If you asked me about six months ago, I would probably never even have heard of the Azores or, at least, seriously struggled to mark them on a map. They certainly weren't on my radar for somewhere I wanted to visit. When we were starting to look at holiday destinations for 2018 though, somewhere which Tim and I both agreed we'd really like to go back to was Portugal. We'd had a brilliant time last September visiting Porto, Lisbon plus various places in between, and been impressed by both how cheap and how beautiful Portugal is. Tim had also received quite a lot of Portuguese books for Christmas, and so we felt like we needed another trip to Portugal to justify those if nothing else When looking speculatively at the destinations which Ryanair fly to in Portugal, Tim noticed a place which we'd never heard of: Ponta Delgada. There were some exceptionally cheap Ryanair flights there in October, which piqued our interest and we decided we needed to investigate more.
A bit of research revealed that Ponta Delgada is the capital city of the island of São Miguel and, with a population of around 70,000, the biggest town in the Azores archipelago. A quick Google image search revealed that the Azores looked absolutely stunning and completely different to how I had anticipated; I had been expecting something fairly dry and dusty on the theme of the Canary islands, completely unaware that the Azores are a group of very green volcanic islands. We were soon in possession of the Bradt guidebook to the Azores, and the more we read the more we were hooked on the idea of going.
There was just one problem; the guidebook implied that October would be a dreadful time to go. Because of their location in the mid-Atlantic, the islands are subject to quite a changeable climate, with the potential for significant rainfall. October looked like a particularly wet and unstable month, with higher average precipitation figures than the UK. The summer months of June, July and August looked like they had the potential to be the driest - and I'd established there was one week which I could have off week in June - so we started researching flights for then.
Flights in June turned out to be... not quite as cheap as flights in October! Ryanair turned out to not be a viable option at all, but we found that it was possible to fly from Heathrow with the Portuguese airline TAP, changing in Lisbon. We ended up paying €175 each for the outbound flights - which is definitely more than we would usually spend - but by this stage we had looked at the Google image searches so many times that we were unable to resist the temptation
The slight downside to the TAP flights was that the outbound flight to Lisbon departed from Heathrow at 6am. Heathrow is actually a lot easier to get to than Gatwick, but even so counting back meant that we had to be at the airport parking for 03.30 and leaving home at 01.30. When the alarm went of at 01.00 this morning, it was very tempting to decide that going to the Azores had been a crazy idea and that it would be much more sensible to just go back to sleep!
Thankfully we didn't, and despite the fact that M6 South was unexpectedly closed and we had to make an unexpected detour to the M40, we arrived in the general vicinity of Heathrow before 03.30. Never having flown from Heathrow before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, except that it might be large and confusing. That pretty much sums it up
We were due to fly from Terminal 2 and had booked airport parking nearby, the postcode of which we had put in the SatNav. It turned out that there were significant roadworks around the terminal though, which resulted in great SatNav confusion when we couldn't take the turns it was recommending. Having driven round for about 15 minutes, we eventually caught sight of the airport parking we were looking for, but couldn't for the life of us find where the entrance was. The SatNav had given up by this point and, eventually, consulting the website of the airport parking revealed that it had a "non-unique postcode" and we should have entered the road name and number instead. Oops!
We found it in the end and arrived at the terminal building shortly after 4am. Heathrow was just waking up, so everywhere was quieter than I expected. There was a slight frisson of excitement when we realised that, despite having checked in online, we were still required to use the check-in machines to print and attach our own baggage labels, but after the drama of Tim's lost suitcase in Lapland we were extra specially carefully about making sure everything was fully stuck down, so it didn't seem like anything could go wrong. Security was fine and we emerged into the departures lounge at around 04.30, having been up for over three hours and being in definite need of breakfast... only to find that most of the eating establishments in Heathrow don't open until 05.00 and our gate was due to be announced at 05.15
The only place which seemed to be open early was an outlet of Eat, so we ended up there. I had an over-priced croissant while Tim had a rather mediocre-looking bacon roll. The coffee was good though Before we knew it, it was time to board. It was far too cloudy to see anything out of the window once we had taken off so I decided to have a nap... only to be woken up after half an hour or so by Tim, who had realised that we were about to be served free food!
I guess it's indicative of how often we fly with budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet that we were both extremely excited by the prospect of free food We ended up with a ham and cheese roll, an Actimel and a little packet of gummy sweets in the shape of aeroplanes. I passed on the Actimel and initially thought it felt a bit early for a ham and cheese sandwich, but actually it was 7am by this point which meant we'd been up for 6 hours and that technically made it lunchtime. It turned out to be quite a nice sandwich
We landed in Lisbon punctually around 08.30 and had some time to kill before our onward flight to Ponta Delgada departed at 11.00. Continuing to stay awake was the main challenge by this point. We somehow managed it and boarded the plane on time, for another flight of about two and a half hours. The flight was due to arrive in Ponta Delgada at 12.35, but the Azores are an hour behind UK/Lisbon time.
We got free food on this flight too! This time it was a chicken and cheese sandwich and - best of all - we also got a pastel de nata (one of the beautiful Portuguese custard tarts). I was unsure whether I was now on my third breakfast or my second lunch, but definitely starting to feel that the TAP flights had been better value than I expected
For most of the journey there was nothing to see - either because it was cloudy or because we were flying over endless quantities of ocean - but as São Miguel Island came into sight, the views became truly spectacular. This was our first glimpse of where we were heading.
Soon we were able to see some of the crater lakes which the island is famous for.
From the air, the island doesn't look very wide from side to side...
...and with a coastline involving cliffs like these, it soon became clear why the Azores are not marketed as a beach holiday destination.
Eventually we were able to see the island's most famous attraction....
...the twin lakes of Sete Cidades, with their distinctive blue and green colours
The pilot took us right across the island, before turning around and heading back in to Ponta Delgada.
As you can see, the capital of the Azores doesn't look like a huge metropolis
This was the nerve-wracking part of the journey where we now had to wait and see whether our luggage had made it from Heathrow. Fortunately it had! This advert in the baggage hall made us smile; Tim had already spotted a pod of whales off the coast as we were coming in to land.
It was actually quite an interesting baggage hall(!) with some exhibits of plants native to the Azores and a replica model of the island.
It was around 1pm at this point and Tim had arranged that we were able to check into our apartment at 2. There is no bus or other public transport from the airport into the centre of Ponta Delgada, so most things I've read suggest taking a taxi is the only option, but when I'd consulted maps in advance I'd realised that the town is actually so small, our apartment was less than 2km from the airport. We set out to walk, and had a pleasant stroll through the outskirts of the town, arriving at the apartment just a little bit early.
The owner finished cleaning and showed us in. It turned out to be more spacious than I'd anticipated, with a big living/dining room...
...a good-sized kitchen...
...and a separate bedroom.
It turned out we even had our own little balcony, where later on we were able to sit outside and have dinner
I hadn't expected that we'd be able to see the sea from here The apartment worked out at £65/night including various local taxes and a surcharge for final cleaning, so not quite as cheap as Lithuania, but it still feels like pretty good value The only downside is that we had to pay a cash deposit of €300, which we'll hopefully get back at the end of the stay if we manage not to damage anything!
It was such an early start that I fell asleep for several hours once I'd finished unpacking, so we haven't achieved much this afternoon! Just a brief walk around the neighbourhood, where we discovered this pretty white church.
Unfortunately I think the weather is set to get wetter and cloudier from tomorrow, but we certainly can't complain about today. And even if it pours with rain for the rest of the week, we've got some lovely sunny photos from the plane