Madeira is an island gem blooming with natural appeal. Nicknamed the Pearl of the Atlantic, this lush, rugged isle sitting more than 350 miles west of Morocco is closer to Africa than to its mother country Portugal.

Discovered by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century, it flourished as a trading post, but cruise ships have now replaced the stately galleons that called here on their forays to and from the New World.

For years, Madeira was the darling of older travellers who adored its bucolic charms as the flower basket of Europe, with an abundance of colourful blooms that culminated in the springtime spectacle of its annual flower festival. But more recently, the island has reinvented itself as a haven for younger tourists thanks to famous son, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, who was born here, and a growing reputation for soft adventure due to its rugged topography that has made it hiking heaven.

Volcanic coastal cliffs on the coast of Madeira in Portugal

A waterfall in a forest in Madeira in PortugalAway from the capital Funchal, the untamed terrain bears testament to Madeira’s volcanic birth with dramatic sheer cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and the forested slopes of extinct volcanoes.

Intrepid types can follow a network of levadas, irrigation canals originally hewn by slaves to transport water from the mountains, which are now walking trails. Alternatively, off-road tours provide a more adventurous way to venture off the beaten track through lush valleys and across precipitous slopes.

The coastline is equally rocky and famous for the sheer cliffs at Cabo Girao, which are among the highest in Europe, while offshore, Atlantic currents provide prime whale and dolphin-spotting territory.

Pink flowers against a colourful red and yellow wall in Funchal in Madeira

Pretty Funchal is Madeira’s atmospheric hub, its old town a maze of narrow streets from where visitors can ride in the famous wicker baskets that have become a tourist symbol of this island.

Guided by straw-hatted tobogganers who deftly balance alongside on the runners, using ropes and their bodyweight to steer and brake, it’s a novel and fun experience that is typically Madeiran.

Top tip

Indulge in a local tradition and take afternoon tea at historic Reid’s Hotel, which sits on a headland overlooking the Bay of Funchal, serving up wonderful views alongside your afternoon infusions.

Sara Macefield
Sara Macefield is an award-winning travel journalist of more than 20 years standing, and has spent the last decade writing about the cruise industry – exploring the world's oceans and rivers on ships of all sizes. Having notched up more than 100 cruises, her most memorable trips have been to Alaska with its superb wildlife, and sailing along Burma’s remote Chindwin River to villages far off the tourist track. She writes regularly for The Times and Daily Telegraph and has written for the Daily Mail, The Guardian, Daily Express and Woman & Home Magazine.

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