In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a few hours west of Lisbon and not too far from Morocco, sits a cluster of beautiful islands that is mostly unknown to North Americans.

It’s the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal that’s unlike any other place you’ll find in Europe.

“We are the Hawaii in the Atlantic, we have very beautiful beaches.”

- Ana Cardoso, owner of Barcarola restaurant

Created out of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, the archipelago comprises nine islands, many of whose inhabitants are descendants of explorers who settled there over several centuries.

“For a long time the Azores were basically isolated from the mainland,” explained tour guide and amateur photographer Eduardo Phillipe Miranda, who was born on the island of Sao Miguel.

He said the islands are surrounded by rough ocean waters, so people avoided going there for business or a vacation. As a result, the residents “developed their own cultures, their own food and their own traditions,” which are very different from those of their motherland.

“The only thing we have in common with Portugal is that we speak Portuguese,” said Antonio Vespa, who grew up on the small island of Faial, known as “the blue island” because of the blue hydrangeas that color its landscape.

Nowadays tourists, mostly from Europe, flock to The Azores, whose beautiful landscapes begin at the ocean and can end in a forest atop a mountain just a few miles away.

“We are the Hawaii in the Atlantic, we have very beautiful beaches,” said Ana Cardoso, owner of Barcarola restaurant in the city of Ponta Delgado on Sao Miguel Island.

But the weather isn’t always perfect for sunbathing; temperatures range throughout the year. “Sometimes we have four seasons in one day,” said Cardoso, laughing. Asked what it was like to live there, the native of the fishing village of Lagoa, on Sao Miguel Island, answered proudly, “It’s great. It’s a wonderful life. Everything you need is here. You can go everywhere and not spend an hour getting there.”

The Azores have a population of 250,000 — Sao Miguel, the largest island, has 140,000 residents; Corvo, the smallest, has just 500 — and many who have lived there for their entire lives have never been anyplace else. Many haven’t even traveled to another island. Some haven’t even gone beyond their village. 

That helps explain the diversity and range of accents among the people of the Azores. You’ll find very different customs from village to village, and it’s not uncommon for a resident of one village to have a hard time understanding someone who speaks the same language on another part of the same island.

But isolation and a shortage of supplies over the years have taught Azoreans to be independent and inventive. The inhabitants learned long ago to take advantage of the volcanoes that surround them for things like natural energy. 

“We produce 40-45 percent of all our electricity here using geo-thermal power plants,” Miranda said.

They also use the volcanic heat to cook their meals. A popular Azorean dish, Cozido, is a mixture of beef, pork, chicken and vegetables that is steam-cooked in metal pots that have been placed in holes dug several feet into the ground near a volcano’s edge, where they slow-cook for several hours.

“It’s more natural because no water is used,” Miranda said. “The vegetables and meat are cooked with the juices of everything. It keeps more of the nutrients.” The result is a healthy and very tasty traditional meal that includes beef, spicy sausage, poultry, potatoes, yams, taro, cabbage and kale. 

A moist and hearty corn bread and a glass of local wine round out the feast.

The Azores are a perfect place to burn it off, too. People are often seen hiking up the side of a mountain or walking along the miles of coastline that surround the islands. The peaks, the valleys, the forests and the oceans are all just miles apart on all of the islands, and there are dozens of fresh water lakes that jut right up to the ocean in some places, creating a dreamy green-blue pool that glows like a gem.

There’s a mellow feeling on the islands, where the hubbub of big cities doesn’t seem to exist. But visitors will still find world-class restaurants featuring many different types of cuisine and a number of shops and specialty stores that have opened during the last decade.

“Things come a little more slowly to the islands,” said Miranda. “We didn’t have technology until long after everywhere else.” 

But that could change soon, as the Azores are increasingly becoming a popular vacation spot. Only one airline--Sata-- currently offers trips to the islands. And a record 160 cruise ships will be bringing visitors this year. 

While the tourism dollars will be good for the economy, locals worry that a large influx of people could change their way of life.

Isabela Domingo said the lack of crime and pollution is part of what makes the Azores so attractive. It’s “not yet spoiled by too much tourism,” she said.

Domingo can’t imagine living anyplace else. “For me, this is paradise,” she said.

Ruth Ravve joined the Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1996 and currently serves as a Chicago-based producer.