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By Diane Stoneback

RISMEDIA, August 18, 2008-(MCT)-Europe is closer than you think and less expensive than you’d expect, if you travel to the Azores, an archipelago of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

Eight hundred miles west of Portugal and just a four-hour flight from Boston, the islands are the closest point of Europe to the United States, other than the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland.

A vacation can cost as little as $709 per person, thanks to Azores Express package deals including round-trip airfare from Boston, six nights’ hotel and full breakfasts.

Visit two islands instead of one, requiring an inter-island flight, and the cost is $969.

But proximity and affordability are only the start of the reasons the Azores are a great vacation destination.

These islands will open your eyes to nature’s moods, ranging from explosive and destructive to calm and peaceful. And the lessons the Azores offer in geography, seismology and volcanology are unforgettable.

The ground rumbles, mud boils and hot springs bubble in certain places. In fact, there’s so much underground thermal activity in the Furnas area of Sao Miguel, the largest Azorean island, that home cooks and restaurant chefs use “hot spots” alongside Furnas Lake to cook a special stew (Cozido das Furnas) in steaming holes in the ground.

Elsewhere, dormant volcanoes release occasional puffs of smoke and it’s not unusual to feel the earth shake under your feet.

In other places, the stunning beauty of lofty lava cliffs lining the islands’ shores, placid lakes filling the craters of ancient volcanoes, sweeping mountain views, flower-studded landscapes and cascading waterfalls compete for visitors’ attention.

The islands’ temperate Atlantic climate, between 55 and 75 degrees year-round, means comfortable touring and blooming flowers all year. However, the weather is very changeable and requires ponchos for the blustery downpours that can strike, particularly during the off season, which runs from October to April.

Flower lovers, who have discovered the islands are blooming treasures, often time their vacations to see the azaleas and rhododendrons (as large as trees) flower in late March and early April or hydrangea time in July and August when the bushes add vibrant color to hedgerows, hillsides and shoulders of the road.

Even more pleasant is the sense of peace that overspreads the islands. Because of their isolation, they’re behind the times when it comes to crowds, traffic and crime (now that they don’t need to pay pirates for protection!).

When you step off the curb and into a crosswalk, drivers stop. Driving a rental car is fairly easy, too, even on the curving, hilly, two-lane roads.

Americans really are welcome here, too. Start a conversation with an islander and you’re likely to learn that he or she either has relatives in the States or has lived in the States for a few years.

The ties binding Americans and Azoreans go back to the days when New England whaling ships stopped in the Azores for supplies and sailors. But they also include the times when trans-Atlantic cables were laid and when the United States established a military base in the islands (first on Santa Maria, then on Terceira).

Still more ties linked the two countries when the Capelinhos volcano (on Faial’s west coast) erupted in 1957 and continued for more than a year. The catastrophe had some Azoreans emigrating to the States.

Even without those ties, Azoreans are open and hospitable.

When I was leaning over a fence to photograph an array of colorful orchids growing in front of a home on Pico, the owners opened their gate and invited me in for a closer look at the flowers. And, they gave me the most beautiful bouquet of orchids I’ll ever receive.

A Faial cabdriver taking me from Horta to the airport for my inter-island flight back to Sao Miguel made an impromptu side trip to his home so I could see his early-blooming hydrangeas and flourishing vegetable garden.

Another cabbie quoted 13 euros (about $21) to take me to the vineyards of Pico-a few miles from the island’s ferry port at Madalena-and wait while I toured a wine-production facility and bought wine. When she realized I was interested in the island’s history, flowers, fruit and foods, the excursion took on new dimensions.

She took me to see abandoned homes with serious cracks, crumbled walls and damaged roofs caused by the 1978 earthquake, as well as the memorial commemorating this most recent of Pico’s “serious” seismic events.

The cabbie also suggested stops at a bakery for crusty bread and at a cheese factory for a round of soft and buttery cow’s milk cheese. I needed both, she said, to enjoy with my wine. Who could object?

We were gone far longer and went much farther than the cabbie expected when she named her price at the start of our journey. But she refused to accept any more money than the original amount she requested. “I had fun, too,” she said, as she pulled away.

© 2008, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.