Getting Oriented in Madeira

Madeira is a subtropical island 900 km (558 miles) southwest of Lisbon—at roughly the same latitude as Casablanca. In the middle of the isle is a backbone of high, rocky peaks. Steep ravines fan out from the center like spokes of a wheel. Although Madeira is only 57 km (35 miles) long and 22 km (14 miles) wide, distances seem much greater, as the roads climb and descend precipitously from one ravine to the next. In the same island group are tiny Porto Santo, about 50 km (31 miles) northeast, which has a sandy beach popular with vacationers and its 5,000 inhabitants; the Ilhas Desertas, a chain of waterless, unpopulated islands 20 km (12 miles) southeast of Madeira; and the also-uninhabited Ilhas Selvagens, much farther south, near Spain's Canary Islands.

Funchal. Known as Little Lisbon, this is the island’s only real town, a charming Atlantic port set in a natural amphitheatre, where you'll find the island’s best hotels, restaurants, and nightlife.

Side Trips from Funchal. There are some sumptuous gardens a short bus ride from Funchal, while historic Monte, with its holy church and famous toboggan run, can be reached via cable car. Accessible by ferry or plane, the island of Porto Santo is a must for beachgoers.

Western Madeira. Madeira's west coast claims some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe at Cabo Girão as well as small resorts such as Porto Moniz, with its unusual volcanic sea pools, and Calheta, with its own sandy beach and the appealing Casa das Mudas museum.

Central Peaks and Santana. The Central Peaks show another face of the island, an exhilarating mountain-scape of jagged rocks often above the cloud line. Santana is home to the distinctive triangular houses, close to a craggy north coastline gauged by waterfalls, and Machico and Caniçal are historic coastal towns worth a visit for their beaches and the latter’s whaling museum.

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