Situated in an archipelago off the coast of Portugal, the volcanic island of Madeira showcases beautiful coastlines, rugged mountains and quaint towns among its many assets. Popular as both a cruise and holiday destination, over 90% of visitors will return to Madeira after their first journey here, such is its appeal. Life is laid back and the weather is balmy thanks to the island’s location, providing the perfect place for holidaymakers looking to enjoy a slice of Mediterranean pie.
In fact, the only downside for me was the flight in. The landing strip is a little shorter than most and my squeak of “we’re landing on that?!” had the entire plane nervously laughing as we swept past the runway and circled round to land. It was fine of course, but if flights are not your favourite, I would think about visiting via boat rather than plane.
Madeira thrives on the tourism industry and the Portuguese speaking people are friendly and knowledgeable, proud to tell you little gems of information about their island, a quality that I loved.
Funchal was our first stop of the trip. The old town is lined with sandy coloured buildings and lush swaying trees great for a lazy saunter. Grab a gelato and head to the port to watch cruise liners come and go. The beaches here are pebble ones, but very pretty with green spaces full of tropical flowers and the occasional sculpture. Tours are easy to find with kiosks dotted along the coastline in Funchal. Prices are very reasonable considering how much you see in a day and don’t forget to tip your guide in gratitude, as this is how they earn a decent living.
The next day we rose early and joined the East island tour bus from our hotel. Our first stop was a lace factory where delicate designs are hand created in front of your eyes. The bay views outside were just stunning and a great photo opp.
Our next quick stop at the picturesque hilltop village of Santana where traditional Madeira houses still stand, pretty as a picture between the more modern white dwellings. This was a busy little place, but a lovely one for a drink and stretch of the legs before we made our way further up into the mountains in search of the levadas. These traditional waterways help to filter the water down from the mountains to the sea without drowning the villages nestled into the hillsides. Many pathways have popped up along the levada routes and visitors can happily wander among the trees with the water trickling along to guide you.
With rumbling bellies we made our way to a little family run restaurant for a delicious lunch of popular meat skewers and local red wine. The kebabs are served on piping hot long skewers and cutting them off delicately is nothing short of an art form.
Feeling very spoiled we waddled back to the bus and continued to the peak of the mountains stopping at the summit of Pico de Arieiro. At 1818m tall, Pico de Arieiro is the third highest mountain on the island and the views are magnificent. As someone that is nervous with heights, I did find it a little hairy in places but the sights are so beautiful, you do forget your fear. The height brings a change to the air which is so refreshing after the heat of the lower villages. A day could easily be spent here and many visitors choose to take the narrow path from Pico de Arieiro to nearby Pico Ruivo for an extra thrill – this is not something for any that find heights a challenge!
Fortunately our next stop was the perfect one to counteract the dizzy heights of the mountaintops and we arrived with cheer at Porta de Cruz for a tour of a sugar cane rum factory. The flavour of sugar cane rum is unlike anything I have ever tasted, it is absolutely beautiful! The tour is free for visitors ending in a visit to the rum shop and some samples of rum and poncha, a traditional Madeira drink.
Loaded with enough rum to last a pirate a year, we continued on, passing through banana groves and tropical gardens to a pretty fishing village, our final stop of the day. By this point tiredness was starting to get the better of us and the peaceful village by the sea was the perfect remedy. Foregoing shopping time, we sat and watched the waves in the late afternoon sun. It was a very sweet end to a fantastic day.
As the sun rose on another lovely day, we decided to take the cable car up to one of Madeira’s most popular attractions, the Monte Palace Botanical gardens. Cable cars aren’t exactly my idea of fun, but the ride felt surprisingly stable and allowed us a birds eye view of the everyday houses of residents. Sadly not all are in one piece following the fire of 2016 with ruined houses backing onto occupied ones.
Madeira has several microclimates due to its location and landscape, providing the extraordinary conditions needed to cultivate plants and support wildlife from all over the world.
Travel around the globe as garden after garden unfolds in front of you and see if you can spot some of the wildlife as you explore. The tranquil mix of natural surroundings, water and sculpture swept us into another world and I loved it.
Monte Palace itself is situated in the gardens and only adds to the experience. As well as this, the museum of natural history and exhibition spaces are also open to visitors meaning the whole day can be spent exploring.
With a visit to the gardens under the belt, the next challenge was descending the hill. Luckily, I think, there is a novel way to do this, by street toboggan! The toboggans use the same roads as cars and how quickly they can stop for traffic is anyone’s guess, but the laughs and squeaks from riders show how much fun it is!
It took a whole day relaxing to absorb everything we had experienced in Madeira before heading home and what a lot we’d seen. From lion sculptures to sugar cane rum, parrots in palm trees to palaces, magical Madeira was stunningly beautiful, ever welcoming and full of surprises. I know I’ll be joining the 90% of visitors going back to the island, I do have the other half of the island to explore after all.