Madeira is located in the eastern Atlantic Ocean southwest of Portugal and off the coast of Africa. The island is breathtakingly beautiful with spectacular views and something for everyone. 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 on repositioning cruises between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, or on cruises from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. 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. We visited Madeira for only one day near the end of a wonderful cruise on the luxury cruise ship the Silversea Silver Whisper from Barcelona to Lisbon.
The island certainly has enough natural beauty to spend longer than just one day! Its deeply gouged cliffs and lush, steep valleys reminded me 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. We took a shore excursion from the Silver Whisper on a 4-wheel-drive jeep, which allowed us to see some of the backcountry and precipitous valleys on the island.
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's 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.