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The Azores: Lost Continent of Atlantis

One of the most offbeat travel experiences in Europe is a trip to the nine Portuguese islands off the Azores. Mythologists believe the remote Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic are the only remnants remaining of the lost continent of Atlantis. For hundreds of years these islands were considered the end of the earth, the outer limits of the European sphere of influence beyond which ships could not sail. Even today, they're a verdant but lonely archipelago in the middle of the ocean, seemingly more tuned to Boston and Lisbon. The cluster of islands is the place where the winds of the Atlantic meet; cyclones call on each other, and visiting urbanites can lose themselves in the often fog-bound volcanic islands containing 240,000 hearty people.

When the first explorers directed their ships' prows into the Atlantic, the volcanic slopes of the Azores were the westernmost-known points of land. Whether the Vikings, the Genoese, the Phoenicians, or whoever first visited these lands remains unknown.

The autonomous archipelago spans a distance of more than 805km (500 miles) from the southeastern tip of Santa Maria to the northwestern extremity at Corvo. The main island of São Miguel lies about 1,223km (760 miles) west of Portugal (3,396km/2,110 miles east of New York), making the Azores the most isolated islands in the entire Atlantic.

Completely uninhabited when discovered, the Azores were named by Diogo de Silves (a captain of Henry the Navigator) after the hook-beaked açor (compared to both a hawk and an eagle), which sailed on the air currents over the coast. The date: 1427 (give or take a year or two). It wasn't long before settlements sprang up. Besides the Portuguese settlers, many from the north, Flemish immigrants came to the central Azores, and today's place and family names show this influence.

Eventually it was learned that the entire island group was actually composed of three distinct archipelagos: the eastern section of Santa Maria and São Miguel; the central with Terceira (the scene of bullfighting in the streets), Graciosa, cigar-shaped São Jorge (Raul Brandão's ethereal island of dust and dream), Pico (with a cloud-capped mountain), and Faial (vulnerable to earthquakes and known for the eerie crater of the extinct volcano, Caldeira); and the western group made up of Flores (flowers), where the vegetation runs riot in a setting of lakes, waterfalls, and valleys, and Corvo (the smallest member -- everybody knows everybody else -- and a visit by a foreigner is an occasion).

The Azores are a study in color. The unknown writer who once made the much-publicized characterization, the "Gray Azores," must have been color-blind. Much of the color of the archipelago comes from the flowers that grow rampantly in its volcanic soil: azaleas, camellias, heather, agapanthus, rhododendrons. Although occasionally lashed by violent storms, the enchanted islands enjoy a mild climate: The temperature averages around 58°F (14°C) in winter, only 75°F (24°C) in the summer.

Even though one might expect these isolated islanders to be insular, the rugged people here, who contend with the elements of nature daily, are hospitable to strangers. Coming back from a walk in the São Miguel hills, we were stopped by a boy riding a mule. Under a straw hat with a hoe slung over his shoulder, the boy smiled as he bid us boa tarde. The world YALE was written across his sweatshirt. It seemed that his uncle had attended Yale. "Do you know him?" the boy asked. "He now lives in Boston."

Every man, woman, and child in the island chain seemingly has relatives living in the United States. Many settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts (of Moby-Dick fame), during the whaling heyday of that port, taking jobs as sailors, fishermen, whalers, and caulkers. Many of the immigrants returned to the Azores, however, after earning their fortunes across the sea.

Space is too tight for more details here, but information is available by contacting the Azores Tourist Board, Rua Ernesto Rebelo 14-P 9900-112 Horta, Faial (tel. 29/220-05-00; www.azores.com). A division of SATA Airlines, Azores Express (www.sata.pt) has direct flights from Boston to the Azores. In summer, there are also flights from Providence (Rhode Island) and Oakland (California). You can also fly from Lisbon or Porto to the Azores.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.