Heading to Madeira? Here are seven things you need to know

The dramatic Portuguese archipelago is where wild geography collides with delicious food, wonderful wildlife and carnival colour. Here are seven reasons why Madeira should be your next getaway — from its vibrant capital to idyllic rural landscapes.

Published 1 Apr 2021, 15:00 BST
Madeira lies in the east Atlantic, roughly midway between the Canaries and the Portuguese mainland, 600 ...

Madeira lies in the east Atlantic, roughly midway between the Canaries and the Portuguese mainland, 600 miles southwest of Lisbon.

Photograph by André Carvalho

Is it possible for an island to be well known and yet, at the same time, waiting to be discovered? Most European travellers have heard of Portugal's splendid ocean sentinel and can point to it on the map — pitched out there in the east Atlantic, roughly midway between the Canaries and the Portuguese mainland, 600 miles southwest of Lisbon. But for all its familiarity, Madeira is still something of an unwrapped package.

1. It’s home to fiery landscapes

Madeira was born of volcanic fury, bursting up from the seabed in a series of seismic explosions. Some five million years later, it spreads out in a haze of jagged summits and plunging ravines that are at odds with its image as a place for sunny getaways. The island’s highest peak is Pico Ruivo — a 6,106ft titan that’s only accessible on foot. The route up requires a little effort, but the reward is a view that reveals the coast in every direction. You should allow an entire afternoon to do it.

2. It has superb food and wine

Fine dining shouldn’t be limited to the confines of your luxury hotel restaurant. You can eat as extravagantly as you wish in the capital, Funchal — not least at Il Gallo D’Oro, the two-Michelin-starred jewel run by chef Benoit Sinthon. The fare sold at the Mercado dos Lavradores — fruit, fish and traditional Portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos sandwiches of pork in garlic marinade — is simpler, but no less enticing. Then there’s the island’s most eulogised speciality — Madeira wine. Visit Blandy’s Wine Lodge to sample the drink and, of course, buy a bottle or two.

3. It knows how to party

Madeira’s calendar is stuffed with events and celebrations, of which the noisiest is the Atlantic Festival — four consecutive Saturday nights of music and fireworks that light up the port in Funchal as a precursor to summer. Meanwhile, the Carnaval da Madeira (held in February) is almost as loud and has an air of Mardi Gras mayhem to it. The Madeira Flower Festival reduces the volume, but envelops the island in parades, exhibitions and the scent of petals in April and May.

Lagoa do Vento waterfall is located in Rabaçal nature reserve, a UNESCO site, in the southwest of Madeira. 

Photograph by Jackson Groves

4. It’s a wildlife wonderland

The surrounding sea life is an unmissable element of Madeira’s appeal. There are many operators that cast off in search of the likes of common, bottlenose and striped dolphins; and sperm, Bryde’s and pilot whales, all of which swim in the archipelago’s waters. The archipelago’s second-largest island, Porto Santo, is known for its plethora of marine wildlife and can be reached via a daily ferry from Funchal.

5. The capital has lots to offer

The island capital of Funchal is another Madeiran surprise — not so much sleepy outpost as a stylish, pocket-sized Portuguese city. The 18th-century fortress on its harbour has been recrafted as an exhibition space devoted to the locally born interior designer Nini Andrade Silva, while the Museu CR7 tips its hat to another child of the island, the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. On the slopes above, the Quinta da Boa Vista botanical garden takes life at a slower pace, but is no less alluring for it, revelling in the warm year-round climate by showcasing bright orchids and rare blooms.

6. There's action and adventure everywhere

The island's volcanic heritage lends itself to pulse-raising activity — adrenalin highs are available in almost all parts of the landmass. Up in the serrated northeast, the Ribeira das Voltas is home to waterfalls that crash through the laurel forests of Madeira Natural Park — slippery cascades that can be tackled in abseiling excursions. Madeira is also laced with mountain-bike trails and opportunities to go diving. The Madeirense Wreck in Porto Santo was sunk in 2000 to create an artificial reef, and is one of the most popular dive sites in the Atlantic. 

7. It’s not just one island

Contrary to popular belief, Madeira isn’t just the main island. A wider archipelago is dotted around it — the most obvious fragment of which is Porto Santo, 30 miles to the northeast. Praia do Porto Santo, on its south coast, is arguably the best beach in all of Madeira, spanning some seven miles. A direct contrast is provided by the Ilhas Desertas, which can be found some 25 miles to the southeast of Funchal. The ‘Deserted Islands’ are accurately named — less sun-and-sand havens than a mini-Galápagos of sorts, where monk seals and Madeiran wall lizards outnumber people.

For more information on Madeira, visit madeiraallyear.com

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