When one thinks of European islands—if one thinks of European islands—it's usually those famous ones floating in the Mediterranean like Sicily, Malta or maybe Ibiza. Ask someone to name a European island in the Atlantic and many Americans will be hard-pressed to think of any. A recent trip took me to the Canary Islands and Madeira and I was amazed at everything about these little secret islands.
Are they really secret? Not for long. Madeira was named the best island in Europe in 2014 for the second time in a row. Europeans have been using it as a getaway for years and it's just started creeping onto the American tourist radar. The weather is one of the biggest assets of the island. There are no extremes; almost every day feels perfect. It rains just enough to keep everything green and growing there. English is widely spoken in spite of the fact that it's a Portuguese territory.
One of the oddest attractions on the island is the Madeira wicker basket ride. Your first impression might be that this bizarre transport has been dreamed up to attract tourists. The truth is that the experience is over 100 years old. Two Madeiran drivers with boater hats that vaguely resemble the gondoliers of Venice, push you down a steep road on a giant wicker chair made for two. There are no wheels on the basket. The wooden rails are almost friction-less with the steep road and the next thing you know, you're barreling down a mountain with no one steering except for your Madeiran wicker-men who just sort of the kick the road at an angle like human rudders. To start your crazy basket ride, you have to get to the small town of Monte. It's at the top of a mountain, as the name implies and can be reached by car or cable car. Either way offers fantastic views of the capital city, Funchal. There's a beautiful botanical garden at the top, but everything grows so well everywhere on the island—including chestnuts—that it's almost a waste of money.
About that: Madeirans love chestnuts. I must admit I've never been a fan of this particular nut, but the island elevates them to a whole different level, and it was here that I became a converted fan. The natives have perfected the preparation of chestnut bread, soup, liqueurs, pastas and created a myriad of unique uses for this ubiquitous nut. The liqueur has an odd taste, but don't let that worry you. The Madeirans make liqueur from almost anything that grows on the island. One can spend half an hour trying various flavors and concoctions at one of hundreds of liqueur tasting stands around the island. Have you ever tried eucalyptus liqueur? Passionfruit or soursop? There's even a liqueur made from beer! The Madeira wine is world famous as well and there are plenty of stops where proprietors are anxious to give you taste after taste in hopes that you'll take home a few cases.
Madeira is a very mountainous island and most visitors head to the middle of the island for the breathtaking views, hiking and fresh air. Since there is no winter and no hot months on the island, the vegetation is bursting in vibrant colors year round. Its flora and fauna are so unique that they're listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Center. This endemic type of forest, known as a laurisilva is mainly found in the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands and features plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet. Many travelers hike from the main port of Funchal, but most areas are accessible by car or cable car. The Madeira Islands were settled by the Portuguese in the late 15th century, around the same time Columbus was making his voyage to the new world. In spite of 500 years of visitors and lately, increasing tourism , the islands seem to have maintained their pristine forests and have avoided the tourist footprint that befalls many other ports in Europe.
Looking for a place to spend New Year's Eve? This year I decided to spend mine in Ibiza on the Mediterranean side of Spain. I mistakenly assumed that Ibiza's reputation as the nightclub capital of the world would carry over for epic New Year's Eve revelry. The truth is that once the summer season is over, Ibicencos shut their doors, board up the nightclubs, and head elsewhere. Madeira is one of these places. With its perfect winter climate, and a harbor with stunning views, this tiny island shattered records for the world's largest fireworks show in 2006 and continues to amaze travelers who visit the island just to see this magnificent display.
There are many more reasons to visit Madeira, and though I crammed as much as I could into a day, when the ship set sail I found myself wanting to come back and spend a lot more time in this amazing archipelago. I'm a jaded traveler who is easily bored with mediocre destinations, but there is nothing mediocre about Madeira. It truly is a modern-day Garden of Eden and you too might find yourself never wanting to leave.