Panorama of Flores Island, Azores Islands, Portugal

Coastline in Azores, Portugal. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Azores

These nine islands, resting about two-thirds of the way from New York to Lisbon, were uninhabited by humans when the Portuguese began to colonize them in the 15th century. With a total area of 910 square miles in the North Atlantic, the Azores sit atop the Atlantic Ridge and are of volcanic origin, with plenty of eruptions and earth tremors over the years to prove it. Exploring the black-sand beaches, crater lakes, and volcanic cones of the islands is a popular pastime for the Portuguese tourists who dominate the islands, which remain virtually unknown to the rest of the traveling world. Although the coastline can be rugged and the beaches a bit rocky, getting out into the great outdoors is the main draw here. Sportfishing, hiking, scuba diving, and swimming in natural pools—not to mention Old World charm and architecture—make it a true off-the-path traveler's paradise.

Often described as the tips of the lost continent of Atlantis, the Azores are bathed by a warm branch of the Gulf Stream, making for a mild year-round climate. Since the islands are strewn over 370 miles in the ocean, each has its own unique microclimate. The islands are broken up into the Eastern Group (Grupo Oriental) of São Miguel, Santa Maria, and Formigas Islets; The Central Group (Grupo Central) of Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial; and The Western Group (Grupo Ocidental) of Flores and Corvo. Most tourists fly into and spend the majority of their time on the main island of São Miguel, the largest island in the archipelago. The isle of Pico is dominated by a cone-shaped volcano that reaches more than 7,700 feet, making it the highest point in Portugal. And on the traditional isle of Terceira you'll find the cobbled streets of the UNESCO World Heritage town, Angra do Heroísmo.

Overall, the Azores retain a slow, almost ancient way of rural life unseen in other parts of Europe, with an emphasis on rich yet simple living and old-fashioned religious ceremony and rituals. It's about time these "fly over" islands between the continents percolated onto the world's radar.

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