Sunday, June 24, 2018

Trip Wrap-Up and Budget Breakdown

It's taken me a while to get around to doing this post, but given that the budget post from the previous trip was by far the most popular post, I thought I would do it again.

Panoramic view on our hike down Sao Jorge. 

Just to preface, this was our overall trip schedule:

Flowers, cows, cliffs and waterfalls.  This is Flores.
So for the budget, we had 2 adults, 2 kids, age 6 and 9. As with our previous trip, it's not completely possible for me to break down the costs because a lot of what we spent was cash (there are many businesses that don't take credit cards), and I don't track that closely on vacation. So as with our previous budget post, I'll give you an idea of how we spent our money.  All figures are CAD.

  • AIRFARE was by far the single highest item.  I'm not sure if we super lucked out last time, but flights were significantly more this time. We flew on SATA airlines and paid $4937 for airfare for the four of us. This includes all the inter-island flights.

  • ACCOMMODATIONS - I budgeted $150/night and was able to find nice and suitable places to stay via AirBnB and  We stayed in two bedroom apartment/houses with kitchen and laundry.  Having laundry was crucial because it allowed us to travel with 2-65L backpacks and carry-on for the four of us.  We did laundry everywhere we stayed.  We paid $1998 for accommodations for 14 nights, which works out to $143 a night.

  • OTHER - this is where it gets a bit nebulous. This category includes excursions (canyoning, whale watching and the jeep tour were about $300 each), taxi rides (there were many because we didn't rent a car on Flores or Sao Jorge - I think the most expensive taxi ride was about $45), car rental (two days of car rental was about $170), ferry (about $90), as well as groceries (we made our own breakfast every day, often made a quick lunch of sandwiches and I made dinner four or five times) and meals out (a dinner out for four people, including drinks for the adults and either appetizers or dessert ranged from about $70-160), airport parking ($125 for two weeks). There are probably a few small souvenirs snuck into this category too, because of the over $2000 cash we spent.  The total for this category was $3884.

This brings our overall trip budget to $10 819 for four people for fifteen days. If I want to break that down more, it works out to $2729 per person for a two week trip or $182/day/person.  I regularly see travelzoo type deals to the Azores advertising $999/person for a five day trip [which doesn't include meals or excursions, usually - just flight, accommodations and breakfast], so I think we didn't do too badly for the type of trip we had.  

A person could definitely save some money in the 'other' category by eating at fewer nice restaurants, drinking less wine (we left multiple bottles of shame at every place we stayed).  I don't think you could go too much cheaper on accommodations with a family though - hotels were much more expensive than where we stayed and we had a lot more space to spread out.

I haven't priced out other types of family vacations (i.e., Disney, week in the Caribbean, etc.) but we loved the sense of adventure in the Azores.  We loved that it was so laid back and that we had time to enjoy and explore.  We loved that if the kids wanted to see or do something, we could pretty much default to saying yes. We loved that it wasn't hypercommercialized (pretty sure a Disney vacation would be the end of me).  We loved that the girls' eyes were opened to different surroundings and different ways of living and that they could appreciate and learn about one of the neatest places on Earth (I think).  

One of the many moments of sister love on the trip.  These kids are travelling superstars.
My only concern right now is about how I can follow this experience up with another amazing family trip in a couple of years (once I've saved up enough).  

Patagonia is looking good.  

Any suggestions?

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Day 14: A Jeep Tour, Dinner, Fireworks, and Packing Up

Brad here.

Today we had an easy morning in our apartment, followed by lunch and some light shopping for souvenirs at the nearby shopping mall.  The kids each got new purses and some necklaces that they picked out.

After lunch we met up with our driver for an afternoon Jeep tour (operated by Green Zone Azores) to Lago do Fogo, with brief stops at Caldeira Velha and the beaches on the northern shore of the island.

The first stop, although overcast, was pretty cool.  And on the drive their our guide told us that Sao Miguel used to be two islands (several thousand years ago) and that the volcanoes at the centre were the youngest parts of the island, having risen up out of the ocean and united the two land masses. It's technically a dormant volcano, with its last eruption occurring in 1563.

After the stop at Lagoa do Fogo we continued on to the Caldeira Velha.  Our only complaint is that we couldn't stay longer!  We had packed swimsuits and towels, but given we were sharing our tour with another couple (who didn't plan on swimming) we agreed to 45 minutes. Simply paying to enter the park and changing into swimsuits took longer than ideally should be necessary.  Once we were in, we briefly checked out the first pool with the waterfall, which was a little too cool for Zoe (but the rest of us were fine!), and then walked down to the other two pools that were open.  These latter two pools were essentially the equivalent of hot-tubs; very warm! Also a little crowded, although we have heard they can get much more crowded in the busier tourism months of July & August.

After the stop at the volcanic pools we stopped at one of the beach towns along the northern coast, and the kids had a blast running through the black volcanic sand and being chased by waves.

To cap off our day we made our way to A Tasca where we had made reservations a few days in advance (a must!).  Leslie will likely edit this post to add some pictures of our delicious meals, but suffice to say we left stuffed and satisfied.

As an extra surprise, just as dessert was arriving we heard fireworks outside (and discovered the end of our trip coincides with Portgual Day!).  Leslie and the kids darted outside and got a kick out of seeing the fireworks.

After dinner we had a short walk around one of the main squares in downtown Ponta Delgada to enjoy the sights and sounds one last time before heading back to our apartment.

Today was our final day of adventures in the Azores.  Overall it's been an amazing family trip. The kids have generally been very patient and well-behaved, and were fantastic hikers too.  I think they've learned a lot and enjoyed the experience.  And for Leslie and I, it's obviously a different experience having the kids with as as compared to a "couples getaway" type of trip, but we've also had an amazing time and it's been really fun to watch the kids discover new things and see things through their eyes.

Tomorrow (Sunday) is our trip home; we pack up in the morning, flight in the afternoon, and eventually will probably make it into our beds by 11pm if everything goes according to plan.

Goodbye Azores!  It's been a blast. :)

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Day 13: Sete Cidades and a mini road trip

Leslie here.

Two years ago, when Brad and I visited Sao Miguel, one of the highlights of our visit was the Mata do Canario hike around the Sete Cidades caldera.  It's an 11 km end-to-end hike that takes you around the crest of the stunning caldera, with jewelled cliffs plunging into crater lakes on one side and a gentle slope down to the ocean on the other.  That hike goes from about 850m of elevation down to about 250m, but most of the hike is relatively easy and along a relatively flat trail.

This photo is from the Vista do Rei.   The Mata do Canario hike starts at the top of photo on the right side, circles the crest of the caldera, and then descends into the village of Sete Cidades.
I thought we were going to take a taxi and do that hike (taxis work well for end to end hikes).

Brad had other ideas.  You see, right when we initially started planning our first trip to the Azores, Brad was captivated by this one viewpoint that you continually see in photos, but that proved to be rather difficult to find.

It turns out it's called the Miradouro da Grota do Inferno.

After a lot of googling, we came across this fantastic site, which gave specific instructions for how to find it.  This is what we wanted to see and a taxi wasn't going to be the best choice to get us there.  So we headed back to our new friend at Ilha Verde car rentals, where Brad became the only-somewhat reluctant driver of a cute little manual Renault (the small automatic  we had the day before was rented out).

Brad's first car was a manual transmission, but it had been a while, and the roads on Sao Miguel can get pretty twisty and steep.

But armed with google maps, we headed off to Sete Cidades to find this elusive vista.

Brad successfully navigated the narrow twisty roads up to the parking lot near our destination, and off we set on a short hike to the viewpoint (it was about 2.5km total, with about 70 m of elevation gain).

To find the lookout, you follow these Miradouro signs.

One thing that I hadn't really processed about this view point is just how high it is.  Most people would probably find it pretty obvious in photos, but I hadn't fully understood that in order to get this kind of vista,  you pretty much have to be higher than everything around you.  The elevation  of the lookout is about 800m, which puts you about 600m higher than the lakes and (duh) 800m higher than the sea.  So it's really high, and it's a very steep drop around the path.  Cue a little bit of vertigo.

Our tenacity in finding the viewpoint paid off in spades though.  It is seriously stunning.  It doesn't even look real.  Everything is so green and vibrant.  We explored and enjoyed the viewpoint before finishing our short circular hike back to the car.

How is this even real???

Selfie time!

The other thing with being at elevation is that it's a lot colder than at sea level.  Zoe managed to get my sweater.  I opted to use my own natural insulation.  Our hats are cinched tight because it's SUPER windy. :p

Intrepid explorer Zoe taking photos.
After we hiked back down to the car, we  headed down into the village of Sete Cidades for lunch at the Sao Nicolau restaurant (which was delicious, filling and cheap!).  That said, avoid the  buffet there.  It looked highly sketchy (and trip advisor reviews confirm this).  Brad and I had grilled chicken and the kids had fish sticks.

We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon chasing miradouros along the north coast of the island before heading back to Ponta Delgada.  Along the way, we ran into a bit of an Azorean traffic jam (about 60 cows).  The kids thought this was the best thing ever, and continually thereafter were asking if we would see more cows.

Traffic jam.  Moooving right along.

Zoe then proceeded to lose a tooth in the car, and we pulled over at the first possible point so we could help her rinse out her mouth and clean up. (For those who are keeping track, we are now at two teeth lost on this trip - one for each kid).

The photo below is of the Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado, which gave us stunning views of the islets and sea cliffs near the village of Mosteiros. Not a bad spot to clean up blood.  ;)

Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado with the village of Mosteiros in the background.
The rest of the drive turned out to be full of endless twists, turns, steep slopes and randomly parked cars.  It was a little stressful but thankfully the kids knew when to keep quiet in the back seat!  We eventually made it back to Ponta Delgada unscathed and returned our car, and then went out for dinner at Taberna Acor (again).  The food was again fabulous and the kids in particular really enjoyed cooking their own tuna on a hot stone at the table.  I'm hoping I can translate this sudden interest in culinary exploits to our own kitchen and perhaps abdicate my role as resident kitchen slave.

All in all, we had a great day yesterday but both Brad and I were relieved to return the rental cars unscathed (particularly after Brad's random roadside breathalyzer test on Thursday....which he passed perfectly but also caused a little stress and panic among the car passengers after we were pulled over and he got perp-walked over for a random test 'for statistics').  Despite the roadside test, the far south coast of the island was a much more peaceful place to drive than going around the west and northwest coasts.  Phew.

We are leaving the driving to the locals today, as we embark on a half-day jeep tour with GreenZone Azores to Lagoa do Fogo and the thermal springs of Caldera Velha.  We did a full day tour to Furnas with this company last time we were here and it was awesome.  We didn't think the kids would make it through a full day tour, but I'm hopeful they will enjoy the shorter one.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Day 12: Faial da Terra and Furnas

Brad here again.  Today we rented a car and had a bit of a road trip.

After picking up our car in downtown Sao Miguel around 9am, we set out for the far southeastern-most corner of the island, about a 65km drive.  Once we got outside of the city of Ponta Delgada we were treated to beautiful views of the rolling countryside of Sao Miguel, and had to pull over multiple times for photos.

Our ride!

Getting close to Faial Da Terra
Our hike in Faial Da Terra was one recommended to us by our host here in Sao Miguel, and after checking it out online we decided it was worth the drive. Upon arriving in the village we parked and made our way to the trail.

Feeling some sister love at the beginning of the hike

Partway through the hike we came across some chickens, which the kids found very amusing.

Chickens along for the hike

A bit further on we made it to our destination - the Salto do Prego waterfall (yeah, I know it's a recurring theme  - this family loves waterfalls, ok?).

The Salto do Prego waterfall

After a short rest we hiked back out.  Leslie's app on her phone said the final distance was something like 7.1km (with about 450m of climbing) but that seems suspiciously high; we figure it was probably in the 5-6km range.  More hike pics:

The post-hike descent back into the town

A view of the town from high above; I can see my car from here!

Long, steep, winding trail back down into town

After we wrapped up the hike we made our way to the town of Furnas, which Leslie and I visited two years ago.  The drive there was picturesque. 

Once we got into town we grabbed some cheeseburgers for lunch at a local restaurant, got some ice creams for dessert, and took a quick tour around some of the hot spots that give the town its name.  Some of the most steamy and sulphur-smelling of these made a big impression on the kids. They also got a kick out of putting their hands on the sidewalk and feeling the volcanic heat underneath.

After a tour of the town of Furnas we made our way to Terra Nostra, with its large pool heated by volcanic activity, which Leslie and I had visited two years ago and told the kids about. 

Both girls enjoyed the swim, marveling at what the rust coloured water did to their bathing suits (Zoe now considers hers a souvenir of the trip).

Check out that water! It's almost as warm as a hot tub.

Family selfie on Leslie's waterproof phone
There are water taps everywhere in the Azores. Having a quick drink before heading to the car.

We then walked back to the car and managed to get back to Ponta Delgada and return it before the car rental office closed at 7. Leslie and I then parked ourselves on a patio, enjoying cerveja and sangria, while the kids played at the little playground right nearby.

We had dinner reservations at Taberna Acor at 8 pm. This is the restaurant where, two years ago, we met up with Leslie's coworker, Eric.

This time, we ordered a wide variety of dishes to sample and Taberna Acor did not disappoint.
Clockwise from the top left: stuffed eggs, garlic bread, sweet potato chips, flaming Sao Miguel sausage, very happy girls with chocolate mousse, octopus salad, grilled limpets and a local charcuterie and cheese board. 

With very full stomachs, we made it back to our apartment where the girls promptly crashed. Tomorrow (today, technically), we will head to the Sete Cidades area for more adventure.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Day 11: Exploring Ponta Delgada on foot

Brad here!  Quick mini-post on Day 11 of our Azores trip to expand on what Leslie posted.

We've been playing the familiar game of looking at the weather forecast and deciding what to see & do on which days.  After some discussion it seemed like today was our best day to do a bit of wandering close to home here in Ponta Delgada.  After the morning rain cleared (and a quick lunch including local bread, meats, and cheeses from the nearby grocery store we headed out.

The plan was simple: meander down towards the water, randomly picking interesting-looking side-streets to explore. To make things interesting, the kids had the idea of doing a mini-scavenger hunt, so they jotted down some ideas of things they could look for in their notebooks and off we went.

Rosie and Zoe discussing something on their scavenger hunt list in central Ponta Delgada

Near the Church of Saint Sebastian (Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião)

Walking along the waterfront in Ponta Delgada
Walking along the waterfront we came to some "natural swimming pools" on the coast which are common here.  Despite the frigid water a few locals were swimming - at least in short bursts - but most people were simply lounging around and enjoying the sun.

Ponta Delgada and its population of ~70,000 feels in many ways like a sprawling city in comparison to our previous stops (Faja Grande in Flores, and then Velas in Sao Jorge).  There are definitely more tourists here (being the most accessible island of the nine), and more of the supporting infrastructure as well (car rentals, shopping centres, etc).  The streets are far busier with traffic and the girls have learned the rules of sticking to the narrow sidewalks, and knowing when and how to cross the streets.

And yet, amidst the bustling city life there are still times when you are reminded of the small rural nature of the island, such as getting back to your apartment and encountering a chicken who has lost its way.

Rosie contemplating why the chicken is crossing the road

We capped off our afternoon wandering with the kids burning off some extra energy at a children's park down by the water, before heading out for a tasty dinner.

Tomorrow's plan is to rent a car and explore some new parts of the island!