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.
Summers are hot and dry throughout Portugal, particularly in the Algarve, which experiences very little rain. However refreshing sea breezes make for pleasant conditions. Winters are cold and wet, particularly in the northern and west coast regions. Spring and autumn are good times to visit with cheaper rates at hotels and less crowded beaches, restaurants and golf courses.
When to fly to Madeira
Madeira’s highest season is the end of December to the beginning of January during the End of the Year Festival which is the New Year celebration. There is live music, food, dancing, parades, and fireworks at night. Advance bookings are a must.
The second peak season is April to May and August to September.
The shoulder season is February and March and September and October. The low seasons and the lowest rates are from January 3 to mid-February, mid-May through July, and November to December 26.
Getting around Madeira
Madeira’s buses are reliable, inexpensive, and provide service around the island. Taxis can be hailed as they cruise the streets in major cities and tourist areas, and most restaurants and hotels will call a taxi for you. There are also taxi stands at the airport and larger cities. City fares are set by the government according to destination, and a list of the fares should be in the back seat of the taxi. Fares outside a city are based on kilometres. But, if the meter is not running, do not hesitate to bargain.
Boat charters are available for deep sea fishing, birding, and trips to Monte. Of course you will probably want to return to Funchal from Monte by toboggan. The toboggan, carro de cesto, is a wicker-sided sled and the ride takes about 20 minutes. Two drivers run alongside the toboggan to control it as it slips and slides across the cobblestones.
Driving can be a hair-raising experience. The local drivers know their narrow, winding roads well, and tend to drive fast.
Madeira insider information
- The Sao Vicente Caves and the Volcano Centre are on Madeira’s north coast. There is a wonderful half-hour journey through the caves to the centre of the earth.
- Monte, once a separate resort, stands high on a hill above Funchal and boasts the Monte Palace Tropical Garden, as well as fabulous palaces and churches. Take a short cable-car ride (15 minutes) up to Monte and ride down on a traditional sledge. Alternatively, climb up along Madeira’s irrigation canals (levadas) and then take the sledge ride downhill.
- For religious tourists, a new pilgrimage. Karl I, the last emperor of Austria, died in exile on Madeira and is buried in Nossa Senhora do Monte, high above Funchal. He was beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II and is on the way to sainthood.
- A visit to the fortified wine cellars such as São Franciscoor Saint Francis cellar museum and wine lodge in the centre of Funchal is a must. The Madeira Wine Festival takes place in September.
- In Funchal the Madeira Story Centre runs through the island’s 14 million years of history in a “fun and interactive manner”.
- The island of Porto Santo is 40km (25 miles) northeast of Madeira. Its most outstanding feature is its 9km (6 miles) of beach; it is also a spa and wellness centre.