The last European port of call on our cruise from Barcelona to Miami was the Portuguese island of Madeira. Madeira is a collection of volcanic islands at the same latitude as Casablanca; Morocco is closer to Madeira than Portugal. Madeira is not very big; it’s smaller than Kauai.

We had for a while been curious about Madeira. A couple years after we moved from Hawaii to France, the novelty of gray cold winters wore off. During the pandemic, we asked ourselves where might we go in the dead of winter where we could soak in some warmth and sun — without leaving the European Union. If we had a health issue, our European coverage would apply, and it would be relatively easy to get back home to recuperate. One of the answers to that question was, in the abstract, Madeira.

Now we had the chance to see for ourselves.

When we awoke before dawn of our arrival day, the capital city of Funchal spread out right in front of us. It looked a bit like Honolulu, but that was probably just our imagination. But during the course of our one day in Madeira, mostly on a bus tour of the western part of the main island, we kept recognizing Hawaii all the way over here in the eastern Atlantic.

It turns out, we’re not the only ones. Quickly we found online references such as Things to do in Madeira – Europe’s Hidden HawaiiThis European Island Is Like Hawaii Without the Tourists, and Discover Madeira, The Hawai‘i of Europe. The common theme is that Madeira is a relatively undiscovered Hawaii-like destination for Europeans — less expensive, closer and not as crowded.

But there are more significant connections between Hawaii and Madeira:

In the 1800s, a fungal blight wasted Madeira’s vineyards, devastating livelihoods and leading to widespread famine. William Hillebrand, the renowned botanist who had moved to Madeira Island from O‘ahu, suggested that suffering islanders find work in Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations and helped broker their immigration. Ships sailed between the two island chains from 1878 to 1911, delivering around 16,000 Portuguese men, women, and children to the Pacific. Most came from Madeira or the Azores, another archipelago 600 miles north of Madeira; a few families came from Northern Portugal.

To Hawai‘i’s cultural melting pot, the Portuguese contributed sweet bread, malasadas, and bean stew, but the most enduring gift was the ‘ukulele. The toy-sized Hawaiian guitar is a derivation of two Madeiran instruments: the mâchete and the rajão. While most Hawai‘i residents vaguely know that the ‘ukulele originated in Portugal, few Madeirans remember their claim to the ‘ukulele’s fame.

Pico do Arieiro [third highest peak of Madeira] is home to several endemic species, including a short-eared owl, a ground-nesting petrel, and multiple flightless insects. The summits of Haleakalā on Maui and Maunakea on Hawai‘i Island have Hawaiian versions of these creatures: the pueo, ‘ua‘u, and wēkiu bug. Even more uncanny? Madeira and Hawai‘i each claim just two native mammals, a bat and a monk seal. Madeirans call their seal lobo marinho, meaning sea-wolf, while Hawaiians named theirs ‘īlioholoikauaua, meaning the dog that runs in rough seas. (source)

The landscape and vegetation struck us first. Hotspot volcanism started forming what has become Madeira about 100 million years ago. Hotspot volcanism is the same process that formed and continues to form the Hawaiian Islands. However, Kauai, for example, started forming only 10 million years ago. 

You’d think that Madeira’s volcanoes would have been eroded down to smooth hills, but no! The landscape is mostly deep valleys, steep mountain sides, and sheer cliffs. It’s like the entire island is made up of Kalalau and Waipi’o Valleys.

Except that most of the steep slopes on the south side of the island have been terraced, and now are covered with houses and seemingly endless banana fields. The fields of bananas look like they’ve invaded and taken over the landscape. In fact, they were first introduced to Madeira from China in the mid-sixteenth century.

Bananas! That was a surprise. But it turns out that Madeira bananas are famous. We wondered why we’d never seen them in our French markets. They used to be exported to much of Europe. But in 1994, the European Union developed a quality standard for bananas, and the Madeira bananas are too short. Nonetheless, they are exported to mainland Portugal where they are a favorite. The bananas, after tourism, are the second largest source of income for Madeira.

While we saw lots of banana plants, we also saw sugar cane, hibiscus, guava, orchids and anthuriums. Looking and feeling pretty tropical. Some spots looked like mountainsides of Oahu or Kauai. 

But we also saw temperate-region plants as well, including citrus, and Mediterranean-region plants from around our house in France. Just like Hawaii, the geography and position of the island — with deep valleys, elevation variations, prevailing winds, windward and leeward ecosystems, and moderating ocean influences — creates a big range of microclimates. 

So you can enjoy both local mangos and bananas, and grapes and figs for your Madeira breakfast.

A market in the town of Ribeira Brava

We kept having flashes of feeling like we were in some part of Hawaii that somehow we’d missed until now. But there was something important missing: Where were the pre-European indigenous peoples and artifacts and stories? Alas, there aren’t any. When the first known Portuguese explorer happened upon Madeira, in the early 15th century, there had never been indigenous people. The Portuguese found temperate mountainous islands covered in laurel forest. Which they promptly started burning down. Here are some of the details:

In 1419, Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco, under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the navigator, set sail en route for African Guinea and was thrown off course by a violent storm. The result of being blown off course was the discovery of a small island that was named Porto Santo “Holy Port” as is was this island that provided these navigators with shelter during the harsh weather.

A year later, a neighbouring island was discovered and was given the name Madeira Island, which means “wood”. Colonization began in 1420 and the first settlers consisted of families from the Algarve [a region in southern Portugal] and prisoners. Along with two other men, Tristão Vaz Teixceira and Bartolomeu Perestrelo, João Gonçalves Zarco was responsible of colonizing the archipelago of Madeira….

It took nearly seven years to burn down the dense forest to clear the land to begin cultivation. The first agricultural adventure was the raising of wheat which was then followed by sugarcane production. Due to increasing soil depletion and increased completion from the other colonies (Brazil and the Caribbean) the sugarcane trade became no longer profitable and with that other products began to surge into the market, one of them being the popular Madeira wine, which is known and adored worldwide. Today it is still one of Madeira’s most significant products, although sugarcane is still cultivated today. (source)

Funchal at the end of the day

So, is Madeira the Hawaii of the Atlantic? Superficially perhaps. The landscape and climate are wonderful. It’s easy to be a tourist there. But its cultural heritage is very different. The Portuguese part is fascinating and tasty. But it seems empty without an indigenous culture. Nice place to visit, but…

…without our best Hawai’i friends, it’s just a nice green island.

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