A hugely diverse landscape, sensational views, adventures in the mountains and at sea. The ‘flower island’ in the Atlantic is an El Dorado for lovers of activity holidays.
Madeira lies at the centre of the vast Atlantic Ocean, a tiny speck of verdant life 700 kilometres from mainland Portugal. From the moment your plane starts its spine-tingling approach flight onwards (the runway at the island’s airport is a bridge construction built on stilts sticking out to sea), you realise there isn’t going to be a dull moment during your visit. The island’s beauties and adventures range from high mountains to roaring seas, dizzyingly high cliffs to picture-postcard villages, and from rugged peaks to a range of plants and flowers so sumptuous their loveliness will make even the hardest heart miss a beat.
Funchal: colourful capital
After organising a rental car, the first step is to make the short hop along the coast from the airport to Funchal, Madeira’s capital in the south of the island. We stroll through the typical black-and-white cobbled streets in the colourful harbour district. In the famous Mercado dos Lavradores, the farmers’ market in the historic quarter of Santa Maria, we see for the first time – but by no means the last – just how vibrant and diverse Madeira really is. Because we’re arriving in the afternoon, the market’s already empty; we learn from the ever-friendly locals that if we want to experience the true noise and feel of the market, as the people of the town buy their fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, flowers and handicraft products, then the time to come is first thing in the morning.
Just around the corner from the Mercado is Rua de Santa Maria, one of the oldest streets in what used to be the fishing quarter. Once dilapidated, this street has had new life breathed into it by the street art created as part of the Arte Portas Abertas project. Definitely worth setting some time aside for! We carry on through the back alleys, admiring the ‘azulejos’ – the tiled murals that pop up everywhere on Funchal’s houses and churches – before seeing out the evening down at the harbour, in the „Marina Terrace“ restaurant with its great seafood dishes and equally delicious views of the promenade.
Subtropical sledge ride
The next day, we start out for the island’s next attraction: the ride in wicker baskets with seats on wooden skis from Monte, the mountain overlooking Funchal, down into the capital proper. We take the cable car up the mountain, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the capital, then take a second cable car up to the Jardim Botanico, the flower island’s botanic gardens. As well as having breathtaking views, the gardens are sure to make plant lovers hearts miss a beat, and are a taste of the vast range of different plants and flowers we are to see elsewhere on the island.
Once we reach the top, we grab a well-deserved lunch – amazing view over Funchal free of charge – at restaurant „Zarcos“ We try the super-tasty traditional meat skewer, the ‘espetada’, with the obligatory garlic bread side. To steel ourselves for the (slightly scary) sledge ride back down, we enjoy a ‘Poncha’, the rum and freshly-squeezed fruit juice mixer so beloved of locals.
The wicker sledges date back to an era when mechanised transport had yet to reach the island, and it was either too tough (or took too long) for donkeys to move goods through the steep streets and lanes. The solution was the sledges, or ‘carreiros do Monte’, which earned their keep transporting visitors, luggage and goods down into the valley. Back then, the carreiros took you all the way from Monte down to Funchal; nowadays the fun trip only lasts about five minutes. The ride in the two carreiros is quick, lively and lots of fun, and we have a great time – be absolutely sure to try them out!
Rock formations at dawn
After all that excitement in the capital, we come to the conclusion the time has come for a trip to the country, and begin our tour of the island, heading east out of Funchal. We want first of all to see the Ponta de Sao Lourenco peninsula, Madeira’s easternmost point, at dawn, when it’s at its most beautiful. Even though this means the alarm goes off in the middle of the night, after half-an-hour we’re over it, and feel a hundred times better for being up so early! The landscape in this part of the island, which is protected, is far different from anything we’ve seen so far, with rugged ground in a variety of colours, and craggy rock walls falling off into the sea. After taking a two-hour round trip of the peninsula, we treat ourselves to a cappuccino and pastel, the sweet pastry typical of the island, in the tiny fishing village of Canical. We enjoy the rest of the day at Canical’s small but pretty lava beach, then pack up and head off to the island’s rough northern coast.
Pico Ruivo – roof of the island
The next day, we want to experience another high point – quite literally, in the shape of Pico Ruivo, the island’s highest peak and undisputed roof of Madeira. To get there, we first spend the night in the village of Santana, where we also get to see the famous cases rurales, Madeira’s traditional straw-covered farmhouses. We get up as early as we can handle, then set out on the hour-long hike to the roof of Madeira from our starting-point of Achada do Teixieira (20 minutes’ drive from Santana). The magnificent hike, which takes three hours or so, actually leads from Pico do Ariero to Pico Ruivo, and looking down, feels like a true royal tour. We opt for the short version, and follow the well-developed path, wrapped in thick cloud cover. Luckily for us, the weather gods are smiling upon us, and as we reach the 1,862 metre-high peak, the clouds open up, giving us an amazing view of the surrounding mountains, deep canyons and blue ocean on the horizon beyond. It’s an amazing panorama!
Swimming in a lava pool: Porto Moniz
This rugged, stony landscape, falling away precipitously into the sea, with a hinterland of green fields, meadows and gardens, continues along the northern coast to the north-west of the island. In the small town of Porto Moniz on the island’s far north-western tip, bizarrely-shaped dark lava cliffs form a natural swimming pool. The cliffs protect us more or less completely from the surf, and we can relax in the waters of the lava pool, which are already lovely and warm. The Porto Moniz coast is also where you’ll find the Forte Sao Joao Baptista fortress, dating back to the 18th century and now home to the Aquario da Madeira aquarium, where visitors can admire 70 different kinds of fish and animals common to the waters around Madeira.
Levadas: hiking along artificial canals
‘Levadas’ is a term inextricably linked with Madeira. First built back in the Middle Ages, these artificial canals were originally used to move water from the rainier northern and central parts of the island to the agricultural regions in the dry south. This complex irrigation system now functions as a tourist attraction as well, with the most popular hiking paths leading throughout the 2,000 kilometre-long water network, which criss-crosses the whole island. South of Porto Moniz, we travel past Achadas da Cruz to the Paúl do Serra highland. It’s incredibly quiet up here; the only sounds you hear breaking the total silence are cow bells and the occasional screech from a bird of prey. Near Rabacal, a quiet village on the highland, you can enjoy one of the loveliest – and least strenuous – Levada hikes on Madeira, to the twenty-five wells and waterfalls at Risco. Hiking for around three-and-a-half hours, you’ll see lots of small waterfalls (plus one great big one), wells, lush vegetation, spectacular views – and best of all, centuries-old, gnarled laurel forest.
Garden of Eden on the south coast
After all that hiking, we’re yearning for some beach and sea action, and head south. As we enter the warmer climate in the south of the island, we pass by cultivated, green terraced fields, with lush hydrangeas, bougainvilleas chrysanthemums, magnolias and frangipani plants flourishing all around us. The idyllic fishing village of Paul do Mar, in the far south-west, is the best-known surfing spot on the island, and our final destination. We’re lucky; the waves off the coast at Paul do Mar break in perfect tunnel shape, perfect for the surfers to give us an impressive demonstration of their skills. We’re captivated by the relaxed feel of the town, and stick around longer than planned, before eventually making our way further south along the old coastal road.
That afternoon, we reach Cabo Girao – at around 560 metres, one of the highest cliffs anywhere in Europe. The view down over the edge is spine-tingling stuff: as terrifying as it is exciting. Moving along the beautiful old coastal road, with its spectacular views, by sunset we reach the pretty fishing village of Câmara do Lobos. The favourite holiday destination of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was once located in here, and the village is so picture-perfect that Churchill also immortalised it in a painting.
From Câmara do Lobos, it’s no more than an hour’s drive back to the airport. After a week packed with truly amazing experiences, we say our goodbyes to the wonderful island, thankful for an amazing holiday, if slightly sad for having to leave.
If you too think you might be interested in experiencing the flower island of Madeira yourself, just click HERE to book your flight. The flight from Vienna Schwechat to Funchal takes 4 hours and 45 minutes.