Madeira Travel Guide
Madeira © J. A. Alcaide
Most people have heard of the Portuguese island of Madeira, but not many know exactly where it is. Located more than 600 miles (966km) 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. It rears 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 1,933ft (589m) 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 13 miles (21km) wide and 35 miles (56km) 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 trove. 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 island blooms with colourful masses of fragrant orchids, bougainvillea, frangipani, wisteria and geraniums. Fruit and herbs grow 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's most famous export is its fortified wine, and with nearly 14,000 plots, there is a big variety to try. Vineyards like Fajã dos Padres and Silva Vinhos offer tours and tastings, and the Funchal Wine Walk is a good way to get a taste of this historical delicacy without leaving town.
Madeira is accessible by air, mainly from Lisbon to the airport near the capital, Funchal. There is no regular passenger ferry to Madeira but cruise ships regularly dock here, bringing thousands of visitors to the island each year.