Flores in the Azores
Joshua Slocum, sailing around the world back in 1895 wrote “only those who have seen the Azores from the deck of a vessel realise the beauty of the mid-ocean picture”. The islands really are stunning and Flores in particular is described in our cruising guide as “one of the loveliest places on earth”.
After arriving on the Thursday we surprised ourselves by having the energy to do the local scenic walk – 10km and 400m of ascent & descent to the beautiful west coast farming community & black sand beach. We’d seen the precipitous path from sea as we approached earlier and it was rather fun to be walking it at the end of the afternoon. The birdsong and flora were wonderful, as was the thrill of hills – we’d walked up nothing more strenuous than a lighthouse on the entire eastern seaboard of the Atlantic (Mt Desert in Maine excepted) and the birdsong was so like the UK. We met a Belgian who was training his young Harris Hawk. There are no natural predators for the local birds and somehow he seemed more intimidated by the fields of pigeons then they were of him. Friday was more relaxed – catching up on sleep and attempting to get internet access (a continuing problem).
On Saturday afternoon we did a tour of the island with a local guide and it was a great experience. We saw the best and most spectacular sights and learned a lot about the place too. Today it has a total population of only 3,600 and most of those earn their main living as government employees. However many of them also do a little farming and keep a cow or two and they are the most sleek, contented and handsome bunch of cattle we have ever seen. The name Flores (flowers) came from a yellow flower that bloomed all over the hillsides when the island was discovered, but today the main plant here and in the other islands too, is the blue hydrangea. It was introduced from China in the 18th century and has become naturalised so that it is everywhere and often forms the hedgerow boundary between the old fields. Everything grows easily in the rich volcanic soils and there are canna lilies, yellow “cane” ginger and pink rock roses in great numbers too. The island is a haven for little song birds and we were thrilled to see a picture of a goldcrest on one of the information boards at a look out point. There are no birds of prey or rodents on the island so the birds have little to worry about! In fact they seem to sing all day and the sound was a joy. As we drove around the island, we passed several little villages, these days with very small populations as locals continue to leave in search of better opportunities elsewhere. There are around one million Azoreans in the USA and Canada apparently, and they were made especially welcome after the ’58 eruptions on the island of Faial destroyed much good farm land and many houses.
One village today has only 32 inhabitants but some houses are being bought up and restored as holiday homes (especially by the Germans!) We stopped at numerous viewpoints and admired the views over tall cliffs and flat cultivated lava fields which have their own special name (fajas) on the islands as they are such a feature here. We saw many small ruined water mills as there is water everywhere rushing down the steep hillsides from the centre of the island. We looked at one small mill which has been restored and has an unusual horizontal wheel. The numerous high, plunging falls are spectacular and we were lucky to see them after heavy rain the night before. We then drove up into the volcanic centre of the island where it became quite cool and damp at heights of around 650 m and vegetation was more like moorland with many low growing cedar bushes on the steeper slopes. We were shown all seven of the island’s crater lakes and some of them were very atmospheric. We also saw the main town of Santa Cruz with its little airport, ex-whaling factory and tiny harbour where fishing boats have to be hauled out on arrival as there is really no space or shelter on the water!
Flores is a gem of a spot and we hope that more discerning visitors will discover it and enjoy its fantastic walking and unspoilt natural beauty. We did see one little development on the coast where some tourists come in the main months of July and August and there is a sheltered “swimming hole” in the otherwise rocky shore. Our guide would love to see more people coming over an extended season and helping to keep the place alive.
Flores boasts the most westerly point in Europe and it certainly felt like being back in Europe despite the remaining 1,000 miles or so to the mainland. We fell into the little general store with great delight to buy tasty bread, delicious local cheese and Azorean wine and had wonderful espressos served in proper cups in the café near the marina – all things we missed dreadfully in the USA.