Madeira was misunderstood from the off. When explorer João Gonçalves Zarco first saw the cloud-wreathed island, he assumed he was looking at the mouth of hell – returning, with quite astonishing bravery, to claim it for Portugal three years later.
In modern times, the island is not so much misunderstood as typecast. The British market focuses heavily on its appeal to older travellers, and Madeira’s slow pace, year-round mild climate and accessible walking certainly attract the grey pound.
But younger tourists should not be put off. According to Madeira Tourism, visitors from Spain and Portugal tend to have a lower age range than those from the UK, and there’s plenty to do here – four-wheel drive tours, walking, cycling, diving and sailing, plus good bars and restaurants and a world-class fireworks festival in June.
It’s also a good year-round destination, with temperatures of 13C-19C in winter. Getting there is simple as easyJet flies direct from Stansted daily, from Gatwick five times a week and from Bristol three times a week. TAP Portugal also flies direct from Gatwick.
Accommodation is mainly in Funchal, and varies from the old-fashioned elegance of the iconic Reids Palace and Savoy, to modern spa-focused resorts such as Cliff Bay, which offers ocean swimming for those struggling with Madeira’s lack of beaches.
For a touch of individuality try a quinta (converted estate or house) such as Quinta Bela Sao Tiago in the old town, or the modern boutique Estalagem Quinta da Casa Branca.
The latest high-profile opening is the five-star The Vine, a member of the Design Hotels group. Opened in late 2008, it has 57 rooms and 22 suites, with a rooftop pool, bar and restaurant.
Madeira’s famous levadas – irrigation channels which cover more than 1,560 miles of the island’s mountainous interior – get an unfair press. Yes, some are flat, sturdy paths shaded by trees, but others feature dark tunnels, steep inclines, narrow paths and precipitous drops. Whatever your ability, the scenery is frequently stunning.
You can also explore the island by bike, or join a four-wheel drive tour of the eucalyptus-clad mountains. The latter will give you a good sense of how steeply Madeira rises from the sea – we found ourselves gaining altitude so fast our ears popped.
On the water
Madeira’s lack of beaches mean sailing or diving are better options than surfing. Monastery Reef and Garajau Marine Reserve – both off the southeast of the island – are popular sites, and shore diving is possible in several locations. Stable water temperatures make diving a year-round option, though storms can reduce visibility in winter.
Above the waves, take a whale and dolphin watching trip from Funchal harbour. Many tours offer the chance to swim with dolphins, but don’t make any assumptions – the animals will happily surround a boat, but often disappear when they see people slip into the water.
Head to the Madeira Story Centre in Funchal’s old town to gen up on the island’s history, geology and flora and fauna, then wander round the corner to the food market. It’s small but riotously colourful, with stallholders constantly proffering samples of fruit – most appealingly Madeira’s small, sweet bananas. You’ll find flowers at the front, and at the back, a fish market where locals hack off huge steaks of tuna.
Next, take the cable car up to the hill town of Monte, take a turn around the tropical gardens and 19th century Church of Our Lady of Monte before whizzing back down on the wicker toboggans – large picnic baskets on greased runners, basically – that have become a tourist staple. Cultural justification? This is how locals used to get down to meet incoming ships before cars became widespread…
If money isn’t an object, start with a meal at Armazem do Sal, based in a 200-year-old former salt warehouse. Inside it’s all bare stone and exposed beams, and serves well-executed Mediterranean food with a Spanish-Portuguese bent.
Slightly cheaper, and with a great terrace overlooking the ocean, is Riso, a restaurant dedicated to rice – expect risottos, Portuguese ‘wet rice’ (more appetising than it sounds) and plenty of seafood.
Few visitors will expect Balearic-style clubbing as the sun goes down, but if upscale bars are more to your taste you’ll be pleasantly surprised. We enjoyed Cafe do Teatro in Funchal, a bar that wouldn’t look out of place in some of Europe’s trendier cities. Grab a seat in the terrace or courtyard and enjoy a pungent poncha, while DJs play credible, if not cutting-edge, dance music.
Blog posts from Madeira
- Madeira: Funchal bar and restaurant tips [Travel Weekly Blog]
- Madeira hotels: Cliff Bay Resort and Quinta Bela Sao Tiago [Travel Weekly Blog]
Inghams offers four nights’ bed and breakfast at the Quinta Bela Sao Tiago in Funchal, including flights from Gatwick with TAP Portugal and transfers, from £550. (020 8780 4455, email@example.com, Inghams agent site)
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