Friday, May 27, 2016

Azores/Madeira Trip Budget.....the breakdown

Because I keep track of things like this in a spreadsheet (yes, I'm a nerd.  I'm good with it), I thought I'd share some details of our trip budget.  Overall, I found the Azores and Madeira to be relatively affordable destinations - cheaper than most parts of mainland Europe, but more expensive than places like Thailand.

Insane views like this, near Pico do Arieiro were SO worth it

I wouldn't call us budget travellers, but we don't like to go crazy on trips either.  Here are a few of the general principles we follow when we travel, to give us an idea of whether our budget would be similar to yours:

- Hotels - I generally aim for 3* hotels, and try to keep to an average budget of $100CAD/night.  AirBnB has made this easier to do for sure.  My criteria is that the location is reasonable, reviews are okay, and that I have my own private bathroom.  If you can hostel it, or don't mind sharing bathrooms/accommodation, you could easily spend less in this category.  For AirBnB, I will only rent entire home/apartment - I won't rent a room in someone's house because I'm all introverted/antisocial like that.

- Food - We mixed it up for food - the hiking days, we brought ham and cheese sandwiches with us (rendering the 2 euro jar of dijon mustard one of the best investments of the trip), and we get snacks/wine at local supermarkets.  If breakfast wasn't included, we'd visit a cafe/bakery and eat like kings for about 7-8 euros.  We did cook in one night in Funchal, and we would often have a hearty breakfast and skip lunch.  Most dinners clocked in around 50 euros ($75 dollars), which included cocktails, wine, mains and often either appetizers or desserts.

- Transportation (excluding flights) - we used taxis and walking to get around.  It would have been cheaper to rent a car, and if we ever go back to the Azores, we might consider it.  Frankly, I think driving in Madeira would be terrifying - the streets are very steep, extremely narrow, and I think the extra money spent sitting in taxis was worth it.  That said, taxis are fairly reasonable there - by far our most expensive taxi ride was the $80 jaunt home from the airport here in Ottawa.  Otherwise, we topped out at 25 euros ($40) on the longest cab ride we took.  We had many rides around the 10 euro mark and often got great local advice from the cabbies.

- Attractions - if it's interesting, we do it.  If there is a cable car and I want to ride it, I'll do it.  My philosophy here is that I don't travel very often, so if there is something interesting and I don't find the price completely insane, I'll fork over the money to do it.

- Flights - we flew with SATA, which is a relatively low-cost airline and we were super satisfied.  We had one delayed flight, and admittedly the legroom is not amazing (and there is no inflight entertainment), but the service was decent, and they give you both food and wine on the intercontinental flights, which goes a long way toward making me a happy customer.  I'd fly SATA again, especially because it's the only option that doesn't involve first flying to mainland Europe!

The Sete Cidades hike on Sao Miguel was one of my favourite moments of the trip

So with no further ado, here are the totals - this is all in Canadian dollars, as it was billed to our credit cards, and includes conversion fees.  The cost includes all food, all wine, all taxis, hotels, tours, admission fees, tips, and incidental expenses.  It doesn't include souvenirs or wine brought back to Canada.

Flights - $2133.56 (including the flights to Pico and to Madeira, as well as the Ottawa - Ponta Delgada flight)

Accommodation - $1708.30 (two AirBnBs, four hotels, for a total of 15 nights)

Food/Meals - $934.88 (includes any restaurant meals paid for via credit card, supermarket expenses; does not include small meals paid for in cash)

Taxi/Excursion/Cash Meals/Admissions/etc. - $1642.11 - this includes anything we spent not included in the above categories

Total budget - $6418.85 CAD for a 17 day vacation for two people.

Not pocket change, but not complete insanity either.  For context, our trip five years ago cost almost exactly $8000 for the same length of vacation.

Now I just need to get better at saving/budgeting so I can afford a trip like this more often - and maybe even bring the kids next time.  :)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

our last couple days of vacation...

In the name of full disclosure, I'm writing this from the comfort and quiet of home.  That was one fantastic trip.

Our last morning in Madeira, we got up bright and early and checked out of our B&B, and were then picked up by a Land Rover from Madeira Mountain Expeditions.  We had such a good experience doing a jeep tour in the Azores that we thought we'd squeeze one in on our last day in Madeira.  We wanted to visit Cabo Girao (super high sea cliff) and to see Nun's Valley, and this seemed like an easy and fun way to do it.

The view from Cabo Girao (I closed my eyes and held my phone over the railing.  Heights are terrifying to me!)

The customer service from Madeira Mountain Expeditions was fantastic - they picked us up early in Ribeira Brava and solved the problem of holding our bags for the day (Ribeira Brava was 20 km west of Funchal, which in turn was 20 km west of the airport, so we didn't want to loop back at the end of the day before our flight).  They really went above and beyond in the regard.

The flower in this photo is called the "pride of Madeira" - the bees were loving it!  Nun's Valley is in the background

Our guide, Andre, was also super nice and quite entertaining.  That said, we didn't love this tour quite as much as the other, first because it was full, which meant that we were in very close proximity to the other tourists for the duration of the tour (as haters of crowds and crowded places, this was not my favourite), and I also felt like we spent a little more time driving around 'off road' rather than seeing interesting places.  BUT, we did see some amazing scenery, and it was overall a really good way to spend our last day in Madeira.  I'd love to go back and hike through Nun's Valley - it looks breathtaking.  Check out this video (taken from the top):

As a tip for anyone else considering a jeep tour though, I would be tempted to check out the taxi tours first - taxis have a fixed rate of 20 euros/hour (if you call in advance and book and request) and they will take you anywhere you want.  So if you are less concerned about off-roading, and know exactly where you want to go, I'd probably go for a taxi tour and then just pay the driver to wait while you wander around places.

Here is a photo from Camara dos Lobos, which is a cute fishing village

But all that said, we saw amazing things, and I got to have a little more poncha, which certainly made me feel at ease.  :)

Our plane was delayed a few hours flying out of Madeira, which meant we did miss out on our much-sought reservations at A Tasca in Ponta Delgada (the backstory here is that we tried three separate times to eat at this top-rated restaurant, only to be turned away, so we had made reservations in advance for our last night.....except we were still stuck in Madeira when they happened!).  Note to any future diners - make reservations!!!!

But no worries - we had a fancy airport dinner of Pizza Hut (and beer!), which was nicely covered by SATA (due to the delay), and we got into our hotel (Hotel Canadiano) at about 10:30 that night.  The hotel name cracked me up a bit, but they carried the Canadian/maple leaf theme on all the towels, linens, etc.  The rooms have a bit of a 70s 'movie' vibe to them, but the price and location were right.

Disclaimer - not my pic.  From hotel website.  Champagne did not greet us here.  ;)
And the breakfast wasn't bad either!  WHY do we not have passionfruit yogourt here?

I made Brad take me to A Tasca for lunch on our very last day in Ponta Delgada, and I have to say it was worth overstuffing myself.  We weren't super hungry and so only had fried octopus, garlic bread and a cheese plate, but they were fantastic.

Obviously, I was not about to pass up one of the last opportunities to have wine, so we enjoyed this with a bottle of vinho verde.  I was very stoked to learn I can buy this at the LCBO - a great, refreshing summer sipper, with the slightest effervescence.

Our flight to Toronto was uneventful, and then we settled into the overpriced airport bar to wait a few hours for our flight to Ottawa (regarding the airport bar pricing, the three beers we had at Corso cost more than the bottle of wine, cheese plate, garlic bread and octopus we had at A Tasca.....).

I have one more post to come, where I'll break down the trip costs, for the nosy/curious.

We had such an amazing trip - so many adventures, so much yummy food and memorable, incredible sights.  The people were met in the Azores and Madeira were mostly very friendly and welcoming, and they are both fantastic places for anyone who wants to explore nature, eat seafood and drink wine.  :)

On that note, we were quizzed by Portugal Tourism folks at Ponta Delgada airport, and when asked how we would rate our trip, out of 10, neither one of us hesitated before declaring the trip a perfect 10.  :)  Would definitely do it again, especially with my fantastic travel buddy.

We were super happy to get home and squeeze our little girls tight, and most grateful to Grandpa M, who did an amazing job of keeping them fed, clothed, safe and entertained while we were gone.  THANK YOU!!!!!

Monday, May 23, 2016

A little r&r in Ribeira Brava

After the amazing hike through the mountains, Brad and I were very much ready for a day or two of utter relaxation.  Being the super prostar trip planner that I am, I had anticipated we might want a day or two in a resort-like setting to wind down.

While Madeira has no shortage of five star hotels, I wasn't really looking for either the price tag or the atmosphere of a giant resort.  I came across a fantastic B&B called Dazkarizeh 73 and it looked like it would fit the bill perfectly. Located high up in the cliffs above Ribeira Brava, the resort has an infinity pool and hot tub that both overlook the ocean, and offers a great retreat from the hustle and bustle of Funchal.

The B&B serves a nice hearty breakfast and also specializes in Indonesian food for dinner.  Definitely a great spot to stay if you're looking for some quiet time a bit off the beaten path.

The first night, we ventured down into the town of Ribeira Brava for dinner - I took a few photos, but I don't know that I can really convey just how surrounded by cliffs this town is.  We enjoyed a sunset dinner on the waterfront, and some post-dinner drinks at a local bar, before taking a taxi back up to the B&B (it's only 3km, but it was all on switchbacks and we thought it might be a risky endeavour for our post cocktail selves (you should ask Brad to tell you all about his kiwi poncha....I opted for another caipirinha, because I love how limey it is).

We have had some pretty epic weather on this trip.

We spent a lazy day reading by the pool and hot tub, and then enjoyed a hearty indonesian dinner in the evening.

So delicious!  It was a perfectly relaxing way to wind down a vacation that really has been an epic adventure for us.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Another Epic Hike

Today, I am happy to say, was the latest in a string of "wow we lucked out with great weather" events on this trip.  When we arrived here in Madeira a few days ago we looked at the weather forecast and then booked two tickets with a tour for trekking from Pico Arieiro to Pico Ruivo to Achada do Teixeira...  not because we like tours, but because hitching a ride with them was much more affordable than a half-hour taxi ride on either end of the trip :)

After some sort of mix-up in the morning pick-up for the tour - which ironically involved us taking a taxi (albeit for free) - we began our hike around 10:30am.  This hike is pretty nice in the sense that you can literally drive up to the starting point at Pico Arierio... which immediately delivers some spectacular scenery, as you are far above the cloud cover:

The hike itself proved to be easier than Pico in the Azores, but still challenging; long stretches of relatively easy walking, punctuated by sets of steep rock steps here and there.

Luckily for Leslie, she walked down these daunting stairs without realizing that they were the same ones they gave her nightmares in some videos we saw before hand. :)

The climb progressed at a decent but not overly-challenging pace, partly due to the fact that we were with a group.  In all, we covered 8.5km, and an elevation climb of 540m.  The first major stop was Pico Ruivo, the highest peak on Madeira (and whatever-th highest peak in Portugal.. I googled it but sources do not agree). Anyways - more photos!

After a 2pm lunch at the peak, we moved on to the peak of Teixeira, before finally (mercifully) descending down to where our bus picked us up and brought us...

... to the bar, of course! For a really big cold beer.  And then ultimately we made our way back to our house where we ordered pizza and rested our feet and watched some Netflix.

Tomorrow - we move to a hotel in a smaller town here, Ribera Brava... with a hot tub to rest our weary bones!  We're both looking forward to that. :)

- Brad

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Exploring Funchal

Today was an exploring day!  After a late breakfast in our little house we set out on foot for the old central part of Funchal, a 15-minute-ish hike down steep narrow streets towards the water.

Our impression of Funchal so far is that it's slightly busier and more "touristy" than the Azores, probably due to the fact that it's a short trip from Europe and a popular destination for cruise ships.  That said, we are fortunate to be travelling before the busiest part of tourist season, so things are still fairly quiet!

One of our first stops today was the cable car, which starts near the water and rises up through the steep hills to high above the city.

At the top of the funicular we wandered a little, including watching some tourists ride down the steep streets sitting in what is essentially a wicker chair on wooden skies, steered by two guys standing on the back.  Looked a little fun but a little crazy considering that they're navigating amidst other vehicles on the road!

After the return trip back down to the water, we set out to find something on Leslie`s to-do list; a public pool near the waterfront that apparently gets filled every morning with ocean water.  After a long walk we found the place, got changed, and went for a somewhat chilly swim :)

And of course there are stairs that lead right down to a swimming area in the Atlantic Ocean itself - only a few degrees colder than the pool - so of course we had to check that out too.

After that we trekked back to our house for a quick break, and then headed out for dinner to place we had bookmarked back when planning the trip... unfortunately, despite what Google Maps suggests, it was not a 4-minute walk from our front door.  After some head-scratching we eventually figured out where it actually was located, which was more like a 30-minute walk... still, the walk was worth it - the food was delicious and the view was second-to-none.

The restaurant is Restaurante Zarcos  - and do NOT, I repeat, do NOT believe Google Maps.  The restaurant is at the intersection of Estrata Conde Carvalhal and Caminho da Igreja).  If you want to use google maps to navigate, tell it to take you to 203 Rua Conde Carvalhal (the place across the street).  It's totally worth the trek, as the food and service were amazing, prices reasonable....and the view.  Seriously.....this place rocks.

So that's all for now... not much in particular on the agenda for tomorrow so we'll just have to play it by ear. :)

- Brad

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Steep and chill in Madeira

We spent the last two nights in a really quaint inn called the Quinta de Bom Despacho in Ponta Delgada.  It's an old mansion house that has been transformed into a sustainable and eco-focused inn/event space.  We didn't have a lot of time to really take advantage of all the facilities, but there was a really intriguing natural swimming pool (complete with many frogs), as well as chickens (and eggs!), organic gardens and all sorts of little corners around the grounds where you could read, relax or have a quiet moment.

It would be a fantastic place for someone who's staying a little bit longer, as there are communal kitchen facilities and lots of lounge spaces.

We woke up super early this morning (for us!), to fly to Funchal on the island of Madeira.  One cool fact about Madeira is that the whole island is so steep that the airport is built out over the ocean, because there wasn't really enough flat space anywhere on the island.

Our flight was uneventful, though the final approach to Funchal is pretty fun - the plane heads straight toward the city, and then turns toward the runway at the last second.  If you are looking for entertainment, you can google crosswind landings in Madeira and you'll find some pretty freaky footage.  Thankfully for us, the wind was pretty calm today.

After landing, we caught a taxi to our AirBnB, and I have to say that it is even better than the photos.  It's super clean, very well-equipped and super spacious - it could easily accommodate six people (and there are four bathrooms!).

The location is nice too - in a relatively quiet-ish residential area, about a 15 minute walk from downtown Funchal.  We haven't explored a ton yet, but plan to get going on that tomorrow.  And the view from the upstairs patio is gorgeous.  I've been taking advantage of it all day.

I am completely gobsmacked by how steep all the streets are in this city - from the moment we turned off the highway, our taxi was headed downhill at what felt like a 45 degree angle (I'm sure it's not really THAT steep....but still).

The street our house is on is so narrow that at regular intervals, only one car can pass, so we regularly hear car horns warning oncoming cars.  Brad is pretty happy we opted not to rent a car.  :)  We'll certainly get quite the workout walking around here though. More photos to come tomorrow!

We decided to take advantage of the kitchen and cooked ourselves an easy dinner of pasta and salad tonight, and I was very intrigued to discover these grown-up size drinking boxes of wine.

I sipped some this afternoon on the insanely picturesque patio.

This place is gorgeous!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Going Out on a High Note

One of our goals at the beginning of the trip was to see if we could tackle the behemoth of Pico Mountain during our three-day stay on Pico Island.  The mountain (the highest in all of Portugal) dominates the landscape to such an extent that it is essentially visible from everywhere on the small island.

Visible except when there is heavy cloud cover I should say... we saw the mountain looming in the distance when we first disembarked our little puddle-jumper plane from Sao Miguel, but for the following two days it was so overcast that the clouds rendered it completely invisible.

Much debate was had.  Much forecast-watching occurred... and as luck would have it, we caught a break on the day that we were scheduled to fly out at 6:15pm - sunny and clear skies!  We arranged for a taxi to pick us up at our hotel (which graciously kept most of our luggage for the day), and were climbing shortly after 8am.

The hike is not exceptionally long, but it covers an elevation change of ~1000m over a difficult terrain of mostly lava rock... hard on the hands, knees, thighs, calves, you name it.

Our progress was measured in trail markers - little white posts labelled #1 through #45, spaced not by distance but merely put in places where you could hopefully see the next marker from the last.  After marker 4, things got steep and challenging, and stayed that way until marker 41.   This made for an interesting challenge... "it seems so close, and yet..."

There were highs, there were lows, but if at any time we needed to raise our spirits we simply turned around and looked back at the incredible view.

After making it through the "do we turn back or soldier on" stage of the climb, we eventually started seeing those morale-building numbers on the trail markers - 35...36...37... until finally the steep climb mercifully turned more into a walking path, which eventually led to the crater of the volcano.  Here's the final trail marker, #45:

And here's two happy but tired hikers:

We've finally made it!  Right?  Well for some of us, the climb stopped here.  For others, there was one final ascent remaining: "Little Pico", the volcano within the crater of the larger volcano.


So, up I went!  Aside from one particularly steep segment, the climb wasn't much more difficult than the rest of our ascent.  And boy was the view worth it.

By the way, that little wisp of what looks like a cloud at the edge of the rocks there?  That's actually hot steam/gas escaping from a gap in the rocks.  A nice little reminder that this is a volcano, after all.

Here is a quick video I took on my phone using a selfie stick (you can mock me all you want, I don't care).

After a brief break at the top to rest our feet and take in the view, we started our long painful descent.  All told, it took us about 7.5 hours round-trip.  Tired, sweaty, and no doubt smelly, we jumped in a taxi, swung by the hotel to pick up our luggage, and then immediately jumped on a plane taking us back to Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel.

Our plan is simply to rest and recuperate a little here, and then we're off to Madeira early on Wednesday morning.

That's all for now!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Quiet Evening at Cella Bar

Today we intentionally had a very low-key day, mainly because a) it rained most of the morning and b) we wanted to be well-rested for our attempt to climb Mt Pico tomorrow morning (before flying out at 6:30pm!).

In Leslie's words, "today I slept in, lied around for a while, and then walked to a bar."  Pretty decent vacation day :)

The "bar" in question was Cella Bar - a restaurant that Leslie had mentally bookmarked about a month ago when planning the trip.  We arrived a little early and killed some time sipping a drink on their rooftop patio overlooking the Atlantic.

After having our fill of the scenic view and fresh air we went inside and sat down to a fantastic meal.

And to cap things off, on the walk back to our hotel we were treated to an epic sunset over the nearby island of Faial.

Tomorrow the weather looks clear, so we hop out of bed at 6am and try to climb Mt. Pico.  Wish us luck!


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Pico island

Yesterday, we had a pretty quiet day in Ponta Delgada, then in the late afternoon, flew to the island of Pico, which is in the central group of the Azores islands, and is the second-largest island.  The landscape of Pico is dominated by a looming (dormant) volcano, which is also the highest peak in Portugal.

The weather was clear as we flew in, so we were able to catch a few glimpses of Pico (the mountain) before we landed.

Brad snapped this photo really quickly on the airport tarmac, and I'm glad he did, because you can see Pico, and today was so overcast and foggy that I'm glad I had the photographic proof of Pico's existence, because we didn't see the mountain at all today.

We then caught a cab to our hotel, the Alma do Pico, which is a quiet retreat nestled in the forest just above the town of Madalena.  We checked into our room, which is super cute and quite the step up from our basic AirBnB in Ponta Delgada.

Having our priorities straight, we also quickly zipped out to find the local supermarket, where we stocked up on wine and chips.

We had a fabulous dinner last night at the hotel restaurant, and enjoyed views of the island of Faial on one side, and Pico mountain on the other.  So nice!

We knew today was going to be overcast and possibly rainy, so we decided to walk around town and explore a little bit.

We walked down to the harbour, and along the coastline until we reached UNESCO world heritage vineyards that dated from the 15th century.  They were quite a sight - row upon row of low basalt stone walls, sheltering and warming the grapevines, as far as we could see.

It's a bit crazy to think that over 500 years ago, people braved sailing the atlantic, and one of the first things they did when they got to Pico was make sure they had their continued wine supply assured.  Priorities, AMIRITE?

We then wandered back into town and had some Super Bock beer and pizza at a bar in the harbour, and hung out for a bit until it was time to take a taxi to the Gruta das Torres, which is a 5 km lava tube that you can go explore. Quick tip for any future visitors - make sure you call ahead, as there are limited tours each day and they seem to book up quickly! Our hotel gave us great advice and called ahead for us. :)

It was my first time headed underground in any sort of cave, so I wasn't sure how I'd feel about it, but the coolness of seeing all the different types of lava overshadowed any claustrophobia I felt (I am a rock nerd....what can I say....).

Look at the cool ropey lava!

A couple of preliminary observations about Pico:

1. The ubiquitous black basalt walls attract tons and tons of tiny green-black lizards.  I don't have any good pics though because those little dudes are FAST - you see the flicker of them scattering away as you walk along the road.

(the next two apply equally to both Sao Miguel and Pico)
2. Cows can go everywhere.  I think of them as a pasture animal, but the Azorean cows seem extremely content with the views they find up mountains, cliffs and calderas.  On all of the hikes we've done, we've seen cows in the craziest places.

3. It seems like there are many, many Azoreans who have connections to Canada - either personally of through family.  Our jeep tour driver had family in Canada and had visited several times, and the cab driver we had today had lived in Canada for 20 years.  It's a small world, and there certainly seem to be many connections between the Azores and Canada.

Anyway, that is it for tonight as I'm trying to get this posted before Zoe has to go to bed (so she can read it).  :)  Tomorrow it is supposed to rain a lot, so we will probably have a pretty quiet day until it clears.