The Azores (Portugal)
Plunked in the middle of the Atlantic between North America and Europe, 930 miles from the western edge of Portugal, the Azores mark Europe's westernmost outpost. Legend has it the islands are all that's left of Atlantis, the parcel doled out to Poseidon when the rest of the gods divvied up the earth. But here's the best way we can describe this remote string of islands: If the Hawaiian Islands and Ireland had a torrid love affair, and their bastard child spoke Portuguese, Azores would be its name.
Like Hawaii, the nine islands that comprise the Azorean archipelago are also some of the tallest mountains on earth, starting from deep below sea level and soaring thousands of feet into the sky. Life on the islands is mostly old-world European agrarian, with the sparsely populated countryside interlaced by asymmetrical stacked stonewalls, low-lying houses amidst green pastures, and small towns with whitewashed walls and cobblestone streets. In other words, it's unbelievably gorgeous with a healthy, attractive dose of quaint. Yet far from being homogenous, the islands all have their own unique character and feel, from the frontier ruggedness and raw beauty of Flores to the pastoral rolling hills and quaint fishing villages of Graciosa. It's not all country, though, as evidenced by the bustling, narrow one-way streets, white sand beaches, and university-town-vibe of Ponta Delgada, the Azores capital and largest city located on São Miguel Island.
Throughout the island chain, there's plenty of opportunity for adventure, though, curiously, there are few options for guided trips or rental equipment. Adventure on the Azores is, thus, for the truly adventurous (or just the reliably self-starting). Even so, you can still hit up Futurismo for whale watching and hiking. There are trails to hike and ride on every island in the Azores, with our favorite being Graciosa's Serra Branca; Easy Rider Tours also offers a popular biking tour on the island of São Miguel. If bagging peaks is more your speed, try scaling Pico Island's namesake Mount Pico, which tops out at an elevation of 7,713 feet, making it the highest summit in the Azores as well as mainland Portugal. Being islands, the Azores offer up plenty of waves to surf, and the most famous break is Santa Catarina, an experts-only spot that dishes out hollow bowls over a scarily shallow volcanic reef. For less challenging hiking options through lush scenery and waterfalls, head straight to Flores. The island has dozens of falls, the largest of which, Ribeira Grande, cascades from a height of 1,000 feet.
Weather on the Azores stays mild year round thanks to the gulf stream, though it's sunnier and warmer from April through September (with the rest of the year being the rainy season). Accommodations range from first class hotels like the waterfront Hotel Avenida (from $130/night) in Ponta Delgada to the quaint Telma Silva ($40-$80/night), a hospedarias, the Azorean interpretation of a B&B, on the beautiful southern edge of Flores Island.
More information: Considering how remote they feel, the Azores are surprisingly easy to get to. SATA flies direct to Ponta Delgada from Boston in just four to five hours. From there, flights to other islands are offered multiple times daily, so it's possible to jump on a Friday red-eye and be surfing, hiking, biking, or exploring any of the Azores Islands by lunchtime on Saturday with plenty of time to spare. Whatever you choose, you can count on doing it in near solitude.