The Azores, a collection of small island dotted in the middle of the Atlantic, are a world away from the rat race. ELISE RANA feels their soothing effects.

Scrimshaw and pineapples. A century ago, this is what you’d have brought back from the Azores. These days the whales are chased with cameras instead of harpoons so the scrimshaw – engraved whaletooth, the product of bored and lonely days at sea – is all antique. Fruit from the other side of the world still costs less there than the locally-grown, but the Azorean pineapple’s reputation of yore is fondly remembered enough to warrant its own airport kiosk selling single fruits in presentation boxes. The only other export of recent years to reach public acclaim has been Nelly Furtado. But otherwise, it’s pretty much still scrimshaw and pineapples.

The point is, though, that you actually get there to bring them back in the first place. Geographically speaking, you can’t get much more off the beaten track and still be in Europe – and that’s half the appeal. Since direct flights from the UK began in April 2005, tourism has begun to flourish in these remote and evocatively named Portuguese islands, adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Cruise ship traffic is sharply on the increase, luring Caribbean-Europe route stopovers away from Madeira. As we arrive on the largest island, São Miguel, the tree-lined squares and mosaic-paved streets of the capital Ponta Delgada are being spruced up for what may be its busiest summer yet.

Summer has always been a time for celebration here, however. This is Holy Spirit season – a local twist on Catholic tradition that goes back centuries, lends its name to everything from the local bank to the speciality soup and means every village has its own purpose-built shrine to house annual festivities.

We’re too early in the year to join in, but instead manage an audience with Ponta Delgada’s other great divine celebrity, due to have his own celebration in a few weeks. The wish-granting reputation of the ‘Christ of the Miracles’ icon is such that it’s considered uninsurable. At Our Lady of Hope, Sister Margarita shows us case after case of gold-embroidered capes, sewn with individual pieces of jewellery donated in thanks to the icon – along with the spike-studded, somewhat Opus Dei-like penitential cross of the venerated nun who spread the word of the icon’s powers.

People come from all over the world for help for different reasons: diseases, psychological problems, family problems,” says Sister Margarita, pressing a coin into my palm. Beneath the image of the icon is printed the request that any miracles be reported back. “One man recently was diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live – he prayed to the icon and survived. Now his whole family come here every Sunday.”

Even my black atheist heart is warmed by the old-fashioned beliefs, values and traditions that still shape life here. That Azorean people are still happy to give their worldly wealth to the church isn’t such a surprise, though, when you consider the beauty of their surroundings.

The nine lushly-vegetated volcanic islands known as the ‘gardens of the Atlantic’ bring new meaning to the word green – ascending a crater’s edge gives a the view of a vast, verdant patchwork of fields, like a big, peaceful farm in the middle of the ocean. A short drive further though and it’s more Lost than Emmerdale, with hot springs, deep caves and the sparkling twin lakes of Sete Cidades – formed, the legend goes, from the tears of two separated lovers. With 24 species of whale and dolphin, the Azores are also one of the world’s top locations for cetacean-spotting – operators even offer money-back guarantees should nothing be sighted.

Given the bucolic nature of the ‘bustling capital’, it’s interesting to see just how more relaxed things can get on the neighbouring island of Terceira, which the Micaelenses say does nothing but party. Sure enough, spirits here are high in anticipation of the beginning of bullfight season – from May to mid-October, around 300 ‘tourada a corda’ take place in different villages over the summer. Video footage of previous years’ escapades is on permanent loop in just about every bar, café and even nightclub.

Terceira has more cows than people, but it is only the pure-breed ‘vacas bravas’ that form the mass of muscle, horns and hooves that would-be bullrunners are up against. More of a friendly free-for-all than a glamourised spectacle of gore, anyone can join in and feel vaguely safe in the knowledge that the bull can be yanked back by the rope around its horns should it come to a close call.

“Terceira is an island of festivities,” says our Terceiran guide, Rui Costa. “It’s in the blood of the people.”

From the natural swimming pools carved into the black basalt of Biscoitos on the northern coast to the graceful pastel architecture of World Heritage-listed old town of Angra do Heroismo in the south, Terceira is further proof that the Azores have plenty of charms for the visitor, but are quite happy to enjoy them themselves. It’s all in the details: an old man carrying milk churns on donkey-back; traditional stone presses at a local winery; women packing tea by hand at Gorreana plantation. If ever there was an antidote to the stresses of city living, this must be it.

Back on São Miguel, I take a walk through the Terra Nostra botanical gardens with Catarina Machado, a micaelense born and bred. She’s one of a growing number of young Azoreans choosing to stay put rather than move to mainland Europe or America as so many previous generations have done.

“Here, you don’t have a rich life but you have a calm life, and people are starting to appreciate that more than money,” she says.

“Some people still come here with the idea that the islands are poor and backward, asking if we have electricity! But before, we never even had tourists from the mainland – now it’s seen as a luxury destination. They want to move here, too.”

Here, change does happen – just on Azorean terms. In fact, it turns out that even the pineapples were a late innovation – adopted after the loss of orange crops so prized that ships would race to London to bring the first of the winter to market. Now tourism is the rising stock of these beautiful, far-flung islands, and again they’ll adapt. But only as much as they need to.

• For further information on Portugal and the Azores call the Portuguese National Tourist Office on 0845-355 1212 (local call) or visit SATA International (0870-6066 664; fly direct from Gatwick to São Miguel from £217 return, and also operate daily inter-island flights. The Azores Air Pass gives a 20% discount on fares, with a return ticket to visit two islands costing from £150.”