A visit to the Portuguese island of Madeira, a veritable floating garden blessed with dramatic landscapes and lush plantlife.
Arriving on the Portuguese island of Madeira, several hundred miles north-west of the Canary Islands, is something of an experience in itself. The island is so mountainous that it was impossible to find a flat space to build a runway on; instead, stilts were built into the sea and a runway laid on top. It makes for an interesting landing, and is a fitting introduction to an island with more than its fair share of quirkiness.
Most visitors to the island head first to Funchal, the pretty, terracotta-roofed capital beneath the vertiginous slopes that dominate Madeira. This is not an island of gentle rolling hills; vast cliffs drop angrily into the ocean and tiny hamlets cluster among the rich, green peaks. And everywhere stepped terraces are crammed with fruit and vegetable plantations, testament to the sub-tropical climate that has led Madeira to be christened ‘the floating garden’.
If, on first sight, Funchal seems Mediterranean—pavement cafés, cobbled streets, whitewashed houses—a closer look reveals a more Caribbean feel. Private gardens and public parks are full of banana trees, palms, lush grasses and purple bougainvillea. The terraces brim with grapes, avocados and passion fruit. The island has long been loved by gardeners, but even those without green fingers cannot fail to appreciate the fertility of the Madeiran soil.
This is an island where orchids grow like daisies and the balmy climate means every inch is covered in flowers and fruit. The sheer physicality of the landscape is breathtaking – driving around the island takes hours even though distances are small with tiny roads zig-zagging up and down mountains.
Madeira enjoys good weather, with temperatures averaging 70ºF all year, so there is never a bad time to visit. Gardens are in constant bloom and the island makes a specialty of rearing rare and endangered species that find it hard to flourish elsewhere in Europe.
The Botanic Gardens alone have 2,500 different species, from the ice-blue blossom on the jacaranda trees, to magenta orchids, jade-green palms and a rainbow of fruit trees in the agricultural garden. Divided into six areas, the garden combines a shady arboretum with an area of succulents and cacti, and a large collection of plants indigenous only to the Madeiran archipelago.
Close to the Botanical Gardens lies the Orchid Gardens, with an orchid jungle unrivalled anywhere in Europe. With over 50,000 plants, it is one of the foremost collections of these rare flowers in the world.
Visit the Botanic Gardens by cable car from the picturesque village of Monte—reachable by a separate cable car from Funchal. Perched high above the city streets, Monte is a picturesque hilltop town with a bustling central square. The traditional Portuguese black-and-white frontage of Monte’s church, Nossa Senhora de Monte, is a spectacular sight, and the town is also home to the Monte Palace Gardens. The house and grounds of an abandoned hotel site had laid derelict until it was bought by businessman José Berardo. Now transformed, there is a museum housing over 1,000 sculptures and an impressive collection of minerals, including collection of diamonds.
The gardens themselves are an eccentric counterpart to the Botanic’s quiet organization. Berardo has worked his own passions into the landscapes: there is an oriental garden, a vast collection of orchids and one of the largest collections of cycads in the world. The tranquil lake is a great place to stop with a picnic and take time to soak up the richness of the gardens.
The cable-car rides are a great introduction to the scale of Madeira. Funchal to Monte is a 12-minute glide across the rooftops, and Monte to the Botanical Gardens takes 9 minutes, swooping across the João Gomes Stream Valley, offering views down to the sea.
But there is more to Madeira than Funchal and its surrounds. A must-visit is the astonishing village of Curral das Freiras, located in the center of the island and founded by nuns in the 16th century. Surrounded by sheer mountains on all sides, no one left the valley for hundreds of years and the villagers still exist almost entirely on what they grow themselves. There was no road into the village until 1959 and no one had a television until 1986.
It’s also worth exploring the north coast, where the coastal towns of Seixal, Porto Moniz and Santana are regularly beaten by ferocious seas. Vast slabs of rock jut out into the Atlantic with the villages clinging on in-between. An afternoon can easily slip past sitting in one of the beachfront cafés, watching 12-foot waves crash onto the shore.
The north is also home to the most expensive road ever built. The slim stretch of road that links Sao Vicente to Porto Moniz clings to a cliff face so vertiginous that men had to chip away at the road surface by hand. It is also one of the most exhilarating drives in Europe. Fortunately a tunnel follows a parallel route, for those who prefer their journeys a little less white-knuckle.
ON THE CRISS-CROSS
But a car is not the only way to explore Madeira; the island is criss-crossed by levadas, ancient water-carrying channels that provide irrigation across the island. They provide safe, easy-to-follow walks that can be done easily without a guide, although some of the gradients can be very steep. The older levadas, built centuries ago, tend to plummet steeply downhill. The newer levadas are wide ‘mini-canals’, and run horizontally along the island’s contours, making for easy walking.
But there are plenty of opportunities for more gentle exercise as well, with two well-maintained golf courses. The Santo da Serra course is part of the PGA European tour and the Palheiro course offers breathtaking views from its hillside location to the east of Funchal.
Of course, a visit to Madeira wouldn’t be complete without tasting its most famous export, Madeiran wine. A guided tour at Old Blandy Wine Lodge in Funchal is a great way to learn the history of the drink and take a sip or two.
Madeira is an island that constantly surprises—the island’s heady mix of natural beauty, dramatic landscapes and unique atmosphere makes it an unforgettable place to visit.