' nine islands has a distinctive character. Flores is renowned for its flowers—fields of hydrangeas and azaleas cover volcanic mountains in spring and summer. Terceira's harbor town, Angra do Heroísmo, was once a stopover for traders sailing between Europe and the Americas. In 1983 it was declared a unesco World Heritage Site. On Pico, the main attraction is whale-watching, but you can also scale the active volcano for which the island is named. Check with the tourist office before setting off on the strenuous climb to the top.
To reach the Azores, you can fly direct from Boston or via Lisbon on Air Portugal (TAP). Sata Air Açores offers daily service among the islands.
Aldeia da Fonte Lajes do Pico, Pico; 351-92/672-777, fax 351-92/672-700; doubles from $65.
L'Escale de l'Atlantic CalhÀu Piedade, Piedade, Pico; phone and fax 351-92/666-260; doubles from $65, including breakfast. A small inn on the eastern tip of the island has only five rooms, all with views of the ocean.
To See and Do
Espaço Talassa Lajes do Pico; 351-92/672-010; fax 351-92/672-617. This outfit has run whale-watching trips since 1995. The most commonly spotted varieties are sperm whales, but humpback, minke, blue, sei, Sowerby's beaked, and northern bottle-nosed swim these waters as well. You can also see common, Atlantic spotted, and striped dolphins. Tours are available from May to late September. A half-day whale-watching excursion costs $57 per person; seven-night packages start at $641 per person.
Museu dos Baleeiros 13 Rua dos Baleeiros, Lajes do Pico; 351-92/672-276. Boats, tackle, and scrimshaw from the heyday of whaling.
Fado and Other Stories by Katherine Vaz (University of Pittsburgh Press)—This collection, by an English professor who's the daughter of Azorean immigrants, is a compilation of fantastic tales in the tradition of García Márquez. In lyrical prose, Vaz relates how fate, religion, and desire forever tie Portugal's Atlantic islanders to their homeland.
Portugal, with Madeira and the Azores by Martin Symington (DK Publishing)—Short descriptions and colorful photos highlight the sights on each island.
On the Web
Azores Islands Web www.geocities.com/TheTropics/2140/azores.html)—Click on the island you want to visit for an overview of its history, art, festivals, and landscape.