Cruising the North Atlantic on Black Watch
Words and Pictures | Michael Cowton
WE WILL ALL have heard the proverb, Good things come to those who wait. So, we adopted a diligent approach, and we waited… and waited… and then we waited some more… and then the sun disappeared behind what looked ominously like storm clouds, and it began to drizzle, and the ocean was stirring, and I nearly lost my lightweight waterproof as I battled to put it on against the wind… and then the waters around us suddenly exploded into life just as the clouds lifted and the sun reflected off the surface of the water.
Bowriding and leaping, ducking and diving, the spectacular pod of common dolphins surrounded the boat, careering through the water at extraordinary speed, chasing food up to the brownish-grey upper bodies of the flock of waiting Corey’s Shearwaters.
We were a good three miles off the coast of the Azores with Futurismo, one of the most experienced whale watching companies in the archipelago. The company operates daily excursions of up to three hours into the northern Atlantic, depending on weather conditions. Joined by one of the company’s marine biologists, we had been given a briefing prior to our departure from the harbour, which included what we may be lucky enough to sight during the tour.
Lying about a third of the way between Portugal and North America, the Azores islands are a permanent home or point of passage for more than a third of the world’s whale and dolphin species, including sperm whales, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and Risso’s dolphins. We were here in May, perhaps too early to catch sight of Atlantic spotted dolphins and pilot whales, but it didn’t matter. During the spring months one can expect to see migrating baleen whales such as blue whales, fin whales and sei whales.
As the first hour had passed without a sighting, we were growing to suspect that perhaps there would be no cetaceans to see, but that was before someone spotted a small pod of striped dolphins way off the port bow, but they were moving away from us. Then, minutes later, almost in unison, several of us shouted that magic word… “Blow!” Way, way off on the horizon, we had spotted a large spout of moist, warm air from a whale’s blowhole. The one thing that Futurismo do not do, however, is ‘chase’ whales or dolphins, for fear of distressing them, which is why, when the pod of common dolphins surrounded the boat at about the same time, the skipper slowed the boat, allowing the highly sociable dolphins with several calves to interact with us on their own terms.
It was a truly magical time, and one of a number of highlights that I enjoyed as part of a 13-night cruise on board Fred Olsen’s Black Watch. We had set sail from Liverpool, a particularly pleasant way to begin a cruise, as opposed to flying to a departure port, something that we had done a number of times previously. We were to spend a pleasant three days at sea before arriving at Praia da Vitoria, Terceira, a volcanic island in the Azores archipelago and our first port of call. Praia da Vitoria is located in a large bay on the east coast, and its narrow streets and alleys are lined with attractive old houses featuring characteristic, often grated, sash windows.
The weather was not particularly kind to us when we disembarked, with dark clouds threatening rain, but no matter, we were here to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of new destinations, and we looked forward to walking the cobbled streets of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Having reached the main avenue of shops, we continued to the marina, which is located on the far eastern corner of the town. The marina is protected by the northern and southern jetties of the bay, and we soon found ourselves gazing across a huge expanse of sandy beach, the largest in the Azores, as we walked along the seafront road, Avenida Beira-Mar, and sat and enjoyed coffee in one of the numerous cafés that line the attractively paved promenade. It was clear that the bars and restaurants hereabouts had adapted comfortably to the demands of tourism.
The following morning we docked in Horta on the island of Faial, which is known as the Ilha Azul (Blue Island) because of its countless hydrangea hedges that dot the island. Once again the weather was not on our side, which was a real shame as we had booked on a tour of the island to include a visit to Ponta Do Capelinhos Lighthouse, which ceased to function in 1957 after a major volcanic eruption, leaving much of the surrounding area covered in volcanic ash, and totally buried a cluster of fishermen’s cottages.. Constructed in the late 19th century, the lighthouse continues to be an iconic symbol on the island.
We next headed to Caldeira, a 2km wide, 400m deep volcanic cone which dominates the deserted centre of Faial. Classified as a nature reserve, the area showcases rare endemic flora species, with its green-covered slopes the home of junipers, tree heather, cedars and ferns. When the weather is good, I could well believe that the views are spectacular. Unfortunately, during our visit it was raining and the mist totally enshrouded the Caldeira from the viewing platform.
Ponta Delgada was our next port of call, on the island of Sao Miguel, and it was from here that we joined the morning’s whale watching tour with Futurismo. Known as the tourist heart of the Azores, Sao Miguel’s western part is bordered by the mountain range of Sete Cidades, in which are located the eponymously named valley and lake.
One of the Ponta Delgada’s main attractions is Saint Sebastian Parish Church. Originally built in the middle of the 16th century in a late gothic style, later works added some Manueline portals and baroque altars.
Our next two days were spent at sea, as we cruised to the Portuguese mainland and the capital, Lisbon, one of the most charismatic and vibrant cities of Europe. Having only passed through briefly on my way to the Alentejo region two years previously, I was keen to see what the city had to offer, and I was not to be disappointed. I had decided on a tuk-tuk tour, and it turned out to be possibly the best way to see the city with its blend of traditional heritage and striking modernism, as we were able to navigate Lisbon’s maze of small streets where other larger vehicular traffic such as tour coaches often are unable to negotiate.
Lisbon is situated on the northern banks of the River Tagus, and it was the river that we followed to Belém Tower, a spectacular waterfront landmark and a perfect introduction to the city’s numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites. Built as part of a defence system at the mouth of the Tagus, today it is an architectural icon of King Manuel I’s reign. In 2007 it was voted one of Portugal’s Seven Wonders.
Back along the river, we next visited Padrao dos Descobrimentos, an extraordinary boat-shaped monument, fronted by Prince Henry the Navigator, to whom architect Cottinelli Telmo paid tribute to in the construction, with sculptures by Leopoldo Almeida. The imposing structure pays homage to the historical figures involved in the Portuguese discoveries.
We drove past Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, one of the city’s best postcard views, as we journeyed along Lisbon’s cobbled side streets, thronged with both locals and tourists. It was the same at Jeronimos Monastery, a National Monument since 1907 and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983. The monastery’s church holds the tombs of Vasco da Gama, King Sebastian and Luis de Camoes. A short walk away, we could not miss an opportunity to call in at Pasteis de Belém, the most famous café-bakery shop in Lisbon, where we sampled pasteis de nata, the city’s favourite pastries.
We then headed up to Castelo de Sao Jorge. Originally built as a fortress by the Moors, today it affords spectacular view across the city and the Targus River.
Our final port of call was the port of Leixos, gateway to the town of Oporto and 4km north of the mouth of the Douro River. I decided to spend a leisurely morning strolling the magnificent waterfront at Matosinhos, passing the extraordinary Sha Changes sculpture by artist Janet Echelman, which towers above the road. Designed for the cities of Porto and Matosinhos, the She Changes installation is known locally as anémona, and consists of three steel poles, cables, a 20-ton steel ring and a net structure of varying densities and colours.
Close to the port entrance and the sweep of superb beach stands the sobering Monumento Tragedia no Mar, which is dedicated to the fishermen who tragically died in a wreck of December 1, 1947.
I stopped for a coffee at one of several cafés dotted along the promenade, watching surfers trying out their new-found skills at one of the surf schools.
I have experienced several different cruise operators on ships of varying sizes, and enjoyed a host of different destinations, mostly in the Mediterranean. This was my first time cruising with Fred Olsen, and I enjoyed every moment. I was especially impressed with how friendly, professional and approachable all members of the Black Watch crew were, from cabin to bar staff, the waiters and our Maitre D’, Rupendra Kumar Dutta. On my second evening I was invited to Captain Valentin Giuglea’s table for dinner, a most enjoyable experience.
There were plenty of activities to keep guests active during the days at sea, and as the main theme of the cruise was whale watching, we were joined by Robin Petch, known as ‘The Whale and Dolphin Man’, who was normally found on wildlife deck watch during the day. The Black Watch Show Company and a variety of guest artists provided the evening entertainment.
I was one of a number of guests who celebrated their birthday on board, the occasion marked at dinner by a specially prepared cake with candles, and a celebratory ‘Happy Birthday’ sung by the dining staff, accompanied by guitar and tambourine. There is a lot to be said for sailing on a smaller cruise ship, where you get to know your fellow passengers, and the staff quickly pick up on names and remember one’s afternoon tipple! It certainly won’t be long before I book again.
Cruise details: Islands of the Azores and Cities of Portugal
13 nights, setting sail from Liverpool and visiting…
- Praia da Vitoria, Terceira, Azores
- Horta, Faial, Azores
- Ponta Delgada, Azores
- Lisbon, Portugal
- Leixos, Portugal