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.
The Frederico de Freitas Museum in Funchal houses a vast array of decorative pieces. Turkish, Moorish and North African tiles, as well as about 2,000 mugs, trophies and vases are on display, along with Madeiran artefacts, porcelain works, religious sculptures, ancient sacred paintings and Chinese and North African metal and woodwork. When Frederico de Freitas died, he left his collection to the Autonomous Region, during which time the building was expropriated by the Regional Government. It then started rebuilding and restoration works on the house for the purpose of opening it to the public as a museum.
Formed 890,000 years ago, the São Vicente Caves are among the first caves of volcanic origin to be opened to the public in Portugal. The caves were formed by a volcanic eruption which occurred in Paul da Serra. The outer part of the lava that was exposed to lower temperatures solidified rapidly while the inside remained liquid with lots of gases, forming a series of lava tubes. The caves were first reported in 1885 by locals and opened to the public on October 1st, 1996. At the end of the tour, visitors may access the Volcano Centre, a pavilion offering a range of educational and entertaining audio-visual displays. They recreate the geological evolution of the caves and the eruption of a volcano. They also simulate the birth of the Madeira Islands.
A favourite attraction in Madeira's capital, Funchal, is to ride the cable car from the Parque Almirante Reis in the old part of the town up to the scenic village of Monte in the mountains above the city. The journey takes about 15 minutes and ends at the cableway station near the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. The panoramic view spreads to the delightful city of Funchal and to an overwhelming landscape, where nature's green melts with ocean's blue. The bottom station for the cable car is situated at the Inn Quinta do Bom Sucesso on Madeira Island, seven minutes from the centre of Funchal city.
In the heart of the historic section of Funchal stands the Sé do Funchal, the most impressive of Madeira's religious edifices. From outside, the simple rough white stucco and brownish basalt of the catherdral is not all that impressive, but after entering through the Gothic portal there is plenty to admire. The ceiling, for instance, is Moorish carved cedar inlaid with ivory, and behind the Baroque altar are paintings by Flemish and Portuguese artists. The late fifteenth-century cathedral is one of the few structures that survived intact since Madeira's early period of colonisation. As the centre piece of the structure, the cathedral contains a silver processional cross, donated by King Manuel I of Portugal, considered one of the masterpieces of precious metalwork of Portugal's Manueline style.
Madeira's sister island, Porto Santo, lies 42 miles (68km) northeast of its larger sibling and was actually discovered before Madeira itself. Porto Santo is rather bleak and barren. However, its southern coast is bordered by a lovely 5 mile (8km) stretch of beach fringed with soft golden sand, making for a popular holiday resort. The main town on the island is Vila Baleira, which was visited by Christopher Columbus. There is a scenic park in the town, some cafés and pretty cobblestone streets lined with stucco houses. Visitors can catch one of several regular daily flights to and from Madeira, or ferry from Funchal harbour to Porto Santo.
Madeira Island has a varied oceanic sub-tropical climate, influenced by its geographical position and mountainous landscape. Generally, the weather is pleasant all year round, with an annual average around 67°F (19°C). The hottest months in Madeira are August and September, while January and February have the highest rainfall.
Within the capital city Funchal, it is easy to get around using public transport. Buses cover the city as well as out into the surrounds. Although they are the cheapest, they are also the slowest, so rental cars are best for day trips. Guided tours are also offered to tourist attractions outside the city. Lastly, taxis are available throughout Funchal.
It is the very remoteness of the Madeira archipelago that makes the islands so enchanting. Yet there is still a lot to do and see. Although there are no real beaches of the golden sand variety, there are many interesting activities and cultural attractions that draw visitors to its shores. These include exploring the colourful old town, visiting one of the many museums or cathedrals or browsing some of the famous markets.
Take an exhilarating 20 minute ride down the highway to Funchal from Monte in nothing but a wicker basket chair, steered by carreiro dressed in white and only using their rubber soled shoes as brakes, in what is known as the Monte Toboggan run. Another of the main attractions, and best ways to see the island of Madeira, is the exciting cable car trip. It gives its visitors fantastic panoramic views of Funchal and its surroundings, before ending at the beautiful Monte Palace Tropical Garden.
But if speeding down the highway in a wicker chair or flying high on the cable way is not for you, visitors can also explore the island with a boat trip around the coast. You might even catch a sighting of whales and dolphins. Alternatively, hop on a ferry to visit the nearby island of Porto Santo which provides a pretty picture with colourful Mediterranean houses decorating the coastline.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination