(DailyExpertNews) — Traveling to a paradise on earth does not necessarily require a long, arduous or dangerous journey.
In fact, pristine scenery reminiscent of a fairytale is barely five hours from Boston and about four hours from the UK. It is a land where waterfalls flow over iridescent green slopes; where roads are lined with hydrangea hedges; and where craggy shores are covered with black sand beaches.
A lost time reigns supreme, be it a hamlet of stone dwellings linked by cobbled paths, or the locals faithful to the ancient ways of planting crops on fertile plains at the foot of steep cliffs, or to deliver milk to the cheese factory by horse and carriage.
Welcome to the Azores, a chain of nine enchanting islands that lie in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but are part of Portugal. The archipelago is an autonomous region about 1,000 miles from mainland Portugal. The islands’ thermal pools, lush calderas, crater lakes and steaming geysers all bear witness to the violent volcanic forces that spawned them, but each island has a distinctive character where nature in its wildest state prevails.
Azores Airlines flies non-stop year-round to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island from Boston and to Lajes on Terceira with a stopover in Ponta Delgada. United (from Newark) and Azores Airlines (from JFK, on select days) both have nonstop summer services to Ponta Delgada. British Airways offers a non-stop summer service on Saturdays.
After a direct jump to an archipelago seemingly a world away, you can expect this on every island:
Flores is the westernmost island of the Azores. Although the name translates to “flowers,” it is the abundant bodies of water that most define this shockingly emerald green island often shrouded in mist.
There are seven crater lakes dotting the undulating interior, including the forest green Lagoa Negra which sits right next to the cobalt blue Lagoa Comprida, with a perfectly placed miradouro (viewpoint) in between.
The side-by-side Lagoa Negra, left, and Lagoa Comprida make for a striking scene on Flores.
Between the island’s green cliffs dripping from waterfalls, the powerful Poco do Bacalhau plunges 100 meters into a small, swimable pool.
With less than 500 inhabitants and one lone town on the only stretch of land at sea level, Corvo is the smallest (and most remote) island in the Azores, only four miles long and less than five miles wide.
Bird watching is a popular activity on little Corvo.
Still, this small island (a remnant of an ancient volcano about 10 miles north of Flores) is a well-known birdwatcher’s paradise, who flock here mainly in the fall, hoping to spot yellow-billed cuckoos, Cory’s shearwaters and many other species.
For hundreds of years, sailing ships have made the capital of Horta—known for its daring seawalls—a stopover, including those that navigated between the New and Old Worlds in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Vibrant hydrangeas border roads along the route to the western end of Faial.
Football-sized globes of sky-blue hydrangeas border roads and frame houses along the route to the western end of the island. This desolate, monochromatic area is in stark contrast to the vibrant, colorful Horta.
The nearly 8,000 m high mountain Pico, the highest peak in Portugal, dominates the landscape on this island.
Mount Pico is the highest peak in Portugal at 2,351 meters 7,713 feet.
Here, it seems almost everything is made of black basalt lava rock, including the mosaic of beads surrounding the local grape vines that have warmed them and protected them from the island’s heady, salty breezes for centuries.
Winding through a landscape of wild heather and Japanese cedar are scenic hiking trails that end at fajãs, or fertile plains with cliffs formed by landslides and ancient lava flows.
One of the most enchanting is Fajã de Santo Cristo, accessed by a six-mile walkable donkey trail that winds down from the cloud-capped peak of Serra de Topo. The route meanders past old watermills and gates of gnarled branches to the isolated waterfront hamlet of Fajã de Santo Cristo. Here the residents tend terraced gardens with yams, cabbage, spinach and tomatoes.
Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo is a fertile plain at the foot of a steep slope.
This coast attracts surfers who come for the pointbreak waves. However, the island is best known for a culinary delicacy: their tangy cow’s milk cheese.
Many of Graciosa’s signature sights provide a dramatic education in the island’s volcanic origins.
Furna Do Enxofre on the island of Graciosa is an impressive lava cave.
The view at the bottom is surreal. Unlike the lake at the base which is full of cold rainwater, the cave’s air is saturated with the smell of sulfur, and mud fumaroles bubble and boil at 180°F (82°C). Sunlight enters through oculi in the ceiling, revealing yellow crystals shining on the boulder-strewn slopes.
While Pico’s black basalt gives that island the appearance of black and white brushstrokes, Terceira uses a Crayola crayon palette in many ways.
Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has brightly colored historic buildings.
Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Moment RF/Getty Images
On the north coast, the village of Biscoitos shows off its volcanic origins with natural pools of all shapes and sizes that pierce the hardened black lava that stretches across the harbor. In addition, beach towels, umbrellas and sun loungers can be set up for a day of sunbathing and bathing.
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Autonomous Region of the Azores.
It is home to what are said to be the world’s oldest commercial pineapple-growing greenhouses and the oldest working tea plantation in Europe.
One of the island’s most heralded landscapes is the Furnas Valley, a dormant crater draped with foliage and dotted with memories of the volcanic past, including inviting hot springs.
Also scenically stunning, with tree ferns and bunkers filled with volcanic sand, is the 18-hole Furnas Golf Club which sits 500 meters above sea level.
Santa Maria is the southernmost island of the Azores, with sunshine and golden sand beaches.
Klara Bakalarova/Adobe Stock
Santa Maria, the southernmost of the Azores, is not only the sunniest of the islands, but it is also the only one with golden sandy beaches.
The green and blue of the sea, sky and valleys mingle at Miradouro da Pedra Rija, one of the many vantage points that make for a delightful picnic spot. Forests of Japanese cedar blanket the zigzagging roads, sometimes along trails bordered by Azores blueberries and small orchids.
The hamlet of São Lourenco is especially popular in summer for its photogenic sandy beach backed by a tapestry of ancient vineyards enclosed by black lava stone walls.
Jeanine Barone is a New York City travel writer specializing in Portugal and has frequently visited the Azores.