Island getaways are your best bet at getting those laid-back European summer vibes you so desperately crave, but there are so many beautiful offshore retreats to pick from you may be having a hard time narrowing down your options.
You may also be feeling as if jetting off to the Mediterranean is a logical decision. After all, it is Europe’s number one sunny getaway and the only spot where the waters are warm and pleasant enough to swim… right?
Well, you might want to reconsider after reading what’s coming next.
Instead of joining the Instagrammer hordes swarming the narrow streets in Santorini and Capri, why not head instead to an unknown, equally beautiful Atlantic island that not only receives fewer guests from America but also hosts nonstop flights from the U.S.?
Portugal’s Atlantic Jewel
Madeira is both an archipelago and an autonomous community located off the mainland of Western Africa, though it is not a sovereign state.
Believe it or not, it is a part of Portugal, having been settled by Portuguese colonizers as early as the 15th century, and remaining a Portuguese, and to a wider extent, a European outpost in the African continent in the centuries that followed.
With a population of over 250,000 inhabitants, a majority of which live on the main island of Madeira (though small settlements can be found in Porto Santo), the archipelago sits 250 miles north of Spain’s Canary Islands and 320 miles west of the Moroccan coast.
Though it is not as popular among American tourists as the trendy Lisbon or Porto, it is served by nonstop Transatlantic flights.
Madeira is easy to get to, and it’s a short long-haul away, but why is it worth visiting to begin with?
What Makes Madeira So Unique?
A year-round resort destination, it is renowned for its pre-historic laurel forest, considered by UNESCO a World Heritage Site, unruffled Atlantic beaches not-yet-spoiled by the over-development that’s plagued much of the Mediterranean in recent years, wine-making, and ‘slow’ life.
Unlike the Portuguese mainland, especially cities like Lisbon, the capital, and the Northern port of Porto, you are unlikely to find towering skyscrapers, a huge amount of traffic, or mass tourism in Madeira.
An Adorable Small Capital
Funchal, the small capital, home to almost half of the archipelago’s population, was founded in 1424, and it boasts all the attributes you would expect a Portuguese settlement dating back to the early 15th century to have.
Its historic district is famous for its pedestrian-friendly praças bounded by whitewashed civic buildings, Europe’s traditional cobbled streets, incredibly well-preserved Late Medieval landmarks, such as the virtually-intact Cathedral of Funchal, and charming padarias where Madeirense variations of Portugal’s most famous export, pastel de nata, can be appreciated.
Madeira Is Full Of Contrasts
Funchal’s true charm lies, however, in its contrasts.
Only a few meters away from the quaint Old Town, walking along the marine garden-lined sea promenade, you will find Lido, a bustling resort zone where all of the luxurious tourist accommodations and five-star properties are centered.
Named after the Lido Complex, a bathing pool offering a sweeping view of the Atlantic, it is the preferred home base in Madeira for wellness seekers, and believe it or not, hotel rates are not as expensive as you’d imagine them to be.
Affordable Hotels… Or Luxurious All-Inclusives
Overnights at the Hotel Alto Lido, a three-star listing on Booking.com, will cost you only US$154 this August when booked in advance, while the cheaper Estrelicia Hotel will set you back by a mere US$95 per night for a double room with breakfast included.
You can, of course, live it up in an all-inclusive resort for as much as US$533 per night – check out the beachfront VidaMar Resort – or even go all out and rent an ultra-luxurious holiday home with 3 bedrooms, a stone’s throw away from the Atlantic promenade, for US$2,667 a night.
Whether you’re going for more comfort or merely a cozy place to sleep in the evenings and explore during the day, Madeira is perfect for every budget.
It’s Always Warmer In Madeira
Madeira is a year-round destination, as it sits on the African tectonic plate, closer to the tropics, as opposed to sharing Europe’s geographical features, the climate is much more temperate than the Mediterranean South, which can experience chilly winters and unbearably hot summers.
Temperatures rarely drop below 15 degrees over winter, making it a popular winter getaway for mainland Europeans, while you should expect pleasant highs of 30 in summer, warm enough to sit out in the sun without eating your gelado in a rush before it melts, or sweating profusely.
Outside Funchal, Madeira is renowned for its natural beauty, offering guests miles and miles of golden sands, lapped by the azure Atlantic, scenic coastal drives, hiking spots, and other-worldly sea grottoes.
As the island is not that big, at only 801 km² – it is much smaller than Spain’s Tenerife – it can be explored extensively over a single week and at a slower pace, though you should probably rent a car if getting to those lesser-known beaches and majestic inland waterfalls is on your bucket list.
Visiting other islands in the archipelago during your stay is also possible, as regular ferry service links Madeira (the main island) to Porto Santos, where other 5,000 or so Madeirenses live, as well as the stunning, uninhabited Ilhas Desertas (Portuguese for Deserted Islands), inhabited by seals and other wildlife.
Naturally, as it is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is just as famous for its seafood. It can be best enjoyed in a Funchal traditional restaurant, as well as during the city’s yearly Seafood Festival, which normally takes place in late Spring.
Nonstop Flights From JFK
Azores Airlines, the main carrier in the Portuguese autonomous communities of Madeira and Azores, carry passengers from New York (JFK) to Madeira Airport, serving the city of Funchal (FNC) year-round, without unnecessary long layovers in mainland Portugal.
Madeira-bound flights can be as cheap as US$446.20 one-way, and they run once per week every Monday, departing JFK at 20:55, and landing in Funchal at 9:00 on the following day.
Returning to New York, flights leave Funchal every Tuesday at 16:00 and arrive at JFK at 18:50, local time, on the same calendar date, for a total flight duration of 7:50.
Madeira is truly a hidden gem of the North Atlantic, and it’s only a matter of time until it reaches new peaks of popularity among American travelers.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com