Madeira is a beautiful volcanic archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. While closer to Africa than to Europe, Madeira is culturally and politically part of Europe; it is an autonomous region of Portugal. The islands of Madeira and Porto Santo are the only two of the archipelago that are actually inhabited. The Desertas Islands and Savage Islands round out the archipelago.
Madeira is an extremely popular tourist destination year-round. People come to soak in the beautiful “floating garden” scenery that characterizes the islands. On display is a true tapestry of contrasting landscapes: snowcapped peaks, rocky headlands, dramatic ocean cliffs, black volcanic sands, golden beaches, lush river valleys, dense rainforests of laurisilvas, flower fields of poinsettias, orchids, and geraniums, and terraced hillsides of vineyards and banana groves.
Among the more popular endeavors of travelers in Madeira include swimming and sunbathing by the waterfront beach resorts of Porto Santo, golfing in the green amid spectacular ocean views, climbing the 6,100 feet Pico Ruivo snowy peak, touring the lush valleys to sample the world-famous Madeira wines, and hiking the levadas along the ocean cliffs for up-close views of sperm whales.
Madeira’s most touristy area is the island of Porto Santo where golden beaches stretching for four miles long are fronted by hotels and resorts. Porto Santo’s beach was once frequented by pirates of the Atlantic.
Madeira is also known for its deep sea fishing. At the hotels, visitors can arrange for fishing tours and special charters that venture out into the ocean. The islands are noted in particular for their blue marlin.
Mountain climbers and hikers should try the Madeira’s highest mountain peak, the snowcapped Pico Ruivo. This 6,100 feet mountain is accessible on foot. Alternatively, you can drive up to the summit of the 5,965 feet Pico do Ariero, if you don’t feel like walking, but would still appreciate a spectacular panorama view.
The island of Madeira also has an ancient irrigation channel called levadas that stretches for 1,300 miles across the slopes and the along the coast. The levadas footpaths can be hiked to catch views of tranquil terraced valleys as well as dramatic ocean cliffs. Madeira has the highest ocean cliffs in the world. So deep are the waters near the coast that sperm whales can be seen swimming close by.
Golfing is one of the scenic pleasures of Madeira. There are two courses on the island, the Palheiro and the Campo de Golfe do Santo da Serra. The courses are surrounded by spectacular ocean views. The Campo de Golfe do Santo da Serra is also elevated at about 1,640 feet high.
Madeira has a fabled traditional toboggan run. Wicker-sided sleds are run down from the high altitude suburb, Monte, and taken all the way to Funchal. The joyride lasts 20 minutes, with the sled careening across slippery cobblestones.
Medieval and colonial-era architecture are found in all the towns. Funchal has a stunning 16th century Cathedral; the village of Santana has distinctive triangular-shaped houses called palheiros; Monte has a pilgrimage church called the Nossa Senhora de Monte; and Machico has a 15th century parish called the Chapel of Miracles, as well as an 18th century fort.
The climate in Madeira is subtropical. Temperatures average around 22 °C (72 °F) in the summer months and about 16 °C (61 °F) during winter. Humidity is mild and rainfall is abundant, giving the islands its lush colors and fertile soils.
Madeira may well have been visited in Roman times, as Pliny mentioned certain “Purple Islands” that may have described Madeira and Porto Santo. By accident, the Portuguese were the first to discover the islands in 1419 when Henry the Navigator and his cohorts were drive by a storm to the island of Porto Santo. The following year, the islands were colonized and settled by Portugal.