1. Madeira rivals the Canaries for sunshine breaks
Madeira, Porto Santo, Desertas, Selvagem – the four islands that make up the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira don’t trip off sunseekers’ tongues as readily as Tenerife, Gran Canaria or Lanzarote. But the islands of Madeira are less than 400km north of the Canaries and enjoy a similar (if slightly less scorching) climate. Because of its mild year-round temperatures, Madeira is known as the ‘island of the eternal spring’ (just like Tenerife, uncannily).
But, for me, Madeira is the clear winner when it comes to winter sun holidays – if only because it attracts just a fraction of the tourists that overrun the Canaries. Get there before it, too, becomes overrun – just try to go further than the tourist hotspots of Porto Santo and Funchal.
2. It’s the spiritual home of Portuguese football
The first organised game of football anywhere in Portugal took place in Madeira, in rural Camacha. It was organised by Madeira-born Harry Hinton, who’d no doubt be proud that today little Madeira has two teams in the Portuguese Liga. But Hinton’s name has since been eclipsed by the stellar career of another Madeira-born footballer: Cristiano Ronaldo.
3. It’s also home to a 2170km walking network
Madeira is crisscrossed by levadas – aqueducts built to irrigate the island’s arid southeast. Some are more than four centuries’ old, but they’re still critical for water supply and today provide hydroelectric power, too. They also allow incredible access to Madeira’s rugged interior. Many are cut into mountainsides, forming vertiginous paths that should only be attempted by seriously prepared and equipped hikers. But others make for easy walking, including the mimosa-lined Levada do Caniçal.
4. Madeirans really know how to enjoy themselves
You couldn’t pick a better place to while the hours away. Madeira attracts its fair share of dolphin-spotters, golfers, surfers and other busy types. But I’d rather spend my days soaking up the islands’ committed coffee culture, sampling its incredible seafood or finding somewhere cool to sip a Coral (the local beer). Of course, I could be tempted to visit at Carnival or New Year. After all, Madeirans can really party. Funchal even went down in history with the biggest fireworks display on record, at New Year, 2006.
5. The local wine earned a place in history
The origin of Madeira wine is, obviously, no secret. But its quirky history is less well known. Its fame began back when the island was a pit-stop for big trading ships, which would load up with the local fortified wine. Traders were surprised to find that the long journey home through the tropics improved, rather than destroyed, the wine. So it soon became a high-priced commodity – so prized that Thomas Jefferson used a glass of Madeira to toast the Declaration of Independence.
Have you been to Madeira? Did you discover some of its secrets? Don’t be shy, share your discoveries in the comments below!