Hey, how have you been? Although it’s still pretty cold where I live, I can already see the first signs of spring approaching. It’s not as dark as before, the birds have begun to chirp in the morning, the snow has disappeared and the way the air smells has changed to a fresh and promising scent. Now that the winter is coming to an end, I have begun to think about where I want to spend my summer holidays this year. Last year, my boyfriend and spent 10 days on the beautiful island of Madeira.
Madeira, a small volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic, is an autonomous region of Portugal. It offers a very rich and unique flora and fauna, which was partly brought by Portuguese merchants and aristocrats, and partly is indigenous. We stayed at a hotel in Caniço, one of the larger cities in the South of the island. We also decided to rent a car, as the public transport system is not as well established as on the continent and we wanted to get around independently.
I’m sure many of you are also still wondering about where to go on holiday this year, so I thought I might share some insights into my wonderful stay on the island of Madeira last summer!
The climate on Madeira is very mild throughout the whole year, which is the reason behind its nickname “island of eternal spring”. However, the weather differs greatly depending where on the island you are. Usually, the clouds will arrive from the north and, being stopped by the mountain range that rises in the middle of the island, diffuse along the eastern and western coastline. This basically means that the northern coastline is often much cloudier and mistier than the South. However, don’t hesitate to visit the northern part of Madeira, it’s a magical experience and the nature and atmosphere will blow your mind, if you are open to enjoying not only perfect sand beaches and hotel pools.
Top places to visit in Madeira
South / West
Funchal is the capital of Madeira, a small city located on the southern coastline of the island. It offers typical Portuguese architecture and some of the loveliest and most impressive botanical gardens that you can imagine. From Monday to Saturday, the Mercado dos Lavradores (“Farmer’s Market”) opens its doors to visitors, a vibrant place where you can buy all sorts of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, tea or herbs. In the harbour, you can find the “Santa Maria de Colombo”, a replica of Columbus’s flagship in which he sailed across the Atlantic that takes tourists on whale watching tours. If you have a car at your disposal, you can take a short trip to Cabo Girão, a lookout point with a glass viewing platform on a sea cliff about 580 m above sea level – only suggested if you are not afraid of heights.
We especially enjoyed the Jardim Botânico in Funchal, a huge garden that is located slightly above the city that offers not only a wonderful variety of plants, but also an exceptional view over Funchal. A few steps down the mountain you can find the privately owned Jardim Orquídea, a smaller garden, but decorated with love and a treasure full of inspiring and colourful orchids.
However, the garden that truly made our jaws drop was was the Jardim Tropical Monte Palace, a mix between tropical plants, Asian architecture, Koi, peacocks and Portuguese history – absolutely stunning! The garden is located in Monte, a small village on a mountainside about 8km from Funchal, and also marks the starting point for the famous wicker sled rides, a quite pricy tourist attraction. If you are brave enough, you can take a seat in one of the sleds and a driver will push you all the way down right into the city centre of Funchal.
If you make your way to the North of the island to Porto Moniz, you can take a bath in naturally formed volcanic lava pools. The jagged black structures frame the city and form natural basins filled with sea water. Right next to the pools, there is also a small but very nice sea water aquarium that portrays the local sea life.
Caves of São Vicente
The Grutas de São Vicente were one of the most spectacular places we visited on Madeira, going right into the very core and origin of the volcanic island. As the lava that formed the island rose out of the sea millions of years ago and cooled down from the outside, it formed numerous lava tubes within the volcano. Eight of them are open to the public, illuminated by magical lights and filled with interesting formations and clear water pools.
Ponta de São Lourenço
The “Ponta de São Lourenço” marks the most eastern part of Madeira, a rocky, moonscape-like headland that stretches into the ocean and offers wonderful panoramic views of the eastern and southern coastline. It is also a natural reserve containing very rare plant and animal species, so you are only allowed to hike the marked trail. Please make sure to take enough water with you!
I have to be honest – Madeira doesn’t offer a large number of perfect sand beaches. Due to its volcanic origin, the coastline is quite rugged and stony. Next to the two artificial beaches in Calheta and Machico, there is only one natural sandy beach – a black sandy beach called “Prainha”, very close to Ponta de São Lourenço. After hiking all the way until the most eastern part of the island and back, you might consider spending a couple of relaxing hours there.
Paúl da Serra
The centre of the island is characterized by the plateau “Paúl da Serra”, a more than 1000m high flat bleak, looking quite similar to Scottish moors. Next to offering wonderful panoramic views, it works like a giant sponge and absorbs the rain that falls on the island. To irrigate the fields especially in the drier South of the island, the inhabitants have built hundreds of kilometres of aqueducts to transport the water from Paúl da Serra to the valleys, the so-called “Levadas”. If you’re lucky, you can see a couple of the free range cows that graze up there, although you should avoid approaching them.
I decided to put this topic under “Centre” as the Levadas we hiked started right in the centre of Paúl da Serra. As explained above, there are hundreds of kilometres of aqueducts leading from the centre of the island down into the valleys and to the fields at the coastline. Many of these are open to the public, offering beautiful walking paths through different types of countryside.
We decided to hike two of the most popular Levadas, the “Levada to Risco” and the “Levada das 25 Fontes”, leading from a parking spot (“Rabaçal”) on Paúl da Serra right into a lush green valley. At the end of the trail, you are rewarded with the view on the most beautiful waterfall on Madeira, the “Risco waterfall”. Actually, if you take time and look around a little, you will find a whole number of smaller waterfalls in the area.
As I have already mentioned, Madeira does not offer large natural sandy beaches. However, if you are willing to take a 2-hour boat trip, you can visit the neighbouring island Porto Santo. The island is much smaller than Madeira, but offers an impressive 9km beach where you can spend the whole day relaxing before the boat takes you back to Madeira again.
What to eat / drink
I personally think that food has the capability to open our hearts and minds to another culture. Although I don’t eat meat, I try my best to get a taste of the regional cuisine. The most famous regional product is, of course, the Madeira wine. This sweet wine can be consumed either as aperitif or digestive – if you enjoy port, you should definitely consider participating in a wine tasting. Other specialties I would recommend are the “espada” (black scabbardfish), “caldeirada” (Portuguese fish stew), “arroz de marisco” (rice with seafood), “lulas grelhadas” (grilled squids) and, if you eat meat, “espetadas” (beef on bay leaf skewers). Another sweet alcoholic beverage I would recommend trying is the “poncha”, a is a very refreshing drink made of lemon juice, honey and rum.
Do I need to learn Portuguese before visiting Madeira?
No, absolutely not! On the contrary, you will have difficulties finding someone who doesn’t speak English.
Where are you planning to go this year? I’m thinking about visiting one of the Scandinavian countries this year, I have always dreamt of renting a small cottage by the sea in Denmark or southern Sweden 🙂