Most people have heard of the Portuguese island of Madeira, but not many know exactly where it is. Located 966km (more than 600 miles) southwest of Lisbon, and off the west coast of Morocco, it is a mere speck in the vast Atlantic Ocean. Madeira, along with its sister island of Porto Santo, is actually the summit of an undersea mountain, rearing up with craggy cliffs from the warm blue Gulf Stream waters in one of the deepest parts of the Atlantic. It features one of the world's highest ocean cliffs, soaring 589m (1,933ft) above the sea, which presented a forbidding sight to the ancient Portuguese mariners who first discovered the island archipelago in the 15th century. In fact Porto Santo and Madeira were the first "new worlds" that were colonised by Henry the Navigator in his quest to explore the world.
Madeira is tiny, just 21km (13 miles) wide and 56km (35 miles) long, and has no beaches, but it does have an Eden-like beauty with its rich volcanic soil having turned it into a botanical wonderland and agricultural treasure house. Most of the indigenous thick forest was destroyed in a fire created by the first Portuguese colonialists to clear it for farming. Today however the fragrant island blooms with colourful masses of orchids, bougainvillea, frangipani, wisteria and geraniums. Fruit and herbs grow in profusion on the hillsides and in ravines, and the mountain slopes are terraced with orchards and vineyards. The island has been termed a "floating garden".
Madeira is accessible only by air, mainly from Lisbon to the airport near the capital, Funchal. There is no regular passenger ferry, but cruise ships occasionally call.