You may know the name of the wine, but little about the place where it’s made. Well, it’s time to get familiar with Madeira because it’s one of the most appealing year-round destinations in Europe.
To get properly acquainted, let’s go back a few centuries. In 1419, Portuguese ruler Prince Henry the Navigator dispatched explorers to find new lands for Portugal to settle. Some of these industrious explorers stumbled upon a rocky archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean about 310 mi / 500 km northwest of Africa. It was uninhabited, but undeniably appealing, with lush forests on rocky mountains, sandy beaches alongside cool blue waters, and a variety of microclimates that kept the temperature mild at all times of year. They decided to stick around and the island chain became known as Madeira, the name of the largest of the islands. It’s been one of the most attractive destinations in Europe ever since.
Nowadays, Madeira is known as the Pearl of the Atlantic and an ideal spot to explore at all times of year. The capital, Funchal, is a popular port for European cruise ships, while Portuguese and British vacationers head to the islands in the winter months to spend a few weeks in the sun. It’s time for North American travellers to catch on to what makes Madeira such an appealing spot and make Madeira their next destination.
Why should you visit Madeira?
1. Madeira is a year-round travel destination, but particularly appealing in winter.
Madeira is blessed with a mild climate year-round. That means that it’s warm in the winter, sitting in the low-sixties °F / mid-teens °C. But it’s also not hot in the summer. Rather, it’s relatively consistent year-round, meaning you can visit at all times of year without getting too hot or cold. If you like to spend time outdoors, you’re in luck in Madeira. The climate is perfect for hiking through the UNESCO-listed prehistoric laurel forests that coat the hillside or exploring the 890-year-old cave system of Sao Vicente. Madeira is also an ideal place to spend several weeks or even months in the winter. You can book an apartment-style accommodation and explore the islands at leisure, learning to live (and enjoy the famous food and wine) like a local.
2. Madeira is made for adventures by water.
As an island in the North Atlantic, Madeira is blessed with easy access to water. It’s never far from a sandy beach or a rocky cove to explore. And there are natural swimming pools around the island, which offer volcanic surroundings and warm waters constantly refilled by the tides. Such an abundance of water leads to a wealth of water activities available in Madeira. And perhaps best of all: the water is warm all year round, ranging between 64°F / 18°C and 75 °F / 24°C. You can snorkel in the nature reserves of Canical or Garajau to spot exotic sea life, including bright sea stars, join a licensed diving company to explore further afield, or simply relax on the beaches. You can also spot whale and dolphin pods that pass through the waters. Bottlenose dolphins are common year round, while sperm whales, humpback whales, and even orcas pass through the waters, especially in the late spring and summer.
3. Madeira is great for land adventures as well.
Madeira is a year-round hiking destination, largely due to the unique levadas, stone channels dating back to the 15th century, which capture water falling in the mountains for use in agricultural hydration. Narrow paths run along the around 200 levadas on the islands, making them convenient ways to get around in otherwise inaccessible mountain regions. Travellers can use these pathways to explore the mountains, hike to viewpoints on top of dormant volcanoes, and explore the lush laurel forests, which cover much of the islands.
4. Madeira wine and food is justifiably famous.
Madeira wine is arguably the most famous thing about the island chain, and justifiably so. This fortified wine dates back to the 15th century and today it’s popular as a dry standalone wine or sweet aperitif to drink alongside desserts. There are gorgeous vineyards across the islands, often in high elevations in the hillsides, where you can join wine tours, learn about the history of Madeira wine, and, of course, try some for yourself. But the pleasures don’t stop with Madeira wine. The island is home to several Michelin-starred restaurants, but you don’t have to go fancy to enjoy the pleasures of local culinary favourites. Favourite local dishes include lapas (grilled limpets, typically served with butter, garlic, and lemon), espetada (grilled beef skewers marinated in garlic, salt, and bay leaves), and delicate espada (black scabbard fish, that’s often braised or fried, and typically served with passion fruit and banana sauce).
5. Madeira accommodates all kinds of travel interests.
Madeira might sound like a place for wine lovers, hikers, or divers, but it’s made for all interests. History lovers can learn about the islands’ settlement in the 15th century, pick up on their unique cultural traditions, and explore some of the historic settlements. Those who love celebratory festivities should visit on New Year’s Eve, when the islands hold a massive fireworks festival. Amateur gardeners will swoon at the verdant hillsides, as well as the many gorgeous gardens that take advantage of the subtropical climate. Madeira Botanical Garden is one of the best, while Monte Palace Madeira blends history with botany in a three-storey museum with expansive gardens. The Flower Festival in Funchal every spring is more proof of Madeira’s remarkable botanical variety, as the capital transforms into a veritable bouquet for several weeks each year.
6. Madeira is affordable.
Madeira accommodates all manner of budget levels. If you’re looking for luxury accommodation, you’ll find boutique hotels and resorts that provide world-class amenities and service. But you don’t need to break the bank in Madeira. It has many affordable and lovely accommodations, often in historic buildings. As well, most goods are more affordable than in comparable destinations, such as the Canary Islands and mainland Europe, so you can save as you explore.
7. Madeira is easy to get to.
Madeira is a breeze to get to with Azores Airlines, which offers the only year-round, non-stop service from New York to Funchal, as well as summer non-stop service from Boston and Toronto. Winter flights with a stop in the Azores are also available from Toronto and Boston, plus the option for a free stopover in the Azores. Madeira might have all the makings of a remote destination, but it’s accessible and affordable. Your tailor-made trip to Madeira is just a flight away.
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