A long weekend in Madeira

Closer to Africa than Europe, these Portuguese islands are reinventing themselves as a wild place for a long weekend of action and adventure

By Emma Holland
Published 12 Apr 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:19 BST
A street in Funchal

A street in Funchal

Photograph by Alamy

A wild escape awaits during a long weekend in Madeira. Its mountain peaks climb up to the clouds; black-sand beaches formed by ancient volcanoes fringe its shores; it's blessed with subtropical climes, year-round. Inland, ivy creeps from cracks and crevices along cobbled city streets, and much of the rugged landscape remains untamed.

This Portuguese archipelago sits on the same latitude as Morocco — located closer to West Africa than mainland Portugal, and the islands are blessed with extremely fertile soil, allowing flora from all corners of the world to thrive. Verdant parks are filled with towering palm trees, massive ferns and exotic plants: Tahitian frangipanis, Australian bottlebrush, South African birds of paradise and Brazilian jacaranda trees, to name a few. Local fruit tests the taste buds and vocabulary — the peculiar monstera deliciosa looks similar to a pineapple but tastes like a banana, and the tamarillo ('English tomato') is almost like a hybrid tomato-passion fruit.

In its capital, Funchal, you'll find a buzzing modern vibe that belies Madeira's rather fusty reputation; for those seeking, there's international hotels, contemporary art spaces, and restaurants where traditional dishes are revamped with vibrant, experimental flavours. Its once-derelict old town has been revitalised with lively cafes and bars spilling onto narrow alleys, and a local initiative has seen artists paint quirky designs on the doorways flanking the central Rua de Santa Maria.

North of the city, hairpin roads venture through lush valleys, past boutique wineries and tiny hilltop churches. Hiking trails along vertiginous slopes offer dizzying views. Out to sea, whales and dolphins can be spotted in serene waters. But the most indulgent ocean views, perhaps, are to be had at Porto Moniz, where natural swimming pools have formed within volcanic rock, and local restaurants serve the catch of the day.

Traditionally drawing older crowds, Madeira's shaking off its sleepy reputation. There's no lack of adventures for thrill-seekeers — from trail running along mountainside tracks, to rock climbing on jagged cliff faces. And just two hours away by boat from the main island, Porto Santo's idyllic white-sand beach stretches as far as the eye can see, with crystal-clear waters made for diving and snorkelling, above which winding coastal paths are waiting to be explored by bike.

Take a view

Head to the skies in a cable car for panoramic views over Funchal, where terracotta rooftops stand out among pockets of greenery, and the azure ocean sparkles in the background. Look out over palms, wild eucalyptus and abundant vegetable gardens, plus clusters of banana trees next to vineyards — one of the few places in the world where these grow together. From Monte at the top, whizz back down the steep, shiny-smooth streets in a wicker toboggan, steered by the carreiros, for a thrilling ride.

A rosy retreat

For a dose of old-school charm, check in at Belmond Reid's Palace. It's all baby-pink hues, tucked-away billiards rooms and indoor palms — modern luxury paired with the feel that you've stepped back in time. Get lost exploring the hotel gardens, then relax by the ocean-side pool where succulent plants adorn the cliff face. As the sun sets, take in the twilight-pink skies at the balcony bar — make sure to try the Funchal tonic with fresh fennel.

Market day

Head to the buzzy, vibrant worker's market, Mercado dos Lavradores, to get a taste of Madeira. Around the tiled courtyard, exotic fruit is beautifully presented in wicker baskets under hanging strings of red chilli. Downstairs there's octopus, enormous tuna and grotesque eel-like black scabbardfish, draped over long steel counters. These are delicious paired with the sweetness of fried bananas — a Madeiran delicacy.

Drink up — three to try

Madeira wine
This famous fortified wine is created through the careful application of heat, and has a unique sweet flavour — excellent as an aperitif or to accompany dessert. It's made from one of four different grape varieties.

Also the drink of choice for celebrations and raging parties, locals swear by it as a bullet-proof antidote for the flu. Poncha is a tipple made from sugar-cane rum, honey, sugar and lemon juice. Be warned: it's incredibly easy to drink, and highly potent.

Madeira's own Coca-Cola, Brisa comes in a range of different flavours with a fizzy kick. Brisa Maracujá is the most popular, made from the juice of purple passion fruit. The addictive, tangy taste is ideal for quenching thirst in the islands' humidity.

Clip, climb and canyon

I'm standing at the top of a waterfall. Up here, right on the edge, the rocks are slippery as water rushes past. One quick glance down, and my confidence wanes. It's my first time canyoning, and so far I imagine it'll be my last. Clipped in and harnessed up, I cautiously lean back over the edge, keeping my body close to the rock face as I take the first steps down.

"It's easy, just straighten your legs out and you'll feel stable," yells our guide, Nuno, from below.

I breathe in, and surprise myself by moving fast, coming to a halt as my foot knocks a smooth, muddy jut. I wobble and scramble to steady myself. Gripping my hands tighter on the rope, I continue to rappel — another few shaky strides, and I've made it.

The bottom of the waterfall is right in the shadow of the rock looming above. It's chilly out of the direct sun, and to continue on, we have to wade through a pool of water. I jump, tucking my legs into a ball under my arms. I gasp for air — it's bone-chillingly cold. I paddle to the boulders at the edge, where sunlight trickles through the treetops above. My wetsuit now heavy, I waddle a little further, where the rocks stretch out bathed in a bright sunny glow. It's a good spot to watch the others in my group make their way down — most are less hesitant than me, and a couple glide down almost effortlessly. We're up in the Madeiran mountains, where dry grass and spiky shrubs cover a land peppered with skeletal charred trees — recent wildfires devastated much of the area, I'm told. Muddy banks line the stream's trail, and tangled wild grass rests on the slopes. Greenery pokes through the rocks with prickly vines, and a fallen tree trunk acts as a slippery obstacle on our path. Further along, there's an opening where blackberry bushes line the water's edge — we pick some for a little snack.

Several waterfalls later, I'm exhilarated and ready for more. We arrive at the final hurdle, where a long zip-line wire is set up, leading out from the top of the ledge. I'm last this time, and as I fly through the air, a loud whoosh and clangs of metal sound out — plus a sharp squeal from me. Suddenly, I'm across the water on another rocky plateau, looking back at the cascades as I catch my breath.


British Airways and EasyJet fly direct to Madeira from various UK airports. Double rooms at Belmond Reid's Palace start from £370 a night, B&B, and double rooms at Castanheiro Boutique Hotel start from £143 a night, B&B. 
More info: madeiraallyear.com

Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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