Floral scents fill Madeira's sea-washed air. Bird-of-paradise flowers grow wild; pink and purple fuchsia weave lacy patterns up pastel walls; and jacaranda trees create purple canopies over roads and avenues. The natural attractiveness of this island is compared to no other, through the cliffs that plummet seaward to mountain summits cloaked in silent fog. The magic has captivated travelers for hundreds of years.
Wine connoisseurs have always savored Madeira's eponymous export, but a sip on this heady elixir provides merely a taste with the island's many delights. Made up of a number of dramatic volcanic peaks rising from your sea around 600 km (373 miles) off of the west coast of Morocco, the city has an alluring, balmy year-round temperature, ensured by warm Atlantic currents. Other draws add the promise of clear skies, the carpets of flowers, the waterfalls that cascade down green canyons, and also the great hiking along the region's famous network of levadas. These irrigation canals have already been adapted into superb walking trails, many passing down the dramatic coast or with an Alpine-like interior of lush woodlands.
Thanks to its position on shipping routes between Europe, Africa, along with the Americas, Madeira spent my childhood years as an important trading post. The British also have strong ties to the city thanks to a 16th-century royal marriage. Today they still flock to Madeira, mainly over winter, similar to other northern Europeans, especially Germans and Scandinavians. In summer, the region is also favored by visitors from mainland Portugal, when an adventurous crowd puts Madeira's magnificent mixture of sun and seascapes to great use. The island even offers some excellent museums, tranquil gardens, along with a range of good restaurants.
TOP REASONS TO GO:
EXPERIENCING THE OLD AND THE NEW
Madeira retains a normal Portuguese feel but has one foot firmly nowadays, with cutting-edge museums, an outstanding road system, and several fine modern bars and restaurants.
EXPERIENCING THE LEVADAS
There are around 2,000 km (1,240 miles) of levadas, or drainage canals, that enable easy walking usage of the island’s jagged mountain peaks and dramatic coastline.
CELEBRATING AT FESTIVALS
With one of the world’s biggest New Year’s Day fireworks displays, an exceptional Carnival, and countless local festivities, there's always reason to celebrate somewhere within the island.
ENJOYING THE FLORA
Madeira’s semitropical climate and rich volcanic soil promote an astonishingly verdant assortment of flowers, plants, and trees, in both the wild along with some beautifully cultivated gardens.
TAKING TO THE ATLANTIC
If you aren't inclined to swim inside Gulf Stream–warmed Atlantic waters, set off on a boat to the chance to spot dolphins or whales and some of the best game fishing anywhere.
When to Go
The island's lower elevations are blessed by constant soft, warm breezes, and subtropical vegetation that perfumes mid-air year-round. Every day may seem like spring. Historically Madeira is a winter resort, but that—like much around the island—is changing. Christmas week, when every tree in Funchal is decorated with lights plus the main boulevard becomes an open-air folk museum, remains the most popular time for it to visit, in addition to New Year's Eve, when cruise lines from everywhere pull in to the harbor for the incomparable fireworks display in the hills surrounding Funchal. Book far ahead of time if you're coming right now. Summer will also be crowded, especially during August, if the Portuguese take vacations. Festivals—celebrating flowers in April, the island's patron saint in August, and wine in September—are popular, too.