Thank goodness for satellite navigation, that’s all I can say. Forget about trying to find your way to an address in town. That’s not difficult; you can always stop and ask someone for directions. But try doing that at 37,000 feet!
Finding the Azores — at least before the days of satnav being standard in planes — would have been the realisation of trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.
This tiny string of nine islands — which belong to Portugal — sits almost bang in the middle of the Atlantic, 1000 miles west of Lisbon and 1196 miles south-east of Newfoundland in Canada. So, to say it’s a remote location to test a car is something of an understatement.
With its balmy climate, warmed up by the Gulf Stream, they’re not called the Hawaii of Europe for nothing. There’s even a tea plantation.
Undaunted by the logistical hurdles, Mazda UK, in its infinite wisdom and never shy of a challenge, elected to transport 12 motoring hacks from these shores to drive the latest incarnation of the Mazda2 round the volcanic idyll that is Sao Miguel, the largest — but in reality, still pretty titchy — island in the Azores.
In truth our journey to the island’s capital, Ponta Delgada, was a breeze compared to what the cars had to undergo. Ok, the day started with a 3am wake-up call — never brilliant — followed by a 6am departure from Heathrow to Lisbon.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I was finally ready to face breakfast while we twiddled away the next two hours waiting for the flight to the Azores.
Breakfast? How do you fancy a double espresso and a Raisins Snail? Aye, something got lost in translation: for Raisins Snail, read Pain au Raisin … you know, one of those curly pastry things with raisins.
Another two hours later, we finally landed in a rather blustery and wet Ponta Delgada. Glad the pilot successfully programmed his satnav.
The cars meanwhile, endured a rather longer journey. First they travelled to Lisbon on the back of transporters. Then they were loaded — rather precariously — on to the top deck of a ship for the three-day sail to the Azores.
Craned off, the Mazda2s were then cleaned of their coating of sea salt by Mazda’s brilliantly efficient and always jovial Edinburgh-based car logistics crew ahead of being handed over to the journos.
I have to admit, a few of us were scratching our heads when we got the call to head to the Azores.
“Why the Mazda2?”, seemed to be the main question.
The answer very soon became obvious. Mazda’s supermini was the perfect size to master the narrow, ever-twisting roads which meander around and across the island. And round each corner confirmation of the island’s remoteness came with a view of the Atlantic disappearing to the far off horizon.
Recently updated, and now including two new models, a GT and GT Sport, the slimmed down eight-model range utilises three different outputs from the same 1.5-litre SkyActiv-G petrol engine. The range also now includes G-Vectoring Control as standard.
And while there are 75PS and 115PS versions of the engine, I opted for the best-selling variant in the range, the 90PS. I also snapped up the only new Tech Edition of the Mazda2 in stunning Dynamic Blue Mica.
Limited to just 750 models, the Tech Edition — based on the £14,695 1.5 90ps SE-L Nav — benefits from the addition of 16in alloys, rear parking sensors, privacy glass, climate control, auto lights and rain-sensing wipers. And all for a price premium of just £300 over the SE-L Nav. Bargain, I’d say.
Thankfully rested after a great night’s sleep, following a 21-hour day, we woke to bright blue skies. My eight-hour, 375km epic drive followed a figure-of-eight route round and across the island, first heading west, then back diagonally north-west to south-east, up the east coast before meandering back cross-country to Ponta Delgada.
The Azores not only lie on the volcanically tempestuous Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but also have to deal with a further geological complication being that they also straddle the meeting point of three tectonic plates.
Mercifully for the inhabitants — there are around 150,000 on Sao Miguel, with a further 100,000 dotted around the other islands — this is the world’s slowest spreading rift, opening at a leisurely 2-4mm each year.
No surprise then that the jaw-dropping view is that of the breathtaking Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul lakes which are located in the centre of a massive volcanic crater three miles across.
As if that wasn’t enough, bizarrely, the best view is not from the viewpoint, but from the rooftop of a neglected and abandoned concrete 5-star hotel. Built in the Eighties, with staggering views from its rooms and balconies, it went bust almost before it got started.
It’s amazing, in so many ways. There are still carpets on the spiral staircase which takes you up to the rooftop, but there are also completely open lift-shafts, and not a guard rail in sight. Health and safety? What’s that?
Further on the route we came to Mosteiros (correct, Mosteiros), with its amazing black rock beach. Then an exhilarating section of road with never-ending hairpin bends took us to the panoramically-located Lagoa do Fogo )correct, Lagoa do Fogo) perched high the mountains in the centre of the island, and on to the volcanic spa town of Furnas (correct, Furnas).
Tourism is still in its relative infancy on the Azores — apparently Ryanair does one return flight a week — but we lost count of the number of workmen meticulously manicuring the hydrangea-smothered roadsides as we circumnavigated the island.
And while the road surfaces flitted between the A-road standard and hand-placed ancient cobbles, it seems many of the islanders are: a. not used to seeing ‘foreign-registered’ cars, and; b. perhaps haven’t sat, or passed a driving test.
Apparently, our UK-reg cars were the only non-Portuguese registered cars on the island, so as you would expect, they attracted quite a bit of interest.
As for the driving standards? Cars, lorries and coaches coming round corners towards you on the wrong side of the road was commonplace, as was turning left suddenly without any indicators.
We even came across — I kid you not — an untethered horse and kart at the side of the road. As I slowed, the gate on the opposite side of the road opened; the craggy-faced, leather-skinned farm worker whistled, and the horse turned and walked across to his master, pulling the cart behind him.
The Azores certainly left an impression. Sao Miguel — known as the Ilha Verde, ‘the Green Island’ — is probably the greenest island you’ll ever encounter in your life, and the sinuous, narrow roads which dissect the island are a joy to drive. In fact, they were the perfect foil for Mazda’s little supermini, and made that 3am start worthwhile.