The only problem with the Azores is getting there

But once you arrive, you'll find what you're looking for.
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The Independent Travel
We were driving through some of the roughest country of the high mountains when a tough-looking guy sitting on a tough-looking horse scrambled down a near vertical slope ahead of us. Who was he? A cowboy escaping from the Injuns? A gaucho making his way back from the herd? Nope. He was a milkman - we could tell that, because he had two milk churns strapped on his horse's back.

There are a lot of milkmen in the Azores. Outside the towns, moving milk around - on horseback, in carts, on motorbikes and very occasionally by van - seems to be the main activity. That is not surprising: the Azorean uplands make Ireland seem arid - put a lot of Friesian cows on them, and you get a lot of milk.

We went to the Azores last July for a number of reasons. The main one was that we wanted somewhere warm but not too sunny. Some friends had been to the islands and recommended them; but hardly anyone else had - they were that ever-sought cliche, the undiscovered destination. Most looked slightly puzzled when we said we were going to the Azores. "Are they near Mauritius?" one asked. Well, they are not: they are 1,000 miles due west of Portugal (which owns them), or about a third of the way to America.

Of course, there is usually a reason why a destination is undiscovered. We hoped it was just the lack of beaches and the fact that the weather was unlikely to be too clever (the Azores' main claim to fame seems to be as a centre of various systems on Mr Fish's maps). We discovered another reason when we booked - they are tedious and expensive to get to. You have to fly to Lisbon and change; and as Air Portugal has a monopoly on the route, it can charge what it likes.

There are nine islands in the archipelago, stretching 250 miles from east to west and straddling the mid-Atlantic ridge. The two western islands, Flores and Corvo, are in America, tectonically speaking. We spent a week on Sao Miguel, the biggest and easternmost, and a few days each on Flores and Faial, which is in the central group.

There was some clear sunshine, but lots of cloud and humidity. This was surprisingly pleasant because there was a fresh wind blowing much of the time. We swam happily - the beaches are volcanic and unappealing, but the Azoreans have made many of their rock pools into natural swimming pools. You can also swim in the lakes that lie at the bottom of the many volcano craters and, memorably, in the hot spring pool at Furnas.

Physically, the islands are a cross between the Canaries and Ireland, with a little Orient thrown in. Like the Canaries they are volcanic: Pico, one of the islands in the central group and the highest mountain in Portugal - rises majestically out of the sea. It must be an uplifting sight for trans-Atlantic yachtsmen heading for rest and a gin and tonic in Horta, on nearby Faial. The most extraordinary place of all is the new Capelinhos volcano on Faial.

Everything in the Azores looks as though it is being viewed through polarising glasses: the grass is so green, the sea is so blue. Best of all in July are the banks of hydrangeas that pass for hedgerows. They just loved the acid soil and terrific humidity when Portuguese sailors bought them back from the East, and they do the islands proud. Looking at some hillsides from a distance, they are criss-crossed with thick purple lines of hydrangeas; in between them, of course, are black and white cows.

I think we chose the right islands. On Sao Miguel we stayed in the capital Ponta Delgada, whose charms are limited to some pretty back streets and a museum with what the brochure called a "suggestive collection of toys" (good museum, toys sadly unsuggestive). But it is probably the best place the stay because all the buses leave from there, and it also the easiest place to hire a car.

Flores is pretty and wild - what we thought from the plane were airport buildings turned out to be the capital. Faial is most fun: if I had to choose just one island, that is where I would go.

Sadly, however, there is a good reason for sticking to the one island. SATA Air Acores managed to lose one of our reservations even though it had been re-confirmed twice. Its staff treated my despair (pregnant wife, small child, etc) with indifference. And I gather from talking to local travel reps that our problems were not uncommon. Overall, though, the Azores are a delight. If travel operators want to haul themselves out of their misery, I suggest they apply to run a few (just a few) charter flights there.

When to go

Temperatures are highest, and rainfall and humidity are lowest, in July and August. April to June is also a promising time to visit.

How to get there

TAP Air Portugal (0171-828 0262) has daily flights from London via Lisbon to Ponta Delgado. The cheapest low-season fare (7 April-19 May) is pounds 284 midweek, pounds 299 weekend. From 20 May-30 June this increases by around pounds 50, and in July and August by around pounds 100.

The same fares apply to the airports of Horta and Terceira. You can fly into any of the three and out from any other.

How to get around

SATA Air Acores operates flights between the islands; these are bookable through Air Portugal, theoretically at least.

Who to ask

Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22 Sackville Street, London W1X 1DE (0171-494 1441).

Six of the best places to go in the Azores

Gorreana, Sao Miguel "The only tea plantation in the European Union". It spills down to the sea on the northern coast of the island.

Furnas, Sao Miguel At the east of the island, boiling sulphurous springs erupt in pimples - "calderas". More soothing evidence of underfloor heating in the Terra Nostra botanical garden.

Faja Grande, Flores The westernmost village in Europe, Swim in a pool at the bottom of one of the waterfalls that tumble off the island's central plateau.

Horta, Faial Marina full of yachts heading across the Atlantic. Yachtspeople drink in the delightful Peter's Bar, leaving their mark as pavement paintings.

Capelinhos volcano, Faial Drive west across Faial and see more and more wrecked houses. The reason is at the westernmost end: a volcano that took a year emerging from the sea in 1957/8.

Pico - whalewatching Don't wear your Greenpeace badge: the economy is still suffering from the ban on whaling. Spend a day among the beasts on a high-speed inflatable.

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