Estimated Population: 270,000
Total Area: 801 sq km (308 sq mi)
Status: Autonomous region of Portugal
Set in the Atlantic Ocean c. 560 km (350 mi) off the coast of Morocco, Madeira, the largest island, and Porto Santo are inhabited; the Desertas are not and Selvagens (the latter being somewhat closer to Africa) are only inhabited by a team of wardens of Madeira Natural Park, members of the Maritime Police, as well as of the Captaincy of Funchal. 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, as 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, volcanic activity stopped about 6,500 years ago but it was precisely this activity that endowed the island with a fertile landscape, which favoured the ancient subtropical rainforest that covered most of the territory. Indeed this is the reason for the name of the island, 'Madeira' meaning 'wood' in Portuguese.
Parts of this Laurel forest (Laurissilva) 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 alongside the water channels designed to supply irrigation to the drier parts.
Madeira is a scenic, year-round resort. The island produces bananas, sugarcane and Madeira Wine, but now derives much of its 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 likes to enjoy a night out but also loves 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.