If you are not familiar with Madeira, it is a Portuguese island sitting in the Atlantic Ocean between Portugal and Morocco. It is an archipelago in region known as Macaronesia (group of volcanic islands: Azores, Madeira, Canary Island and Tenerife and Cabo Verde).
History by Greeks claims this might be Atlantida. Plutarch writes the impressions of founding the island covered by the trees from the high mountains and down to the ocean.
Vikings were there as well – as the archeologists have found some archeological artifacts from 10th century. But oficially, Madeira was discovered by Portuguese in 15th century and inhabited by Portuguese people from mainland, which built their own distinctive culture.
Madeira island is home to several endemic plant and animal species. In the south, there is very little left of the indigenous subtropical rainforest that once covered the whole island (the original settlers set fire to the island to clear the land for farming) and gave it the name it now bears (Madeira means “wood” in Portuguese).
Landing to Madeira is not an easy task for pilots. It is the shortest airport runway of Europe with occasional winds from west. The airport is called by local football player happens to be one of the greatest in the world: Christiano Ronaldo. I will come back to this topic a bit later.
First impressions of Madeira: lots of flowers. These typical flowers that we all buy in store and pay good money to keep them alive in our houses, here are growing like crazy, all over the places: parks, restaurants, terraces, atriums, sidewalks… As the climate is hot and humid, but never too hot – around 20 – 25 degrees, I felt this is the true Paradise on Earth. I have seen similar flora and fauna at the Canary Islands – geographically located just 300 miles to the south, but it was more dry and nothing like Madeira!
Madeira is still relatively untouched, with wild eucalyptus forests, picturesque villages, and breathtaking views. Anywhere we went around the island, we got rewarded with dramatic vistas stretching as far as the horizon.
And to add to the impressions list:| we were not bothered by the locals. Usually when travelling, I meet locals who want to take advantage of tourists, harassing me to buy their products, trying to scam or divert my route. Madeira locals, on the contrary were making our life easy and our vacation calm enough and without stress.
The main city of Madeira island is called Funchal. My accommodation was just a bit outside in the place called Lido – loads of hotels and restaurants, with a 20 min walk to city center. Visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Portuguese: Sé Catedral de Nossa Senhora da Assunção) and stroll down the riviera to enjoy the good view.
Inevitable is the Farmers Market (Mercado dos Lavradores), situated in the Old Town of Funchal. It is an iconic building from 1940, with so many tropical fruits: avocados, passion fruit, mango, dragon fruit etc.
Funchal is very up and down place. In the times of great humid and heat, make sure you are having lots of water next to yourself. You never know what street you will have to climb. And become red… 🙂
To climb the upper part of Funchal – where the climate is again something else – less dry, more wind – you can take the Teleferico – a cable car. It is worth a visit!
Once you are up, you can visit Jardim Botanico. We continued our way towards the Habsburgs church. Namely, Habsburgs liked to come here too. They would reside at Reid’s Palace Hotel in Funchal, actually a bit closer to Lido (nowadays touristy part of Funchal). Empress Sissi adored to come – she payed her visit 3 times at least. I found her statue not far away from the Reid’s Palace. Her grandnephew Karl l exiled here with his wife Zita after the fall of Habsburg Empire during the World War One. He is buried in the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte. It took us some time to climb through the semi forest and flowered paths – but as always, it is worth it. Plus you get a beautiful view on Funchal!
To stroll down is even easier – just continue imagining the courtesy of the royals! Take the Monte Toboggan Rides or “carros de cesto.” The “Carreiros do Monte” appeared in the middle of the 19th century as an alternative and fast means of transportation of people and goods, from Monte to Funchal. It is believed that the wealthy owners of some Quintas (local Manor Houses) in Monte were the first to use this form of transport. With the growth of tourism at the end of the 19th century, these wicker basket cars became very popular among visitors. Today it is one of the highlights in Madeira.
North East side
It was a one day trip with the safari jeep. The driver and the tour guide took the steepest streets of Funchal and continued through the steepest landscapes above. As we were riding through the forest, admiring the greenery, slowly the green landscape of forest became small bushes with light green and yellow.
That moment when you spot the clouds below your level was amazing. Looking at the horizon and not knowing when the ocean stops and sky begins… So we arrived to Pico de Arieiro. It is the third highest peak (1820 m) on Madeira Island and is one of the most popular sunrise spots. It gathers crowds to watch the sun break through the thick sea of clouds that create an otherwordly atmosphere. On a clear day it is possible to see the neighbouring island of Porto Santo, 30 miles to the northeast.
The next stop were the levada walks. “Levada” is a Portuguese word derived from the word “levar” – which means to carry and is roughly translated as “carriageway”, but more correctly defined as mini-canal. The mini-canals are irrigation systems developed to distribute water from the rainfall heavy and wet regions on the north of Madeira island to the drier sun parched regions of the south. The water is usually stored in reservoirs or tanks, or captured directly from natural fountains to be redirected and channeled across a wide network of winding canals. These narrow water carriageways deliver precious water along far distances to banana plantations, vineyards, fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, as well as to hydro-electric power stations dotted around the island. The levadas criss cross the mountains and cover a total distance of 2500 km, and date back to as far as the early 16th century.
The Levada walks are walking trails along the maintenance paths beside the Levadas. Although the Levadas were constructed primarily for agricultural/industrial use they are just as important for tourists and local people alike who want to enjoy outdoor adventure activities inaccessible by cars.
Close to the Santana city center you can find the Centre for Traditional Santana houses. This is a preservation area, expanded by the municipality of Santana, in memory of local heritage.
Here we found some typical Santana houses, all adapted to their current use, where you can buy a wide variety of local products and traditional crafts.
The tour was coming to an end but our driver decided to shake us more and drive through steep mountains and edgy roads. So we ended up just a bit north from Porto da Cruz – a city famous for North Mills Distillery.
The Portuguese island of Madeira is best known for its eponymous fortified wine, but it was not always king of drinks alone — there was rum, too. Madeira rum is “rhum agricole”, meaning it is made directly from cane syrup, rather than “rhum industriel”, which comes from the byproduct molasses. It is also matured in Madeira fortified-wine casks. Madeira used to be number one sugar cane production place in the 17th century onwards. The Portuguese took the habit from the Caribbean, borrowed the money from Genovians and Flanders distributed it all across the continent, making Antwerp port the richest of its time. As the Colombo had its house in Canary Island and Porto Santo island to stop by before and after his discoveries in the New Wolrd – no wonder some goods and traditions remained on the island.
We tasted the traditional rum 970 and rum branco (white rum). I have to say, Madeira kicked me with many thinks, but rhum is not one of it. Caribbean still rull when it comes to this.
Last stop for the day was the most east point of the island: Ponta do Bode. The view of this cape stretches towards Porto Santo islands and Desert Islands on the other side. In the sea cliffs of Ponta do Bode, one can observe volcanic formations of effusive (lava flows) and explosive nature (pyroclasts).
North West side
North west Madeira is where the wild Atlantic crashes headlong into the jagged and imposing cliffs that dominate landscape of the north-coast. It is more humid, a bit more chilly but whole loads of fun. First stop was city Camara do Lobos. A fisherman village famous for very first ponche pescador – a strong rum and lemon drink taken in the morning by the fisherman after spending long night fishing.
So our road continued again towards north. But before we had to cross the mountainous part of the Madeira island – again, enchanted by the clouds…
We have hit so many tunels on our way but the one that will stay in my mind was the finished but yet unfinished tunel with water drops. Such an unusual place this island is!
And if you need more proof, here the Veu de Noiva waterfall – it falls in the middle of the freaking road. A beautiful waterfall that cascades down the rocky slopes towards the sea. So amazed how the water on this island comes from everywhere.
Further to the north – and time for bath in the ocean 🙂 We visited the small city called Porto Moniz famous for the natural pools. A very popular complex in an outstanding location, with great facilities, lifeguard surveillance – really needed due to unexpected sudden high waves, natural seawater volcanic pools for both Adult and children. Sometimes a bit crowded during the summer, but an excellent place for visitors to enjoy the sun and a safe swim.
On our way towards different city we passed again through the semi forest and rocky countryside with small farmer houses and stables. Noting locals producing bananas, tobacco, passion fruit and vineyards.
Sao Vicente has popular black sand beaches. Its sea can be a bit rough but it’s quite popular with surfers for this reason.
The nearby city is called Seixal. This is precisely the stunning scenery of one of the most popular beaches in this parish, Porto do Seixal Beach, a natural black sand beach located right next to the rocky cliff with the waterfall. No need for after sea showers here. All natural.
On of the last stops of the day was Ribeira Brava. The municipality gained its name due to its river – Ribeira Brava, which translates as ‘the angry river’. In rainy seasons, the river had an extremely strong and powerful current, that often wreaked havoc over the entire eight kilometres of the route.
Finally the last point: Cabo Girao – a popular lookout point, the highest cliff in Europe (580m) and a skywalk. I have to say, we managed to visit this place both from above (hitting that wobbly skywalk) and from below, having a bath in the ocean, just at the beach below it. Both moments were breathtaking.
If you ask me, this is the best part of Madeira. Surrounded by the Atlantic ocean, there is so much to discover. Madeira is rich with flora and fauna on the land, but so in the sea. Taking a one day catamaran trip in the outskirts of the ocean, you can’t miss the sea turtle or the dolphins.
When it comes to typical holiday sun bathing – there is plenty of choices. From the black volcano sandy beaches (I can still say black, right?), cliffs to jump, rocky natural pools to the concreted and arranged beaches in front of hotels with sun umbrella and arm chairs. We did almost everything. As we had a pool in front of our accommodation – we used it, the cliff – we jumped and bathed in front of it, black beach – same thing, and cooling while reading a book at the Miramar hotel in touristy Lido.
Food and Drinks
When it comes to wining and dining – Madeira is not expensive at all, yet tastes delicious. Here is the best fish I have eaten – fresh, simple, tasteful. Every time, the chef of the restaurant would come out of the kitchen, present the daily fresh fish and advise on cooking. And the vegetables that comes to the fish it the sweetest ever!
Some of things you have to eat when in Madeira: scabbard fish with grilled banana, black squid risotto, parrot fish, octopus, tuna and limpets.
Meat is equally good, fresh and not industrial at all.
Usually we started our meal with Bolo do caco – a circular Madeiran flatbread, shaped like a cake and thus called bolo. It is traditionally cooked on a caco, a flat basalt stone slab. The bread is usually served with garlic butter. My ode to this discovery:
Madeira is a constant spring. The temperature never goes more than 29 Celsius. There is constant water circulation which makes the gastronomy of this place astonishing. Especially the taste of fruits and coffee we had for breakfast and for desert. The passion fruit cake/ pudding is a must try!
When it comes to drinks, first thing first – the poncha! As already described, it is a traditional alcoholic drink made with aguardente de cana (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice), honey, sugar, and either orange juice or lemon juice. Some varieties include other fruit juices. My favourites were less traditional one – minth and passion fruit.
Then there is red wine or vino tinto. When you order red wine in Madeira, you will get sweet liquorish drink as an aperitif, or sweet wines usually consumed with dessert. But very rarely the red wine as we know on the continent.
The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history, dating back to the Age of Exploration (approximately from the end of the 15th century) when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat and movement which transformed the flavour of the wine. This was discovered by the wine producers of Madeira when an unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands after a round trip.
Recommendation: Bastardo and Malvasia.
Then rose and white wine – Atlantis and Colombo are the local productions and offered almost everywhere on the island.
Perhaps is worth to mention the local brewery production. I was not amazed by the heavy beers they offered. It just doesn’t go with the climate.
Madeira, the Atlantic Pearl, is a dream holiday destination. It’s ideal for romantic getaways, family trips, and fun vacations with friends. It is full of movie-like landscapes, historical and cultural attractions. I hope I managed to describe the enthusiasm I collected and the blues I am feeling now. It is a place to come back.