“To awaken in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world” — Freya Stark
I wake up to the sound of the surf — waves crashing on rocks somewhere outside my window. As I come out of my dreamstate I remember that today is a day for walking. Not just any walk at that — the Grand Route of Santa Maria Island in the Azores is in my sights for the next five days. The “Grande Trilho Santa Maria” is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of walking around the circumference of the island with a hike up over the highest peak on the island, Pico Alto, thrown in for good measure.
Santa Maria is geologically the oldest of the nine islands that make up the Azores archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. Multiple volcanic eruptions combined with the natural processes of the ocean over the eons caused Santa Maria to rise out of the water multiple times — there are both lava fields and fossil deposits here.
The Azores are located more than 1300 km (850 miles) West of their Portuguese motherland and served as a outpost and resupply point servicing the explorations of the New World in the 1400’s. Surprisingly, the Azores are only about a four hour direct flight from Boston and two to three hours from some European cities. In the early years of trans-atlantic flight and through World War II, the islands’ placement was important for refueling and strategic purposes. Santa Maria had a population of about 15,000 back when the US military operated here but now is home to about 5000 people.
Over coffee in Vila do Porto, the principal town on the island, I get a good orientation to the Grand Route from Ioannis and Rita Rousseau, proprietors of a small business here called Ilha a Pe (meaning ‘island on foot”). They tell me how to recognize the route markings, where there are services along the way, highlight some of the sights and points of interest I will pass, and — importantly — how to find the series of eco-cottages they have established and maintain along the way. I will stay at a different one of these the next four nights to break the trek into five days of walking.
Ilha a Pe’s facilities and services mean that I will only need to carry a daypack. Ioannis will bring my luggage & a sleeping bag along with dinner and breakfast each night to where I am staying that night. They have things set up so that you can backpack and take care of your own food at a lower price, but I found their service to carry my stuff and bring meals to be well worth the price. I think that at the time of my trip, the “backpackers” price for just a place to stay for the four nights (no meals or moving your stuff) was about 120 euros and it was only another 80 euros to add meals and moving your stuff (check their website for current pricing). An excellent value I think.
The couple points the way and I am off heading east along the Southern coast of the island. The coastline here is fairly open country on top of high bluffs overlooking the Atlantic. Soon, roads through farmlands transition to a narrower trail close to the precipice of the bluffs.
Different colors are used on the traditional homes in the different parts of the island — blue, yellow, green and reddish (like clay pottery.
Ilha a Pe’s eco-cottages are renovated stone farm sheds. All of them are located at spectacular scenic settings. Ioannis and Rita told me about their experiences with acquiring and renovating these properties. It wasn’t always easy as the concept they were working on was like nothing the local authorities and regulators had ever encountered.
I arrived in the mid-afternoon and took a walk over to a small shop at Malbusca and did some writing while sitting in the sun with a cold drink. Ioannis arrived soon after I returned to the eco-cottage to drop off my stuff and bring me dinner and the next day’s breakfast. Rita had prepared a great, traditional feast for me — squid stew, rustic bread, and tremocos (lupini beans) in locally crafted pottery. I enjoyed all of the meals throughout the trek — there were interesting local specialty treats each day … some I remember were biscoitos de orelha (ear cookies), a homemade pate, and a homemade cheese.
The eco-cottages are spartan, but nicely equipped and appointed. Each one is set up with bunks to accommodate six people. A solar cell provides electricity for lights (no wall outlets) and a solar hot water set-up provides hot water for showers and washing up. A composting toilet set-up handles bathroom needs. A wood burning stove is available for warmth, but it was never cold enough (I visited in October) that I wanted to use one. A propane stove is available to heat food and water for coffee. I found the eco-cottages all to be relaxing and comfortable places to stay.
Breakfasts typically consisted of coffee (others may prefer tea) bread, butter, jam, cheese, sliced deli meat, yogurt, fruit, hard boiled egg … a plentiful continental breakfast. After breakfast and a bit of clean-up it was back on the trek.
Although altitude changes aren’t extreme, don’t be lulled by that There are some steep sections of the route. On each of the first three days and on the last day there are steep descents down the cliff to the beach below followed by very steep climbs back up to the rolling plains above.
The village of Santo Espirito is a pretty little community surrounded by wooded hills and farmlands. It is home to the Museum of Santa Maria which features the history and culture of the island — well worth a stop. An artisans cooperative (Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria) is also located here that makes and sells weavings, baked goods (ear cookies!), and other craft items.
All along the Grand Route you pass through steep lateral drainages running from the center of the island to the sea. Although there is nothing technical about the route, it provides a good test of lungs and legs.
Santa Maria seemed to have a very high proportion of traditional architecture compared to the other islands I visited. The buildings here seem to always be perfectly sited to complement the surrounding landscape. They also tend to be dispersed from each other rather than being placed close together.
On the fourth day, there is an ascent up over a high ridge near the top of Pico Alto, the highest point on the island at 586 meters (1,925 ft).
Anjos is another coastal village that is said to have been visited by Christopher Columbus during his return from the Americas in the 1490’s.
The final day of the trek crosses expanses of dry plains. I am not a “birder” but I was told that this area offers excellent opportunities for bird watchers.
There is a last climb down to the sea and back up in this stretch.
The cannons at São Brás Fort in Vila do Porto used to be part of the towns’s defenses against repeated attacks by French, English, and other pirates.
The Centro de Interpretação Ambiental Dalberto Pombo (CIADP) is a very modern natural history museum on the main street in Vila do Porto. It has interesting displays about the geologic history of the island.
During my visit, I was intrigued by the story of how the Trilho Grande, or Grand Route came to be and I was fortunate to meet a few of the guys who conceived of the route and did the work to make it a reality. They told me that there were five good friends who liked to hike and who all shared a vision that a long-distance hiking route would be a great way to share all that Santa Maria has to offer with visitors to the island. It was a total volunteer effort — a labor of love. They worked on the routing, the necessary land-owner permissions, and getting recognition of the route by the government. The route was formally designated and recognized in 2015. One of the friends is a web developer and he put together a nice website about the route. Check it out!
There are a handful of restaurants, cafes, and bars in Vila do Porto. I enjoyed the Central Pub. I had pizza the night I arrived on the island and a burger on the night before leaving.
Santa Maria is off the beaten track, but has several small businesses that cater to tourism. I was fortunate to meet and spend short visits with proprietors and representatives of several of these. SMATUR provides a variety of tours as well as a service to shuttle mountain bikers and hikers from Vila do Porto to a variety of locations on the island. Their service supports a broad variety of possibilities for hiking and downhill mountain biking. With respect to the Grand Route, a person could spend all their nights in Vila do Porto and be shuttled to/from the beginning/end of each day’s stage of the trek. Bootla offers a variety of standard jeep and bus tour itineraries on the island and can also provide customized experiences. Casa do Norte manages several guest houses — both their own and for others — that provide unique rural accommodations. They are typically for multi-day stays. Laurinda Souza was kind to treat me to coffee and spend a bit of time talking with me about Santa Maria at her Casa do Norte property. I came to understand from others that Laurinda is a key connector for tourism businesses on the island — she was the person who connected me with Ilha a Pe when I was researching my trip. All of the people I met are passionate about their island and want to help share it with visitors.
Direct flights to the continent (Lisbon) are provided by Azores Airlines (formerly SATA International) out of Santa Maria Airport located close to Vila do Porto. The airport and airline also provides some direct connections to the rest of the Azores archipelago. I came by way of Ponta Delgado on Sao Miguel island and returned to spend some time there and on other of the islands before retuning to Lisbon. As I understand it, there are also direct flights from Boston to Ponta Delgado that are just a few hours in duration.