Madeira, Portugal: The Garden of the Atlantic

“We have arrived at Skull Island,” I kept thinking.

Yes, I’m talking about the one from the King Kong movies. A wild, impossibly rugged, isolated place, where the lasting mist clings to the tops of deep green mountains whose roots lie well below the waves.


It all starts with the landing in the capital city of Funchal, which is more like bungee jumping than air travel. When you see mountain peaks above the airplane while you’re still in the air, you know you’re in a unique place.

It’s considered one of the most difficult landings in the world for good reason. With wind sweeping up from the sea, clouds swooping down from the mountains, and a runway built on stilts out over the ocean, the pilots who navigate this island must endure special training.

Out pilot did a great job, and those on board who understood the difficulty applauded at touch down. Appropriately.

The airport in Funchal is built on the side of a mountain, with six levels, almost like a terraced field. “Walk outside the airport and take the elevator to -4 to pick up your car,” the nice gentleman at Avis explained.

We were staying on the northern side of the island in the town of Arco de São Jorge, about a 45-minute drive from the capital of Funchal. After spending a wonderful week in the Azores with our dive buddies, I thought we could do with some solitude and quiet time to reflect and write.


Much like the landing at the airport, the drive was jaw-dropping. Hairpin turns through sleepy mountain towns. Narrow tunnels giving way to seaside cliffs or surprise waterfalls, with blue and purple and white flowers lining it all like a coronation ceremony.




Hydrangeas, agapanthus, and bougainvillea. Just like in the Azores, but overgrown and wild. Our car the only thing beating back the blooms to keep them from reclaiming the road.

Like everything on the island, our Airbnb was built on the side of a cliff, with nothing between us and the crashing sea but a white stucco wall and a steeply-sloped vineyard.


It was perfect. We spent the days drinking Madeiran wine, exploring trails to the sea, listening to the night birds, and walking among the flowers.





Who knew Skull Island was, in fact, a real paradise on earth? And its true name is Madeira, the Garden of the Atlantic.