Area Information - Madeira Islands
The MADEIRAS archipelago consists of two inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and two uninhabited island groups, the Desertas and the Selvagens. The Madeiras have lush tropical and semi-tropical plant life and extensive gardens, and are famous for their mild, pleasant climate becoming a popular health resort in recent years.
Madeira Island features a mountainous topography, with the region’s capital and largest city of Funchal located on Madeira Island. The Laurisilva Park forms the largest area of preserved laurel forest in the world and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Two thirds of the island is a protected area offering unique landscapes.
The sea is a staple of the Madeiran kitchen with delicious sea fruits, juicy tuna and the island specialty, the black sword- fish (espada). The British colony which settled on Madeira some centuries ago has had a lasting influence on the economy of the island. The famous Madeira wines still carry the names of some distinguished families of English origin on their labels. The importance of Madeira wine to the local economy surpassed that of sugar beginning in the late 17th century.
Situated 42 kilometres (26 miles) north -east of Madeira Island, the relatively isolated island of Porto Santo has been more successful in preserving some of the old traditions of its first settlers. Amazingly different from the island of Madeira, there is almost no vegetation at all and its southern coast is bordered by a 9 kilometres of golden beach. Its knowledgeable visitors have called it a paradise not to be missed.
Porto Santo is only 14 kilometres (9 miles) long and 5 kilometres (3 miles) wide. Almost 80% of the island's population lives in its capital Vila Baleira and the airport is only 5 minutes by car. The hotels offer a series of leisure activities such as tennis, mini-golf, windsurfing and island-tours. There is also a recommended campground near the beach.
Christopher Columbus came to Porto Santo in 1478 just to buy sugar. He married Felipa Moniz Perestrelo the governor's daughter and Columbus’ house stands today just behind the local church.
The Selvagens, three small islands and many tiny islets, are situated a couple of hundred kms to the south and are a natural bird reserve designated for scientific study.
The islands of Desertas consisting of three islands; Deserta Grande, Chão and Búgio, are strictly a nature reserve.
As an autonomous region of Portugal, the Madeiras have their legislature which rules from the capital of Funchal. Its landscape is known for its natural amphitheatres overlooking the bay. During the sixteenth century Funchal was an important sugar producing centre.
Touring Funchal, one must observe the beautiful sidewalks in patterns of marble from the mainland and lava from the mountains. As a cosmopolitan city with a historical background, the observant tourist will find the main cathedral, ornate churches and fortifications still in their original splendour. Funchal also possesses a tropical botanical garden and the famous market, ‘Mercado dos Lavradores’, offering a terrific range of tropical fruits and vegetables.
All types of water sports are possible including water skiing, snorkelling, sailing and high sea fishing. Favourable winds make the Madeiras an ideal location for windsurfing. The steep ravines of the Islands provide many opportunities for canoeing.
The British introduced golf into Madeira and in 1937 they built their first nine-hole course. The Madeira Islands today are home to 2 championship golf courses:
- The Sierra course in Santo possesses 27 holes and is home to the Madeira Island Open Championship.
- The Palheiro 18 hole course is picturesque with views of the bay of Funchal
HOW TO GET THERE
Madeira International Airport is located in Santa Cruz and is 15 minutes from the capital of Funchal. Many tour operators offer package holidays from the UK. TAP Portugal Airlines and British Airways fly direct in 3 ½ hours from London Gatwick to Madeira Island. Travelers from major US cities will have to connect via Lisbon Airport.
The port of Funchal is often visited by cruise ships and serves as a gateway to the islands. Connections between the islands are either by plane or ferryboat, which also transport cars.