For me, there's something about arriving in a new place, where people speak a different language, eat different foods and my dollars are valued as pieces of paper. Looks like I'm not in Kansas anymore - or New England for that matter. People here drink tiny cups of coffee every morning with friends. They drink wine at lunch. They close their businesses on Sundays. Dinner is an event, not a meal. It's different here...and I love it. That sense of authenticity that comes from a different culture is what really fascinates me and keeps me coming back for more.
When I started writing this post, I wanted to share every minute with anyone who would listen. As it turns out, that was pretty boring and I couldn't even keep my own attention long enough to write it. So I figured I would hit the highlights of this whirlwind trip, day by day and if anyone is interested, I'll fill in the gaps later.
There were a few major things that stuck out during our first day in Ponta Delgada.
1. Hotel Talisman and it's breakfast buffet
3. Christmas decorations
4. A Tasca (Restaurant)
I'll start from the top.
1. Hotel Talisman and it's breakfast buffet: Stepping out of the taxi at Hotel Talisman in historic Ponta Delgada was exactly what I hoped for. Cobblestone streets spread out in all directions between white and yellow shaded, historic two story buildings. Shop keeps were serving, danishes, coffees and cappuccinos in roadside cafes. English had been replaced with Azorean Portuguese. We were definitely in Europe. When Kailah booked the hotel, she secured an awesome rate of 49 euro per night (around $52). Despite her diligent TripAdvisor research, we still had our doubts with this one, given the low cost. As it turned out, a combination of off-peak pricing and decent dollar to euro conversion, we got a steal of an accommodation. This place had an included continental buffet (covered by our 49 euro), sports bar, restaurant and roof top pool/workout center. The room itself was large for Europe, with a king bed and french doors opening to a small balcony for fresh air. The buffet was a bonus, especially in comparison to the American counterpart of powdered eggs, old fruit, stale bread and mini yogurts. Instead, our spread included fresh fruit (which changed daily), croissants, assorted meats/cheeses, coffee, juices and several hot options (including a local mushroom and pork dish that was actually pretty darn good).
2. Cost: Who doesn't like to save money? It's even sweeter when it is unexpected. I already mentioned the dollar for value win that Hotel Talisman offered, but it didn't stop there. When it comes to food and drinks, Kailah and I generally budget around $175 a day in Europe. This is purely a number that we have agreed on, which allows us to eat and drink whatever we want. It's also an average. Sometimes we go over and we generally always go under. If you want to save money in Europe, this is a number that can get MUCH smaller, by shopping in local grocery stores, butchers, bakeries etc and eating in your room. We simply prefer to spend more money here because we love the experience that restaurants provide (Food, drinks, culture and atmosphere). Following a brief nap on day one, we landed at a restaurant in the town center, where we saw more of Ponta Delgada's cost efficiency. We started the meal off with a 19 euro bottle of Portuguese red wine and a cheese plate. For food, I had a rib eye with greens and potato and Kailah had swordfish with a veggie. Both were fantastic. Still shaking off our drowsiness from the brief siesta, we ordered two espressos to cap off our lunch. Total bill? 52 euro (around $55). Sooo ... subtract the cost of the wine and we paid 33 euro for rib eye and swordfish. To take it even further, we decided to walk back towards our hotel and stop by a few stores along the way. The wine at lunch had wet our appetite, so we stopped at a grocery store in search of more. 10 minutes later we approached the register with 2 bottles of wine, 3 small beers, 2 red bulls and a case of water. Total cost? 11 euro ($12). I could get used to this.
3. Christmas decorations: This one was a complete surprise. Christmas in November? But what about the Turkey and stuffing? Oh right, we're not in Kansas anymore. The entire city was bathed in colorful lights - archways, street lights, houses - brightly lit with twinkling bulbs. All of the summer flowers had been replaced with festive poinsettias. To top it off, one of the local shops near the town center had a speaker playing high volume versions of English and Portuguese Christmas songs. For Christmas buffs, this was unexpectedly the place to be. We certainly enjoyed it.
4. A Tasca (Restaurant): When I look for a restaurant abroad, I'm really trying to check 4 boxes: Food, drink, experience and value. If I find one that does, it not only creates a memorable meal, but also makes a short list of eateries that we love. A Tasca is one of those restaurants. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I made reservations on the spot for dinner two days later. Here is why this place measured up so well...
Food and drink: A Tasca is a tapas restaurant. For those that are new to this term, "tapas" are generally small plates of food that are offered at a lower cost than a full meal. I like them because they allow me to try multiple menu items without committing to just one. These menus can also be overwhelming - especially in a different language. So we asked our waiter for his recommendations and pulled the trigger on 5-6 different tapas. Each one ended up being a home run. A couple standout dishes were: the local baked octopus delicacy (yes, it was surprisingly delicious) - and a baked mushroom, bacon and cheese plate. We also tossed in a basket of bread and a local assortment of cheeses. For dessert, we shared chocolate mousse. The waiter recommended an aperitif of Portuguese cognac and I figured what the hell, how often do I get the chance to order cognac? Stuffed to the gills, we threw back two more espressos to try and keep our eyelids open for a couple more hours after dinner.
Experience: When I ordered the aforementioned cognac, our waiter carried out a platter topped with the cognac bottle, my glass and an empty bowl. He lit a clear liquid on fire in my glass and let it burn for a few seconds before emptying it into the bowl. He then poured my cognac and lit that on fire as well, dazzling the dining room for a few seconds before extinguishing. The results of the warmed brandy were outstanding - and not just the taste, but an amazing aroma as well. This serving method might not be specific to the Azores, or even Portugal, but it was new to me and enhanced my experience. Small things like this, make all the difference. Alone, this was cool, but combined with the food, wine and ultra helpful and kind staff, A Tasca easily checked the box for an awesome experience.
Value: This one is simple. You saw what we ordered - how much? 48 euro. That's $51!!! Mind blowing.
There ya have it. And those were just the highlights.
Part 3 coming soon!