Situated off the coast of north Africa but definitely part of Europe, the Portuguese island of Madeira offers year-round good weather, stunning scenery, and a friendly, relaxed welcome. Whether you like experiencing the local culture, chilling out in the sunshine or getting active, here are 10 things I recommend you put on your list when you visit the island:
ONE: Combine old and new transport. Take the cable car from Fajã dos Padres on the coast, up the mountainside to Monte. Enjoy birds-eye views of the cliffs, the city of Funchal and the deep blue of the Atlantic.
When you are ready to head back down again, jump on board one of the large wicker sledges and allow the carreiros to steer you, in a crazy zig-zag back, back down to more level ground.
TWO: Try some local, and unusual, fruit. On Fridays and Saturdays spend some time at the Mercado dos Lavradores “Farmer Market” in the old part of the town and try the different flavoured passion fruits. There is lemon, peach, pineapple, and orange (all delicious), tomato (a bit odd, but actually quite nice and good in a salad), and banana (best avoided in my opinion).
The stall holders will scoop out a small spoonful and put it on the back of your hand ready for you to lick up and savour. Remember to head upstairs as well – prices are very slightly cheaper and there are dried fruits, herbs, and flowers to see as well.
THREE: Walk one of the many levadas. These are irrigation channels unique to Madeira and they provide the perfect setting for a walk through the countryside. Whatever your fitness level there will be a levada walk that is suitable; through the laurel forests, along the valleys, climbing the mountains.
Wear sturdy footwear and remember to take time to enjoy the musical accompaniment of the water, the far-reaching views across the Atlantic, and the play of sunlight through the trees.
FOUR: Hang out and drink coffee – like the locals. There are plenty of cafes to choose from: sit by the ocean and watch the sun dance on the waves; people watch in the centre of Funchal; or stand at the counter of a tiny bar-café in one of the mountain villages. Sit on the balcony of AquaNatura for a view over the volcanic pools, or relax at the Golden Gate for elegant décor and fancy cakes.
The locals drink tiny-weeny cups of very strong espresso – so expect your latte to mark you out as a tourist.
FIVE: Take a free tour of the Bordal embroidery factory. You’ll not only learn the history but you will see the entire process, step-by-step; from the hand drawn designs, to the creation of the stamped fabrics, to the finished piece. Every part is still done by hand as it has been for nearly 200 years.
SIX: Journey to the centre of the earth inside the volcanic caves of São Vicente. These may not be the biggest, or the most impressive caves you will ever visit – but what makes them so fascinating is that you’ll be walking inside a lava tube! Formed around 890,000 years ago, these tubes are the result of long fingers of lava, full of molten rock and gases, that flowed out of the volcano consuming everything in their path. There is also a well-presented exhibition and an opportunity to journey to the centre of the earth – Jules Verne style.
SEVEN: Madeira has plenty of sun and sea – and year-round warmth. So, no matter the time of year a lounger by the pool, or a dip in natural volcanic pools of Porto Moniz is a great way to spend an afternoon.
EIGHT: Go canyoning. Don a wet suit, waterproof boots, and a helmet and let the experienced guides from Adventure Kingdom take you down one of Madeira’s many natural canyons. Leap from boulder to boulder, rappel down waterfalls, jump into deep pools, and slide down stone chutes smoothed by the passage of the river. It’s a great fun and a wonderful way to get into the heart of the island and experience its natural beauty.
NINE: Stroll along Rua de Santa Maria. A decade ago this street in the old town was run down and best avoided. Now, it’s full of life and some fabulous street art. Take a walk in the morning when it is less busy and the restaurants are still setting up – that way you’ll be able to appreciate the variety of art adorning almost every door along the street. The quality may be variable but the creativity and sense of fun is consistent. Come back in the evening for a meal at one of the many eateries and soak up the buzz.
TEN: Vegans and vegetarians. Although Madeira isn’t the best place in Europe for vegans and vegetarians, you won’t starve. In most cases the options will be pasta, risotto, or salad. The Beerhouse does a delicious colourful salad with tiny pieces of marinated tofu, Hostel Santa Maria does a vegan dish of roasted mango and vegetables (definitely worth a try), and Chalet Vicente Restaurant has vegetable tempura and dishes made with fresh, local cheese. For vegetarians the local cheese is a good option; it’s light, and can be served both as a savoury and as a sweet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chantal Cooke is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster with a passion for the planet. In 2002 she co-founded the award-winning radio station PASSION for the PLANET and in 2009 Chantal was awarded London Leader in Sustainability status. Chantal also runs a successful communications agency – Panpathic Communications.