Our airplane is descending in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and I can't get Barry Manilow out of my head. "It's a miracle!" he keeps singing. "A true-blue spectacle! A miracle come true!" We are 932 miles from Lisbon, 2,200 from New York City, and an annoying seventies dance song is all I can muster to match the eye-popping splendor outside my window. There's the slate-blue sea that stretches to the horizon in every direction, the pale turquoise of the cloudless morning sky, and now, as the plane banks hard on its final descent, I gaze down at the truest, bluest spectacle of all: twin lakes—one azure, one aquamarine—locked inside the shimmering blue-green hills of São Miguel.
There's no rational explanation why such lush, tranquil islands exist amid such bracing, turbulent seas. The surrounding Atlantic plunges to depths of 10,000 feet, yet farmers pass the days in velvety pastures rimmed not by fences but by neat rows of azaleas and hydrangeas. Mighty sperm whales breach offshore as beachcombers tiptoe through serene tidal pools made of hardened black lava. And the subtropical breezes are as calm and fragrant as when Christopher Columbus stopped by after his maiden voyage to America. While our plane floats over São Miguel's handsome villages and volcanic crags, I begin to understand why Nelly Furtado, whose parents are from here, dedicates song after song to this mid-Atlantic wonderland. I'm even starting to buy the local legend that these nine lonely islands, spread across 374 miles, are Atlantis's last vestiges.
It is a short list of lasts that has brought me to the Azores. This is to be the last exotic trip my pregnant wife, Ruth, and I will take before the birth of our first child. And we chose it because the Azores are some of the last places we know of in Europe (the islands are an autonomous region of Portugal) where the quaintness isn't manufactured and where golden arches are still just something you pass through on the way into church. Lastly, although it has appeared on nautical charts since the 15th century, the Azores have been essentially off the map for most non-European travelers until very recently. But with an increase in direct flights from the United States on Azores Express Airlines and a mini hotel boom, which includes chic, affordable country outposts, I suspect now might be the last chance to visit before the world discovers what a miracle these islands really are.
Her name tells the whole story. Maria do Rosário de Calheiros e Menezes Abade do Neivais. "What would you like to know about São Miguel?" she asks. "I've lived here five hundred years."
The salty breezes have obviously been good to Maria, who doesn't look a day over 39. But what our host for the next few nights means is that she's an original Azorean. Or at least her family is, having arrived a few generations after São Miguel was settled in the 1400's. As Maria explains on the way to Casa do Monte, a manor house that has been in her family a mere three centuries, all those do's and de's in her name pay tribute to ancestors who have endured earthquakes, pirate attacks, and changing fortunes, not to mention a pitiful selection of radio stations.
At 296 square miles, São Miguel is the Azores' largest island and, along with Terceira, where we'll fly for the second half of our visit, easily the most cosmopolitan place you'll find between Montauk and Gibraltar. Not that this is apparent at first. On the road from the airport, we pass ancient lava-stone chapels, a rickety oxcart on a morning milk run, and fishermen whose faces appear as old as the seas. At the Casa, a stately pink mansion on a hill overlooking the surf, a young woman in a crisp white traje micaelense, the traditional island frock, ushers us into a baroque sanctum of open hearths, gilt wood, and polished silver.
Small country hotels like Casa do Monte and the recently opened Hotel do Colégio, a 19th-century music academy reinvented as a stylish inn and restaurant, safeguard island tradition without neglecting guest comforts. At Moinho da Bibi, for instance, couples sleep in luxury where once there was a working windmill. And the fabulously refurbished Convento de São Francisco, a 400-year-old former nunnery, has volcanic rock bathrooms and rich fabrics. In addition to preserving traditions, developers have also been modernizing with high-rises like the Hotel Marina Atlântico, which opened last fall on the lively waterfront promenade in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel's tourist hub. The next big splash will be when the five-star Prince Albert of Monaco Hotel & Casino opens sometime in the future.
Most people, however, don't come to the Azores to stay in their rooms, and at Maria's suggestion, Ruth and I take the two-hour drive along the rugged southern shore to Nordeste, a town so isolated by mountains it was accessed primarily by boat until the 20th century. It's still a thrill ride as the road accordions along cliffs towering above the Atlantic. The reward is a nearly empty coastline so craggy and green—especially from the lookout points at Ponta da Madrugada—that I can imagine how the Polynesians felt upon first glimpsing Hawaii's Napali Coast.
We return via the mountain spa-town of Furnas, where for generations travelers have come for the cozido das furnas, steaming pots of sausages and potatoes cooked for hours on end in burbling holes in the earth. Rather than wait, we join the locals at Café Snackbar Atlântida, an unpretentious grill near the town's botanical gardens, for the plates of the day—frango assado, roasted chicken, and tosta de porco, pressed pork sandwiches on sweet Portuguese bread—capped by almond cakes wrapped in hand-stamped paper from the local parish church.
Back at Casa do Monte, Maria is convinced Ruth is having a boy and says this calls for a celebration. We are seated for dinner at opposite ends of a long table set with silver candelabra and fine china. Maria discreetly drops the needle on Dean Martin's Greatest Hits as her staff lavishes us with island breads and cheeses, Spanish olives, Portuguese stews, and shrimp sizzling in olive oil. (Each night, Maria would find some new reason for us to celebrate, and out would come the candles, the silver platter, and those scratchy Dino records.)