Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrMadeira is the name of the main island forming part of the Portuguese Arquipélago da Madeira, a fascinating island chain of volcanic origin. Situated in the North Atlantic Ocean, the island group is some 559 miles (560 miles) from Portugal but somewhat closer to the Moroccan coast, at 373 miles (370 miles) east of the African continent.
These days, it is it is an autonomous region of Portugal, with Madeira and Porto Santo being the only inhabited islands. The archipelago is essentially summits of mountains towering high above sea level with their bases firmly attached to the ocean floor below. Desertas and Selvagens are among the uninhabited groups making up the archipelago. The rich volcanic soil and pleasant, subtropical climate combine to give Madeira its nickname as the Pearl of the Atlantic, while also going under the affectionate name of Ilha Jardim, or the Garden Island. Access to Madeira is by sea via the harbor port and capital city of Funchal , or via the amazing international airport, seemingly sculpted out of the cliff face on the western edge of the island.
Brief History LessonPortuguese navigators, Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristoa Vaz Teixeira first landed on Santo Island in 1418 and claimed it as a Portuguese territory. While trying to establish a settlement, the two observed a huge plume of dark smoke to the southwest, so they set sail and eventually stumbled upon the island that was to receive the name Madeira, which means “Island of Woods”.
Funchal – Madeira’s Capital CityCosmopolitan Funchal is the capital city and commercial center, gaining city status as far back as 1508. The name translates to “fennel” in English – this popular herb grows wild on the island. Thanks to its wonderful climate and close position to southern Europe and the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, Funchal is a popular port of call for cruise ships. It is a vibrant and colorful city with practically no crime. Overlooking the sea to the south, the incredible mountain ranges to the north seem to embrace the city, offering a magnificent amphitheater effect. The quickest way to reach the mountains is by cable car from the center of town at the edge of the waterfront.
A good place to start exploring is the colorful main market, Mercado dos Lavradores, where you can purchase anything from exotic flowers to local crafts, tropical fruits, vegetables, and fresh fish. Funchal has a wealth of attractions in the form of museums, monuments, and art galleries. There are numerous public parks and exquisite gardens to admire as you stroll around town. Try to include Se Cathedral a landmark located in the center of Old Town. It dates back to the late 15th century and represents one of the finest examples of Manueline architecture still standing in its original form.
Madeira is famous for its sweet wines and there are plenty of sampling shops offering a taste of both wine and the food best suited for a particular cultivar. Talking food, there is no shortage of fine eateries right across the city and all over Madeira, and the choice of cuisine is as wide as it is varied. The promenade walk by the harbor not only offers nice sea views but the area also has many cafés and the unmistakable chinesa is a brew of local coffee that is unique to the island.
Culturally SpeakingFrom a visitor's view, Madeira’s colorful, cultural diversity makes this an easy and friendly place to tour. The main influence has always been Portuguese, with the customs, culture, local developments, and language holding firmly to that tradition. Nowadays, good transport systems and socioeconomic integration have ensured that the local population has a fully-informed approach to the future well-being of their island's paradise. Since tourism is the main attraction, the local people are ready, willing, and capable of welcoming tourists to their shores. The majority of islanders follow Catholicism, and with the many historical attractions on offer, visitors may need to observe certain minimum dress codes while exploring shrines in particular. Speak to your accommodation's hosts if in doubt.
Heading West from FunchalThe shape and size of the island (35 miles east to west; 14 miles north to south) assist in making Madeira ideal for sightseeing by geographically zone. Beginning with attractions on the western side, use either knowledgeable coach tour operators or opt for your own self-drive for maximum flexibility. Leaving Funchal‘s Lido area, drive some 5-kilometres to the west where the enchanting fishing village of Câmara de Lobos awaits you. Winston Churchill loved to paint the inspiring landscapes around this area. Cabo Girão is the next attraction en route and affords spectacular views from the world’s second highest cliff face rising sheer out of the sea.
São Vicente Volcanism CentreContinue travelling westward until reaching Ribeira Brava and change heading to the north as you pass through the lush valleys of Serra D'Água. This is a spectacular interior route with several magnificent viewpoints. Upon reaching Encumeada, pause a while to admire the panoramic views of both the south and the north coast unfolding before your eyes. Continuing north, the charming village of São Vicente is next and here, there is much to see. São Vicente boasts the Volcanism Centre and is the point from which the island started forming around four-hundred thousand years ago. Dwell a while and view audio-visual demonstrations of how Madeira and the rest of this archipelago sprang up out of nowhere.
Take the amazing walk through the impressive tunnel system that will unlock the innermost secrets as to how molten lava from the earth’s core was responsible for the birth of this island group. Proceeding to the village of Porto Moniz, allow time to visit the natural bathing pools seemingly carved out of lava rock and kept constantly clear and clean by the restless tied.
Pont do PargoNext stop is the picturesque village of Pont do Pargo, which derives its name from a species of fish found in the sea in the area. This is Madeira’s most westerly Point (Ponta) and the open terrain lends itself to the views created by magnificent cliffs as they clamber vertically out of the ocean far below. Like all the towns and villages around the island, religious festivals are highly revered right across Madeira throughout the year.
Completing the circular tour of the western attractions brings the visitor to the Calheta district, the largest parish area of the island, with no less than eight parishes spread over 72 miles. This scenic village brings you back to Ribeira Brava, a quaint town boasting many street cafés and curiosity shops and a nice place to spend a couple of hours taking in the local ambience. Thereafter, it is back to fun-filled Funchal along the fine coastal road system with breath taking views around every bend.
Heading North and East from FunchalAptly named Monte (Mountain) is six kilometres north of Funchal and was once one of Europe’s grandest health resorts. Today it is more famous for the fabulous Toboggan ride that uses the mountains and hairpin bends to takes those brave enough for a hair-raising ride. Staying with a northerly heading, you eventually climb all the way to the third highest summit in Madeira, the Pico do Arieiro (altitude 5,965 feet). On a clear day it is possible to spot Porto Santo, the other inhabited island in the archipelago some 30 nautical miles to the north. Continuing east brings the visitor to Ribeiro Frio (meaning: cold river). The natural vegetation is reminiscent of the “Laurissilva” forest, which once covered all of Madeira
From Santana to CaniçalSantana is a beautiful village on the north coast characterized by its diminutive thatched triangular houses. From Santana, head due east and soon you will arrive in Porto da Cruz, famous for its craggy coastline, sugar cane factory and 'vinho seco americano' (a dry red wine made of a grape type called Americana). The next attraction is the tiny fishing village of Machico, the first landing point for those intrepid explorers back in the early 15th century. A short drive to the north brings you to the oldest parish on Madeira, the naturally beautiful fishing village of Caniçal. It is not difficult to fathom why the first settlers chose to make this place home.
Madeira’s most easterly point, Ponta de São Lourenço is, like all the other attractions on this island, unspoiled and one of the final frontiers in Europe. The combination of cliffs, rocks and sea as sculpted by Mother Nature, is a true treasure trove for the visitor to behold. Climb the rocks and observe the natural environment as it must have looked right through the ages. Enjoy excellent views over both the north and south coasts as this craggy coastline marks the end of land as it disappears into the restless ocean.
ClimateMadeira people boast that they have the best climate on the planet. The summer temperatures average around 75 °F from July through to October, dropping to a respectable 63 °F at night. Take off an average of 39 °F for the somewhat cooler winter months. Madeira has a surprising number of different microclimates around the island. Thanks to the high peaks around Funchal, the capital city lays claim to the most sunshine.
The northeasterly trade wind gathers in the North Atlantic and swirls around Portugal as it moves South West, affecting Madeira as well as the Cape Verde islands further south. It brings moisture and sea swells to the north coast and down along the east coast through the Caniço and Caniçal areas. The fact that Madeira is self-sufficient in its fresh water needs suggests that there is a good balance between sunshine and rain.
Getting Around the IslandMany visitors, especially those arriving on cruise ships enjoy sightseeing through organised coach tours, as this allows them to visit the many attractions right around the island. Hiking tours are also popular, particularly along the Ponta de São Lourenço, which is on the east coast and offers spectacular panoramic views of the Atlantic as well as incredible volcanic rock formations. Madeira has a fine network of roads connecting the various points of interest around the island, so car hire offers another independent way of getting around.
One of the big advantages of booking an island holiday is the prospect that the seashore fully encircles the land. This pristine destination has so much to offer the visitor, from the beautiful pebble beaches to the majestic cliffs towering high and rich in the alluvial soil thrown up by once-active volcanoes. As with all tourist havens , accommodation is plentiful, and covers a wide range of budgets from the bargain basement to five-star luxury hotels. If time allows, do take the ferry trip to Porto Santo, where you will find miles of golden beaches to stretch out in the sun.
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Author: robric. Last updated: Sep 09, 2014