Madeira and Porto Santo islands are two original manifestations of nature placed in the middle of the ocean. In Madeira, there is a combination of high mountains and dense forests with meticulously maintained gardens, ingenious tunnels and panoramic cable cars. In Porto Santo, the landscape becomes plainer stretching through kilometres of golden sands. The temperature is another great ally of tourism success in the archipelago: 23 degrees maximum and 15 degrees minimum air temperature all year long; while water temperature varies from 22 degrees in summer and 18 degrees in winter.
It is impossible to avoid feeling amazed by the spell of Funchal as you contemplate it for the first time. The cosmopolitan "capital" of Madeira has the shape of a natural amphitheatre. It rises from the coast at an altitude of 1200m in the middle of the deep blue Atlantic and a lavishly green surrounding landscape. Some of the best Portuguese hotels are situated around Funchal bay. Gastronomy also conquers visitors. The "caco" cake (preferably served hot with garlic butter), kebabs in spit of laurel, fresh fish and seafood, fried corn, exotic fruits and Madeira wine make any meal a reason to celebrate.
As everywhere else, there are certain key-experiences that you can not possibly miss: travelling by cable car up to Monte and going down in wickerwork sledges; walking along the Lido promenade between palm trees and gardens; diving in the inviting waters of Ponta Gorda bathing complex; buying bird-of-paradise flowers, sugarbushes and flamingo flowers in the market Mercado dos Lavradores, and contemplating the fireworks in the bay of Funchal in August nights or in New Year's Eve.
A diversified island
A walk along Madeira Island will show you the most diversified landscapes that you can ever imagine, as well as the four seasons in just one day. Drink the "poncha" (made of lemon juice, honey and sugar cane spirit) in Câmara de Lobos, visit a sugar mill in Calheta and go up to Cabo Girão, Europe's highest promontory. Taste fresh fish in Fajã dos Padres by the sea and a tasty chestnut soup in the volcanic interior of Curral das Freiras.
Go up above the clouds in Paul da Serra, where the snow covers an almost lunar landscape in the peak of winter. Walk along the "levadas", surrounded by the laurissilva forest, classified Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The attractive natural pools of volcanic rocks will lead you north. Contemplate the waterfall known as Véu da Noiva (literally, "bride's veil"), São Vicente grouts and the typical tiny Santana houses. In the east coast, stop by Machico, the first place where in 1419 Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, Madeira's official discoverers, shipped off. Bring a wicker piece from Camacha civil parish in Santa Cruz as a souvenir that you will remind you of this trip.
Here you will find nine kilometres of fine-grained golden sands with recognised therapeutic properties and a sea with a pleasant water temperature all year long. If you are more into action, there are walking tours and driving tours for all tastes, tennis, golf, and nautical sports at your disposal. Go all the way up to Pico do Facho and admire the endless view over the ocean and experience a unique feeling.
Christopher Columbus spent some time in the island of Porto Santo. The house where he lived is now an ethnographical museum that can be visited in Vila Baleira, the heart of the island, behind the main church. Traditional wind mills, local houses made with indigenous materials or deactivated limestone mines are other cultural testimonies of the island.
Desert and Wild Islands
The archipelago includes two other uninhabited islands, the desert and wild islands, protected reserves, consisting of natural sanctuaries for some fauna and flora species, quite rare in the planet. Desert Islands (ilhas desertas) are situated 22 miles southeast from the city of Funchal. They are a Biogenetic Reserve, the last Atlantic shelter of the Mediterranean Monk Seal (monachus monachus), the rarest seal in the world. The Wild Islands (ilhas selvagens) include two groups of small islands, Selvagem Grande and Selvagem Pequena. They are located at approximately 180 miles from Madeira Island, embracing a Natural Reserve as well. Some of the rarest flower species in the planet can be found here. This reserve is regarded as a "bird sanctuary", where seabirds breed.