Why Madeira Is Europe's Best-Kept Secret

Oct 24, 2021

On the map, Madeira may be a mere dot in the deep blue Atlantic. But zoom in and you'll find a rugged world of fantastic volcanic scenery crisscrossed with walking paths, a namesake wine whose origins trace back to the 1600s and a subtropical climate featuring warm sunshine nearly every day of the year.

The best part? This little gem, about 600 miles southwest of Lisbon, is practically undiscovered by American travelers, until now. New direct flights are starting this November from New York's JFK Airport—the first nonstop service connecting the U.S. to this Portuguese island. Here’s what you’ll find if you make Madeira your next international getaway.

A thriving island capital with lush gardens and urban tobogganing 

Madeira's largest town and capital, Funchal is the natural home base for exploring the island. Walk along the seafront promenade to Old Town (aka Zona Velha), stopping for a glass of wine at one of the many bars on the way. Admire the hundreds of brightly painted doors lining cobblestoned Rua Santa Maria, watch the world go by while sampling tapas-style small plates at a pretty outdoor cafe and see the staggering range of local fruits, vegetables and flowers on display at the Art Deco-style Farmers’ Market (Mercado dos Lavradores).

From there, catch the Funchal cable car up to the hilltop town of Monte, where you can stroll Monte Palace Madeira—a lush tiered garden harboring exotic tropical plants who thrive in Madeira's fertile soil, as well as a fascinating collection of tiles from various corners of the former Portuguese empire and its six-century reign. Now, for the really fun part: start your return trip from Monte via a traditional wicker toboggan, steered down the steep hill on either side by white-clad, straw-hatted Madeirans, whose rubber boots and precision movements serve as a braking system.

For even more tropical-garden splendor, visit Palheiro Gardens, created in 1801. The 35-acre garden, set in the eastern hills of Funchal, is renowned for its immense collection of camellias, roses and indigenous plants.

A wonderland for nature lovers

Vast geological variety, a subtropical climate and year-round sunshine make Madeira an idyllic destination for outdoor activities. The volcanic island may look small but it is mighty—shooting more than 6,000 feet out of the Atlantic at its highest point—making it ideal for mountain climbing, hiking and biking. The most popular form of nature walking is Madeira's levada walks. Levadas, which means "carry" in Portuguese, are irrigation channels historically used to carry water down the soaring mountains. (Some date as far back as the 15th century.) The maintenance paths alongside these waterways have developed into (incredibly scenic) walking trails that gently wind down the mountains and valleys. Post-hike, relax in the natural saltwater pools of Seixal or Porto Moniz, where high-rolling waves crash into the rock walls.

Other ways to experience this enchanting island? Canyoning down a rushing waterfall, looking out dolphins and whales frolicking in the Atlantic or kayaking the turquoise waters and hiking the rugged terrain of Ponta de São Lourenço, a stunning national park occupying Madeira's dramatic easternmost point. Outdoor lovers without a trace of vertigo can explore the sky-high mountainous landscape of Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo or brave the glass-bottom viewpoint at Cabo Girão— a whopping 1900 feet above the Atlantic at the tippy-top of one of the world's highest sea cliffs.

Food and wine like nowhere else in the world

Some tiny islands depend on shipped-in food. Not Madeira. The island's volcanic soil and year-round sun are irresistible to all manner of fruits and vegetables. In fact, Madeira is covered in banana trees and espada com banana (scabbard fish with banana) is a Madeiran classic. Speaking of fish, Madeira's surrounding Atlantic waters are rich in seafood, with tuna especially abundant and thus popular on Madeira menus, where it is traditionally offered marinated in salt, olive oil, garlic and oregano. Another culinary staple is the espetada. Akin to a kebab, espetadas feature beef rubbed in garlic and salt, then skewered and grilled.

Bolo de caco is a traditional Madeiran bread made with sweet potatoes, usually served hot with garlic butter and a side of fried maize. For something sweet, try a slice of bolo del mel, a dense, almond-topped honey cake first created by the nuns of Funchal's Convent of Santa Clara in 15th century.

On the drinking front, Madeira has you covered there, too. The island's namesake fortified wine dates back hundreds of years, with a complex, caramelly taste. Don't miss traditional Madeiran punch (poncha), made with sugar cane brandy (Madeiran rum), sugar, honey and lemon or orange juice. Just be forewarned that deceptively strong ponchas go down quite easy. You'll find both local wine and punches at the many bars along the Bay of Funchal.

No blackout dates: year-round sun and spring-like weather

Madeira is part of Europe, but it's closer to Africa than it is the European mainland. Because of its position on the globe, you're pretty much guaranteed sunshine and pleasant temps at any time of year, even the winter months. Of course, this is still the Northern Hemisphere, so the warmest times to go are from June and August, when temperatures are firmly in the upper 70s. Yet even in the throes of the European winter, Madeira temps hover in the spring-like mid-60s. For most travelers, the ocean breeze, cool air from the mountains and warm sun are a heavenly combo.

With weather not a major factor to inform your travel dates, you might want to consider some of the main events on the Madeiran calendar. Flower lovers might plan a late April or early May trip timed to Madeira's annual weeklong flower festival, when the island showcases its spectacular blooms with a parade, exhibitions and flowers carpeting Funchal's historic Avenida Arriaga. The wine flows all year long in Madeira, but late August to early September marks the end of the harvest and Madeira's wine festival, where you can expect demonstrations of the wine-making process, performances by local music groups, and of course, plenty of tastings. 

Finally, Madeira hosts one of the world's most dazzling New Year's Eve fireworks displays. (The show even secured a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006.) The mind-bogglingly elaborate show sets off from locations all around the island and even from ships in the Atlantic to usher in the new year.

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