Madeira is a semi-tropical island rising from sea level to over 6,000 feet. Its steep pitch gives the island six distinct climate zones. The ancient Laurissilva cloud forest at the highest elevations is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, 2/3rdsof Madeira is conservation land. It has mountain plains, valleys, high peaks, streams, rocky coastlines, and tidal pools. The island has a unique landscape accessed by a modern roadway system of new tunnels, and the older mountain roads they replaced that wind along the hillsides.
The south coast is sunny, and home to the cultivation of bananas, sugar cane, and grapes. Quaint fishing towns rise off the coast, where small hotels and villas welcome guests. The east coast is home to the historic towns of Caniçal, Machico and Santa Cruz. The wild Ponta de São Lourenço reserve snakes out into the ocean with great hiking and impressive views. The north coast is rugged, and features small towns and great surf. Santana is known for its straw roofed homes and great hiking and Sao Vincente has a series of lava caves. Inland, the massive peaks of Pico Ruivo and Areiro make for wild valleys and cliffs, with lots of grazing sheep and sweeping views. To the west lies the massive flat mountain plain of Paul da Serra, which feels like the surface of Mars, and the crater valley of Curral das Freiras. The sunny west coast runs from the tidal pools of Porto Moniz to the cliffs on the point at Cabo Girão.
Some 30 miles from Madeira is the smaller island of Porto Santo, famed for its long sandy beach, dunes, and vineyards. Porto Santo was where Portuguese ship first landed in 1419. Today, it earns the nickname the “Golden Island” from its undeveloped beaches and features a handful of hotels. Porto Santo’s beach is said to be one of the best in Europe, and its golden magnetized sands are famous for healing sore aches and pains. A new set of spas has recently opened to feature the sands, joined by a new golf course. Dry and sunny Porto Santo gets very little rain, perfect for a relaxing beach getaway any time of the year.
The uninhabited Desertas and Selvagens Islands are southwest and south of Madeira. The Desertas Islands’ three small, volcanic islands are a nature reserve. They serve as the last refuge of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus), the rarest seal in the world. Another 180 miles south of Madeira are the Selvagens Islands, two groups of small islands also serving as a rich nature reserve for some of the rarest plants on the planet. Ideal nesting conditions make the islands a perfect bird sanctuary. Boat trips can be arranged, but environmental laws limit visitor numbers.
Getting to Madeira
Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic on the 32nd parallel north. It lies southwest of Lisbon, and several hundred miles west of the coast of Morocco. It is made up of the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo, as well as the Desertas and the Selvagem Islands.
Madeira has never been easier to get to. TAP Portugal offers easy connections from Lisbon – and with non-stop service to Portugal from 9 US cities on five airlines, getting a connection is easy. It is a 1.5-hour flight from Lisbon, Porto or the Azores and it takes about 15 minutes to fly between the two islands in the group—Madeira and Porto Santo. Madeira’s Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport and the Porto Santo Airport serve the archipelago. The airport on Madeira is about a 30-minute drive to Funchal, the archipelago’s capital. Madeira has also become a major stop for cruise ships.