Madeira is situated in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal and Africa. It is a perfect vacation destination, with mountains, a wonderful climate, and beautiful views. Cruise ships sailing along the western coast of Europe or on repositioning cruises between the Caribbean and Europe often visit Madeira.
About the only things lacking on Madeira are flat land and sandy beaches. The Madeirans use terraces and bridges to compensate for the flat land and take the short trip to the neighboring island of Porto Santo to sit on sandy beaches.
Portugal has controlled Madeira for over 500 years, and many British citizens (as well as other nationalities) have immigrated there for the past 200 years. The island is a very popular European tourist destination, and cruise ships often port in the capital of Funchal. About 90,000 of the 250,000 people on Madeira live in Funchal, the capital city.
If you arrive in Funchal via cruise ship, your ship will dock near the center of the capital city. Since some ships embark or disembark from transatlantic voyages in Funchal, you might be able to spend more time on Madeira as part of a pre- or post-cruise extension.
The island certainly has enough natural beauty to spend longer than just one day! Its deeply gouged cliffs and lush, steep valleys look much like the Hawaiian island of Kauai. At 36 miles (58 km) long and 15 miles (23 km) wide, the island is not very large, but because it is so mountainous, travel is slow.
Many people take a bus tour of the island in order to take in some of the beautiful vistas like the one seen in the photo above. Another tour many visitors enjoy includes a stop at the famous Reid's Palace Hotel to see its gardens and have a spot of tea.
Guests rode in one of the wicker toboggans first used to transport goods from the mountain village of Monte to the capital at Funchal. Today these toboggans are primarily used to transport tourists, but the ride is great fun. The drivers are dressed in traditional white pants and straw hats, and they control the speed and "drive" the toboggans.
If you don't do an organized shore excursion, a car is needed to explore the island. Many of the roads are narrow and difficult to navigate, so "on-your-own" driving might be more exciting than expected. Hiking the irrigation ditches, called levadas, is also a popular way to explore the island. There are hundreds of miles of walking trails along the levadas, some of which are strenuous.
Madeira lies on the Gulf Stream, which makes the climate a mild, sub-tropical one. Both the water and air temperature averages between 16-23 degrees Centigrade (60 to 73 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round. However, due to the mountain currents, the temperature can vary significantly from one side of the island to the other. Funchal and the rest of the southern coast are usually warmer and drier than the northern side of Madeira. Since the temperature is good year-round, any season is good for a visit to Madeira.
Each season features similar temperatures but different flowers, fruits, and festivals. Bananas are in season year-round, but grapes are harvested from August through October. The rainiest months are late September through October and March and April.
Shopping in Madeira is more than just its sweet wine, although the wine certainly is one of the most popular purchases. Wicker and embroidery are also good buys, but getting a bulky wicker purchase home could be a challenge to your suitcase! One interesting find I made was a barretes de lã, an odd looking woolen pom-pom hat worn by many of the male Madeiran farmers. It has ear flaps and looks very silly, but is a good conversation piece and very inexpensive. They are sold most everywhere but are cheaper if you stay away from the tourist shops.
Funchal, Madeira often appears on cruise itineraries as a port of embarkation or disembarkation, so many cruise lovers don't get an opportunity to see much of the island. However, it is well worth more time and I recommend a Madeiran vacation to anyone who loves mountainous islands, perfect weather, and beautiful flora.