The capital of Madeira, Funchal, is the focal point of the island and the gateway to its outlying villages. When Zarco landed in 1419, the sweet odor of wild fennel led him to name the town after the aromatic herb (funcho in Portuguese). Today this southern coastal city of hillside villas and narrow winding streets is the island's most luxuriant area, filled with fertile fields, hundreds of flowering gardens, and numerous exotic estates.
A long, often traffic-clogged street, Avenida do Mar, runs east-west along the waterfront. North of this is Avenida Arriaga, the "main street" of Funchal. At the eastern end of this thoroughfare is the Sé (cathedral), and at the western end is a large traffic circle that surrounds a fountain. As Avenida Arriaga, site of several hotels, heads west, it changes its name to Avenida do Infante. As it runs east, it becomes Rua do Aljube. Running north-south, the other important street, Avenida Zarco, links the waterfront area with the heart of the old city.
To explore and savor Madeira, adventurous visitors (definitely not the queasy), with time to spend, go on foot across some of the trails strewn around the island. Hand-hewn stones and gravel-sided embankments lead you along precipitous ledges, down into lush ravines, and across flowering meadows. These dizzying paths are everywhere, from the hillsides of the wine-rich region of Estreito de Câmara de Lobos to the wicker-work center of Camacha. A much easier way to go, of course, is on an organized tour or on local buses, or you can rent a car and risk the hazardous driving on hairpin curves.
If you'd like to take a circular tour of the entire island, you can take N101 either east or west of Funchal, which traverses the coast of the entire island. Heading west from Funchal, you'll pass women doing their laundry on rocks, homes so tiny that they're almost like dollhouses, and banana groves growing right to the edge of the cliffs that overlook the sea. Less than 10km (6 1/4 miles) away is the coastal village of Câmara de Lobos (Room of the Wolves), the subject of several paintings by Sir Winston Churchill. A sheltered, tranquil cove, it's set amid rocks and towering cliffs, with hillside cottages, terraces, and date palms. The road north from Câmara de Lobos, through vineyards, leads to Estreito de Câmara de Lobos (popularly known as Estreito), the heart of the winegrowing region that produces Madeira's wine. Along the way you'll spot women sitting on mossy stone steps doing embroidery, and men who cultivate the ribbonlike terraces wearing brown stocking caps with tasseled tops. (Incidentally, the islanders' blond locks were inherited from early Flemish settlers.)
Lying 16km (10 miles) west of Câmara de Lobos, Cabo Girão is one of the highest ocean-side cliffs in the world. You can stand here watching the sea crash 580m (1,902 ft.) below while also taking in a panoramic sweep of the Bay of Funchal.
From Cabo Girão, return to Funchal by veering off the coastal road past São Martinho to the belvedere at Pico Dos Barcelos. In one of the most idyllic spots on the island, you can see the ocean, mountains, orange and banana groves, bougainvillea, and poinsettias, as well as the capital.
By heading north from Funchal, you can visit some outstanding spots in the heart of the island. Past São António is Curral das Freiras, a village huddled around an old monastery at the bottom of an extinct volcanic crater. The site, whose name means Corral of the Nuns, was originally a secluded convent that protected the nuns from sea-weary, woman-hungry mariners and pirates.
If you go north in a different direction, one destination to visit is Santana, which many visitors have described as something out of Disney's Fantasia. Picture an alpine setting with waterfalls, cobblestone streets, green meadows sprinkled with multicolored blossoms, thatched cottages, swarms of roses, and plunging ravines. The novelist Paul Bowles wrote, "It is as if a 19th-century painter with a taste for the baroque had invented a countryside to suit his own personal fantasy."
Southwest of Santana, is Queimadas, the site of a 900m-high (2,952-ft.) rest house. From here, many people make the 3-hour trek to the apex of Pico Ruivo (Purple Peak), the highest point on the island, 1,860m (6,101 ft.) above sea level. This is a difficult, long, hot climb and is recommended only for the hearty and those with no fear of heights. The best access to Pico Ruivo is from Pico do Arieiro because the trail from there is the most scenic.
Southeast of Santana, heading for Faial, a colorful hamlet with tiny A-frame huts, the road descends in a series of sharp turns into a deep ravine. The lush terraces here are built for cows to graze on, not for produce.
In the east, about 30km (19 miles) from Funchal, is historic Machico, where Portuguese explorers first landed on Madeira. The town is now visited mainly because of the legend of "the lovers of Machico," an English couple who were running away to get married but whose ship is said to have sank here in 1346. In the main square of the town stands a Manueline church constructed at the end of the 15th century, supposedly over the tomb of the ill-fated pair. The facade contains a beautiful rose window. In the interior are white marble columns and a frescoed ceiling over the nave. Try to view the village from the belvedere of Camões Pequeno.
On the way back from Machico, you can detour inland to the village of Camacha, perched in a setting of flowers and orchards. It's the island center of the wickerwork industry. You can shop here or just watch local craftspeople making chairs and other items. You'll find that though the stores in Funchal are amply supplied, some items are as much as 20% cheaper in Camacha.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.