Sporting an impressive beard and nursing some broken ribs from his most recent adventure, Ben Fogle heroically managed to give a fascinating lecture on the Azores last week all the same. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Royal Geographical Society event by the excellent team at Hills Balfour, and I was pleased to be joined by my best friend, senior BBC journalist Liz Gibbons. The event was sponsored by the Azores, Sunvil, Exodus and the wonderfully-named Archipelago Choice, with prize money from a raffle at the end going to the cetacean charity Planet Whale. Hats off to the events organisers and Ben’s pulling power because the venue was heaving.
I was wondering how, as an official tourism ambassador for the Azores, Ben would manage to blend his personal experiences with positive points about the islands for prospective visitors. He chose the rather elegant way in of talking about his lifelong fascination with islands, as an “Island-phile”, and how that, plus a marital connection to Portugal and particular affinity for the more distant islands of the Atlantic, had drawn him to the Azores.
Many people know him partly as the winner of the proto-reality show cum social experiment Castaway, set on the remote Scottish island of Taransay. What is maybe less well-known, or I didn’t know it at any rate, is that Ben has travelled, with an old-fashioned adventurer’s passion for collecting curiosities, to islands most of us can only ever dream of visiting, like Tristan da Cunha. As Ben pointed out, to get to Tristan da Cunha takes six days by ship from South Africa, with favourable weather (!), and ships are very infrequent. As he rightly observed, the 262 people who call the remotest British island home experience such solitude and freedom from modernity’s *white noise* that their existence seems somehow more romantic than that of the most privileged urbanites.
The presentation started with a pithy introduction by my fellow travel writer Stuart Forster. There followed a short film about the Azores presented by Ben, which emphasised how much they could appeal to a spirit of discovery and lovers of extreme sports, but also on a culinary and cultural level to pretty much anyone.
The talk that followed consolidated the key points of the film, as well as personalising it with some anecdotes and quirky further details about these rather amazing volcanic islands. Still representing a distant exoticism in many ways, it’s hard to believe that the Azores are only four hours away from the UK by direct flight.
The islands benefit from deep, relatively undisturbed waters that famously harbour multiple species of whales and dolphins. They go large, too: we’re talking frequent sightings of sperm whales and regular sightings of blue whales, not marginal varieties which won’t impress your friends. Hand in hand with the pelagics goes serious big game fishing: not my bag, but I still like to know that there’s barracuda, swordfish and Atlantic blue marlin out there if I want them.
Anyone who’s read my articles about the Maldives and Sardinia will know that I obsess over sustainable tourism, so it was excellent to learn that the Azores Archipelago was named as the second best island destination in the world for sustainable tourism by National Geographic Traveller.
Once again, my loyal followers will know that I’m nothing if not partial to the odd. Ben mentioned the extraordinary practice of cooking food underground volcanically on Sao Miguel, and put his money where his mouth was in sampling the resulting mouth-watering meat stew. On further reading, I also discovered that the island of Faial houses the Museu da Arte de Scrimshaw. “Scrimshaw” is detailed engravings on whale ivory, a forgotten and now understandably politically incorrect art that I’ve always been weirdly drawn to. Maybe partly because I’m half-American and it’s often cited as the only originally American art form. Anyway, I love the fact that the Azores has a whole private museum about it.
I’ve been in love with Portugal ever since my first trip to Lisbon, and have been longing to visit the Azores for over a decade. I think that Ben’s talk, plus the Visit Azores brochure that I seem to be leafing through compulsively, might finally get me on the plane to Sao Miguel this summer.