Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Days 23 & 24: Hiking and Whale Watching

(As I write this, it's the morning of our last full day in the Azores, so it feels unlikely that the final days will be written about until after we get back from the trip. The return home is a four flight affair: Azores -> Lisbon -> Paris -> NY -> Seattle, with two overnight layovers. So, wish us luck!)

Day 23
Doing laundry, island-style. 

This morning, instead of lingering over a long breakfast, we decided to hit the road early, and get a hike in before lunch. The plan was to do something closer to home so that, after lunch we could relax closer to the house and give the kids some down time (read: beach time). So, after getting loaded up, we headed 10 minutes up the coast to do a hike that Sarah had read about.

Starting at a picnic site, just off the main road, the trail wound down through a small village or houses. Conveniently, we realized that some agency in Sao Miguel was making an effort to make the trails more accessible, and the trail we followed zigged and zagged on rural streets, through farmland and into lush cliff-side forests, it was always easy to follow thanks to clear markings (using yellow and red bars) to indicate where to go and not go.

Leaving the town, we moved into farmland, and down a bamboo lined lane. Then, we veered from that, and dropped down into lush green forests that clung to the coastal cliffs and provided us with amazing views of the coastline. Soon, we came across a string of anonymous, white-painted buildings, built into the cliff face, that resembled something from Lost. From inside of them, we could hear gushing and gurgling, leading us to believe that they must be some sort of hydroelectric units. Regardless, we decided this would be a good place to take a snack break of fruit, chips and water.

Coastline view, winding back to Mosterios in the distance. You can see a bit of our hiking trail lower, in the foreground.
Sarah (and Otto) make their way along the cliffs. To the left you can see where a (currently dry) river would plunge off the cliff into the ocean.

Then, it was time to hike up and out, completing the loop. Unfortunately, the second half of the hike was neither as scenic or forgiving as the first half; and was more of  a string of steep roads uphill, with little in the way of shade. The kids started to get hot and cranky, but fortunately, we were able to locate where we were, and assure them it wasn't far to the end. And, forgivingly, the last stretched returned to a less oppressive stroll through a wooded area.

More evocative of the second half of the hike. A lot of uphill along dirty roads and lots of sun with little shade.

Back in the car, and then back in Mosterios, we decided -hot and hungry- to return to the balcony restaurant we'd eaten lunch at the previous day. For me it was a bifana (though not as good as the one at the roadside truck), for Sarah some pork loin and the kids did another random combination of cheese and bread.

Then, after lunch it was a promised visit to the beach, and since it was sunny and hot, even I decided to jump in. While the waves still broke roughly against the shore, a few yards out I could drift and relax a bit.

The little dot in the center of the photo = me.

After the beach, it was another spaghetti meal at the house, and then while the kids enjoyed some TV inside, Sarah and I sat on the front deck, drinks in hand, watching the beach and sunset, then the slow appearance of the stars above us.

Probably our best sunset of our stay in the Azores. The days have been sunny and hot, but the mornings and evenings are always a bit cloudy and grey. Still, can't complain about this.

Day 24
Whale Tour!

One our first day in town, Sarah had noticed a sightseeing operation in town (which seemed to be the only non-food related business with a store front) specializing in whale spotting. And, while the kids were a bit nervous about it ("what if I fall overboard and I'm eaten by a shark or whale?") Sarah and I agreed it would be a great opportunity, and signed up for the next available tour.

So, we woke early, got dressed and headed to their offices at 9:30am (which is the crack of dawn, the way we've been operating). There, they suited us up with lifejackets and waterproof jackets (that looked comically large on the kids). Then, with a group of about a half dozen others, they led us down to a motorized raft, and loaded us in. Sort of humorously, rather than sit in a traditional sense, you straddled your seat, like a horses saddle, and held on to a hand grip in front of you. Again, the kids looked silly with their little legs dangling.

Excited kids, headed out to sea!

Leaving the bay slowly because it is so shallow, we soon picked up speed and headed down the coast. It wasn't long before we spotted our first wildlife: A shark! We could see it's iconic fin moving through the water, and as we moved closer, could make out its shape in the Clearwater, easily 8ft or longer. At first they were pretty sure it was a mako shark, since they are the most common in these waters; but looking closer, our guide suddenly declared: "No actually, that's a hammerhead shark! We know they are around, but this is the first I've ever seen! Exciting start!

Sarah, optimistic about seeing me sea life. 

It wasn't long after that, that a flock of seabirds appeared to lead us to our second sea animal sighting: A pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins. And, while I saw some dolphins on a coastal tour in Hawaii, let me tell you that these dolphins didn't disappoint: Jumping, flipping, and careening around. Even a number of baby dolphins could be seen, swimming tightly next to their mothers.

As Stella noted: "The dolphins seem to like to show off!"

Devilishly hard to photograph show off dolphins... but this gives you an idea of how close the action way.

Suddenly, we broke from the dolphins and headed away from the land: "Our spotter has spotted an whale, and we are going to try to go there now," the guide explained. Unfortunately, the whale seemed to be a long way off, as the skipper continued to gun the boat deeper and deeper into the ocean. Also, while Stella seemed to still be enjoying herself, smiling and announcing "this is probably going to be the best thing I've ever done," Otto was growing listless and seemed to be getting sea-sick. On my encouragement, he climbed from his saddle, into my lap and fell asleep.

Otto looking less pleased. At first I thought he was getting bored, but it quickly became obvious he was starting to feel seasick. 

After what seemed like a long stretch, we finally slowed and began to circle. "The whale has done a deep dive, so now we wait." To pass the time, the skipper piloted over to where another pod of dolphins swam and showed off.

"Ugh, we've already seen dolphins," said Otto, jaded and seasick.

But, then the whale emerged, it's spout of water visible, followed by it's large grey back. "A female sperm whale," the guide said, noting that males are much larger. We all "oohed" "aahed" and tried to take pictures, as the whale dipped up and down for a short bit, then dove deep again.

"And that is it, for a while. It will not emerge for a long time." The guide said, indicating we'd be heading back. But, we hadn't gone far when she spotted a second whale. Again, we circled slowly as it performed a similar routine to the first. Then, a short time later, a third sperm whale. And, as that whale prepared to dive deep...

"Look there, you can see the shadow next to it. It has a baby!" And sure enough, next to it, you could make out the vague form of a second, smaller whale. Then, with a tail flip, the final whale was gone.

The last whale dives. Probably to do awesome battle with a giant squid.

The return trip went quickly, with several more pods of dolphins (really, they are show offs), and Otto continuing to rest uneasily in my arms. "It really does not get much better than that." The guide said, and -honestly- she didn't seem to be making a sales pitch.

Back on land, we had some lunch and the kids had some beach time. We were resting after our big morning, and because tonight would be a special dinner: Pizza.

Now, pizza doesn't seem like a big deal, but for Mosterios, it is. As I've mentioned, there's only about a half dozen restaurants in town, and all but one have effectively the same menus: A bunch of seafood, a couple pork dishes, omelets and some various of grilled cheese and/or ham and cheese. The only restaurant that deviates from this well-worn formula is: Pizzeria Fantasia.

Apparently, several years back a visiting Italian couple fell in love with Mosterios, and decided to stay and open a pizza place. The reviews are pretty universally positive, but with only, like, eight tables, and open hours from 8pm to 11pm, you need to make reservations in advance. Pizzeria Fantasia is kind of a big deal.

Anyhow, tonight was the night of our reservations. So, we piled into the car and drove the 5 minutes to the far side of town. There we made our way though a humble courtyard into the restaurant. We had three pizzas, Sarah and I split a bottle of wine and we all shared a dessert. Overall, I wouldn't claim that it was the best pizza I've ever had, but it was a well-made traditional woodfire pizza and -after nearly a week of the same three or four dishes it made for a very welcome change of pace.

Should have gotten a "before" picture, but only thought to get an "after." A couple of remaining slices of the kids cheese pizza... which Sarah and I promptly ate. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Days 21 & 22: Exploring the Interior

Day 21
I woke up early on our first morning in the Azores, and peered outside to see grey and storming skies, with the surf continuing to crash violently on the black sand beach. I also noticed that, in a couple of places in the kitchen, it was raining hard enough that the roof was leaking; so I dug a couple of Tupperware bowls out of the cupboard and placed them around the kitchen. Then with the gentle "plip-plip" inside, the gusting wind outside and a cup of coffee in hand, I relaxed comfortably until Sarah and the kids awoke.

Waking to a stormy coastline.

A short time later, breakfast had been served, showers taken, and the sky was clear enough that we decided to venture out and explore the island. Our plan (fingers crossed about the weather), was to drive up toward Lagoa do Fogo (the "lake of fire") in the center of the island, and do a hike that Sarah had read about nearby. This would allow us to take a look at the lake, which is one of the islands star attractions and stretch out legs in nature, which would be a good change of pace after three weeks of city living.

To get there, we'd have to drive around the west end of the island and up half the length of it's north shore, before diving into it's interior. This gave us our first chance to really get a good look at the Azores, while not completely sleep deprived. So, how to describe the Azores?

Let's start with Hawaii as the starting point. First, take away it's beaches and replace them with shorelines of black volcanic rock and only the occasional pocket beach of black sand. Now, replace 90% of the palm trees with blue hydrangea bushes. Instead of any sort of Polynesian influence to the towns and architecture, replace the towns with continental European villages. Including lots and lots of cows. Now, remove, say, 75% of the tourists. I mean, it's the height of their tourist season, and everything here can easily be described as "sleepy."

This photo, take the next day, shows what a weirdo mash-up the Azores are. Blue hydrangeas. Cow pastures. Some fairy mound thing. Quaint villages. The ocean. Semi-tropical storm clouds. Seems totes fake.

The drive to Lagoa do Fogo went smoothly, except one or two times getting slightly lost, and one incident where someone had either driven off the road or been driven off the road. We came around the corner, only to find his car up on the curb, in our lane, facing the other direction. As we stopped to see if everything was OK, our first presumption was that he'd lost control going around the corner, 180-ed and hit the embankment. But, there was no signs of him skidding out. As I and another motorist approached, he stood on the edge of the road gesturing and shouting, obviously more angry than anything, but completely indecipherable in Portuguese. While he and the other driver talked loudly at each other, I did the shrug and be a dumb tourist thing. Then, once we could tell he was fine and his car still ran, I climbed back in the car and continued out drive.

Soon we wound our way high into the hills, past viewpoints and geothermal plants, until we arrived at the Lagoa do Fogo viewpoint. Parking "Portuguese style" (as we've come to call it when you park blocking as much of one lane of traffic as possible), we got out and took in a truly stunning view of the lake.

An initial view of Lagoa do Fogo. Flowers for flair.

While standing there, we realized there was a trail down, and Otto actually proposed we hike that, instead of the hike we'd planned. That sounded a good to us, so Sarah and Stella went back to get better shoes for Stella at the car, and water; then began hiking down. Quickly we realized that it was actually a really steep drop, and also Stella realized that she was "starving to death." So, despite some pouting by Otto and I, Sarah encouraged us to turn around after hiking about half the way down.

Back in the car, and a mixture of hungry and frustrated, we doubled back the way we came to a food truck we'd seen parked outside some thermal baths. There, we parked, and while Sarah and I had bifanas, the kids had ham and cheese sandwiches. We considered that maybe, now we should do the thermal pools, but Sarah pointed out we didn't have swimsuits, so we were thwarted again, and I was beginning to feel like the whole day was going to be a series of misfires. Then, Sarah suggested that, instead of doing the original hike, maybe we should go back and hike down to Lagoa do Fogo the whole way.

Everyone was enthusiastic about that idea, so after a quick peek inside the thermal pools park -to see them and use their WC- we were back on the road again, headed up to Lagoa do Fogo... again.

Reaching the viewpoint, we discovered it wrapped in fog, and the lake suddenly invisible below. But, undaunted, we set off down the path, dropping into the caldera. The kids, stomachs full of food, soldiered ahead while we continued down. Occasionally, the clouds would part long enough to give us a peak at the lake, and pleasantly, the fog seemed to be detouring some of the hiking traffic we'd encountered before.

Descending into the clouds. 

Finally, we reached the bottom, and started to make our way around the edge of the lake, and were happy at how quiet and remote it felt, despite a few other hikers and Stella barking orders at Otto or giving us weather updates.

Reaching a beach, after a couple of bends, we decided to stop and give the kids some beach time. It was still foggy, and even flirting with raining, but the air was warm enough and the lake inviting enough that even I eventually decided to jump in. An amazing, peaceful swim.

Wading into the lake. Peaceful and misty. A lot warming that this photo makes it look.

After letting the kids play, and taking a swim myself, it was time to hike back up out of the caldera. So, we set off back up the steep and winding path. As we hiked the clouds finally began to burn off, and by the time we which the viewpoint, it was hot and humid.

The clouds clear, as we make our way back around the lake. 

A steep and sweaty climb back up. The kids ran most of the way because they are insane.
A super rare family picture, taken after hiking up from the lake. Plus some random tourists, for flavor.

We hopped back in the car, and -after stopping at one last viewpoint to get a look at the lake from another angle- we headed to the island's south coast and then back to Mosterios. Arriving back at the house, the kids were wiped, so they wanted to stay in the house, but Sarah and I didn't fancy eating at home, and drug them to the second of the town's half dozen restaurants, O Xico. O Xico was decorated with old record albums, and I proved hungry enough that I ordered and ate enough food for two human beings: Salt Cod, Shrimp, potatoes, fries, two salads, and two beers. Obviously the hike had worn me out too.

Day 22
One of the unspoken rules of our stay in the Azores is that the kids get at least an hour at the beach. So, after getting started late, we let them play in the surf for a little bit, while we worked out what we wanted to do.

For lunch, before heading out, we tried another Mosterios restaurant: Café Ilhéu. With its sunny patio, decent food, excellent, local white wine and friendly staff, it's since become our defacto place to eat out. Here's Sarah trying the limpets, on this first visit. 

The basic play was to drive up to Lagoa das Sete Cidades have a look around, grab some lunch and hopefully do a small hike there. Lagoa das Sete Cidades is the pair of lakes (one green and one blue) the sit in the middle of a giant caldera on the western end of the island's interior. There's a small town nestled next to them, with a single small land bridge dividing them. If you pick up a guide book for the Azores, it's the picture on the cover.  

After the kids were done frolicking, we loaded them into the car, and began the windy road up, up, up to the edge the caldera. Reaching the edge, we came across a small dirt parking lot, and a sign that seemed to indicate a viewpoint. So, we parked and all hopped out. Following the sign took us to a dirt road, instead of a view point. "Hmmm, maybe the view point is just a little up the road, and this is, like, an overflow parking lot."

So, we set off down the dirt road. After a little hiking, we still hadn't come to a view point, so we pushes through a little hedge, and what was revealed was a pretty cool view. Below us, the lush valley of the caldera spread out, including the town, several smaller calderas and what appeared to be one of the two lakes. But, it wasn't the quintessential view. One lake was hidden behind a small hill. "Hmm, maybe we'll get a better view, if we just walk a *little* further."

Our first peek-a-boo view. Stunning, but not what we had thought we'd see. (Note: on the left you can see a caldera...inside the caldera.)

But, another ten minutes of walking just revealed more of the same. It was then that it slowly dawned on us that, instead of finding a viewpoint, we'd actually stumbled across the trail head of one of the caldera rim hikes we'd been considering doing. This was great, because we'd been hoping to hike it. But, was less than ideal because we hadn't eaten lunch yet, and had failed to grab any water when we got out of the car.

"We can go a *little* further. Maybe up to that radio tower we see up there." Both Sarah and I were game for hiking, and Otto seemed to be having fun. The only problem was that, in the span of about four paces, Stella went from "I'm enjoying this walk in the woods" to "I'm absolutely dying of thirst."

C'mon Stella, just be a team player and hike a little farther. We don't have water on us, but can get some when we get back to the car. But, Stella had no interest in being a "team player." Instead, she decided to drag her feet and whine as much as she could manage. She lingered. She moped. She drifted. She complained. And, maybe the this doesn't speak well of us as parents, but the more she continued with her theatrics, the more we just wanted to keep hiking.

Hiking the flower-lined ridge of the caldera. 

So, after the radio tower, we noticed that the trail turned into a scenic ridge, and decide to walk that. And, after that, we noticed, in the distance, some sort of mid-century modern building that, frankly, looked like a James Bond villian's headquarters. "Look, Stella and Otto, that seems to be some sort of hotel. If we make it there, I bet they will have drinks and maybe ice cream."

That seemed to give the kids the motivation they needed to get to the end. So, eventually we broke from the trees and approached the hotel. Unfortunately, and somewhat surreally, the building was just an abandoned husked, overgrown with plants. Even more unfortunately, while there were some questionable bathrooms nearby, there was no sign of any sort of concession stand. So, no water or ice cream.

The mysterious hotel, which I've just looked up now, while typing this. You can read about it on this Atlas Obscura page. 

On the upside, the abandoned hotel was located at a pristine viewpoint, and Sarah and I finally got the image we wanted: Two lakes, blue and green, nestled in a valley, village next to them, and bridge dividing them.

Otto in front of the quintessential view of the lake. 

Pictures taken, there was nothing to do but hike back. "OK, kids, not ice cream or drinks here, but if we get back to the car, there's water there and we'll go get food!" Somehow the kids were in better shape hiking back. There was still plenty "I'm tired" and "how much longer" but they solider along, and I even had a nice conversation with Stella at one point about how plants and animals might have arrived on the islands, before settlers did.

All in all, our visit to the viewpoint took about 3 hours, and involved hiking over 6 miles, but we did get our view. Sarah and I did feel a little bad for dragging the kids all that way, unprepared, but our guilt was tempered a little by Stella, who had been dying of thirst mere minutes before, taking the worlds smallest sip of water, before climbing into the car and commencing complaining about something else.

Back in our car, we descended into the Caldera, to the idyllic village of Sete Cidades for dinner. We parked our car, and wandered the quiet streets until we found a buffet-style restaurant Lagoa Azul the meals were on the expensive side, but the beer was free and it gave us a chance to try a number of local dishes.

After dinner, we wandered down to the lake, before driving to the bridge that separates the two lakes, Verde and Azul. Stella, Sarah and I got out (it was Otto's turn to be irrationally angry about something), and looked around, taking in the stillness. It was weirdly stirring, the idea that we were standing in the center of a giant, ancient volcano so massive, it now contained several lakes, a town and a considerable amount of farmland. The world inside the caldera seemed both so contained, yet also so remote from the rest of the world.

Sarah and I both tried to take a number of photos capturing the atmosphere of this area, the weird combination of stillness and peacefulness, mixed with isolation and the almost closed in feeling of the rim walls. In the end, I don't think either of us got the shot we wanted, so here's a picture of Stella and Sarah on the bridge, because I love them.

Moved by the stillness and remoteness, we returned to our car, and drove back to our apartment in Mosterios.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Final Thoughts on Lisbon

I’d intended to write this up on our last night in Lisbon.  But between laundry, packing, and adventures out in the heat to run errands, I just didn’t have it in me, especially knowing we had a 3:30AM start the next day.  But I figured it was worth a bit of reflection, even if now I’m a week into life on Sao Miguel. 

As you can see from our list of possible preferred things to do, we made a good dent:

One big question for us on this trip was how we’d feel staying for a longer time in one place.  On our last longer trip, we moved locations about once a week:  Reykjavik, Paris, Arles in Provence.  It’s hard to know how that would feel with the kids as they are today; it ended up feeling like a little much, like we should have maybe just made two stops versus three.  I left Lisbon feeling like we could really saw a lot of Lisbon and the nearby areas—it was enough time to not feel compelled to go-go-go all the time while also being enough time to see the sights we were most interested in.  It was nice to have a place to feel like home, nearby grocers we got to know, some routines (like daily gelato) that could be established.  Leaving Lisbon after 12 days really cemented the idea that we need to try more often to have two-week long vacations to decompress, really feel the time for adventure, sightseeing, R&R and needed down time.

At this same time, I think we also left Lisbon feeling like we might have been even happier in some of the nearby, smaller towns.  While I love living with the conveniences and benefits that come from being in a bigger city, on vacation, I don’t mind having fewer choices and a quieter life.  In retrospect, I would have happily spent a week in Sintra and a week in Sesimbra, both coming in around 30,000 people.  Towns that are not full on built for tourists but still have a good handful of interesting things to do (usually involving some hiking/walking/being outdoors) and some of the conveniences of having some tourist trade (decent restaurants). 
Last views of Sintra--was definitely sad to leave here after just one day
Sesimbra--cute beachside town that we could have easily spent more than a few hours in
This hike by the westernmost point of Portugal was another highlight--with better preparation, we could have made quite a hike out of it

In retrospect, this was true for Tyler and I on our trip, too.  Toward the end we had the same realization, which led us to stay in places like Pushkar and Bundi, in Rajasthan in India, versus Udaipur.  Or Veliko Tornovo, Bulgaria, versus Sofia.  (Or, for that matter, seeing only Tasmania versus anything on mainland Australia.) 

As I’ve gotten older, I also feel more keenly the loss of really getting to know a place by not knowing the language.  Portuguese just throws me for a total loop.  (One example:  Setubal looks like it should sound like “Set-too-bull”.  Nope, it’s “Schtu-bul”, naturally.  I’m sure if I took a few lessons or did Duolingo I’d at least understand the logic of the sounds, but that just wasn’t something I could squeeze into our pre-trip schedule.)   While we could easily get by with ordering, going to tourist locations and otherwise getting around town with English, I know we’re getting such a moderated understanding of Portugal.  Sadly, I don’t have the “language gene” and don’t easily pick up languages, so that’s not likely to change anytime soon, but I notice it more than in my younger days.

I can also tell we still straddle the inclinations between budget, longer-term travelers.  Tyler and I are still inclined to walk/bus/train versus cab/car for getting from Point A to B.  Pack lightly so we can carry our stuff as needed.  Figure out how locals do things versus tourists.  Sometimes with the kids this may work against us, but maybe it’s not a bad ethos to instill early on.
One thing about travelling as a family that's good and bad is we tend to get more roughly on the same schedule.  The kids go to bed, sleep later.  It's makes planning easy, and is convenient because, even with two bedrooms, our places are usually pretty cozy.  But it does mean that Tyler and I get *less* one-on-one time together than at home, where we usually have a good hour or two between the kids' bedtime and ours.  I tend to be ready to sleep with the kids.  (Hence Tyler's more prolific blogging--gives him something to do while the rest of us sleep.)  One positive development is that often the kids are more interested in talking to each other over dinner, so we do sometimes get some time together then.

A bit of time with the boy over dinner
As for final thoughts on the kids?  Well, Stella left only wanting to call Lisbon “Lisboa.”  Otto gained a lot of confidence in navigating the narrow, often sidewalk-less streets. 
Here are the kids' thoughts on staying in Lisbon, their favorite things, and if they would have preferred to move around more:

Per Stella:  “It was great, and it was nice and relaxing with lots of fun things.  My favorite part was all the cool beaches.  Oh, and I liked the Ascensor.  I would have rather moved around more."

Per Otto:  “OK.  I'll be the same as Stella."

Being cute together
Despite Otto's lackluster response above, he was legitimately pretty thrilled with this hike
Sounds about right.  We definitely know the kids love beaches, generally like hikes, and--frankly--probably would be just as happy in Kauai right now...

I’ve definitely left Portugal wanting to see more.  We didn’t get south to the Algarve region, which is full of parks and more rustic beaches.  We didn’t get north to Porto.  I don’t know when our travels would bring us back, but I leave with an appetite for more, which doesn’t seem like a bad way to depart.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Day 20: Arrival in the Azores!

Day 20
This morning was a rough one. There's just no good way to wake up at 3:30am to catch a flight. Sarah and I actually did a great job of pre-packing, getting the kids and ourselves to bed at a reasonable time and being generally prepared... but you are still getting up at 3:30am.

With kids.

So, we got up, got ready, got the kids ready, said a tired goodbye to our apartment, and all blearily stumbled down the stairs and out onto the street to catch our ride to the airport. Fortunately, the car service we'd arranged was timely and the roads (being that it was 4:30am now) were pretty much completely empty.

Totally awake on the streets of Lisbon, at 4:30am.

The driver dropped us off at the terminal for Easy Jet, which basically looked more like an IKEA warehouse with no furniture than an airport terminal, and after making it through security and a short wait, we boarded our flight and away we went to the Azores.

The flight itself seemed to go really quick. Partially because we were nodding off the whole time, and partially because Sarah and I had thought the flight was supposed to be 3 and a half hours and it turned out to be 2 and a half. Score.

Landing on Sao Miguel was one of those experiences where you look out your window and think: "Oh, we are just landing in the ocean" only to have land show up at the last minute. Our plane then taxied up to the terminal, next to, like four other planes, which seemed to be maximum capacity for the airport. Then we unloaded directly onto the tarmac and walked into the terminal... something that, no matter how many times I've done it, always feels cool and novel. Sort of how you'd expect vintage James Bond to disembark from a plane.

Old-school disembarking from our plane. Just strutting across the tarmac.

In the terminal we were met by a representative from the car rental company Sarah had arranged. And, as we filled out our paperwork, I began to get the sensation that we were renting one of only a few cars they had to rent. As though crashing the car might kill 33.3% of their business.

Hooked up with our Fiat, we loaded the kids and hit the road. First up was a grocery store in Porto Delgada, to get some supplies. Or, rather, first up was getting quasi-lost in Porto Delgada. Either way, it allowed us a quick view at Sao Miguel's largest "city." With less than 70,000 inhabitants, and it's narrow streets and low lying buildings it barely felt like a village in comparison to the hustle and bustle of New York and Lisbon.

Eventually, we found a grocery store that was pen, despite the fact that the owners didn't seem to be bothered with turning the lights on, and with groceries in hand, it was back in the car and on the road to Mosterios, on the islands Westernmost coast.

Making our way down the windy roads, we were in awe of how green everything was in comparison to Lisbon (well, Sarah, Stella and I were, Otto was asleep). The green landscape punctuated by what we would learn are omnipresent hydrangea bushes, with their bright blue flowers. Hydrangeas everywhere. It was still early morning, and instead of being sunny, it was actually a little overcast and blustery, with a misty rain blurring our windshield from time to time.

About 45 minutes later, we peeled off the main road, and dove down a steep zigzag of asphalt to Mosterios. The directions Sarah was following led us straight to the house, a funky, old yellow building perched directly above Mosterios' black-sanded public beach. Waiting for the homeowner to arrive, we realized that we'd messed up telling her our arrival time, because of our time change; so we decided to take the kids down to look at the beach while we waited.

A view of our rental. It's the small yellow house on the left. Pretty crappy location.

The view from our rental. Equally crappy.

Still windy and grey, the surf at the beach was intimidating, with huge waves crashing violently on its sandy shores. We were only made slightly safer feeling by the pair of lifeguards who sat smoking, huddled on some umbrellas. Still, the kids were thrilled. And, despite our attempts to discourage them they were both soon frolicking in the surf. Otto, still in his pajamas, had soon taken his shirt off, and rolled up his now-soggy pajama pants and was facing the coming waves like a Viking warrior, despite still having no idea how to swim.

Man versus nature. In this case, "man" is 6, and doesn't know how to swim, but still.

Eventually, the person showed up with the key, and we were let inside and made ourselves at home. That basically involved dumping our stuff in the entry, firing up a show on the iPad for the kids, Sarah promptly crashing on the bed, and me wandering around in a daze, half unpacking groceries.

A little while later, it was time for some lunch, so we wandered into town, looking for a restaurant, only to discover that Mosterios is so small it only has, maybe, five restaurants in the whole town. And that, aside from one "reservations only" Italian place that is open from 8pm to 11pm daily, they all pretty much have identical menus. So, after a death march looking for additional, non-existent food options, we made our way back to one of the two places we'd spotted.

The wait to get a seat proved surprisingly long, but the people running the simple restaurant were accommodating and nice, and Sarah and I both enjoyed our first bifana, which is a pork sandwich we seems to be sold pretty much everywhere.

After lunch, it was back to the house and then down to the beach for another round of watching the kids attempt to drown themselves in the still-enormous waves. Sarah and I were both amazed at how much energy they both seemed to have after such a long day already. But, eventually the tuckered out, and we headed back to base camp.

Black sand beach!

Heading out for another meal for dinner seemed daunting, so instead I walked over to a small market we'd noticed earlier and got some additional groceries, which Sarah then used to whip up a dinner of pasta and salad at our new place.

Sarah and her helper make dinner. Photo taken through a small peephole into our funky little kitchen space.

Exhausted, but excited about our new location and the coming days of exploration, we all crashed.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Days 18 & 19: The final days in Lisbon

Day 18
After nearly two weeks in Lisbon, we knew things would be wrapping up so, and since we also knew the last day would be filled with last minute chores, we figures this penultimate day would be a good day for one last big adventure.

Sarah and I both thought out first time renting a car was really successful, so that was what we initially thought would be a good idea, but when we suggested it to the kids, they balked at the idea: "We ride in cars all the time at home, but buses and trains are different." So, Sarah looked into how to head south by bus, while I moped a bit.

In the end, for what we had planned the train or bus didn't make sense, so it was Stella's turn to mope, while I reserved a car.

That morning, we hiked down to the car rental place, picked up our car and (after getting lost for a bit in Lisbon) we were on our way. We crossed the Tagus on the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, which is supposedly a twin to the Golden Gate Bridge; and drove past the Christ the King statue, which is supposedly inspired by the Christ the Redeemer in Rio and headed due south to the beach resort town of Sesimbra. The idea was to grab lunch there, and then head to the beaches inside Arribida Natural Park.

Parking our car (illegally, apparently, as it scored us a parking ticket), we walked down to the waterfront to find food. While we found a decent lunch spot with beer and a nice view, the view proved a little problematic, because Otto couldn't understand why we wouldn't just hit the giant beach which was spread out before us. But we ended up distracting him with gelato, and headed back to our car.

Stella, also skeptical of why we wouldn't just stay on this perfectly fine beach. (They even made a "sales pitch" as to how a certain part of the beach was less crowded, and therefor perfect for us.)
Our departure from Sesimbra was only slightly delayed by the car in front of us stalling on a steep hill. This rapidly caused a huge back up of traffic, and groups of people began to gather around, presumably all shouting their thoughts and advice on how to get it running or out of the way. I climbed out to do my part shrugging and grinning like an idiot tourist. Eventually, a random guy wandered around the corner, jumped in the car, and managed to start it long enough to creep it out of the way, allowing traffic through. And we were off!

...until we managed to get lost on the fringes of the Natural Park. While following directions from Sarah, I panicked and swerved onto a side street. Rather than double back, we decided to forge ahead and see if we could find a new path... which lead us in a giant, 15-minute-long circle back to where we started.

So, back on track, we followed the actual route this time and wound our way into the park. The park itself was quite beautiful, with Cliffside roads running through scrubland with views of the ocean below. Sarah had learned in Sesimbra that the road that ran along the waterfront was one way, going in the opposite direction, so we had to drive east on a upper road before dropping down to the lower road to reach the beaches. But, this was fine, because it offered us a chance to take in the coastline from a number of viewpoints.

Me posing next to our rented Audi, overlooking the stunning Atlantic coastline.

On the lower road, we quickly saw why the road was one way, because people had basically co-oped the other lane as parking for vast lengths of the road. After having no success finding parking for the first beach, we managed to grab a spot on the road ourselves, and make our way down to the second beach, via a steep, winding dirt path.

"What's a Sesimbra?" The kids have obviously forgotten the previous beach, now that we've arrived.

This beach was quite nice, with enough people to seem busy, but not oppressively so. But, after watching the kids play there for 30 minutes or so, I began to notice people making their way through the shallow waters on the right, around a rocks ledge to some other location. My curiosity piqued, I decided to check it out, first with the kids, but then on my own, after realizing the water got too deep for Otto to easily manage.

Around the corner was a second beach. Smaller, but even less crowded. Making my way back to Sarah and the kids, I told them that it looked like Sarah and Otto could reach the new beach through a network of trails, and that I could take Stella around via the water (since it was fun), and we all quickly met up at the new beach. There we spent the rest of the afternoon playing, and I fought the urge to see what was around the next bend.

Otto overlooking the "new beach." Far fewer people and just as stunning.

Family beach time!

Finally wrapping things up, we made our way back to the car, changed out of our swim gear, and hit the road again. Sarah had read up on a lighthouse not far from Sesimbra that was near an old pilgrimage spot and known for it's windswept desolation. And, since Sarah and I are fans of some good old fashioned desolation, we headed there.

The kids were less excited, that is until we pulled into the parking lot near the lighthouse, and discovered a snack truck selling fresh-made churros. They kids had never had churros before, but they successfully sold the kids on this final sight seeing location. (They were excellent churros, it must be mentioned.)

Someone likes churros!

After our snack, we made our way around the cliffs surrounding the pilgrimage church and housing, being blasted by some of the strongest winds I've ever felt the whole time we walked. Gone was the sunny day, and lapping waves of the beach we'd just left, replaced by an unrelenting gale of wind. In the end, it did deliver on the desolation.

How windy was it? This windy. (Also, note lighthouse in the background.)

So, having filled our day, we made our way back to Lisbon, dropped off the car and headed back to our apartment, exhausted and smelling of sea air.

Day 19
Partially driven by the kids being exhausted from a day on the beach and riding around in a car, and partially driven by our need to get chores done before we headed out, our final day in Lisbon was going to stay a little more lowkey.

While Sarah and planned what we needed to do to get ready to head to the Azores, we let the kids rattle and wrestle around the apartment, playing some unending and ever evolving game of Pokémon Battle School, or something. Then, as Sarah began packing, I did another laundry run to my Most Favorite Laundromat Ever. Then it was lunch, before heading out to run a couple of errands.

Sarah wanted to hit the Post Office and a Pharmacy, but as we were walking we passed a barbershop that looked like Ernest Hemmingway had set-designed a hangout for Ponyboy and his gang from the Outsiders. It looked cool, I've been in desperate need of a haircut, and the barber was just hanging out, so we popped in to see if I could get a cut.

"Sure, but we are a gentleman's only establishment," he replied, giving me a look telling me that the non-Gentlemen in our group would have to leave. So, Sarah and the kids gratuitously stepped outside while I had my most sexist haircut experience ever. Sarah eventually ran to the Post Office to finish that errand, while I got a cut and beard trim. The kneejerk liberal part of me still isn't entirely sure how I felt about the "men's only" rule, but I will admit it was a fun haircut experience, and I couldn't argue with the free beer they gave me while I was groomed.

A photo from outside the barbershop. As Sarah noted: "At least, but not sitting inside, I didn't have to explain to the kids what a 'Playboy' was."

Stepping out with my new pompadour, I met up with Sarah and the kids and then tracked down a Pharmacy, before heading to the gelato place near our apartment for one last celebratory cone for everyone.

To keep things easy, we let the kids pick dinner, and they chose "the place with pasta," AKA La Petit Café. So, we went back there for our final dinner in Lisbon. Then home, to bed and fearing the 3:30 wake up alarm for our trip to the Azores.

One last sunset over the Alfama. Goodbye Lisbon, you will be missed.