Floral scents fill Madeira's sea-washed air. Bird-of-paradise flowers grow wild; pink and purple fuchsia weave lacy patterns up pastel walls; and jacaranda trees create purple canopies over roads and avenues. The natural beauty of this island is like no other, from the cliffs that plummet seaward to mountain summits cloaked in silent fog. The magic has captivated travelers for centuries.
Wine connoisseurs have always savored Madeira's eponymous export, but a sip of this heady elixir provides only a taste of the island's many delights. Made up of a series of dramatic volcanic peaks rising from the sea around 600 km (373 miles) off the west coast of Morocco, the island has an alluring, balmy year-round temperature, ensured by warm Atlantic currents. Other draws include the promise of clear skies, the carpets of flowers, the waterfalls that cascade down green canyons, and the great hiking along the island's famous network of levadas. These irrigation canals have been adapted into superb walking trails, many of them passing along the dramatic coast or through an Alpine-like interior of lush woodlands.
Thanks to its position on shipping routes between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, Madeira grew up as an important trading post. The British have had strong ties to the island thanks to a 16th-century royal marriage. Today they still flock to Madeira, mainly over winter, as do other northern Europeans, especially Germans and Scandinavians. In summer, the island is also popular with visitors from mainland Portugal, when an adventurous crowd puts Madeira's magnificent blend of sun and seascapes to good use. The island also has some excellent museums, tranquil gardens, and a range of good restaurants.
There are a couple of beaches on Madeira and several swimming complexes, but the island has never really appealed to those wanting a beach holiday. Travelers whose priority is cosmopolitan action until dawn may also be unimpressed by Madeira. Others—of almost any age, nationality, and fitness level—are likely to be caught in its spell. However, if you do want beach time, look no further than Porto Santo, the neighboring island, which has a superb 9 km (5.6 miles) long stretch of soft sands.
This popularity has wrought change: its airport is large enough to take jumbo jets, and its numerous new roads (construction projects continue) have halved many journey times. Modern, designer hotels have the very latest facilities, and visitors can expect to find some of the best hotels anywhere in Europe. But such developments don't seem to overwhelm Madeira. Rather, it's the island's amazingly rugged interior that overwhelms all who experience it. Multiple microclimates, exotic topography and vegetation, and designated nature reserves create an amazing ecodestination. The Laurissilva forest that occupies a lofty coastal strip above the sea has been classified as part of the Madeira Nature and UNESCO World Natural Heritage. The island is one of the few regions in the world where ancient forest dating back before the Ice Age can be found. Flora and fauna in the four nature reserves are still being discovered to this day. With this awesome heritage, Madeira has the power to keep its core a sanctuary for centuries to come.