A Portuguese Paradise


As you survey the deep blue Atlantic that surrounds Madeira and gaze over volcanic peaks with the scent of orchids in the air, you may feel like you’ve discovered a lost paradise.

Nearly 600 years ago, Portuguese explorers probably felt the same way when they stumbled upon the uninhabited island. There were no humans on these virgin shores — just lush green valleys thick with riotous pink blooms, waves crashing on blackened cliffs and hundreds of colorful birds. Is it any wonder those sun-struck sailors were inspired to pursue the Age of Discovery?

Closer to Africa than to Europe, of which it forms an outlying part, Madeira is both an autonomous Portuguese region and the main island in an archipelago. And it’s a perfect destination for springtime: once the Carnaval season is over, prices drop as the days grow longer.

Roughly three times the size of Martha’s Vineyard, Madeira has lately upgraded its tourist infrastructure for sun-seeking Europeans, with a crop of new boutique hotels, infinity pools and sceney discotecas for the young crowd. But much of the area is as peaceful and unspoiled as it must have been for the first Portuguese.

Madeira is ideal for nature lovers, side-trippers from Iberia — the flight from Lisbon is about 90 minutes — and people seeking cool cred for a little-known destination (at least among Americans; Madeira has long been beloved by the British retiree set). Soccer fans will be interested to learn that this is the home of Cristiano Ronaldo, the star striker for Real Madrid.

Like the nearby Spanish Canaries, Madeira’s birds of paradise and blazing African sunshine are balm for the wintertime blues. Year-round temperatures vary little from a spring-like 65-ish norm, thanks to steep, jagged mountains and cool Atlantic currents.

You might expect that beaches to be the main draw, especially given the relative lack of cultural offerings. In fact, apart from a few rocky coves, Madeira Island has no natural beaches to speak of; vacationers have long made do with swimming pools and views of the surf.

But the island next door, Porto Santo, has almost nothing but beaches, with miles and miles of glorious white sand. From Madeira Island, Porto Santo is a scenic two-hour ferry ride away.

Madeira is bewitching enough that many spend their whole vacations on the big island, sipping the sweet, strong wine of the same name. UNESCO recently designated a large swath of its natural park preserves a World Natural Heritage site, so it's no surprise that one of the most popular activities is simply hiking the extensive paths through this exotic terrrain.

Many choose to do this on a guided tour or a trek known as a levada, easily arranged through the local tourism office (visitmadeira.pt has excellent information). That's partly because the winding, tunneled roadways can be dicey for novice drivers, and partly because the trails can take you into remote areas. For many, this very remoteness is the essence of otherworldly Madeira: plunging waterfalls thread among the jagged green mountains of interior Madeira, where wisps of clouds hang over the peaks and valleys.

Funchal, the colonial capital, has the visual splendor of San Francisco crossed with Rio de Janeiro, with pastel buildings spread like frosting across the hilly green landscape.

This tranquil town was once home to a sizable community of Sephardic Jews. Many traced their roots to Iberia via North Africa, and not a few were so-called 'conversos' or 'New Christians,' sometimes identifiable by Semitic surnames.

Little remains of this onetime presence except the ruins of a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery, with structures still visible along the treacherous Funchal seawall at Rua do Lazareto. But in recent years, more and more Madeirans are becoming interested in their complex Sephardic legacy; there's an increasing awareness of how widespread this hidden heritage really is.

With no indigenous culture, and a slow economic decline after sugar production moved elsewhere, Madeira has long had a deficiency of cultural fare for the sun-wary — a problem alleviated by the recent opening of the Casa Das Mudas Art Center.

An easy 20-minute drive out of Funchal, Casa Das Mudas would be a destination even if there weren’t anything inside (which is a sad reality of many new museums, long on sexy rooflines and short on worthwhile art). The building’s striking geometric lines, rendered in earthen-hued stone and wood, virtually cantilever over a dramatic cliffside, with distracting ocean views from the floor-to-ceiling gallery windows.

From time to time, exhibitions inside may even rival the location’s aesthetics, due to growing collaborations with mainland Portugal. A Prado it will never be. But for an island whose previously most-heralded museum was a glorified furniture collection (the Museu Quinta das Cruzas, onetime mansion of Portugal’s colonial discoverer) — and whose only four-star sight remains the deservedly popular Botanical Gardens — the advent of a serious art initiative is good news indeed.