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Nine islands make up the picturesque and remote Azores islands, located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America, almost 1,000 miles from the coast of Portugal, which they've been a part of since their discovery in the 15th century.

Long the play ground of discerning European travelers and adventure seekers, particularly the Portuguese and English, the Azores remains largely undiscovered by Americans and therefore it is a great destination for those wishing to get away from the hustle and bustle of crowded tourist islands in the Mediterranean or Caribbean.

The nine islands are Corvo, Faial, Flores, Graciosa , Pico, Santa Maria, São Jorge, São Miguel andTerceira.

The Azores are known for their exceptional water sport activities. Whale and dolphin watching is most popular during the summer months from June to September when large pods feed off the abundant supply and variety of fish in the waters between the islands of Faial, Pico and São Jorge.

For scuba diving enthusiasts, several dive centers offer world class dive boats, equipments and access to some of the most pristine diving waters in the world. Cruiser yacht operate out of the ports of Horta (Faial) and Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) providing visitors with the opportunity to venture beyond the coastline into the remote waters of the mid-Atlantic.

The Azores have also gained an international reputation for their game and sport fishing. The fishing season is from June to September and game fishing boats are available for day tours and charters from the marinas of Horta and Ponta Delgada and from the island of Santa Maria. Expect to see (or catch) blue and white marlins, tunas, wahoos and various species of shark.

For those who prefer land-based activities, the islands offer spectacular hiking opportunities, horse-back riding, coastal walks, mountaineering, bicycle tours, lakes, a volcano and caves to explore. For those who want to experience the beauty of the Azores from above, parasailing, hang gliding and ultra-light aircraft are also available. History and architecture buffs will enjoy the beauty and design of the old towns and villages of the Azores. Churches dating back to the 16th century churches dominate the architectural landscape on each of the islands and the 16th century palaces and forts in the city of Angra do Heroismo (Teceira) have led to that city being classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

São Miguel is the largest island of the Azores and famed for its impressive twin lakes, one blue, one green, sandy beaches, grottos, impressive cliffs and fortresses. As most flights land at Ponta Delgada, its main city, many visitors base themselves here. Although you'll be paying in Euro, don't think you'll be paying traditionally high European prices as accommodation on the Azores is very affordable.

In Vila Franca, the Convento San Francisco (tel. + 351/217-803-470; www.arteh-hotels.com) is a hotel housed in a 17th century convent facing the Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo Nature Reserve. With only 10 boutique rooms priced from $75 to $120 per night, this hotel is a romantic getaway with luxurious features and amenities in a historic setting. Please note that credit cards are not accepted.

For more modern digs at very affordable prices, there's even a Holiday Inn (tel. + 351/296-630-000; www.ichotelsgroup.com) in Ponta Delgada with rooms starting at $61 per night

On the island of Teceira, in historic Angra do Heroismo, a room at Quinta de Sã o Carlos (+ 351/295-332-298), a stunning 17th century manor house costs between $87 and $123 a night. Relax by the pool, climb a volcano, swim in a natural lake or meander through the historic streets - the choice is yours.

On the island of Faial, near the town of Horta The Azores High Bed and Breakfast (tel. + 351/292-949-018; www.azoreshigh.com) operates from April to October with rooms including breakfast starting from $77 a night in low season and $88 in high season.

Abreu Tours (tel. 800/223-1580; www.abreu-tours.com) are Azores Islands specialists offering a number of packages departing from Boston.

The eight-day "Three Island Explorer: Faial, Tercereira and Sao Miguel Self-Drive" package departs Boston every Tuesday and Friday between December and September. It includes round-trip airfare on SATA Air-Azores, two nights each in Horta, Angra do Heroismo and Ponta Delgada, inter-island flights and car rental on each island. This one-week vacation to the three main islands of the Azores is priced at $1,429 per person.

UK-based Azores Archipelago (tel. + 44/17687-75672; www.azoreschoice.com) can also arrange your Azores vacation if you choose to fly via London. An eight-day "Whale and Dolphin Watching" tour includes round-trip airfare from London, seven-nights accommodation just outside Horta, staying at the Belgian House on a bed and breakfast basis with the flexibility of a hire car included. Four half-days are taken up whale and dolphin watching allowing you a further four full days to explore the two beautiful islands of Faial and Pico (and Sao Jorge from June to September). Prices start at $1165 per person for travel between October and April. Prices rise in the summer months, with August being the peak at $1511 per person. They can also arrange diving or walking tours, and car rentals.

Budget packages to the Azores are available through Azores-Express (tel. 800/762-9995; www.azores-express.com). For Tuesday departures from Boston from now until June 15, 2006, pay as little as $609 plus taxes for round-trip airfare, six nights accommodation at the Terra Nostra Hotel on São Miguel and daily breakfast. Six-nights air/hotel packages on the island of Terceira (staying at the Terceira Mar Hotel start from $779 or on Faial at the Hotel do Canal for $779.

Combination packages that give you three-nights on two islands start at $779, for example São Miguel and Faial (São Miguel Park Hotel and Hotel do Canal) or São Miguel and Terceira (São Miguel Park Hotel and Terceira Mar Hotel). Add $220 for departures on December 18, 20 and 22, 2005, January 3, April 18, 25 and May 23, 2006. For departures from May 16 to June 15, add $250. Friday departures incur a surcharge of $90.

Getting to the Azores is easier than you may think and possibly more affordable. Flying from the U.S. will involve one stop, usually in Lisbon or in London although there are charter flights that fly non-stop from the U.S. (www.sata.pt and www.azores-express.com) and Canada (www.eurosun.com) to the airports of Ponta Delgada and Lajes.

There are frequent two-hour flights from Lisbon to the three Azorean airports: Ponta Delgada (São Miguel), Lajes (Terceira) and Horta (Faial) on TAP Air Portugal (www.flytap.com) or SATA/Azores-Express (www.azores-express.com). Ponta Delgada also has regular flights from Funchal (Madeira) and during the peak season from Oporto, Frankfurt and London. Inter-island flights are also available.

There are regular ferries between Faial, Pico and São Jorge, also between Terceira and Graciosa provided by Transmaçor (www.transmacor.pt). During summer, Açorline (www.acorline.pt) ferries connect all islands except Corvo. Ferry prices range from $3.50 to $51 depending on the route and distance between islands,

More information about the Azores can be found on the official Azores tourism website at www.drtacores.pt.

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