If you thought scouting out flattened Pedro on our descent from Pico do Experanca was difficult, let me tell you, that was nothing compared to Tricia’s and my hunt for the elusive Dwarf Donkeys on Graciosa.
But, let me back up and tell you how, and then why, anyone would even think of a dwarf donkey hunt. It all began when the four of us decided to take a ferry to Graciosa, one of the most tranquil islands in this central group of five.
To give you an idea of the ranges in peopledom on these nine islands… the central group is composed of:
our favorite, Sao Jorge (9,100)
and Graciosa (4,400)
A 24-hour sail to the west are:
and Corvo (430),
and a 24-hour sail to the east are:
Sao Miguel (137,8000)
and Santa Maria (5,500).
Cruisers on s/v CHARDONNAY had taken the ferry over earlier in the week (no marina and very little, if any, safe anchorages, similar to the other Azorean dots in the sea). Like the buses on Sao Jorge, ferries to Graciosa are few and far between: they caught the Sunday night one and returned 24 hours later. We caught the Wednesday night and returned on the next one back (Friday night).
Since it was peak holiday season (remember Amaro and family members?), it was recommended we book a room ahead of time, and arrange for a car as there were not necessarily taxis waiting to cart passengers off to hotels or inns. It was a bit like russian roulette as Tricia and I scouted out available rooms while Max and David looked into ferry tickets and a car rental. We didn’t want to buy the ferry tickets until we knew we had a room, of which there weren’t a lot around. And, since the ferry terminal wasn’t always open, we discovered we couldn’t buy tickets until an hour before we were suppose to board. Can you tell it was like a bit like catch 22?
Fortunately, all came together in one big swoosh, and off we went for two nights and two days to Graciosa, waving good-by to Spirit of Amport (red boat in the background) and Juanona (green-bottom dinghy on deck)
The ferry ride was like being on a gently swaying horse (at least that’s how I’ve seen some cowboys moving in movies). Not having any responsibility other than making sure we got off at our stop, we were entertained by people watching, eating popcorn (the smell was too enticing),
and just languidly moving to and fro.
That changed when Max shouted and pointed “WHALE!”.
Conversation shuddered to a halt and half the passengers rushed to crowd around the port side railing. Well, he DID see a spout. I saw it, too. Unfortunately, no big body of mammal arose from under it; but, it turned out to be a good way to potentially grab a better seat.
However, once we were standing next to the rail, we just kept doing so for watching the sea can be mesmerizing (as long as your stomach isn’t also mesmerized by it). Alongside us was a woman trying to take a selfie. Offering to do it for her, we discovered she was from Vienna and was traveling these islands for fifteen or so days.
Ana-Louise said she did this often, these solo ventures, and was looking forward to experiencing Graciosa. This conversation is all in excellent English, and, when asked what other languages in addition to German she spoke, she reeled off French, Spanish, and some Italian. No doubt she’d be speaking Portuguese before her trip was over. (This is more often the case of visitors we meet in the Azores. Multilengual Europeans put us to shame and provides an incentive to stumble through more foreign tongues regardless of how badly we mangled the pronunciation.)
We watched the pilot boat escort us in as we approached the southeast coast of Graciosa
Once docked in Praia, we got our taxi to Santa Cruz, found our hotel (clean and comfortable), walked to dinner (not so good), and slept our first night on this tranquil island.
Next day our rental car was delivered and off we went. It was at this moment when leafing through the small tourist pamphlet lying about our hotel that Tricia said ‘did you know there are dwarf donkeys here?’ Our hunt began for this not-to-be-missed local interest.
But, first we drove to the one real tourist expedition on this island, the cave.
Hopping out of the car at the site, I noticed a honeycomb pattern at my feet. Looking more closely I saw it was formed of plastic and used to hold the gravel in place.
I find different countries’ ways of doing different things fascinating, which is why I take pictures of patterns and now pea gravel. And, brace yourself, this one of the most interesting items I saw on Graciosa.
Anyhow, we descended to the visitor’s center thinking this is what they meant about 184 steps to the bottom.
Once again the visitor’s center was impressive and the guides selling tickets helpful.
Purchasing four we continued on to the cavern’s opening and found no, THIS is where the 184 steps are. We began descending narrow stone steps, which, fortunately, had some light glancing off them as well as peep holes off to the side for resting aging knees
Reaching the bottom we entered what Max exclaimed would make a great James Bond setting.
Off in the distance you could hear the hot mud plopping (not reassuring) and straight ahead was a rowboat floating on a lake so dark at first you thought it was sitting on the ground.
After stepping carefully around the craggy, uneven cavern floor, Max noticed the sign alerting visitors to what we had read about
Of course that only led to his pantomiming his demise,
which David and Tricia wisely ignored.
Ascending the 184 + 184 steps we were all ready for a good meal, and we meant GOOD as all of us were a wee bit tired of the regional fare having listened to my assurance that, YES, this WAS that cafe that served a wonderful lunch according to the guide book
It oh so definitely wasn’t.
After my meal of bread along with Tricia and David’s cabbage soup and Max’s attempt to eat dish of the day, we actually found the one I had read about… down the road. This error only confirmed my navigational skills, so the next destination used group skills.
Having read about a NEW restaurant that got great reviews, we piled into the car (actually, jumped) and headed towards Quintas das Grutas. The selling point? “Proprieter has lived in Austria.” We figured that qualifier and the fact “with sophistication” was added to the description of “serving typical regional food” would equip us with a favorable meal. Why, we didn’t know, but desperation will make one latch on to anything the least bit promising.
Tricia and I had not forgotten our hunt for Graciosa’s dwarf donkey. At this point, we were thinking some entrepreneur should have dug a two foot-deep ditch on one side of their garden walls, planted a regular donkey in there, and hung a sign on the street pointing to “Graciosa’s one remaining dwarf donkey–you know, the one you read about in the pamphlet”. But, no dwarf donkeys were espied along the roads in our other search, the one for tasting GOOD food.
Finding the sign (yes, Quinta das Grutas actually had a sign) we turned into the driveway and came upon a charming building, authentically restored to what a wealthy Azorean would have built in the 1700s
We took a quick peek inside only to be greeted by a warm and welcoming young woman who gave us a tour. We were sold and made reservations for dinner that night.
Promptly at 7p (when it opened), we presented ourselves and our growling stomachs to our tour guide who also happened to be the sole waitress. We gave ourselves into her hands and were we ever so glad we did. Our meals were spectacular.
When we exclaimed how wonderful our dinner was as we stuffed our mouths with some of the best tasting food we’ve had in the Azores, our waitress told us the chef was only 21 years old.
Wanting to give our thanks in person (after we wiped our salivating mouths), they let us take their photos in spite of being a bit shy of it all
Another beautiful, memorable time in these islands.
But, the night wasn’t over yet. These towns seem to come awake only when I’m typically asleep, and Santa Cruz was no exception. After arriving back at our hotel, we wandered the few blocks to the main square and were amazed to see the ghost town from earlier in the day come alive with multiple generations. Even toddlers ramble around until midnight or later in these summer evenings. Even more amazing, these are non-whiney, smiling, playful toddlers keeping their parents and grandparents company.
Some vendors were selling their wares, one of whom sold leis of garlic. Tricia decided to buy some to perfume their boat,
which only led to Max following suit
(and, no, it’s not too bad as the cordage smells more like hay, which lessens the garlic aroma).
A small band paraded past onto the stage,
and our first 24 hours in Graciosa came to an end.
The next morning we repeated our search while meandering once again around the island, only this time going counterclockwise (we figured the land would look different from this view).
We stopped for a brief stroll and perches along the waterfront,
examined more of the lovely stone walkways (the Governor of Horta started paving the pathways with white stones from Portugal and black from the islands, and the practice has spread throughout the Azores),
admired Santa Cruz from afar,
as well as the colorful homes
and grazing pastures,
and, of course, the brilliance of the saphire sea
It was during this tranquil meandering when all of a sudden we heard an extremely loud HEE-HAW, which prompted Tricia to shout ‘A DONKEY!’
Finally! A DWARF DONKEY!! A DWARF DONKEY!!
Max screeched to a stop, although I think it was more to get us two excited females out of the car as opposed to stopping for our photographic opportunity. Tricia and I couldn’t get ourselves out of the vehicle fast enough for we were NOT going to NOT see this donkey up close and personal.
However, a gentleman across the street started telling us (in Portuguese) something. Only aware he was trying to tell us some thing, we took the cautious path and decided not to get too up close and personal with our donkey.
After a few minutes of inspection we decided, no, this was NOT our dwarf donkey.
As hard as we tried we could not shrink this braying animal into our elusive dwarf donkey. Tricia and I had to admit we had not found even one of those 70 miniature beasts.
Our 48 hours in Graciosa was coming to a close.
We headed back to where our adventure first began Wednesday night when we landed at Praia.
Waiting for our ship, Max inspected the colorful fishing vessels
while I took note of the local fauna
At 6:15p we boarded the ferry for Sao Jorge and said our Bom Tardes to Graciosa and our hunt for the to-be-seen-to-be-believed dwarf donkeys.
The next morning Max and I untied from our pontoon saying farewell to Tricia and David who helped see us off and started our 24-hour passage to our last Azorean stop, Sao Miguel, where Steve Palmer will arrive August 5th.
Yet, we can’t leave Sao Jorge without giving homage to another form of fauna that captivated us: Cory’s shearwaters.
We had seen these birds swooping and floating amidst the waves during our passages,
and discovered at night they flew to their nests in cliffs above the marina, serenading us from twilight until midnight with their incredible eerie calls.
So, I put on my Animal Planet hat (what Max has dubbed me on my nature films…) and started recording…
And, you know? I’d take these flying, laughing, crying birds over a dwarf donkey any day.