Located 575 mi/925 km southwest of Portugal's mainland, in the Atlantic, lies the Archipelago of Madeira. The Portuguese claimed these islands in 1420 and have maintained possession ever since. Columbus visited many times and married Filipa Moniz, daughter of the governor of Porto Santo (one of the two inhabited islands).

The largest island is Madeira, where you should plan to spend five nights. Handsome and immaculate, Madeira has many historical sites but only a few fairly small beaches. The primary attractions are scenic nature walks along the levadas (irrigation channels) in the island's interior and the local vineyards, which produce the fortified wine of the same name.

The Laurisilva is an incredible old-growth laurel forest that is home to a diverse population of plants and animals, including the Madeiran long-toed pigeon. You'll also find excellent deep-sea fishing, a casino, beautiful flowers and gardens, and shops selling embroidery and lace.

Visit the capital, Funchal, where most of the hotels are, and where shops sell the colorful local attire. Also see Funchal's cathedral and botanical gardens (with a wide variety of tropical flora). The entire city can be seen in about two hours, but there's enough to do to fill a whole day.

Head to the marina to choose from a dizzying array of boat trips, diving and snorkeling tours and other water-related activities, or simply enjoy the view from one of the many cafes.

After you've toured Funchal, take the cable car to Monte (a 15-minute ride) for a lovely view of the island. Other interesting places on Madeira include Camara de Lobos, an absolutely beautiful fishing village, and Cabo Girao, which locals claim to be the world's second-highest sea cliff (the highest is on the island of Molokai in Hawaii).

Santana is home to the curious triangular-roofed houses that feature on many postcards, although there's little other reason to linger there unless the nearby theme park appeals. Further west along the northern coast is Sao Vicente, a pretty little village backed by verdant slopes where it's possible to explore the inside of a volcano at the Volcanic Interpretation Center.

The Atlantic Festival is held every year in June on Madeira. It is one of Europe's most celebrated and internationally recognized fireworks competitions.

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