São Jorge

The island of São Jorge is located slightly east and north of Faial. Created by a line of successive volcanoes, the island is 53km long and 7km wide. The central spine of the island ranges in height from about 700m to 1050m; these mountains drop off into steep cliffs at the shoreline, with small fajãs, or deltas dotted around the island at the base of the cliffs. On São Jorge, the fajãs were formed either by rock and other material falling from the cliffs above, or by lava escaping out the side of the volcanoes and cooling when it hit the ocean. The resulting patches of land are mostly flat, very fertile, and large enough to support small towns or villages. Larger areas like Velas and Calheta were developed into small cities, whereas others remained accessible only by sea, or via a series of very steep modern roads.

Map of the Azores

The largest town on São Jorge is Velas, which is a 20nm sail from Horta. We had a lots of wind on our sail, and made good time – and even had a visit from a pod of dolphins! Although it is the main harbour on the island, Velas’ marina is not very big, and their anchorage has limited protection depending on the wind direction. We were fortunate enough to get a space that was tucked in behind the breakwater, out of the way of the swell – had we been any bigger, we probably wouldn’t have fit!

We spent a week in São Jorge, giving us enough time to explore without feeling rushed. On the first two days, we went exploring on foot. We had passed two big morros, or hills, on the way into town, and I wanted to climb to the top of them! Morro das Velas is at the edge of town and Morro de Lemos is just a short walk beyond. We had ambitions to do both in one day, but our legs had other ideas. In the end we did two separate morning hikes, and spent the afternoons back on the boat recovering.

To get to Morro de Lemos we walked out of town and then cut across a cow pasture. As city kids, it is very daunting when a large herd of horned cattle starts walking towards you. Especially when the cows have big horns!

After a day of rest, we realized that a car would be necessary to see more of São Jorge. Technically there are buses, but they only run twice a day – once into the city, and once to get out. We picked up a car on Tuesday morning, and set out to see as much as we could in one day.

First stop was the western tip of the island, Rosarios. The lighthouse was built in the late 1950s, and opened in 1964 with cutting-edge light technology. It remained in operation until an earthquake in 1980, which caused instability and some minor collapsing of the cliffs behind the compound. Nothing has been left inside the buildings, but you can poke your head inside and see some of the old living quarters. We walked around the buildings, and then followed a path out behind the compound, to look over the edge of the cliffs.

Not far from the lighthouse, an old lookout tower is perched on an old volcano cone. From the late 1800s until the 1940s, it was used as a whale spotting tower. When he saw a whale, the spotter would send out a signal – first with a compressed air horn and in later years with a series of fireworks. He would then communicate with the whale boats by way of a white flag and smoke signals, telling the whalers if it was a single whale or a pod, and in which direction they needed to go in order to catch the whale(s). This continued until the 1940s, when radios replaced the signalling system. Whale hunting in the Azores finally came to and end in the 1980s.

From the western point, we worked our way back east along the island. Our typical arrangement for car rentals is that Mike drives, and I use Google Maps to keep us on the right route, and look for interesting lookouts and stopping points along the way. Mike had done some pre-reading about the island, so he had a few ideas of places to visit – the rest we just made up as we went along. In São Jorge, Mike wanted to check out a few towns that were built on the fajãs of the north coast. The cliffs on this coast are very high and very steep – which made for some amazing views, and some very steep access roads!

Although the Azores are all Portuguese, it is fascinating to see how each island has a distinct look and feel. If you come here yourself, be sure to visit more than one island, so you can appreciate all these differences for yourself!