Jewel of the Atlantic
Sitting in the middle of the Atlantic, just off the coast of North Africa, the archipelago of Madeira is a hub of biodiversity and of lush, tropical forest, of steep mountainsides and of crashing waves
‘A place of unrivalled natural beauty, a striking contrast of blue sea and emerald green vegetation has earned the archipelago the nickname ‘Jewel of the Atlantic’’
ISCOVERED IN 1419 – and so marking the beginning of the Portuguese Age of Discovery –, the archipelago of Madeira comprises the island of Madeira, the island of Porto Santo, the Desertas Islands (literally meaning ‘deserted’) and the Ilhas Selvagens (or Savage Islands). Together, they make up a place of unrivalled natural beauty, a striking contrast of blue sea and emerald green vegetation that has earned the archipelago the nickname ‘Jewel of the Atlantic’.
And a jewel it is. Traditionally the retreat of European high society – notable visitors included Elisabeth of Bavaria, empress of Austria-Hungary, Charles I of Austria and Winston Churchill –, nowadays, Madeira attracts visitors from around the world, for the same reasons, all year round. In fact, tourism is the island’s main industry, founded on its biggest treasure: nature. Walking-enthusiasts will love the volcanic landscape, defined by steep mountainsides, deep valleys and generally rugged terrain. In fact, inland, much of the area is almost inaccessible. However, originally created as irrigation systems to distribute water from the heavy rainfall of the north to the dryer south, across vineyards, orchards and banana plantations, the mini-canals called levadas (roughly meaning ‘to be carried’) double as the perfect walking trails for lovers of the outdoors. Criss-crossing the mountains since as far back as the 16th century, they cover a total distance of 2,500km.
Ardent hikers in particular will find their rambling utopia in the heart of the Laurisilva forest, the largest surviving area of laurel forest on the planet and for which reason was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. With ecological niches and outstanding biological diversity, this ancient forest boasts 39 species of rare plants and animals – native birds include the barn owl, the Eurasian sparrowhawk and the common buzzard, while flora such as the Madeira giant bellflower, the giant Madeira foxglove and the Madeira laurel tree also grow here. Of particular interest is the Risco waterfall, the highest and most spectacular in Madeira, within the Rabaçal valley. It’s worth noting that some areas are quite dangerous; for this reason, visitors who wish to climb the mountainous terrain are recommended to travel with a guide and group. The views from the top of the mountains, which emerge from beyond the cloud cover, are well worth the effort.
This abundance of natural treasures is, perhaps surprisingly, just a stone’s throw from the island’s capital, the popular tourist town of Funchal. Named for its abundance of funcho (fennel) by settlers and the capital of Madeira for more than five centuries, its strategic location made it an important centre of trade, as well as a stopover point for caravels travelling between the Indies and the New World. Today, a very different kind of vessel can be seen docking into the city, nestled within a great natural amphitheatre – this is the leading Portuguese port for cruise liner dockings. Funchal is also well known for holding the country’s most extravagant New Year’s celebrations, with the biggest and best firework display in Portugal.
A must for those visiting the island is to take a cable car from Funchal up to the village of Monte, once a health resort for Europe’s high society. Downhill, the pace changes a little: reaching a speed of 48km/h through narrow winding streets and taking 10 minutes to arrive at Funchal, traditional toboggan sledges were originally used as a fast means of transport for the locals living in the hills in the late 19th century. Comprising two seats and made from wicker, steered by two men in the traditional white cotton attire, a straw hat and rubber-soled boots used as brakes, today it’s a tourist experience that’s not to be missed.
Those wanting to go even more off the beaten track couldn’t be better positioned, although a boat may be necessary. The Desertas Islands are a small archipelago off the coast of Morocco, with starkly different geology and a distinct native wildlife. These rocky islands, with an arid ecosystem, are home to species of tarantula, reptiles and a variety of bird species, while the scarce population of feral goats, rabbits and rodents was introduced by Portuguese mariners. A lovely sight is the small colony of Mediterranean monk seals that inhabit the beaches, and the islands’ nature reserve status has ensured their protection since 1990. Deserta Grande is the only inhabitable island but has scarce, murky water. The only human presence, therefore is the permanent wardens, geologists and research stations.