TERCEIRA, Portugal — As my husband, Edward, and I waited at a bus stop, we chatted with a local man in English and broken Portuguese. Obviously puzzled, the man suddenly asked, "Are you a little bit Portuguese?"
We were charmed by the way he put his question, one that was asked of us often during a three-week exploration of the Azores. Americans who find their way to these nine Portuguese islands--about 800 miles off the mainland, or "on the outskirts of Europe," as one book put it--are largely descendants of emigrants. About 130,000 Azoreans moved to North America between 1955 and 1974 as the local economy struggled.
Other visitors are mostly Portuguese from the mainland, Germans, English, French and Italians. Americans without Portuguese roots, like us, are far fewer.
The islands have no casinos, no mega-malls, little night life and few sandy beaches to draw throngs of tourists. But in the words of one American visitor we met, the attraction is obvious: "Beauty, beauty everywhere."
This world of natural wonders was sculpted by volcanic upheavals that still rearrange the landscape. On the coasts, rocky headlands are lashed by the sea. Inland, crater lakes, hot springs and collapsed volcanic cones dot the land. In other areas, sweeping green fields form a tapestry threaded with black basalt walls and miles of white and blue hydrangea hedges.
The Azores' natural wonders aren't limited to the landscape. We found the people to be wonders for their exceptional warmth and kindness: the man who invited us into his home and served us passion-fruit liqueur; the shop clerk who told us, "When you pass the shop again, say me hi"; the man who drove us to a restaurant because none was within easy walking distance. A chambermaid at one inn even gave us handmade potholders on our departure.
Our interest in the Azores sprang from two previous trips to mainland Portugal and to Madeira, another Portuguese island, off the coast of Morocco.
In the Azores, each island has its own personality, as we learned last September. We started on Sao Miguel, 40 miles long by 10 miles wide and home to half of the Azores' 240,000 residents. It's the richest in attractions, natural and man-made. We flew from Boston to Ponta Delgada, the largest town and the seat of the Azores' autonomous government.
After a 4 1/2-hour flight, we stepped off the plane and were dazzled by the brilliance of the light, the clarity of the air and the intensely green landscape. The weather is capricious--one day we watched the skies alternate between full sun and showers five times in seven hours. But for the most part, thanks to the Gulf Stream, the climate is mild year-round. High temperatures range between 55 and 76 degrees, with high humidity to make days feel warmer.
We checked into the Residencial America, a pleasant, 20-room inn. The town does have upscale hotels, but we opted for a more economical pensao to get a better taste of local life.
We toured Ponta Delgada's historic quarter, which lies behind the broad boulevard fronting the harbor. Walking on smooth black and white stones set in varying designs, we reached three adjacent landmarks: the 17th century town hall; the 18th century town gate, with its triple arches; and the 16th century church of Sao Sebastiao, famed for its Manueline facade, Baroque doorways and high altar of carved cedar.
Trips outside of Ponta Delgada provided a look at rural life. Farmers rode burros or drove horse carts carrying shiny metal milk cans. Yellow flowers of wild ginger and rose-colored belladonna lilies bloomed.
Sete Cidades, accessible by taxi or car and about 40 minutes west of Ponta Delgada, is one of the most popular attractions. A volcanic crater cradles side-by-side twin lakes, about seven miles around in total. One lake is blue and the other green, though no one could explain why.
A day trip to Furnas excited us even more. A 1 1/2-hour bus ride took us to this village pocked with fumaroles, openings in the earth spewing pungent sulfur fumes and tall columns of steam. Boiling water from deep underground bubbled up into puddles.
The earth next to Lake Furnas is so hot that locals use it as an oven. They set a metal pot of food into an underground pit and cover it with a wooden lid. Five hours later, the cozido--beef cubes, chicken, sausage, blood pudding, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and rice--is ready to eat. Several Furnas restaurants offer this specialty brought from the lake.
We spent a week exploring Sao Miguel's other attractions: the Baroque churches; the outstanding Carlos Machado Museum, with its exhibits on natural history and folklore in a 17th century former convent; and the public market, selling fruits, vegetables, cheese, meat, fish, flowers and baskets. We could have stayed longer, but other Azores isles beckoned.