Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Port of Call -- Ponta Delgada/Sete Cidades

It turns out a lot can happen when you have two days at sea.  1) I locked myself out of our cabin safe which required a staff member to open.  Funnily enough, alcohol wasn't involved, just the distraction of me talking to Glen. 2) I had to wait in line at Passenger Services twice to get a new cabin key until we discovered that the clasp to my clutch was magnetized and I kept laying my card on top of it.  3) the Princess accounting system is not for the faint at heart.

That latter comment resulted from the fact Princess refunded what we paid for our excursions in Norway, N. Ireland, and Newfoundland.  How they did it was confusing.  A few passengers had problems so while we haunted the service desk for solutions to our safe and key card problems, we witnessed several angry people.  For those who may experience this the future, rest assured you won't be cheated.

So what did Princess do?  They refunded the entire amount of all our tours then charged us again for Rotterdam and Hamburg.  Seems simple enough but since I had paid for all our tours, I expected the refund to appear on my account but it was divided between Glen's and mine.  Once I got that figured out, the rest was easy.  As compensation for the change in itinerary due to the storms, Princess also credited our accounts with $200 each.  Some felt they had to spend it on board.  But no, if it wasn't spent, it would be appear as a credit on your credit card statement.  We spent ours on beer so there wasn't any credit going 'home'.  Princess also gave us a credit on a future cruise.  It was no fault of theirs the weather foul so we were impressed by these gestures.

After two days at sea, we arrived in the Azores at dawn.  The weather was perfect so we did our morning walk through the tiny town of Ponta Delgada.  What a charming place!  You could eat off the streets, they were so clean and the people were very friendly.  Of course, we were 3000 people wandering the streets that normally 70,000 inhabit so we made an impact.  Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Autonomous Region of the Azores in Portugal and is located on São Miguel Island, the largest island in the archipelago (nicknamed the Green Island for good reason).  Delgada means thin or delicate in Portuguese.  It became a village (vila) in 1507 but wasn't the capital until an earthquake destroyed Vila Franca, the former seat of government, in 1522.  Spain tried to take the Azores from Portugal in 1582 but an Anglo-French expedition fought to keep it Portuguese.  The main industry of the islands is agriculture, mostly dairy, tea, tobacco, wine and pineapples.  Fishing and tourism also contribute to the local economy.

We spent an hour wandering the distinct black (basalt, a volcanic rock) and white cobblestone streets of the town, heading along the waterfront to the São Bras Fort then heading inland to Rua Gil M Sequeira.  We passed São Jose Church and another dedicated to sailors and fishermen (Church of Our Lady of Hope Santo Cristo).  With each block the name of the street changed becoming Rua Marqués Praia E Monforte then Rua Machado Santos.  We took a side street and walked past the Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven) Synagogue, founded in 1836 but is now only opened on Saturdays for guided tours.  We ended up at the Gates of the City (photo) before returning to the ship.

After lunch, on the pool deck of the Princess, we boarded our bus for a tour of the island with a stop in Sete Cidades (Seven Cities).  This small town (800 people) is nestled in an almost circular volcanic crater (3 mi/ 4.8 km across) of the same name.  We drove through a few small villages on very narrow roads to get there.  Kudos to the bus driver who navigated these often passing other buses or large trucks.  Hedges along the roads were hydrangeas, the flower of the Azores, and were often laced with deep purple morning glories.  The crater was painted a verdant green although some hills were yellowed by the Kahili Ginger flower that is a weed in the area.

Our first stop was the Neo-Gothic St. Nicholas Church.  A self-made man called Nicholas (I can't remember his last name) built the church so he'd have a place to worship and decided to dedicate it to his name-saint.  The village still worships there.  Like all churches on São Miguel, doors are unlocked and everyone is welcome to step inside.

The crater is famous for Lagoa das Sete Cidades.  The Blue Lake and Green Lake are separated by a tongue of lava (and a bridge).  Legend has it a princess with green eyes whose father was overprotective, escaped the castle one day and fell in love with a shepherd (blue eyes).  The boy told her father they wished to marry and the king became furious.  Not wanting to upset her father, the princess met the boy for a final time and they both cried enough tears to fill two lakes -- one blue and one green. Depending on the light, you can see the difference in colour although agricultural practises (and sewage) have made the blue lake greener due to algal growth.

After several stops to view the lakes as we zigzagged up the crater, we returned to Ponta Delgada and the Grand Hotel Azores Atlantico.  Here, in a restaurant that offered incredible views of the harbour, we tasted local wine (white from São Miguel, red from Pico Island) and a variety of excellent cheeses.  They served a soft, young cheese with a hot sauce that really perked it up.  São Jorge cheese had a buttery texture and wonderful taste.

Even though the Royal Princess sat within walking distance of the hotel, we had to board the buses to return to the ship.  It was getting late and the ship wouldn't sail without us if we were on the bus.

The next five days were spent at sea.  This was the part Glen really had been looking forward to.  He'd sit on our balcony and just gaze at the horizon.  At one point, the captain did announce we were over the mid-Atlantic ridge and that the valley was 3,500 m/11,482 ft below us.  Pretty exciting stuff!

We arrived in New York City before dawn.  I figured we wouldn't see the Statue of Liberty until I realized the boat was going astern and being on the starboard side, we'd get a great view.  It was a bit foggy but we did see the grand old lady.

Leaving the boat was tedious.  We had to vacate our cabin by 8am but our group didn't leave the ship until 9:30.  We couldn't find a seat in our designated area so sat near the gangway.  We ended up going off first in our group as we heard the coordinator make the call.  The terminal was filled with different piles of luggage but we easily found Yellow 6 and made our way through customs to the waiting buses.  Unfortunately our driver dropped us off at the wrong terminal.  We walked most of the terminal before discovering we had to retrace our steps and catch a shuttle to our terminal.  We arrive to find our flight has been cancelled due to the aftermath of the hurricane.  Once we got our new flights organized, we went through security and entered the first restaurant we found.  It was 1pm.  Our plane to Toronto didn't leave until 6:30.  No meal was served as there was a lot of turbulence.  By the time we landed and walked to the gate, there was no time to stop and eat.  It was 11:00 when I finally had a sandwich but since I was nursing a cold, I really hadn't been that hungry.  We landed in Calgary and finally tumbled into bed at 3:30am our body's time.  Slowly crossing the Atlantic (it was fall back every day) made jet lag easier but it still took a week to get back to feeling normal.

If you want to see some photos of the Azores, click here.