|IT'S GRANDER IN THE AZORES
By Captain Matt Baryshyan
My dad had a saying when we first started fishing offshore; if we were not prepared, ignored the weather and were not generally buttoned up, we could easily get in trouble with all that blue around us. Make sure we dont end up on a one-way trip to the Azores! He would call this down from the bridge as we singled up the lines on every trip. Well, after spending seven glorious days actually in the Azores, I was considering asking my hosts for piscatorial asylum, making my trip indeed, one way!
The Azores are a volcanic archipelago complete with pineapples 2,500 miles southeast of Newfoundland and 900 miles southwest of Portugal, basically in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There are nine islands in the chain, arranged in three groups: Northwest, Central and Southeast. All the islands are occupied and they are all serviced by an inter-island ferry and some inter-island air transportation. With all of islands being formed by volcanos, they are a young land mass and as such, there is not a slope or shelf meeting the land, just a short apron and then a deep drop-off to the ocean floor.
The islands are a possession of Portugal and have been settled since the 1500s. The population of the island chain is roughly 250,000 people who are engaged in farming, meat and dairy processing, and of course, fishing, mostly commercial, or professional fishing as the locals call it. The government is a run by a Social Democratic rule and the islands have independent parliamentary jurisdiction, but are still funded by the mainland government. While the Socialists are out of power, they still have many state-run labor mandates, which are very interesting. For example, the commercial fishermen are supported with fuel and operating costs in turn for employing as many people as is practical to have on their boat for a share of the catch, which they sell to the restaurants, fish and supermarkets. Fresh-caught fish is available every day, which we all enjoyed immensely.
While most of us who are exposed to big game fishing have heard of the Azores before as this mythical Oz of massive marlin, outside of the entire population of Fall River, Mass., and a few very lucky members of the US Air Force, the Azores are not familiar to most of us in the US. Hopefully, we will be able to put the Azores on your radar screen as this is a fishing and vacation destination not to be missed.
I fell in love with the Azores not because it was the most exotic or beautiful, which it is on both counts, but because it was simply just right for me. Some places just fit a guy like a favorite sweater or that old Harnell rod that you just cant seem to retire. To me, the Azores just seemed to fit me. Instead of going to this great place to fish in a giant blue marlin tournament, by the time the week ended, I found a place I could easily call home.
I was very proud to be the captain of Team USA and even more thrilled that I would be fishing with the Amanda Lee crew; Tom Fuchs , Matt Bellantoni and my daughter, Amanda Lee. What could be better! Our summer kind of dragged on with the anticipation of our big trip. The less than stellar eastern canyon tuna fishing certainly didnt help, but really, who cared. We were going to the Azores!
Finally, after waiting and waiting, the big day arrived, well almost . . . It seemed that an uninvited guest also had her sights set on visiting the Azores; a drunken hurricane named Nadine was wandering around the Atlantic and finally decided to sit on top of the islands for a week, delaying our trip. Another week passed by at a glacier pace before the storm cleared, then we were on our way to an island bathed in warm sunshine instead of steely gray skies and a northeast wind.
The proximity and relative ease in getting to the Azores was a pleasant surprise; just a four-hour direct flight from Boston to Sao Miguel. The flights are really timed to maximize your visit because it leaves at 10 p.m, and arrives at 7 a.m. the next day. Its best to go right into your activities so you dont get jet-lagged as you are five hours ahead of East Coast time.
The flight was delightfully uneventful and before we knew it, the big SATA Airlines Airbus had the wheels down on Sao Miguel Island and Ponta Delgada, the largest and most southeastern island in the Azores. Looking out the window and seeing the island for the first time you could not help but marvel at the vivid spectral contrasts of the greenest greens in the upland plateaus and volcanic mountains with the bluest indigo sea that was deep and sparkling. In short, stunning!
CAPTAIN MATT MEET THE AZORES!
Our host, Willem Reiff, greeted us at the airport and two cars whisked us away to the Marina Hotel Atlantico in the center of the Portas do Mar, the door to the sea which is the new cruise port, marina, restaurant and shopping boulevard in Ponta Delgada. This was where all the waterborne activities take place.
You do not need a car here. Cabs are inexpensive and the island can be easily navigated by bus, cab, horse, or foot and we engaged in all those modes of transportation. I vote for Rivaldi and Cabana, the two beautiful horses we rode, as our favorite mode of transportation in the Azores.
The hotel was excellent. It had everything we needed; attractive, comfortable, Euro-Deco rooms with balconies overlooking the sea, a great Azorean breakfast each morning included in the cost of your room and a very friendly and attentive staff. They even exchanged dollars for Euros and did not charge any commissions. We highly recommend this hotel.
Our first day after we checked in, we did what most Azoreans do sometime during their day; we went for a swim at the Porta do Mar in a public bathing patio with steps down to the sea. The water is crystal clear and invigorating. When you get out of the water there is a cadre of stationary bikes, exercise machines and rowing machines that are specially built to be outdoors if you want to work out. After our swim, we strolled over to a little restaurant and had a simple Azorean lunch of polpa (octopus salad) and a bowl of bacalao soup, made with salt cod and fresh vegetables, that is the national dish of the Azores -- fantastic! At this point, fishing notwithstanding, I was completely impressed and amazed how, in one afternoon, Sao Miguel had succeeded in totally relaxing this manic New Yorker, which I have been told is no easy feat these days.
We walked along the waterfront looking at the boats and we met some of the crews. They were very friendly, spoke English and soon we were enjoying a beer with them and doing what else? You got it, talking about how all our lovely boats are a giant pain in the ass!!! The universal language of all of us who go to sea!
After the end of our first day we had a great dinner with our host and finished off the evening with a warm Aquadente, an Azorean cognac, which became a ritual; looking at the boats restlessly tugging at their moorings in the harbor and sharing stories with our new Azorean friends.
So what is this, the NY TIMES SUNDAY TRAVEL SECTION or is this THE BIG GAME FISHING JOURNAL?