Madeira might be a similar size to Menorca (one of the Balearic Islands), but their holiday flavours are very different. Madeira is more like a mini La Palma. It's rugged and mountainous here in Madeira's interior, although coastal hotspots like the capital Funchal, and top southern resort spots such as Canico and Calheta are low-lying.
Madeira's dramatic landscapes are moving indeed, with a mix of rugged mountains and volcanic peaks, plunging gorges and the distinctive Laurisilva/primeval laurel forests which exist here on Madeira and on the Canary Islands. Nicknamed the floating garden, the botanical and tropical gardens are found aplenty around Funchal the capital particularly. Move to the interior though, and Madeira tells a different, ruggedly wild story. Choose the south Madeira resort hotspots for a outdoor leisure on the water, plus diving, golf, and fishing and historic sights in Funchal. Choose the interior for challenging treking, climbing, and birdwatching. Plenty of surfing choice too up on the wild north coast of Madeira.
The drama of Madeira's steep, rugged mountainous landscape has a history. Maderia was formed around 20 million years ago - the direct result of enormous volcanic eruptions underneath the Atlantic Ocean.
Like the Canary Islands, a large part of Madeira is buried underwater (about 60%). Above land igneous rock built up over a long period, and resembles today a steep cone-shaped island. There hasn't been volcanic activity on Madeira for around 400,000 years - the last activity was responsible for creating the Sao Vicent caves to the north. The highest point on Madeira is in the centre of the island at Pico Ruivo de Santa and reaches 1862m. To the west up from Ribeira Brava is the steep sided ravine and mountain pass through Encumeada.
Like the Canaries again, when Madeira was discovered by the first Portuguese landing here it was carpeted in thick woodland and vegetation. The settlers set about felling much of it, but some of the distinctive laurissilva/laurel forests dating from the Tertiary period still remain here. These are special indeed, as they survived the Ice Age. The remaining 15,000 or so hectares of Laurisilva forest on Madeira now has UNESCO World Natural Heritage Status and is protected (see Madeira Natural Park weblink right for details).
On the south coast at Cabo Girao (just to the west of Funchal) Madeira lays claim to the second highest cliff in the world which stands at 580m and is a spectacular sight. With such a landscape, Madeira is a popular destination for both walking and birdwatching holidays. The island sits off the main migrating bird route, but there's plenty of homegrowns including Cory's shearwater, grey herons, rock doves, swifts, kestrels and buzzards (watch out for these around the cliffs of Cabo Girao), plus the off shore Desertas and Selvagen Islands are protected bird sanctuaries. Walking holidays on Madeira couldn't be better. As well as the rugged inland terrain and trails, you have the Levadas - Madeira's distinctive narrow watercourses which channel the abundant rainfall from the north to the dryer south of the island. Walking is popular along the Levadas routes! A bit like Canal towpath walking with an elevated twist!
Funchal's delightful centre is compact and largely pedestrianised, making it a pleasure to stroll around. The seafront is lined with a promenade dotted with restaurants, cafes and bars (great place to chill this with views out to sea!).
Another highlight in Funchal is its bustling Marcado dos Lavradores towards the eastern fort end of Funchal centre. Fridays is big market day, but its alive most days, especially weekends. Funchal town centre has a historic cathedral and adjacent convent, various English connections via an English church and some excellent museums, notably the Sugar Museum. Although compact, the centre can get quite hilly in places - particularly upto Santa Clara convent! Funchal Centre Tourism Office, Arriaga Avenue. Open 9am to 8pm, Monday to Friday and from 9am to 6pm weekends and public holidays. Tel: (351) 291 211 902.
The North Madeira landscape is dramatic indeed, both on the rocky jagged coast where swimming options tend to be naturally formed lido pools at Porto Moniz or wild surfing off the pebble beach at Sao Vicente. Inland North Madeira is dramatic walking territory, with ancient laurissilva forests mingling with some of Madeira's highest peaks. A visit to the fascintating volcanically formed caves at Sao Vicente is unmissible. Madeira's north coastal road is demanding driving indeed, but well worth the effort for the dramatic coastal scenery here.
Increasingly too there's a good choice of family holiday entertainment including the popular Madeira Theme Park at Santana with its 4 multimedia pavilions and how about that natural lido at Porto Moniz and the cable car over to Achadas da Cruz. Walkers will be in their element, basing themselves either at Santana or Sao Roque do Faial, for easy access to trails and levada walks inland, and to dramatic volcanically formed peaks. Get ready to be wowed up north on Madeira, as most of the ancient Laurissilva forests are to the north in Madeira Nature park.
The Eastern Madeira coastal stretch contains the hub of Madeira's resorts - particularly the Canico area, as well as some important Madeira historic towns such as Machico, Madeira's second largest town and site of the first settler landing in the 15th century.
The east coast of Madeira is particularly popular with German holidaymakers - the Germans began developing the area a while ago, so you can expect plenty of good resort facilities around Canico and the Garajau maritime natural park. Diving and scuba diving is popular in the crystal clear waters of Garajau martitime national park.
Madeira's dramatic west coast is beginning to open up, thanks to the relatively new duel carriageway from Madeira Airport. This road now runs all the way to prety Ribeira Brava, cutting through the mountains, reducing the drive from Funchal to Ribeira Brava to a mere 15 minutes. Once at Ribeira Brava, driving inland takes you up through the river valley to the striking Encumeada pass, over the tops and down to Sao Vicente on the north Madeira coast.
From Ribeira Brava, now popular haunt for coach trip excursions, you can push further west along the coast road to chic Ponta do Sol, then on to the pretty beach resort of Calheta. Further up along the coast sits Madeira's main surfing hotspot Paul do Mar.