Sao Jorge - Slow, Long, Deep Exhales
Rest, Relax and Restore while leading a Travel to Transform wellness retreat in Sao Jorge, Portugal was in the plan for 2020, but enter Cov-id 19. And, like so many other plans that had to change or get put on hold when the pandemic hit, this too was cancelled. While this was a small casualty compared to the tragic losses of others, it was truly a disappointment nonetheless. I got a taste of this enchanting little island last year when I took a quick side trip there in the days leading up to our wellness retreat on Sao Miguel - one of the other magical islands that make up the Azores archipelago. What is so special about Sao Jorge that enticed me to plan a trip back so soon? Allow me to explain, as I take a trip down memory lane.
First and foremost, it is the deep sense of peace and calm that one feels as soon as your feet hit the ground there. I can remember my excitement in the small plane as we began to get glimpses of the island and approached the landing strip of the tiny airport just outside of Velas. A new place. New friends. A new adventure. My happy heart began to beat quickly in anticipation of beginning to explore this new destination. Yet when I stepped off the plane it seemed as if instantly the world slowed down and a sense of calm came over me. I’d read an article on the flight from Boston that described it as a place you can fully breathe. And how true that is. I have traveled to many places in the world, but never have I been to a place that seemed to simply compel me to breathe deeply and relax just by setting foot on the land.
Egidio Nascimento and his lovely wife Celeste, our hosts for our two day visit, were waiting for us as we collected our bags. While they are residents of Canada now, both were born and raised in the Azores and now return there often to help expand Life Wellness Azores, a network of unique partners that help travelers fully enjoy the best the Azores has to offer. I was so delighted to accept their invitation to be our host and guide on the island while we were there. As we left the airport and headed for Quinta das Figueiras, our home base for the the next couple of days, the rural makeup and charm of the island became immediately apparent. We ambled slowly along behind farm vehicles as we watched workers repairing the sturdy stone fences leading away from the village and out into the countryside. No honking of horns, no attempts to quickly pass and zoom on down the road, rather a relaxing drive from here to there as you marvel at the multitude of wild hydrangeas lining almost every road on the island. While it was nearing the end of the bloom season late in September, they were still so gorgeous to behold.
As we unpacked our bags at the Quinta and gazed at the imposing view of the Mount Pico on the opposite shores, I was struck by how quiet the surroundings were. There would be an occasional bleating of sheep, or call of a bird, but otherwise the only sounds were those made by the gentle breeze. No question about it, this was definitely going to be a the ideal place to disconnect and unwind.
We spent the first part of our afternoon strolling through the enchanted old forest paths in Parque Florestal das Sete Fontes. It was a beautiful, tranquil park that reminded me somewhat of a Japanese garden, with lush and diverse vegetation surrounding small ponds lined with moss and ferns. It would have been the perfect place to settle in and meditate or simply sit and enjoy the quiet beauty all around you. We visited several other parks while on the island and were surprised at how clean and well maintained they all were. The ones with barbecue grills even had firewood stacked up and ready for you to use!
Sao Jorge is famously known for their high quality cheese and no visit to the island would be complete without a visit to one of the factories and a taste of this regional specialty. The buttery yellow wedges are somewhat like a cheddar cheese, but with a unique flavor and aroma all of their own. The rich volcanic soil and mild climate yield thick green pastures where cows graze freely and supply an abundance of raw milk which is used to make the cheese. Traditional cheesemaking techniques are still used in the factories and contribute to the special flavor and texture of the resulting cheese. Sao Jorge cheese can be found on all the Azores islands and I must admit that we definitely consumed a large quantity of it in the time we were there.
What a lovely dinner we had with Egidio and Celeste that evening at Restaurants Acor, seated at an outside table and enjoying the beautiful view. The magnitude of choices of fresh fish were mind boggling and we were all too happy to rely on the suggestions of our hosts for our meal. The sun was setting and the temperature neither too warm nor too cool. Follow this by good food, good wine, good company and good conversation. What more could we ask for? It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
Sao Jorge is a long thin island only 33 miles long and 5 miles wide and one of the best ways to explore it is to don your hiking shoes and set out on one of the multitude of trails that cover the island. Beyond the pasture lands are dense forests and steep cliffs that descend sharply in elevation to scenic shorelines below. After a leisurely morning and midday picnic with a view of the coast, we began a moderate hike down to Fajã dos Cubres. A fajã is a place where lava or landslides flowed years ago to form plains at the base of the cliffs. There are over forty of these on the island and many are home to tiny villages, some of which are only accessible by foot. After exploring the large lagoon and wetlands around Fajã dos Cubres, we continued on until we reached another large lagoon and little village at Faja da caldeira do Santo Cristo. Here we were greeted by a number of locals digging in the shallow waters of the lagoon for tasty clams. It was a pleasant place for a pitstop as we removed our shoes and socks and waded around searching for a clam or two ourselves.