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Baltic Cruises

About Madeira

In 1418, two Portuguese captains under the command of Prince Henry the Navigator were charting the West African coast. Blown off course, they landed on a remote, undiscovered land. A year later, they returned to add the island to their map, naming it “Madeira,” or “Wood,” for its dense virgin forests.

A fire was set to clear the island for habitation and it burned for seven years. Farmers terraced the hillsides of the dramatic landscape for cultivation. By the late 15th century, Madeira was the world’s top sugar producer and the colony flourished. Christopher Columbus, then a sugar trader, lived here briefly.

During the 16th century, the regional capital of Funchal became a port of call for ships en route to the New World. Later, Madeira wine became the island’s biggest export, so beloved that in 1655 when Britain forbade the export of European wines to British colonies except through British ports, Madeira was made the exception.

In more modern history, Madeira suffered the first of Portugal’s major losses during World War I, when a German U-boat sank three ships in the harbor before air bombing Funchal. During World War II, the island served as an escape for 2,000 refugees from Gibraltar.

In 1976, after Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, Madeira was granted political autonomy. Today, the stunning archipelago captivates visitors with its wild beauty.

Madeira Lifestyle and Culture

Known as the “Garden Island” for its rich agriculture, terraced hillsides and exotic flowers, Madeira is an enchanting paradise rising up from Atlantic waters like a veritable Eden. Craggy spires, rocky headlands, and plummeting ravines make for an awe-inspiring welcome.

Madeira’s fertile soils were formed from lava and ash. With a temperate climate year-round, this is a horticulturalist’s paradise of jacaranda, bougainvillea, poinsettias, and birds of paradise. Hints of fennel (also funcha) and vanilla waft on the sea breeze.

Known as “Little Lisbon,” Funchal is a historic harborside town with a sophisticated urban character. The Old Town is adorned with 15th-century buildings, elegant wrought-iron balconies overflowing with flowers and blue azulejo tiles, all abutted by a picturesque marina crowded with yachts. A wander through the Mercado dos Lavradores reveals fisherman and terrace farmers selling their scabbard fish and fruits in a splendid art deco building.

Funchal’s, and Madeira’s, most celebrated festival is New Year’s Eve, a lively street fair of music, dancing, costumes, and parades with fireworks lighting up the bay. As you might imagine on the “Garden Island,” the Flower Festival is also popular; each May, thousands of children gather to create a “Wall of Hope” from colorful blooms.

Madeira Sights and Landmarks

Madeira’s terraced approach to cultivation has bestowed the island with 1,350 miles of irrigation aqueducts known as levadas. They were laid centuries ago, but today these canals weaving through the hillsides, many of them dried up, serve as breathtaking walking trails that beckon you past stunning coasts and through lush woodlands.

A mountain drive through fragrant eucalyptus trees leads to Europe’s highest ocean cliff, Cabo Girão. At 1,935 feet above sea level, this dramatic wall spills into Atlantic waters from dizzying heights. The glass-bottom observation platform allows you to peer down the sheer massif.

For sweeping inland vistas of Madeira, there are few points as magnificent as Eira do Serrano, a deep ravine of steep granite slopes, craggy spires and villages dwarfed by the drama of it all. Local legend says this is the fortress of a sleeping virgin princess who wished to live in the sky.

The fishing village of Câmara de Lobos (the sea wolves’ lair) was captured by Winston Churchill on canvas when the Prime Minister visited. It’s easy to see what inspired him: This charming hamlet is a delightful pastiche of whitewashed cottages with red-tile roofs, colorful boats, and burly fishermen drinking poncha, a local elixir of rum and honey.

Madeira Entertainment and Activities

In Funchal, delight in the Old Town’s outdoor gallery on Rua de Santa Maria, where artists transform doors into elaborate works of art. In a 16th-century bishop’s palace, the Museum of Sacred Art hosts an impressive art collection by Flemish masters. The artists were paid in sugar by wealthy Madeiran merchants.

For panoramic views, ascend to the hillside village of Monte on Austrian-engineered cable cars. Once you reach the top, peek into the 18th-century twin-towered church, the beloved Nossa Senhora do Monte, and see the iron tomb of Charles I, Austria’s last emperor.

To sample the island’s unique “rapid transit” from Monte to Funchal, running since 1850, board one of Monte’s large wicker toboggans. Its ski-like wooden runners are greased with lard so it smoothly careens toward Funchal, steered by drivers who use their rubber-soled goatskin boots as brakes.

Madeira wine was used to toast the United States Constitution soon after its signing. With the island’s four exquisite grapes, and with such a rich wine heritage, wine tasting is a must for any visit. Any number of the island’s wineries will introduce you to the island’s namesake wine and show you how it is produced.

Madeira Restaurants and Shopping

Along with world-renowned wine, the island offers cuisine to tantalize the palate. The plates of Portugal are abundant and delicious here, as evidenced by the island’s Portuguese caldeirada (fish stew) and vinhos e alhos (wine-marinated pork with garlic and spices).

For an authentic dining experience in Funchal, head to the family-run Gavião Novo in Zona Velha. Enjoy fish straight from the waters off Madeira and the best of Portuguese olive oils in an intimate ambiance.

From the top of the Vine Hotel, admire the twinkling lights of the city and spectacular harbor views. The veal at the hotel’s trendy Uva is cooked for two days with sweet potato and chard. Homemade bread and excellent Madeira table wines complement the meal.

Located in the Cliff Bay Hotel, at the excellent Il Gallo d’Oro restaurant, each aromatic Mediterranean dish is a work of art, with over 300 wines to choose from.

While in Madeira, you may wish to shop for wines and fine embroidery. The Madeira Wine Company at Blandy’s Wine Lodge offers an excellent selection of Madeira, all fortified with high-proof grape brandy. For a selection of authentic embroidery, browse the Patricio & Gouveia factory, where materials are checked for quality before artisans add the fine needlework in private homes. At the artistically renovated Armazém do Mercado, browse creations from local artisans and roam the local toy museum.