(CNN) – Traveling to heaven on earth does not necessarily require a long, difficult, or dangerous journey.
In fact, the unspoiled, fairy tale-like landscape is just five hours from Boston and about four hours from the United Kingdom. This is a land where waterfalls tumble down iridescent green slopes; where the roads are lined with hydrangea hedges; and where rocky shores are covered with black sand beaches.
A time-lost quality prevails, whether it’s a village with stone dwellings connected by paved paths, or locals staying true to the old ways of planting crops on fertile plains at the foot of sheer cliffs, or riding horse-drawn carts to deliver milk to a cheese factory.
Welcome to the Azores, a necklace of nine charming islands nestled in the middle of the Atlantic but part of Portugal. The archipelago is an autonomous region located about 1,000 miles from mainland Portugal. The islands’ thermal pools, lush calderas, crater lakes and steaming geysers all testify to the violent volcanic forces that created them, but each island has a distinct character, dominated by nature at its wildest.
Azores Airlines flies non-stop to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island from Boston and to Lajes on Terceira with a change in Ponta Delgada all year round. United (from Newark) and Azores Airlines (from JFK, on certain days) fly non-stop to Ponta Delgada. British Airways offers non-stop summer flights on Saturdays.
After jumping straight into an archipelago seemingly in a different world, here’s what to expect on each island:
Flores is the westernmost island of the Azores. Although its name translates to “flowers,” it is the abundant bodies of water that most define this stunning emerald green island, often shrouded in mist.
There are seven crater lakes dotted with undulating interiors, including forest green Lagoa Negra, which sits right next to cobalt blue Lagoa Comprida, with a perfectly positioned miraduro (lookout) in between.
Side by side, Lagoa Negra (left) and Lagoa Comprida create a striking picture on Flores.
Among the island’s green rocky walls dripping with waterfalls, the mighty Poco do Bacalhau cascades 300 feet into a small swimming pool.
With less than 500 inhabitants and one secluded town located on a single piece of land at sea level, Corvo is the smallest (and most remote) Azores island, only four miles long and even less than three miles wide.
Birdwatching is popular on tiny Corvo.
However, this tiny island (remains of an ancient volcano about 10 miles north of Flores) is a well-known paradise for birdwatchers who come here, especially in autumn, in hopes of seeing yellow-billed cuckoos, Kori’s petrels and many other species. .
For hundreds of years, sailing ships have made the metropolitan port of Horta, famous for its boldly painted seawall, a stopover, including those that sailed between the New and Old Worlds in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Bright hydrangeas line the roads leading to the western tip of Faial.
Soccer-ball-sized balls of sky-blue hydrangeas line roads and frame houses along the path to the island’s western tip. This desolate, monochromatic area is a stark contrast to the bustling, colorful Horta.
At nearly 8,000 feet, Mount Pico, Portugal’s highest peak, dominates the landscape of this island.
Mount Pico is the highest peak in Portugal at 7,713 feet (2,351 meters).
Here, almost everything seems to be built of black basalt lava stone, including a mosaic of paddocks surrounding native vines that have warmed and shielded them from the windy, salty breezes of the island for centuries.
Scenic footpaths meander through wild heather and Japanese cedar, ending in fahos, or fertile plains punctuated by landslides and ancient lava flows.
One of the most enticing is Faggia de Santo Cristo, accessed via a six-mile-long footpath that descends from the cloud-covered summit of the Serra de Topo. The route meanders past old water mills and gnarled gates to the isolated coastal village of Faja de Santo Cristo. Here, residents cultivate terraced gardens, growing yams, cabbages, spinach and tomatoes.
Faja da Caldeira de Santo Cristo is a fertile plain at the foot of a steep slope.
This coast attracts surfers who come here for a point break. The island, however, is best known for its culinary delicacy: spicy cow’s milk cheese.
Many of Graciosa’s iconic sights provide a dramatic insight into the island’s volcanic origins.
Furna Do Enxofre on Graciosa Island is an impressive lava cave.
The sight below is surreal. Unlike the lake at the foot, filled with cold rainwater, the air of the cave is saturated with the smell of sulfur, and the mud fumaroles boil and boil at 180 F (82 C). Sunlight pours in through slits on the ceiling, revealing yellow crystals that gleam from the boulder-riddled slopes.
While Pico’s black basalt gives this island the look of black and white brushstrokes, Terceira uses the Crayola chalk palette in many ways.
Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a collection of brightly colored historic buildings.
José A. Bernat Basete/Moment RF/Getty Images
On the north coast, the village of Biscoitos showcases its volcanic origins with natural pools of all sizes and depths breaking through the hardened black lava that stretches across the port. In addition, beach towels, umbrellas and sun loungers can be set up for the day to sunbathe and relax.
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the autonomous region of the Azores.
It is home to the world’s oldest commercial pineapple greenhouse and Europe’s oldest operating tea plantation.
One of the island’s most famous landscapes is the Furnas Valley, a dormant crater covered in foliage and dotted with reminders of its volcanic past, including inviting hot springs.
Also a stunning scenic view with tree ferns and volcanic sand-filled bunkers is the 18-hole Furnas Golf Club, located 1,700 feet above sea level.
Santa Maria is the southernmost island of the Azores, famous for its sun and golden sandy beaches.
Clara Bakalarova/Adobe Stock
Santa Maria, the southernmost of the Azores, is not only the sunniest of the islands, but also the only one adorned with golden sandy beaches.
The greens and blues of the sea, sky and valleys mingle at Miradouro da Pedra Rija, one of the many viewpoints that makes for a great picnic spot. Forests of Japanese cedar cover zigzag roads, sometimes alongside paths fringed with Azorean blueberries and small orchids.
The village of São Lourenço is especially popular in summer for its photogenic sandy strip, surrounded by a tapestry of old vineyards surrounded by walls of black volcanic stone.
Janine Barone is a New York-based travel writer who specializes in Portugal and has visited the Azores many times.