(CNN) – The journey to heaven on earth does not necessarily require a long, arduous or dangerous journey.
Indeed, pristine countryside reminiscent of a fairy tale is barely five hours from Boston and about four hours from the United Kingdom. It is a country where waterfalls cascade down dazzling green cliffs; where the streets are lined with hydrangea hedges; Where the rugged beaches are covered with black sand beaches.
Time is lost, whether it’s a hamlet of stone houses connected by cobblestone walks, or the locals clinging to the old ways of growing crops in the fertile plains at the foot of sheer cliffs, or heading there by horse-drawn wagon to deliver milk to the cheese factory.
Welcome to the Azores, a chain of nine charming islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but part of Portugal. The archipelago is an autonomous region located approximately 1,000 miles from mainland Portugal. Thermal pools of the islands, lush calderas, volcanic lagoons and steam geysers are all testament to the violent volcanic forces that created them, yet each island has its own distinct character, with nature reigning in its fiercest rulers.
Azores Airlines operates non-stop flights from Boston to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island and year-round to Lajes on Terceira with a layover in Ponta Delgada. Both United (from Newark) and Azores Airlines (from JFK, on select days) have non-stop flights to Ponta Delgada during the summer. British Airways has non-stop summer flights on Saturdays.
After jumping straight into an archipelago that feels like a world away, here’s what awaits you on each island:
The island of Flores is located in the westernmost part of the Azores. Although its name means ‘flowers’, it is the abundant waters that define this stunning emerald island, often shrouded in mist.
There are seven crater lakes dotted within the hills, including the forest-green Lagoa Negra, which sits next to the cobalt blue Lagoa Comprida, with the miradouro (viewpoint) ideally located in between.
Together, Lagoa Negra (left) and Lagoa Comprida make up a great spectacle in Flores.
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Among the island’s verdant cliffs from which waterfalls tumble, the mighty Poco do Bacalhau plunges 300 feet into a small swimmable pool.
With less than 500 residents and a lone town on the only piece of land at sea level, Corfu is the smallest (and most remote) island in the Azores, only four miles long and not three miles wide.
Bird watching is a popular activity on small Corfu.
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However, this small island (the remnant of an ancient volcano about 10 miles north of Flores) is a well-known paradise for bird watchers, who flock here, particularly in the fall, hoping to spot Coryds, Cory’s shearwaters, and many other species.
For hundreds of years, sailing ships have made the capital’s port of Horta – known for its colorful seawall – a stopover, including for those sailing between the New and Old Worlds in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Live hydrangea border roads all the way to the western end of Viale.
Schlerner / Adobe Stock
Football-sized fields in sky-blue hydrangeas line the streets and half-timbered houses all the way to the island’s western tip. This desolate area is monochromatic in stark contrast to the vibrant and colorful Horta.
At nearly 8000 feet, Mount Pico, the highest peak in Portugal, dominates the landscape on this island.
Mount Pico, with a height of 2,351 meters, is the highest peak in Portugal.
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Almost everything here appears to be built of black basalt lava rock, including the mosaics of barns that surround the local vineyards, which they have warmed and protected from the island’s salty breeze for centuries.
Through a landscape of wild heather and Japanese cedar, scenic hiking trails make their way to Fagas, lush plains with cliffs carved by landslides and ancient lava flows.
One of the most attractive is Fajã de Santo Cristo, accessed via a six-mile walkable donkey trail that ends at the top of the cloud-covered Serra de Topo. The route passes through old water mills and gates made of interlocking branches to the remote waterfront village of Faja de Santo Cristo. Here residents plant terraced gardens where yam, cabbage, spinach and tomatoes grow.
Faja da Caldera de Santo Cristo is a fertile plain at the foot of a steep cliff.
This coast attracts surfers who come for point break waves. However, the island is famous for its delicacy: delicious cow’s milk cheese.
Many of Graciosa’s signature attractions offer insight into the island’s volcanic origins.
Furna Do Enxofre on Graciosa Island is an amazing lava cave.
Stefano / Adobe Stock
The scene below is surreal. Unlike the lake at the base, which is filled with cool rainwater, the cave’s air is saturated with the smell of sulfur, and the slime boils at 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82 degrees Celsius). Sunlight streams through the eyes in the ceiling, revealing yellow crystals that glow on the rock-strewn cliffs.
While Pico’s black basalt gives this island the appearance of black and white brushstrokes, Terceira uses Crayola painting in several ways.
Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features brightly colored historic buildings.
Jose A Bernat Pacetti / Moment RF / Getty Images
On the north coast, the village of Biskos shows its volcanic origins with natural pools of all sizes and depths penetrating the hardened black lava that stretches across the harbor. Next to it, beach towels, umbrellas and deck chairs can be equipped for sunbathing and snorkeling.
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Autonomous Region of the Azores.
Dalio / Adobe Stock
It is home to what is said to be the oldest commercial pineapple greenhouse in the world and the oldest operating tea plantation in Europe.
One of the island’s most iconic landscapes is the Firnas Valley, a dormant crater covered in foliage and dotted with reminders of its volcanic past, including inviting hot springs.
Perched 1,700 feet above sea level, the 18-hole Furnas Golf Club is also breathtakingly stunning, with tree ferns and bunkers filled with volcanic sand.
Santa Maria is the southernmost island in the Azores, boasting sunshine and golden sandy beaches.
Clara Bacalarova / Adobe Stock
Santa Maria, located in the southernmost part of the Azores, is not only the brightest island, but 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 viewpoints that becomes a beautiful picnic spot. The winding streets are covered by forests of Japanese cedar, sometimes alongside paths lined with blue azurian berries and small orchids.
The small village of São Lourenco is especially popular in summer for its picturesque sandy beach surrounded by a tapestry of old vineyards backed by black lava stone walls.
Janine Baron is a New York City-based travel writer who specializes in Portugal and has visited the Azores several times.