Geographically, the Azores have been compared to New Zealand, Ireland and even to Hawaii. Perhaps it is the island factor, the honeycomb of hedges that roll across green hills, or the volcanic peaks that rise from the sea to pierce the clouds. But unlike New Zealand or Ireland, hedges in the Azores bloom mauve with hydrangeas, and instead of the hordes of tourists that descend on Hawaii each year, only a relative handful venture the 833 miles (1340 kilometers) west of Portugal, across the Atlantic Ocean to this balmy archipelago.
Locals would have you believe that their nine islands are what remains of the lost city of Atlantis. And why not? This autonomous region of Portugal could be Utopia by another name. The islands are scattered with white-washed villages and wildflowers add a profusion of color along roads and through the fields: wild ginger, roses, azaleas, heather, belladonna and canna lilies. Crystal-clear lakes fill volcanic craters and, because of the Gulf Stream, temperatures hover around 55°F (13°C) in winter and 74°F (23°C) in summer.
Until about 40 years ago, transatlantic ships and propeller aircraft called at the islands to refuel, but these days only occasional sailing boats drop by. Tourists are welcomed, but are expected to fit in with the local way of life. The nearby Madeira and Canary Islands have more than 100,000 guest beds among them, but there are fewer than 5000 in the Azores. Fortunately, that means no beach-side hotel strips, but you may have to contend with less than five-star facilities in five-star properties. There is a glut of modern, luxury accommodation, courtesy of 1980s developers, but there has not been a rush of tourists to fill the rooms so it is possible to obtain reasonable rates.
Santa Maria and São Miguel are the easternmost islands and remote Flores and Corvo Islands the most westerly in the group. There is a central cluster of five islands: Faial and neighbouring Pico, São Jorge, Graciosa and Terceira, the most densely populated. As well as an international airport, Terceira has a US military base, making it the most developed of the central islands. The landscape of Faial evokes the English Midlands, while 30 minutes away by ferry, Pico is a lot more wild and, in parts, impenetrable with subtropical rain forest. Its central feature, a 2350 meter volcano, is an imposing sight. Ponta Delgado, the capital of São Miguel, is the administrative center of the Azores and, in spite of the odd traffic jam, still retains an old-world atmosphere. Steaming volcanic vents, or fumerolas, can be found on São Miguel above the towns of Furnas and Ribeira Grande.
Massive emigration has left the islands with that most alluring of tourist attractions: a feeling of calm emptiness. Back-roads are dotted with tiny villages that consist of lava-stone houses with sometimes a single cafe - often closed - where the fare is simple but honest. Herman Melville wrote of Azorean emigration in Moby Dick back in the 18th century. US east-coast cities such as New Bedford, Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, have sizable Azorean communities, usually stemming from whalers who jumped ship two centuries ago. In 1957, when the volcano on Faial erupted, 40 per cent of the island's population immigrated to the US under a special Bill sponsored by Senator John Kennedy. The pace of life and limited opportunities have ensured a steady outpouring of the population since.
As in Portugal, Catholicism is the main religion, which means that festivals figure prominently in island culture. Villages have patron saints and celebrate their feast days with festas - the hotels and tourist offices on the islands know when these take place. Elaborate processions wend their way through flower-strewn streets with much singing and dancing. Even though the Azores have been compared with other island states, their fascinating blend of isolation and Portuguese culture make them more distinctive than most.