The island of Madeira, 850km (527 miles) southwest of Portugal, is just the mountain peak of an enormous volcanic mass. The island's craggy spires and precipices of umber-dark basalt end with a sheer drop into the blue water of the Atlantic Ocean, which is so deep near Madeira that large sperm whales often come close to the shore. If you stand on the sea-swept balcony of Cabo Girão, one of the world's highest ocean cliffs (590m/1,935 ft. above sea level), you'll easily realize the island's Edenlike quality, which inspired Luís Vaz de Camões, the Portuguese national poet, to say Madeira lies "at the end of the world."
The summit of the mostly undersea mountain is at Madeira's center, where Pico Ruivo, often snowcapped, rises to an altitude of 1,860m (6,100 ft.) above sea level. It is from this mountain peak that a series of deep, rock-strewn ravines cuts through the countryside and projects all the way to the edge of the sea. The island of Madeira is only 56km (35 miles) long and about 21km (13 miles) across at its widest point. It has nearly 160km (99 miles) of coastline, but no beaches. In Madeira's volcanic soil, plants and flowers blaze like creations from Gauguin's Tahitian palette. With jacaranda, masses of bougainvillea, orchids, geraniums, whortleberry, prickly pear, poinsettias, cannas, frangipani, birds of paradise, and wisteria, the land is a veritable botanical garden. Custard apples, avocados, mangoes, and bananas grow profusely throughout the island. Fragrances such as vanilla and wild fennel mingle with sea breezes and permeate the ravines that sweep down the rocky headlands.
In 1419, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira of Portugal discovered Madeira after being diverted by a storm while exploring the west coast of Africa, some 564km (350 miles) east. Because the island was densely covered with impenetrable virgin forests, they named it Madeira (wood). Soon it was set afire to clear it for habitation. The blaze is said to have lasted 7 years, until all but a small northern section was reduced to ashes. Today the hillsides are so richly cultivated that you'd never know there had been such extensive fires. Many of the island's groves and vineyards, protected by buffers of sugar cane, grow on stone-wall ledges next to the cliff's edge. Carrying water from mountain springs, a complex network of man-made levadas (water channels) irrigates these terraced mountain slopes.
The uncovered levadas, originally constructed of stone by slaves and convicts (beginning at the time of the earliest colonization and slowly growing into a huge network), are most often .3 to .6m (1-2 ft.) wide and deep. By the turn of the 20th century, the network stretched for 1,000km (620 miles). In the past century, however, the network has grown to some 2,140km (1,327 miles), of which about 40km (25 miles) are covered tunnels dug into the mountains.
Madeira is both an island and the name of the autonomous archipelago to which it belongs. The island of Madeira has the largest landmass of the archipelago, some 460 sq. km (179 sq. miles). The only other inhabited island in the Madeira archipelago is Porto Santo (about 26 sq. km/10 sq. miles), 40km (25 miles) to the northeast of the main island of Madeira. Réalités magazine called Porto Santo "another world, arid, desolate, and waterless." Unlike Madeira, Porto Santo has beaches and has built several hotels.
There are also a series of other islands in the archipelago, including the appropriately named Ilhas Desertas, or the Empty Islands, 19km (12 miles) southeast of Funchal (the capital of the island of Madeira), and even more remote islands, called Selvagens, or Wild Isles, near the Canary Islands. The latter archipelago is a possession of Spain. However, none of these is inhabited.
Madeira can be a destination unto itself, and, in fact, many Britons fly here directly, avoiding Portugal altogether. Most North Americans, however, tie in a visit to Madeira with trips to Lisbon. It isn't really suited for a day trip from Lisbon -- the island deserves a minimum of 3 days, if you can afford that much.