Madeira – Portugal’s sunshine outpost

It is not just in its scope for active escapes that Madeira transcends its occasionally fusty image. Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, is an archipelago comprising 4 islands off the northwest coast of Africa. It is known for its namesake wine and warm, subtropical climate. The main island of Madeira is volcanic, green and rugged, with high cliffs, pebbly beaches and settlements on deltas of the Fajã River. Capital Funchal has botanic gardens and is known for its harbor and a large New Year’s fireworks show.You may also be unaware of the following facts about Portugal’s sunshine outpost

1. It’s an archipelago, not an island

The popular perception is that Madeira is a lone outcrop, adrift off the coast of Morocco – but, in fact, this volcano-born fragment of the eastern Atlantic is merely the biggest segment of a broader archipelago. The “second” island, Porto Santo, hides 44 miles (71km) to the north-east of Funchal – and is so off the beaten track that Christopher Columbus once lived here. His former house is now a museum.

2. Festival season never ends

Madeira doesn’t only put on a show in February. It will be aflame in June with its Atlantic Festival – four consecutive Saturday evenings (June 9-30) of fireworks above the Bay of Funchal . Madeira Film Festival begins on 8th April , which ends up on 14th, the Funchal International Film Festival will bring a cinematic frisson to the capital later in the year

The island's annual flower festival
The island’s annual flower festival CREDIT: GETTY

3. Flower power is a thing

Madeira is known for the fertility of its soil, but it proves particularly in tune with Mother Nature at the Quinta da Boa Vista – a 19th-century estate on the slopes of Funchal, renowned for its orchid collection. Visitors can catch a glimpse of cattleyas, cymbidiums and paphiopedilums. These grand blooms are visible throughout the year, but have an extra shimmer during the Madeira Flower Festival – which includes parades and exhibitions. It returns in the month of May .

4. You can visit a ‘mini Galapagos’

Comparisons to Ecuador’s wildlife havens are not wholly far-fetched in the case of the Desertas Islands – three narrow slivers in the sea, the biggest of which, Deserta Grande, lurks 16 miles (26km) south-east of Madeira. Largely uninhabited, they are home to eight species of seabird, the Madeiran wall lizard – and a colony of Mediterranean monk seals.

The Desertas Islands
The Desertas Islands CREDIT: GETTY

5. February tends to be fun

Madeira is not the sole Atlantic island to throw itself into feather headdresses and general flamboyance when the second month of the year appears (Tenerife throws an epic party). But its annual carnival is one of Europe’s best cases of Mardi Gras mayhem – revolving around a parade.

 

6. You can sleep on the edge

While Funchal has some of Madeira’s most feted hotels, there is much to recommend a 15-mile (24km) drive west along the south coast to the Estalagem da Ponta do Sol – a fine retreat set on a clifftop above a village of the same name. Its chief appeal, perhaps, is the infinity pool which achieves the idea of a never-ending watery vista with aplomb.

Estalagem da Ponta do Sol
Estalagem da Ponta do Sol

7. Seven is a magic number

Madeira has a very famous son, and Cristiano Ronaldo wants you to know this. Not only is the island’s airport named in honour of the Real Madrid superstar, but he was one of the founding forces behind Museu CR7 , which opened in Funchal in 2013 as a not entirely hubris-free tribute to his achievements. It houses replicas of his (many) trophies, such as the European Championship he won as Portugal captain in 2016.

8. Seve was here

Columbus is not the only celebrated European to have left his mark on Porto Santo. The great Spanish golfer Severiano Ballesteros was the designing force behind the island’s most fabled course – an 18-hole affair neatly divided between par-threes, par-fours and par-fives (six of each). However, this symmetry may be the only neat thing about playing here. The ocean winds are likely to wreak havoc with your drive.

9. The capital is colourful

Funchal catches the eye at the heart of the Zona Velha (Old Town) with its Painted Doors Project – a swirl of public creativity, which has seen the entrances to buildings along the Rua de Santa Maria adorned with bright paintings and imaginative scenes. Images include everything from a fisherman sitting by his boat in the moonlight to a dislocated eye peering from behind a cracked “window” of yellow glass.

10. You can plunge to the depths

The Madeiran archipelago’s Atlantic location makes it an obvious – and yet less-heralded – destination for scuba tourism. Accessible dive sites include the Madeirense – a ferry that was sunk off Porto Santo in 2000 to create an artificial reef. Entombed 100ft below the surface, the wreck can be reached with the help of Rhea Dive – an operator, based on the island, which also runs training courses.

11. Last but not the least -Madeira Wine

The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history, dating back to the Age of Exploration (approximately from the end of the 15th century) when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat and movement which transformed the flavour of the wine. This was discovered by the wine producers of Madeira when an unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands after a round trip.

Today, Madeira is noted for its unique winemaking process which involves heating the wine. The wine is placed in stainless steel vats that are heated via a serpentine method. Hot water, at a temperature between 45 and 50 degrees Celsius (approximately 115 °F), runs through this serpentine system for a period of never less than three months. Once this heating process called estufagem is completed, the wine is subjected to a rest period or estágio, of at least 90 days in order to acquire the conditions that will make it possible for the oenologist, an expert in wine and winemaking, to finish the wine so that it may be placed in a bottle with the required quality guarantee. These wines may never be bottled and commercialised before 31 October of the second year following the harvesting and are typically batch wines. Because of this unique process, Madeira is a very robust wine that can be quite long lived even after being opened.

To Do things :

 

  • Hike along the Levada

Levadas are irrigation channels typical to Madeira. They still bring water from the mountains, meandering through lush mountain vegetation. Ramblers can follow their curves for hours. The scenery is beautiful and Madeira’s Laurisilva forest – the world’s largest laurel forest, is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. Make your way to the mountain top for a wonderful eyeful of views of the coast

  • Diving with sharks

One of the most impressive experiences in Madeira Aquarium is being able to plunge into 500,000 liters of salt water, diving with sharks, rays, morays and hundreds of other fish. Prior to diving into the aquarium, you are taken by an experienced instructor into an external, natural seawater pool, where you learn how to handle the equipment and to breathe under water. Friends and family not participating in the dive can watch from the other side of the aquarium glass and take photos.

  • Go paragliding

With spectacular cliffs and lush valleys on the one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, Madeira is an ideal paragliding location. There is a number of great take-off and landing sites, especially around Madalena do Mar area in the South, and several experienced paragliding companies, such as Aeroclub of Madeira or Madeira Adventures.

  • The Cabo Girão Skywalk

At 589 meters, is the highest cliff skywalk in Europe and 2nd highest in the world (after the Grand Canyon at 1,450 meters). Since the construction of the glass-floored platform in 2012, you can now step into the abyss, looking down at the sea. With 1,800 daily visitors, the Skywalk is one of Madeira’s top tourist attractions.

 

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