If You Don’t Know Gin, You Don’t Know Bullocks
In the midst of lockdown in the summer of 2020 there wasn’t a whole lot of trip related email flying around, but one rather hot afternoon in July the following missive landed in my inbox which I found intriguing:
“To find the Azores, look on Google Maps on Portugal, turn towards the Atlantic Ocean, and zoom in around half way to the US. Keep zooming and you will find a collection of 9 islands.
And on one of those islands is The Solar Branco Eco Estate. And while you have Portugal listed [on Trufflepig’s website] as somewhere to visit, the Azores is not yet listed. I’d like to help fix that, as the Azores is the next “it” destination. Sustainable, beautiful and undiscovered (mostly.) This is an amazing place for adventurous people to visit.
I could tell you about the green landscapes, the amazing whale watching, and just the presence of serenity. I could tell you about taking a 100 year old “Solar” or mansion house and converting it into a boutique, sustainable hotel. I could tell you about The Gin Library, housing the world’s largest private collection of gin. But I would rather you come and visit us in person.”
Well what could I say, the man had me at “Gin”.
It was just as well that my visit was delayed by several years, since owing to Covid constraints of their own, Ali Bullock and his wife Caroline Sprod, owners of the Solar Branco Estate, had only recently opened what is now São Miguel island’s coolest Bed & Breakfast when I finally got there.
True to British tradition, Ali and Caroline lived corporate lives abroad, spending years in the rat race in Hong Kong. Ali as a communications and marketing whiz who managed branding for the Infinity Red Bull Formula One racing team. Caroline, listening to the better angels of her nature, firstly as part of the UK’s Diplomatic Service and later as the Executive Director of a major Hong Kong charity. Marriage and a honeymoon trip to the Azores sparked the life-changing move to give up the corporate realm in favour of a life project truer to their real calling.
There’s no questioning the pair’s eco bona-fides, and both brought environmental/conservancy experience into the Solar Branco project, which plays out in everything from the careful design of the 8 rooms/lodges of the estate, to the solar panels and grey water recycling systems, to the direct and local purchase of all the food items served, to the “re-wilding” efforts intended to, as they say, “roll back the clock 150 years” on their enormous orchard. They haven’t just stopped there where most hotels would.
Ali rattles off to me in his jocular, loquacious way, with the enthusiasm and fervour that must surely come from years of consuming Red Bull, some of the many projects he and Caroline have brewing: a whale conservancy foundation (he managed to convince many of São Miguel’s major tourism industry players to join his executive board), whose funds will be replenished in part by a number of clever branding exercises, including Solar Branco’s own line of distilled gins and craft beers. Baleia Gin (now being rebranded as “Ghosts of the Ocean”) and Mother Vaca Beer flow freely on the property and portions from the sales go back to the whales. The Gin Library is aiming for the Guiness World Record (didn’t realize there was such a category) for largest individual collection of Gins, and visitors can contribute towards that effort: bring Ali and Caroline a bottle of gin they don’t have, and they’ll swap it for one of theirs (Trufflepig’s gin contribution by the way is number 1,249 in the collection).
Waiting for my flight to Ponta Delgada from Lisbon, I pondered what a save-the-whales gin library eco hotel would have in store, for me and this on the Solar Branco website caught my eye: Enjoy our locally made gin & tonic on arrival as you sit back and watch the sunset over the green hills to the ocean beyond. Turn off your phone. Breathe. Take time for yourself.
And that’s pretty much exactly how it happened.
You don’t need to be a guest at Solar Branco to take advantage of “gin o’clock” as they put it, but they do request you make a reservation. And just to be clear, this is not a hotel for everyone: no TVs, no 24-hour reception, and no disposable single use plastic items of any kind, so things like room amenities and breakfasts are a tad austere. No restaurant, but they do host gin-paired sushi evenings with a local chef from time to time. They also are strictly adults only (16 plus), which at least for visiting guests assures a level of calm at the property (although I can attest to the liveliness of the Gin o’ clocks).
Solar Branco makes for a comfortable base for a wider exploration of São Miguel and you can trust that Ali and Caroline’s recommendations are solid. When I found out that my room was not only called “the Pigsty” but that my kitchenette’s minibar was stocked daily with Mother Vaca, I knew that Trufflepig had found the Azorean equivalent of a partner in grime.
Sebastian’s recently returned from a deep-dive into the Azores and a whale sized enthusiasm for the islands, gin, and fighting the good eco fight. Touch base to plan your trip.