Madeira is having its moment in the travel limelight, and well deserved too. If you’ve visited the archipelago in the Atlantic, you’ll understand why; if you haven’t here’s a host of reasons why you should.
Closer to the Moroccan coast of Africa than Europe, the Portuguese islands of Madeira, Porto Santo, Sevelgans and Desertas Islands not only have a year-round comfortable climate, but tantalising gastronomy, impressive nature, and a landscape that encourages adventure and sport.
Small and rugged, the volcanic island of Madeira is a floating garden and an excellent eco-tourism destination.
The lava flows created natural pools at Porto Moniz and the island’s mountains are clad in a green cape that contrasts with the blue of the ocean. The island’s combination of Mediterranean and tropical vegetation, with exotic plants like orchids, birds of paradise, magnolias and azaleas, present a green patchwork dotted with vibrant colours that entice hikers from around the globe.
There are loads of trails around the island, many of which follow the 16th century irrigation system known as levadas. Designed to move water from the rainy north to the dry south, this serious feat of engineering passes lots of waterfalls and spans more than 1,500 miles.
The levadas also crisscross the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Laurissilva Forest – laurel forest. Portugal’s only Natural World Heritage Site, it dates back to the Tertiary Period and has a wide variety of flora and fauna.
Divided into nature reserves, the Madeira Natural Park is a series of protected landscapes and recreational areas. The Desertas Islands Nature Park is the last known Atlantic refuge of the monk seal, while the Rocha do Navio Nature Reserve in Santana is a potential habitat for the seal and has a small island filled with rare plants.
If you love to challenge yourself, the Madeiran islands are your chance to push yourself. Explore the depths of the Atlantic, skim the ocean’s waters or reach for the skies on mountaintops and high sea cliffs.
The topography of the islands makes it great territory for mountain bikers and extreme hikers. For those less willing to put in the legwork, Jeep safaris climb the impressive peaks. Go canyoning along the mountain’s natural waterways, hang glide or paraglide over the verdant landscape.
Take a kayak tour of the islands, peering into the caves, spotting coastal villages, rock formations and banana plantations. The waters are warm, thanks to the Gulf Stream, meaning snorkelling and diving are perfectly feasible all year-round.
To go further, swap the kayak for a catamaran. Tour the whole of this beautiful archipelago, spotting dolphins, orcas and sperm whales as you cross the waters.
For a blissful break, the second inhabited island of the archipelago, Porto Santo, is waiting for you. Turquoise seas lap the 9km of golden beaches, ideal for taking it easy as you sunbathe on the sand and dip into the crystal-clear waters. The sand also has therapeutic properties, its fine texture due to the main component being calcium carbonate that has special thermal qualities.
Porto Santo’s main cultural attraction is the Christopher Columbus Museum House. The older of the two houses that make up the museum dates back to the time of the explorer and recreates the environment in which he lived when on the island.
The island is dotted with squat windmills that benefit from the winds that cross the island. Among them, in the centre of the island, is the Mother Church. Burned down several times over the years by pirates and corsairs, the church is now home to the altars and paintings of Martim Conrado and Max Romer.
Neat and compact, Funchal can be explored in a day, or two at a leisurely pace. It’s been the capital of the islands since the Portuguese founded it almost 600 years ago.
The name comes from the Portuguese word for fennel – funcho – that was growing wild and in abundance on the site. With a horseshoe of mountains behind, it looks out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Food markets are always a good choice when visiting a new place – through the sights, sounds and smells, you’ll get your first taste of the local culture. Funchal’s covered market is no exception. Get there when it opens and you’ll find ladies in traditional dress laying out their flower stalls, while the fisherman prepare the evening’s catch and grocers spread out their fruit and vegetable in a colourful display.
Rua de Santa Maria is the oldest street in Funchal dating back to 1430. Badly hit by storms in 2010, the government launched the Art Open Doors project to revitalise the area. The narrow, cobbled street is now vibrant and colourful, full of shops, bars and restaurants and artistically painted and designed doors.
Take a “toboggan ride” from the foot of the Church of Our Lady of the Monte – which has fabulous views from the bell tower – to Funchal. This is how the rich of Monte made their way into town in the 19th Century and suits tourists equally well. Two men dressed in white with straw hats and thick rubber soled boots will propel you down the hill to the city. Hang on to your hat!
Think of a chunk of Toblerone and you have the shape of a traditional Madeiran house – Casinhas de Santana. There aren’t many inhabited examples left, but the town of Santana is home to the remaining few. These small, triangular houses, prettily decorated, have straw roofs and are close to the town hall.
Every July, Santana hosts a festival of traditional music and dance. Known as ‘24 horas a bailar’ (literally ‘24 hours to dance’) when traditional folklore groups from Madeira and other regions get footloose and carefree.
Santana is also home to the craft tradition of bordado da Madeira (embroidery), which is available to buy in the town’s shops.
Only a short distance from Santana, is Queimadas, the starting point for one of Madeira’s most spectacular ‘levada’ walks towards ‘Caldeirão Verde’ (the Green Cauldron).
Possibly Madeira’s most famous export, other than Cristiano Ronaldo, is its wine. Fortified it comes in a variety of styles from dry wines perfect as an aperitif and the sweeter wines usually taken with dessert. If you visit in September, you’ll be able to take part in the grape harvest and festival.
Staying with alcoholic drinks for a second, the local speciality poncha is best in its simplest form and made to order. Consisting of aguardente made from sugarcane, lemon or orange juice and honey, it is muddled with a caralhinho (we’ll not give you the translation of that!) which makes it frothy. It’s not advised to buy the bottled stuff, and beware, it’s stronger than you think.
Also made from sugarcane which grows in abundance across the island of Madeira is “honey” cake or bolo de mel. Traditionally prepared on 8th December, the day on which Catholics celebrate Our Lady of Conception, it is available all year round in island stores.
Naturally, as an island chain, the archipelago is known for its fish and seafood dishes, in particular tuna steak served with cornbread. Lovers of sweet potatoes will be diving into bolo de caco, a sweet potato bread often an accompaniment to meat dishes.
From small, local eateries to Michelin-starred restaurants, there’s plenty of choice when it comes to dining.
If Madeira sounds like your ‘cup of wine’, then there is a variety of ways to get there. CLC World Travel, CLC World’s independent ABTA travel agent, has a team of experienced agents waiting to deliver the perfect Madeira holiday experience for members. Whether that’s a stop on a cruise or a tailor-made experience, they’re waiting to take you there.