Archipelago (est. pop. 300,000), 308 sq mi (798 sq km), capital: Funchal, country: Portugal, status: Autonomous.
Set in the Atlantic Ocean c.350 mi (560 km) off the coast of Morocco, Madeira, the largest island, and Porto Santo are inhabited; the Desertas and Selvagens (the latter being somewhat closer to Africa) are not. Known to the Romans as the Purple Islands, they were rediscovered (15th cent.) under HENRY THE NAVIGATOR.
The volcanic origins of Madeira can still be seen,; the amphitheatre that surrounds Funchal was once a caldera. The Island is surprisingly mountainous with peaks of 1,860 metres; over 6,100 feet high! Fortunately for the tourists, volcanic activity stopped about 6,500 years ago. This activity has endowed the island with a fertile landscape where much of the island was, until comparatively recently covered in ancient subtropical rainforest. Indeed this is the reason for the name of the island, 'Madeira' meaning 'wood' in Portuguese.
Parts of this forest (Laurisilva) still remain, mainly on the northern slopes and have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the superb blooms for which the island has become famous may be found in abundance all year round. One of the nicest ways to see the dynamic and panoramic vistas is to take a Levada Walk along side the water channels designed to supply irrigation to the drier parts.
Madeira is a scenic, year-round resort. The islands produce bananas, sugarcane and Madeira Wine, but now derive much of their economic growth from tourism. The north remains mainly rural in nature whilst the south, especially in and around Funchal has developed with the discerning traveller in mind. Most, but by no means all, of the Island's finest hotels are found in this area.
Madeira’s tourism is also changing, bringing a greater variety of tourists from many different age groups and walks of life. The island, a once haunt of the older generation has of late been rediscovered by the younger more affluent set. Now seen as the home of “Ronaldo”, it no longer has the image of a small rural community but a stunning all year round summer island destination that is in easy reach of most of Europe and is attracting a classier younger crowd who not only like to enjoy a night out but also love the spectacular drives and friendly people that can be found in abundance. Madeira’s Nightlife, fine dining, water sports, perfect climate, and spectacular scenery, are second to none and a ‘must’ for the modern traveller.