From the moment you are on the plane gliding above this rolling emerald gem of the Atlantic Ocean, you can already see that you are going to have the adventure of a lifetime. The plane drops and jerks and breaks aggressively to land at Madeira Airport, providing one of the most seat-clenching landings you may ever experience. Once you step foot off of the plane and get a glimpse of the island, you will find a haven of natural beauty painted with vibrant colours of exotic fauna and flora. The island has been nicknamed Perola do Atlantico (Pearl of the Atlantic) by the Portuguese and it has been called “the island of eternal spring,” by CNN Travel. There is no doubt that this island is full of natural wonders as two-thirds of it is protected land and holds the largest laurel forest, Laurisilva of Madeira, in the world, which was announced a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. As one of Europe’s most beautiful tourist destinations, Madeira offers many outdoor activities such as Levada and mountain walking, hiking, sailing, dolphin and whale watching, scuba diving, fishing, canyoning, surfing and paragliding. On all of these exciting adventures, you will have endless views of deep blue seascapes, rustic villages, quiet valleys and rocky mountains.
It is always interesting to discover how the Portuguese conquered this small island in the middle of the ocean. Surprisingly enough, it was founded by sheer chance. At the beginning of the 15th century, three young sea captains, João Gonçalves Zarco, Tristão Vaz Teixeira and Bartolomeu Perestrelo, were blown off course by an Atlantic storm during their voyage around the African coast. The captains were stranded at sea for many days until they came upon a small, sandy island that they named Porto Santo. In 1419, a whole year later, the men finally discovered the larger Madeira Island and landed their boats in Machico Bay.
Once the men informed King John I of Portugal of their discovery, he ordered the island to be colonized. In 1425, the first families came to Madeira Islands from the Algarve and then from Northern Portugal. The island was divided into three sections for each captain: Tristão Teixeira was awarded Machico; Bartolomeu Perestrelo, Porto Santo; and João Gonçalves Zarco, Funchal.
The main livelihoods of the first inhabitants of Madeira relied on fish, fruits and vegetables. Eventually, sugar cane became the main crop, turning Funchal into a mandatory port for European trade routes. By the 17th century, Madeira’s economy boosted once again with one of its most important exports; wine. In the 18th and 19th century Madeira wine was the most expensive and appreciated wine in the world. It was even used in 1776 by the founding fathers of the United States —Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington —to toast the celebration of Independence.
Nothing pairs better with Madeira wine than the traditional cuisine from the island. When in Madeira, be sure to feast your taste buds on the savoury delicacies of espetada em pau de louro (skewered meat on a laurel stick), bolo do caco (traditional Maderian bread), milho frito (fried cornmeal), carne vinho e alhos (meat in wine and garlic sauce), lapas (limpets), espada preto (black scabbardfish), tuna steak and, for dessert, bolo do mel (sugar-cane honey cake). Typical drinks on the island include passion fruit juice, nikitas (ice cream mixed with pineapple juice, pineapple chunks and beer) and, the most famous, poncha (pure sugar cane spirit, honey, lemon rind and lemon juice). On the island, there is only one Michelin starred restaurant at Cliff Bay Hotel called Il Gallo d’Oro, which holds two stars. Whether you have high-class taste or prefer to dine with the locals, Madeira has it all.
The archipelago consists of two inhabited islands (Madeira and Porto Santo) and two sub-archipelago nature reserves (Ilhas Desertas and Ilhas Selvagens). In recent years, tourism has significantly increased; whether its due to native-born footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s success and promotion of the island or the sheer fact that Madeira is a cozy paradise tucked away in the Atlantic Ocean. Outside of the touristic area of Funchal, the island still survives off of farming on land less than 1,000 square metres atop sloped mountains or at the bottom of steep cliffs.
The eucalyptus-smelling mountain woods, volcanic-rock beaches, high peaks, impressive cliffs and deep valleys make Madeira a unique dream-like paradise. Although small and slightly terrifying to drive in, the island is full of culture, amazing hiking possibilities and gourmet food. It should definitely be at the top of every traveller’s bucket list.