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The Wooded Islands

Madeira Islands, Portugal

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Portuguese is one of the stranger European languages, featuring ‘o’s that sound like ‘n’s and arguably more than its fair share of accents, dots and squiggles. But this language can be found all over the world: most notably in Brazil, but also in places as far-flung as India. This is because Portugal was once one of the great sea-faring nations of Europe, sending its navies and its traders all over the world in search of fresh sources of revenue.

On of the longest-standing of all of Portugal’s colonies is Madeira, or – to use the more correct name – the Madeira Islands. This small group of islands lies in the Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of North Africa, and to the north of the Spanish Canary Islands.

The name ‘Madeira’ means ‘forested’ – because when the Portuguese first turned up that’s exactly what the islands were. In fact, they were so covered in trees that major clearance had to take place before they were viable places to live. Most of the trees on island are of the laurisilva variety – tall, slim, and elegant, these titans of the forest can grow up to hundred twenty feet high. Owing to deforestation over the years there are far fewer laurisilva than there used to be, but they’re still there, in protected pockets.

Madeira is one of the most popular of European cruise destinations (the islands are politically part of Europe, even if they’re geologically part of Africa). Every year tourist vessels make trip from Spain or Portugal, via Madeira, down to the Canaries and back again, maybe taking in an African port like Casablanca on the way.

If you’re stopping off on Madeira Island for a few days, you might want to enjoy some of the island’s spectacular scenery. Madeira itself is very mountainous, and there are many paths and trails through the rocky landscape that you can wander along quite freely. The most famous of these are the levadas. These were constructed, originally, as aqueducts to take water from springs, through the mountains, to more arid parts of the island. They worm their way through tunnels, down valleys and, in many cases, along precipitous ledges. Unless you’re a very experienced hiker and you happen to have brought all your gear along with you – including a head torch for the tunnels – it’s a good idea to sign up for one of the regular guided expeditions that run along the levada routes. It’s important that you’re fit and you have a good head for heights – though if you do fit these criteria, you’ll find that hiking the levadas is one of the hikes of a lifetime!

For those who enjoy more sedentary activity while disembarked form their ship, there’s a great deal to do on Madeira Island. If you happen to be on the island in September, you can attend the Columbus Festival. The Portuguese are very proud of Christopher Columbus’ roots in their country, and the locals on Madeira are even more proud of the fact that their island was a major base and stopping-off point for Portuguese ships plying the exploration routes to the New World. Columbus’ achievements are celebrated during the festival by a series of special events, expeditions and parades. You can even see full-size replicas of Columbus’ caravels cutting through Madeira’s coastal waters, as if the navigators of old had just returned home from a particularly long and arduous expedition. Columbus actually lived for several years on the island of Porto Santo, the nearest neighbor of Madeira Island in the Madeira group.

One of the great things about Madeira is its climate, which is pleasant, moderate and entirely predictable. During the summer, temperatures rarely rise into the eighties, but during the winter they never drop below the high sixties. That makes the archipelago one of the best places in the world for golfers, who can always be assured of an even climate for a game. There are three courses, two on Madeira Island and one on Porto Santo. For cruisers who don’t wish to heave all their golfing gear with them, it can be hired at all three courses.

Local cuisine is heavily influenced by both Portuguese national cooking and by nearby North Africa. If you can, visit one of the smaller restaurants or cafés on Madeira Island for some excellent seafood or couscous, or, if you feel like something a little lighter, the excellent tapas that is served in many bars for the benefit of Spanish tourists.

If you’re cruising in Madeira, you’re probably on your way somewhere else or on your way back to mainland Europe. But don’t underestimate the charms of this group of islands – Madeira has the best of Europe and the best of Africa, with just a splash of the New World thrown in for good measure!

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