The plane sways and lurches ominously as we prepare the decent. There is only sea visible through my window and my palms have started to sweat. I consciously try to relax my body, thinking of what the waves have taught me about futility of fighting the uncontrollable. My breathing is deliberately slow and deep, my slick palms the only obvious sign of heightened discomfort.
The journey from Terceira to São Jorge is mercifully short, announced as being 20 minutes but could not have been more than 15. The distance from the plane’s exit to the outside of the airport cannot be more than 200 metres. And the landscape could not be more dramatic. This island is so radically different from the previous one that as I drive to my amazing guesthouse I am laughing out loud at the majesty of everything.
São Jorge is a long narrow island (only 8km wide ) split length ways down the middle by towering mountains. The sea sparkles and glitters at the bottom of enormous cliffs that rise drastically from the ocean. Everything about the place feels improbable. Towns and villages are propped along the coast, often at the bottom of narrow steep roads. Dogs hang ominously over the side of speeding pickup trucks barking with joy.
São Jorge is one of the lesser known islands of the Azores, and researching the place is not massively obvious from a distance. By chance I had met someone who gave me pointers on what to see on this incredible island, including a ‘do not miss’ hamlet, Caldeiro do Santo Cristo on the north coast, unreachable by car. There is what looks like a manageable hike that runs past this famous hamlet, and I decided that would be my first island activity. I inserted Fajã do Cubres, the hike’s start point, into google maps and headed off. About ten minutes into the car ride I realised that something was not right. Google was taking me on tracks that barely count as a dirt trails let alone road, with an incline that seriously stretched my rental Smart’s clutch. Stopping at the bottom of a particularly nasty climb, I looked at the route mapped for me and noted that google maps does not work here. It simply does not work. It recognises two roads on the whole island. Apple maps works slightly better but ultimately I realised – with a slight thrill of going back to basics- that this is a country of sign posts and good old fashioned maps (and asking direction when all else fails).
Roughly thirty minutes later, I found myself at the top of Fajã dos Cubres, wondering if my breaks would handle the steep winding road to the bottom. I feel this is as good a chance as any to say that if you do not feel comfortable driving, you are going to find this place tough. The roads are narrow, twisty and steep. About the only thing they aren’t is busy (in April at least).
I start my hike towards this elusive Caldeira do Santo Cristo in Fajã dos Cubres. The track is a surprising bustle of activity considering how supposedly remote it is meant to be. There are quads constantly driving up and down the trail, bringing people and supplies to the houses along the way, and there are construction workers and builders reinforcing and building accordingly. People are exceptionally friendly, happily waving, smiling and chatting.
Caldeira do Santo Cristo is extremely beautiful, built on black rock sticking dramatically into the sea, surrounded by steep cliffs and green mountains. There is a church and a few houses, and unexpectedly, a surf camp. This is actually famous surfing spot in Portugal, although while I was there the waves were not surfable. This land feels equally wholesome and mystical.
The trail continues up the mountain and out of curiosity I decided to follow it up, to see what I could see. This trail has been marked as ‘hard’ by Visit Azores, and it takes me barely 15 minutes to understand that is a notably fair rating. The hike is extremely steep, with the path steadily degrading from a dirt road to a single file, slightly more trodden patch of grass. The trail is marked just about frequently enough not too worry, although the simple truth is that there is only one path up, so getting lost is not really what you would be worrying about. More often than not I found myself glancing for the markings as a way of taking a break on the steeper climbs.
The trail passes by a waterfall that in the summer must be delicious to jump into, and through forest that is mesmerizing; the floor speckled golden as the sunshine dances through the trees. The last half of the climb is through fields with free roaming cows who may or may not chose to sit right in your path. The views as you climb are breathtaking (literally), with the sea peaking between two mountains and endless shades of green stretching as far as you can see. This is a place for the soul to soar – a place where man’s impact on the earth feels blessedly insignificant.
If you only have a day in São Jorge, I would recommend this trail. The visitazores website marks it as a linear trail starting at the top and going down. I gather that most commonly people take a taxi to the start (a high point in the middle of the island) and then request the taxi pick them up from the end. This is wise, but if you want to do both directions I strongly recommend starting at the bottom. The trail is a tough slog and even the downhill is steep, requiring mental concentration as to where you put your feet. Make sure to bring water and something to eat at the top. The trail came in at over 21 km and 6 hours. I walked it on my own, and came across very few people, so be sure to tell someone you are heading out (you will not always have mobile phone reception on the walk). I walked the trail on a breezy but sunny day, where the air temperature was mild and the sun was warm. I can imagine that if it gets hot this trail would be extremely rough, especially on the more exposed steep slopes towards the top, and almost unbearable if wet. This is also not a hike I would recommend with small children…
Luckily for me, São Jorge is not an island for crazy nightlife, so I did not feel compelled to do anything after my long hike except collapse with tiredness and go to bed almost as soon as it got dark. The next morning I decided to embark on a less ambitious hike, and spotted a nice linear hike of 3.2 km (most of the hikes on the island seem to be linear) which was going to give me a comfortable 6.4 km when completed. The hike I chose went from Portal to Fajã dos Vimes along the coast. Fajã dos Vimes is known for its coffee growing farmer, one of the few places you can drink European grown coffee – it seemed like an ideal spot for a mid morning coffee.
This hike is marked as medium on the trail maps, and again I thought this was a fair assessment. The beginning of the trail is steeply downhill (which means steeply uphill on your way back), with mismatched steps at points and runs along the cliff front. It is considerably less wild than my previous day’s walk, but I nonetheless met not a single soul as I walked. The trail was lined with wild calla lilies and once again matched dappled green with glittery blue sea. Arriving in Fajã dos Vimes I found the Café Nunes easily (the Fajã is a small collection of farms and houses – nothing would have been terribly hard to find) and got myself a galão the Portuguese version of a latte from the extremely friendly farmer’s wife. When Senhor Nunes himself showed up I was taken for a tour of his small farm where he grows coffee, passion fruit, annonas and bananas. Senhor Nunes is an older man who speaks no English, but showed me the farm with a simple, humble pride that I found inexplicably elegant and moving.
When I walked away from Café Nunes my step had a pronounced bounce that was not only linked to the strong coffee. There was a gentle kindness to the people I met on São Jorge; a warmth to the often toothless smiles of strangers that reaffirmed humanity’s goodness. This whole island in fact, is a reaffirmation of all that is good in the world.
My last morning on the island had me swimming in a natural swimming cave, and exploring black beaches with shockingly bright blue water. I walked from the airport to the main town on the island Velas for lunch, where I spent an enjoyable hour exploring the cobbled streets and an extremely generous glass of vino verde (that cost me a euro – the island is inexplicably inexpensive). As I walked back to the airport to catch my flight I felt genuinely sad to be leaving such a unique and beautiful place. I felt like parts of my heart that I did not know were broken had been healed. I felt wonderful.
If you are visiting the Azores, I would not miss São Jorge. Of the three islands I visited (São Miguel, Terceira and São Jorge) it was by a long stretch my favourite and the only island I did not feel I was ready to leave. This is the sort of island you come to to write a book. It is the sort of place the heartbroken or grieving character in a beautifully edited film might come to rediscover themselves and their faith in life. To me, this island felt like the land of hope – a place where humankind is still human and kind.
São Jorge take aways
- Rent a car. On this island even more so than Terceira or São Miguel, this is important
- Be prepared for all weather
- Do not go hiking without water – the hikes are steep
- If you plan to hike or surf or just spend a day taking it easy then make sure you stay here for at least three/four days
- There is no whale watching from São Jorge
- Go slow – this is not an island to be rushed through
- The Make it Happen Farm baked fresh bread for me every morning which I ate with their homemade jams – if you want a lovely place to stay I could not recommend highly enough
- A little Portuguese can go a long way. Most people I spoke to did not speak much English and my rudimentary Portuguese made it a lot easier for me.