Europe is closer than you think if you travel to the Azores, an archipelago of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

Eight hundred miles west of Portugal and just a four-hour flight from Boston, the islands are the closest point of Europe to the United States, other than the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland.

But proximity is not the only reason the Azores are a great vacation destination.

These islands will open your eyes to nature's moods, ranging from explosive and destructive to calm and peaceful. And the lessons the Azores offer in geography, seismology and volcanology are unforgettable.

The ground rumbles, mud boils and hot springs bubble in certain places. In fact, there's so much underground thermal activity in the Furnas area of Sao Miguel, the largest Azorean island, that home cooks and restaurant chefs use "hot spots" alongside Furnas Lake to cook a special stew (Cozido das Furnas) in steaming holes in the ground.

The islands' temperate Atlantic climate, between 55 and 75 degrees year-round, means comfortable touring and flowers all year. However, the weather is changeable and requires ponchos for the downpours that can strike, particularly during the off season, from October to April.

Americans are welcome

Flower lovers, who have discovered that the islands are blooming treasures, often time their vacations to see the flowering of the azaleas and rhododendrons (as large as trees) in late March and early April or hydrangea time in July and August, when the bushes add vibrant color to hedgerows and hillsides.

Even more pleasant is the sense of peace. Because of their isolation, the islands are behind the times when it comes to crowds, traffic and crime.

Americans are welcome, too. Start a conversation with an islander and you're likely to learn that he or she either has relatives in the States or has lived there.

The ties binding Americans and Azoreans go back to the days when New England whaling ships stopped in the Azores for supplies and sailors. But they also include the times when transatlantic cables were laid and when the United States established a military base in the islands.

Impromptu side trips

Even without those ties, Azoreans are hospitable.

When I was leaning over a fence to photograph colorful orchids growing in front of a home on Pico, the owners opened their gate and invited me in for a closer look. And they gave me the most beautiful bouquet I'll ever receive.

A Faial cabdriver taking me from Horta to the airport for my inter-island flight back to Sao Miguel made a side trip to his home so I could see his early-blooming hydrangeas and vegetable garden.

Another cabbie quoted 13 euros to take me to the vineyards of Pico -- a few miles from the island's ferry port at Madalena -- and wait while I toured a wine-production facility and bought wine. When she realized I was interested in the island's history, flowers, fruit and foods, the excursion took on new dimensions.

She took me to see abandoned homes with crumbled walls and damaged roofs caused by the 1978 earthquake, as well as the memorial.

The cabbie also suggested stops at a bakery for crusty bread and at a cheese factory for a round of soft and buttery cow's milk cheese. I needed both, she said, to enjoy with my wine. Who could object?

We were gone far longer and went much farther than the cabbie expected when she named her price at the start of our journey. But she refused to accept any more than the original amount. "I had fun, too," she said as she pulled away.