As 2010 heads towards a close, we reflect on some of the more interesting coffee bars we’ve stumbled across for the first time in the past year. Cape Town’s Origin Coffee Roasting is clearly a new global favorite. Closer to home, the opening of Ma’velous promises a new evolutionary direction for the coffee bar. But oddly one of the most memorable coffee bars we visited in the past year, and one we had yet to write a Trip Report for, was Moby Dick II on the island of Pico in the Portuguese Azores.

First, a little background. The theme gimmick coffee bar is old hat. But the Moby Dick II, easily one of the most unique cafés you will ever encounter, works it on another level. This has to do with its sense of place.

Sunset near 'Mt. Doom', aka Pico, from the Lajes do Pico harbor The peak of Pico peeks out over a former whale processing plant in São Roque do Pico

Public sculpture on Pico island commemorating the island's open boat whalers Memorial in Lajes do Pico's harbor commemorates the names of local whalers who lost their lives on the job

Of whales and coffee bars

Since the 1980s, the local economy of this small island of Pico may have successfully made the shift from open-boat whaling to whale watching. Yet the place remains respectfully steeped in the legacy of whaling culture — a balancing act that isn’t necessarily easy, given the revisionist temptations rooted in the modern “save the whales” ethos. Pico boasts whaling museums and former whale-processing plants that still carry a lingering smell of what was once the horrible stench of the whaling industry.

It’s easy to overlook the critical, albeit momentary, importance of whaling in world history. At its mid-1800s peak, Nantucket, MA was the Silicon Valley of its era — flush with big money, speculative investors, gargantuan risk-taking, state-of-the-art technology, and workers eager to earn their share of the spoils by living in the extreme. The whaling ships of the time were the grandfathers of space exploration. The worldwide commercial nature of the whaling industry also marked the birth of modern globalization. It is within this context that you have to appreciate one of the greatest works of American literature, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Our visit to Pico made us reread the novel for the first time since high school, which we enjoyed a lot more this time around.)

As reflected in the novel, the Portuguese Azores were a favorite port of call for the Nantucket whalers in the early stages of their global quests. Provisions were cheaper on the islands than in New England (early shades of Wal-Mart buying cheaper goods from China). The local population of the Azores also provided a healthy supply of ready and capable whalers. And nowhere in the Azores has whaling meant more than on Pico island and, in specific, the small town of Lajes do Pico.

Sidewalks in the Azores express the whaling theme Street sign on Pico island designating the

Plaza with detailed Portuguese sidewalk tiles near Moby Dick II California-made steam ovens for processing whale blubber on Pico

Moby Dick II — not the sequel

This is a seriously heavy thematic backdrop for what is a whimsical art project and coffee bar. But with its location on the seaside esplanada of Lajes do Pico, the Moby Dick II café fits thematically better with its place than any other gimmick coffee spot we’ve experienced prior.

This coffee bar is really a service kiosk made out of a mini Airstream-like trailer decorated to look curiously like a sperm whale — from the eyes to the skin and down to the whale tail that suspends above it. The side of the whale opens out onto the street corner with a number of chairs and tables under parasols at a wooden deck, illuminated by fluorescent lights at night, overlooking the ocean and the harbor.

Moby Dick II in Lajes do Pico Backside of Moby Dick II in Lajes do Pico

Patio in front of Moby Dick II, complete with satellite TV dish Close-up detail of the rear of the Moby Dick II coffee bar

Here they play modern music and employ younger baristas. Given the general lack of signage, you wouldn’t know the name of the place if not for the staff T-shirts. This is sidewalk café offers some of the best views in town while keeping the locals happy with a rather full bar (including a wide assortment of Portuguese liqueurs), made-to-order sandwiches and light edibles, and as almost required by Portuguese law: espresso.

Inside the whale by the register is a two-group Fiamma machine. They use the Azores-ubiquitous Sical beans, and with their Fiamma they produce shots with a good layer of even, medium brown crema with a smoothness and pepper and mild spice flavor. Served in BonVida cups with Sical branding for a mere €0.50.

It’s far from the best espresso you’ve ever had. And while it’s almost as hard to find an outstanding espresso in the Azores as it is to find a poor one, this is one of the more memorable options of the lot on its quality merits alone.

Read the review of Moby Dick II in Lajes do Pico in the Azores.

Inside the Moby Dick II trailer The Moby Dick II espresso

Maritime relics from Pico's whaling days Churches and fishing boats are a common sight on Pico