Friday, July 15, 2016

Reflecting on my 'Summer of George'

My bad habit finally caught up with me and was amplified with a poor decision. Or maybe that's two bad habits that seemed to come together, only one has a change in the usual suspect...? Ladies and gents, I have been holed up at home for the last ~3 weeks because (wait for it...) I broke my knee (tibial plateau fracture) and wrist. My biggest baddest habit is looking down when riding a jump, which means my upper body collapses and follows. My other baddest habit is bailing last minute; except in this case, I actually bailed my mount. I'm neither happy or proud at the outcome.

I was riding on a Tuesday afternoon and been riding a horse who's attention span is maybe 10 seconds. He's capable, agreeable and a big suck so a good ride if you can sort yourself out with him, but I have been struggling with him after the BSJ and been unsuccessful. All the bad habits and fears and paranoia rears its ugly head when I ride him. But, I didn't take the tumble from him... it was from another bombproof solid been-there-done-it-all hunter mount. The line approach was perfectly fine but my upper body went down, my mind stopped riding, and I decided that it would be better to bail than pull myself together.

My own version of "summer of George"

After knee surgery and a hot pink fibre-glass cast, I have been forcibly admitted to my own "summer of George"; spending days indoors (not a bad thing with the temperatures we've been having), permanently in my pyjamas in the same chair getting caught up on a lot of TV and blogging. But, I had so much planned this summer and all of it has been dashed to pieces. Needless to say, I've been depressed on several occasions and I regularly have to be reminded by the ever patient and supportive +ADW that "LIFE HAPPENS" and at least I'll be getting better day by day--it isn't permanent, he'd add.

With all the new found free time, I have been reflecting (see, obsessing) about why I'd have two falls within a small time-frame. I'm not implying I was an amazing rider previously, but I was far more willing and confident about jumps, courses and anything else that was thrown at me when I rode. I rarely refused to ride a jump and wanted to learn everything and anything and a greener horse was not usually something that unsettled me either.

I tell myself it's not that I am incapable of riding... a few things come up though:
  • Not reflecting on my lessons to determine what went well and what needs improvement--I've gotten complacent and stopped blogging regularly this year.
  • Ignoring my developing physical limitations that hinder me, and not righting them with more fervor.
  • Allowing negative self-talk to interfere with my self-confidence when riding.
  • Expecting perfection without more work from myself.
I'm sure everyone can relate to at least one of the thoughts above, getting in the way of their own successes. It is my unwavering goal that I will take this lesson with enormity and rectify the 'wrongs' that I have let creep in. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sao Miguel: Lists

Making the most of a trip requires proper planning and research. I divided this post into three lists: research, advice and truths. Getting a general idea about the Azores is our first objective. Certain facts that we considered include:
  • Currency: Euro
  • Language spoken: Portuguese (and some English in certain tourist areas)
  • Seasonality*: 
    • Peak season: June, July, August, September and October 
    • Rainy/off season: January, February, March, October, November and December
    • Warmest month: August
    • Coolest month: February
    • Wettest month: January
    • Driest month: July
  • Temperature hi/low, not taking into account, the specific season: 12C - 25C
  • Precipitation: variable, even during the favourable months
  • Main industry: agriculture, dairy farming, ranching, fishing, tourism
  • Primary settlement/"capital": Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel
  • Cell/mobile Service: available readily; will be roaming for most
  • Electrical outlet/plug voltage**: 220-240V (US/Canada are 110-120V); europlug
  • Crime rate: low
  • Socio-political situation: nothing of note, at the time we went except Euro-cup being a potential distraction
  • Tipping etiquette: tipping is not necessary but appreciated
  • Vaccines: confirm at least 4-6 weeks prior to travel. Other than being UTD on standard vaccines, it's recommended to get hepatitis B. Check the CDC or a local travel clinic for details.
  • Common phrases:
    • Good morning: bom dia
    • Thank you: obrigado
    • Good evening: boa noite
    • Hello/Hi: olá
    • Wash/bathroom: banheiro
  • Experience features:
    • Food and drink: particularly seafood/fish and beef/dairy and wine (from Pico preferred but from Sao Miguel is good too)
    • Nature/outdoor excursions: hiking, bird watching, golf, horseback riding, landscape scenery, snorkelling/scuba diving, boating, whale watching, surfing, yachting, paragliding, big-game fishing, gardens/parks, natural thermal pools, cycling, canoeing/kayaking
Advice based on personal experience include:
  • Dress appropriately; layers are your best friend--like light and medium weight merino wool shirts. Even visiting during the more favourable time of the year, we experienced ever changing weather, including intermittent rainfall almost everyday so it's wise to bring appropriate rain gear:
    • Back-pack/bag cover
    • Light rain coat/jacket with hood
    • Light weight wool socks
    • Good hiking/walking shoes that can keep water out and are comfortable
    • Umbrella
    • Water repellent pants (seriously--I wore these the most. Mine are cycling ones but it doesn't really matter... any outdoor clothing/supply store is likely to sell them).
  • Though we didn't do a lot of hiking or even walking, bringing folding hiking poles are helpful.
  • If you're up for it (and capable), see to schedule a horseback riding excursion (or two! And if you want to do more, check out Quinta da Terca or another equestrian facility) to take in the island's natural beauty by a different perspective. Some rides are planned at different locations like Lagoa das Sete Cidades.
  • A lot of excursions can be booked in advance, over-seas and generally make things less stressful but you can also do it when you arrive.
  • If you like to golf, do it! I was told by an avid golfer that there are some really nice greens.
  • Rent a car for transportation; while they have a public system, you're on vacation and it's just less stressful and you're likely to want to be able to pick up and go at your pace.
  • Google maps/GPS works well so add a roaming package and you may want to increase data as well, to one of the primary cell phone and the other(s) can tether by wifi.
  • Our primary communications back home was email and the roaming cell phone.
  • Credit cards are acceptable in many locations but travelling with cash is simply easier--especially at restaurants. Some financial institutions also require notification prior to travel so you don't get shut out of your credit card when you try to use it. How much euro you take depends on your habits. We took ~750 euros as we figure we'd be modest as often as possible but didn't want to get stuck and anything remaining would be squirrelled away for next time.
  • Whale watching scheduling can be a bit finicky. Schedule early in your trip so you have opportunity to reschedule as needed.
  • I should add that anything relating to a water (ocean) activity should be researched in advance because conditions can hamper or cancel your outings.
  • If you like the nature and science of things, check this listing for the various institutes that might be of interest.
  • Although there are 9 islands, each is different both culturally and with different features. For me, I wanted to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Sites (there are 2) but they were each on another island where travel was either costly or time-consuming for a single feature visit. If there is something specific, incorporate earlier so you can fit into your stay without doubling accommodations or otherwise.
  • You can budget food and water a bit by visiting local grocery stores.
  • Good souvenirs can be found all over the island but I wouldn't recommend the airport. Ponta Delgada has some good shops and places you visit, as well.
  • Try the fizzy Kima drink that is both made and bottled on the island.
+ADW enjoying Kima on one of the many occasions...

Some of the unusual or usual truths included facts such as...
  • Animals all have a job here. They are generally not companions of leisure. For example, if you're horseback riding for fun, you'll get a few looks from the locals.
  • Roads are twisty, narrow and thrilling. Drive safe and enjoy yourself.
  • Food and drink is great value for the quality and quantity so enjoy.
  • Tap water is generally not potable; usually bottled water is provided/offered.
  • Flora is lush, green and amazing everywhere and the views are breath-taking.
  • The most commonly planted flower (that thrives across the island and is often considered the official flower) is the hydrangea but it is not native to the region.
  • There are no natural 'top' predators on the island.
  • A lot of the flora/fauna is endemic to the region and being threatened by invasive species.
  • English language knowledge is generally serviceable but be prepared for the occasional non-English speaker.
  • Weather changes on a dime... one minute it's sunny and clear and the next, you're caught in a down pour or thick fog.
  • Portuguese people make mouth-watering gluten-y bread products *drooling*
  • The airport is small; nothing like Pearson or O'Hare but well laid out in my opinion.
  • Beach consistency range from fine sand to chunky (and sharp) volcanic rocks.
  • There is plenty to keep you busy for a week, at a leisurely pace.
These lists are pretty exhaustive but I doubt they're absolute. Hopefully they'll give you a good idea of what to consider if you're planning on visiting!

*Information from Weather and Climate
**A good website I found online for voltage/electrical plugs includes images
A tourist information website called Visit Azores is really helpful
TripAdvisor is a valuable source for information from other travellers

Monday, July 11, 2016

Sao Miguel: Culinary Highlights

When travelling, I make it a point to immerse in the culture through food (and drink). In high school a Portuguese classmate joked that their Canadian cousins must be Newfoundlanders because of their shared love of seafood. While most of us are familiar with fish, various shellfish and crustaceans, the introduction of sea limpets was the highlight of my seafood experience. These molluscs have a texture between calamari and mussels. Azoreans eat them raw as well as cooked; we had 'em grilled with butter, garlic, wine and spicy chilies with a squeeze of lemon. While it's no surprise that seafood is a staple of the Azorean diet, the other (that was a surprise to me) is beef and dairy.

On-site milking done in the fields and a cow in pasture
Most of the cattle raised is exported and they make A LOT of cheese. Every restaurant features fresh white cheese and Sao Jorge cheese as appetizers; one custom we were not familiar with before dining in Sao Miguel is that upon being seated, the server brings a plate of cheese (generally the fresh white one kind) and spicy sauce with bread--whether you ordered it or not. If you're not going to consume it, I'd recommend you tell them that, before being seated or it'll be added to the tab.

The countryside is intensively sectioned into walled plots of mixed farming, by lava stone, ranging from small residential gardens, to beef/dairy farming, to pineapple or passionfruit "orchards". Driving around the island, it is common to see holstein cows grazing on the sides and tops of hills as well as people's front yards. But as history has it, the original major agricultural export was oranges, until a disease wiped out the island's crop. Wine grapes are another crop grown but the best wine in the region is that from Pico Island. Another notable super drink cultivated is tea, with two plantations still active: Porto Formoso and Gorreana, from the inception of the cultivation in the 1870s. Gorreana is a functional museum where visitors can learn about the process and sample the tea.

Tea fields of Gorreana
Dining in Sao Miguel is quite the experience and you will not be disappointed. My most memorable meal is the Caldeirada de Peixe (and my mouth waters reading the linked page describing the dish in all its amazingness) at Restaurante Mariserra in Ponta Delgada. Yes, we are wearing bibs; be fore-warned not to wear any light coloured clothes or you'll be redecorating that shirt.

Restaurante Mariserra
The first meal of the stay was a little less memorable but one we still enjoyed: a steak sandwich and fries, and fried sardines (*yum*) at a cute hotel Solar do Conde near our own hotel. This was our first exposure to beef on the island and it was really good so expectations were high.

Hotel Solar do Conde
The only place on the island that topped our beefy expectations, was the farming coop (Associacao Agricola de Sao Miguel) which also has a restaurant on site, open to the public. We enjoyed our meals here so much that we went twice and both times, it was a full-house. The signature dish is the Portuguese steak: a fried steak with an egg on top. An unusual combination was the blood sausage and pineapple but worth it!!

TravelAdvisor rates them high
Our first meal out on the town was at a Portuguese restaurant (and accommodations) in Ponta Delgada established in 1908, called Alcides. We over-did ourselves this time since we hadn't been informed about the cheese and bread custom. But boy did we enjoy ourselves! Conger eel stew and fish egg scramble/fry.

Fish egg fry/scramble and Conger eel stew!
Another specialty dish is cozidos. Foods cooked with the heat of the geothermal energies of the Furnas area. Pots of ingredients, generally meats, potatoes, vegetables and rice, are buried in the ground and then dug up several hours later. It was at Tony's where we first tried sea limpets accompanying the cozidos and deep fried forkbeard fish.

Cozidos in Furnas
Despite going out to explore different tastes, we did spend one dinner at the hotel we stayed, Pedras do Mar, and had a lovely night in, with a fresh salad, cod and grilled octopus.

A night in, at Pedras do Mar

We couldn't forget the best way to spend our lunch after horseback riding at a little seafood place by the ocean called Bar Caloura. This unassuming place took advantage of its location by the ocean and the catch of the day menu changed daily. You'd just pick a fish you wanted, they'd grill it up for you with access to the salad bar. Very relaxing and wonderful way to spend lunch after a ride.

A photo posted by Deborah (@my_examined_life) on

Food and drink is always such a highlight of our travels but being prepared for the trip is pivotal for a good experience. Coming up next, preparations and other thoughts about making the most out of a trip to Sao Miguel!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sao Miguel: Just Passin' Through

+ADW and I saw and did everything we could in Sao Miguel: we climbed mountains, braved the ocean, walked into the mouth of a (sleeping) volcano... Actually, the entire island is a series of lush volcanic craters so that doesn't really say much other than we're crazy and the people who choose to live there are even nuttier than we are! We stayed at an unassuming modern zen style hotel recently constructed on the north-western coast that boasts quite the facilities; few of which we bothered to get acquainted with--if we wanted spa services, we wouldn't have travelled so far for them.

The Azores boasts a variety of active excursions as well as those for the less actively inclined. For those wanting to get out and about, activities range from water to land and everything in between; there is certainly something for everyone; some of it seasonally dependant such as surfing. For those who are less inclined to trek into the wilderness (so to speak), you'll find that the food and drink is pure and unadulterated--fresh in a sublime sense--it still brings envy (and a bit of drool) to realize that this is the standard; as well, many of the island's landmarks or 'museums*' are easily accessible by car--something I highly recommend for one travelling in the Azores.

*I use this term broadly since I can't quite find the best word to describe places of scientific and historic exhibition, discovery and research.

Instead of organizing my posts in the typical day-by-day adventures I've composed previously, I figured visitors might not be limited only to Sao Miguel; after all, there are nine islands. We start with my list of top 5 must do areas/features for a shorter length of travel on Sao Miguel.

1. Lagoa das Sete Cidades
This is probably one of the most popular image in a Google search of the Azores. These two visually distinctive lakes, located in the western third of the island, are situated in the crater of the civil parish of Sete Cidades and attract visitors and locals alike, to take in the stunning landscape. It's a view that simply can't be captured on camera and I'd say, one of the most breath-taking views I've witnessed in person and there are many look-outs. The views are so amazing that someone thought to cash in on it by building a hotel (Hotel Monte Palace) that overlooks the lagoas but didn't take into account the view is only viable when it isn't covered in fog--which is often--and today, the hotel stands abandoned.

For those looking to head out into the wilderness on foot, day hiking around the lagoas is an excellent way to see the natural landscape. An alternative would be to contact one of the equestrian companies of the island to see if they have any tours on horseback.

Not far from the two lagoas, there are natural thermal ocean pools that are a great trip for (what I consider) the brave: Ponta da Ferraria. The link is quite extensive so I won't go into detail, but stress that this feature is VERY MUCH dependant on weather and time of day. Go at the wrong time and you may be dragged out to sea or smashed against the rocky shores. There is no admissions for the natural pools but the (safe) man-made ones charge bathers.

2. Furnas
For me, this was my favourite area to visit. Not just because there is volcanic activity and a clowder of friendly felines:

A photo posted by Deborah (@my_examined_life) on

Located in the eastern-centre of the island, Furnas features huge calderas, fumaroles, geysers and hot-springs throughout the civil parish. The region is also home to one of the top hotels in Portugal: Terra Nostra Hotel, styled in art deco fashion and built in the 1930s, to attract "monied" visitors. The hotel is also keeper to a stunning gardens ground that is a must to check out (charge admissions). On the other hand, if you don't end up staying in Furnas, you could spend a morning taking advantage of the mineral hot springs--something we didn't feel inclined to do (in this instance).

Instead, we wandered into the parks area of Lagoas das Furnas where we thought we were going to take a brief stroll around the park but discovered a research and monitoring facility of Furnas: Centro de Monitorizacao e Investigacao das Furnas. Much of the island has been heavily burdened by the increase in agriculture practices that put the indigenous flora, fauna and fresh water reserves at risk but the government is taking steps to right poor practices that threaten the unique environment. I highly recommend visiting, in addition to the gated garden (you can get combo admissions to both but just make sure you have enough time to do both and are dressed appropriately).

We also visit the parks where the locals utilize the unique geology to cook food, by volcanic activity: cozidos. At this point in our trip, I was missing my two fur-babies and it was as if fate just knew (as always), and the moment I stepped out of the car at the park, a tortoiseshell kitty happily trots towards me in hopes of getting a hand-out. It doesn't surprise me that stray cats decide to populate this area since it's likely they'll get a meal. There are several restaurants that feature this menu and we visited one of the most well-known: Tony's.

One place we didn't manage to fit into our schedule (and I REALLY wish we did) is the Microbial Observatory of the Azores because I am a proud microbiologist by education, indirectly through my various forays into home fermentation and by work (seeing as many diseases are caused by microbes).

3. Ponta Dalgada
Ponta Delgada is the largest, most populated municipality and administrative capital for the region. If you're looking for some souvenirs and have a little less than a day, you could check out Fort de Sao Bras:

and wander the main part of the city and pier area. If you're looking for a more adventurous excursion, make your way to the pier see if you could sign up for a whale watching outing. This is unfortunately, highly weather dependant and it's tricky to tell from land so if you want to do this, try to book it early and if you need to re-book, there's still time to reschedule. Unfortunately for us, ADW was quite the sad panda since we didn't have that chance to head out. #nexttime

4. Vila Franco do Campo
If you're a history buff, this one would interest you because while Ponta Delgada is the current "capital", it wasn't always the case. Vila Franco do Campo was the main settlement until October 1522 when a violent earthquake shook the region, causing landslides that killed more than 5,000 of the inhabitants--many who were buried alive. The area has since been re-settled but has never regained its prominence as being the primary "capital". That said, it's still worth seeing because from here, you can visit or view (depending on the time of year and your interests) a crater islet about 1km from the south shore with indigenous flora/fauna and a small crater lake where visitors can swim and snorkel.

Bottom of the chapel steps
As we discovered about the Portuguese, they are a religious bunch and one of the most incredible churches we visited is the Our Lady of Peace Chapel, where this chapel is situated high on the top of the hill, providing an amazing panoramic view for any who visit, along with the beauty of the chapel itself. Be prepared for a hike well worth it and don't look back/down until you get to the top so you can be wowed.

There is also a regional cookie/cake made here that is worth trying when you're wandering around and looking or a snack.

5. Nordeste
The eastern third of the island shows visitors a more raw and untamed section of the island--full of death-defying mountain side roads and what appears to be more of the indigenous flora and fauna. Driving out to explore this area is a driver's dream come true with narrow winding roads carved into the sides of the mountains or passing over deep forested gorges.

Farol Ponta do Arnel
A highly recommended stop over here is the lighthouse on the most eastern point: Farol Ponta do Arnel. It's a functional lighthouse that is occasionally open to the public (usually a Wednesday) and worth seeing. The hike down to the house is steep so be sure you're prepared with the right shoes, water, endurance and clothes (hiking sticks help too) because going down is one thing, but coming back up is entirely another. Pack a picnic and you can chill out near the parking lot before or after your visit.

One of my favourite things about the island is the various gardens and look-outs along the roads where you could stop to enjoy the view, the company and a snack. One of the prettiest ones we visited was Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada.