A paradise in the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is a subtropical archipelago of islands just southwest of Mainland Portugal. Though there are records of ancient peoples discovering these islands long ago, they were officially “discovered” and settled during the Portuguese Age of Exploration around 1418 and took on the name of Madeira — Portuguese for “wood” — as the main island’s Northwest 2/3 is covered with thick laurel forests.
The archipelago itself is made up of these main islands: Madeira, Porto Santo Island, Desertas, and Selvagens (The Savage Islands). The Islands of Madeira are volcanic islands, which gives them their characteristic rough dark rocks, steep cliffs and natural terraced hills. Add to the terrain the wet subtropical climate and you get the lush forested landscape that some compare to Hawaii, yet is uniquely Madeira.
Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal — meaning they govern themselves, though are a part of the greater State of Portugal — and its capital is the port city of Funchal. Coming from the word “funcho,” which is Portuguese for fennel, the city was named after the abundance of wild fennel plants that filled the natural amphitheater — cut out of the cliffs — that eventually became home to the buildings and homes of Funchal, sloping up into the “Monte” (mountain) region high above. Not only is this the largest city in Madeira, it is Portugal’s largest cruise ship port, and one of the largest overall cruise ship ports in the world.
Funchal, Madeira Botanical Gardens
Only 3 km from the very center of Funchal is the Madeira Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botanico Funchal). Created in 1960, this garden showcases the natural beauty, climate and flora of the islands, and offers a perfect and relaxing destination to see the natural terrain of Madeira. The gardens are sectioned into 5 distinct areas:
- The Indigenous and Endemic Gardens — Over 100 different species of plants that are indigenous to Madeira, and species that are endemic to the islands off the coast of Mainland Europe (such as the Azores).
- The Tree Garden — A wonder to see, this area of the gardens houses trees from all over the world, and showcases trees from extreme poles such as the Himalayas, deciduous forests, and the tropics.
- The Succulents Garden — comprised of mostly plants from South America, this garden showcases plants with the amazing ability of storing large amounts of water.
- Tropical/Cultivated/Aromatic/Medicinal Gardens — Housing everything from fruits and avocados to medicinal herbs and spice plants.
- Loiro Park — This garden adds a bit of fauna to the flora; here you can see birds from South America and Australia, as well as indigenous birds and migratory birds who stop here from time to time.
Central Madeira and the Mountains of Madeira
The rugged interior of the main Island of Madeira is the country destination for those on the coastlines of Madeira. This interior region is host to beautifu subtropical forests, and has its own wine country where Madeira’s famous table-wines and cooking wines are cultivated and produced. Recently, the steep, hilly terrain has become a destination for mountain biking enthusiasts, as the roads twisting and turning through the countryside make for an unforgettable ride
The Levadas of Madeira (Canals)
Created in the 1500s by Portuguese residents of the island, these canals were created to carry water to agricultural farms and locations around the island. These twisting canals travel from the high mountains to the lower coastlines is a serious of waterfalls and rivers with pathways (originally for maintenance) that today are used as hiking paths that cut into the most extreme locations on the island.
Madeira Levada Hiking Trails:
- Levada do Caldeirão Verde — Lush and green, this is a fairly advanced hike.
- Levada do Caldeirão do Inferno — Rugged and extreme, this is a very advanced hike, and should not be attempted by amateurs or novices.
- The Levada do Caniçal — Relaxing and steady, this is the easiest and most common pathway taken.
Laurisilva of Madeira — The Laurel Forest
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and covering 2/3rds of the entire main Island of Madeira, the laurel forest is a lush subtropical forest that looks like something out of a lucid dream. The subtropical climate gives this forest its tropical jungle characteristics, without the heat and humidity of a real tropical forest. The forest is home to indigenous species of plants and animals, and is one of the top attractions/destinations for travelers to Madeira.
Madeira New Year’s Fireworks
Madeira is home to the largest fireworks display in the world, which happens every year on New Year’s Eve, just as the clock strikes midnight. Confirmed as the world record holders by the Guiness World Records, Madeira tries to outdo itself every year, so this is one of the top New Year’s destinations for travelers all over the world.