9 ways that otherworldly Madeira might surprise you
The Portuguese outpost of Madeira has shed its somewhat staid image – and with good reason. This small Atlantic island, closer to North Africa than it is to Europe, is a subtropical paradise with a cosmopolitan capital city, dramatic scenery, botanical wonders and truly unique local cuisine.
Add in year-round spring-like temperatures and a 3.5-hour flying time from the UK, and you’ve got a very tempting holiday destination. Plus, it was voted the 2016 World's Leading Island Destination at the World Travel Awards.
Here are nine other reasons to visit right now:
1. Its rock pools could rival the swankiest infinity pools
Head to Porto Moniz, where lava rocks have created natural saltwater pools with some truly stunning views of the northwest coastline. The Atlantic Ocean location means that temperatures can be bracing, but there’s definitely something to be said for floating in millpond-calm waters while high-rolling waves crash into the outside rock walls. For a bargain entry fee of 1.50€, you can use the changing rooms, lockers and showers.
2. The wine is world class
The vines aren’t quite as prolific as they once were, but Madeira still produces some of the world’s best fortified wines – so called because they’re bolstered by adding grape spirit, which raises the alcohol content. And in Madeira, that’s typically up to 19%. One of the best places to try it is Câmara de Lobos (a lovely traditional fishing village) where you can get a free wine tasting at local producer Henriques & Henriques.
If you happen to be in Madeira during the grape harvest (late August, early September), don’t miss the Wine Festival – the ideal time to try some of the drier versions that pair well with hard cheeses and charcuterie.
3. You can literally jump from the top of a mountain into a forest
Madeira inhabits the very top of an enormous volcano rising up from the sea bed. Unsurprisingly then, its landscape is unique, and that’s what makes it ideal for canyoning. This adrenaline-fuelled activity involves the use of abseiling, jumping and sliding to get from the top of a canyon to the bottom. Travel from cloud-shrouded peaks to lush valleys and eucalyptus forests, all under the supervision of the experts (of which there are many across the island).
4. Tobogganing is an acceptable form of transport
Where else can you career down a precipitous hill in a wood-and-wicker toboggan, steered by Madeiran men in straw boaters? This exhilarating and slightly mad tradition starts at the top of the hill at Monte and takes in the hair-pin twists and turns of the main road to Funchal. Look out for views of the botanical gardens and the bay as you whizz past… The cable car (from 10€ per person, each way) will take you to Monte, so you don’t need to worry about climbing to the top.
5. The food is unlike anything else you’ll find in Europe…
Thanks to its subtropical climate, Madeira produces an impressive assortment of exotic fruits and spices – the best place to find them is at the Art Deco Farmers’ Market (Mercado dos Lavradores) in the centre of the capital. And its staple dishes aren’t the usual fare you’d expect to find in southwest Europe, either. There’s black scabbardfish (often served with baked banana), Espetada (beef skewered with a bay leaf and served with fried maize) and passionfruit pudding.
6. …but you can still take tea in a very British way
Reid’s Palace – one of the island’s most eminent 5-star hotels once favoured by Winston Churchill – hosts a very traditional tea (34.50€ per person) every afternoon. Expect finger sandwiches, scones, homemade pastries and 24 different teas, all served on an al fresco terrace with panoramic views of the sea.
7. Sand is scarce, but Madeira has a little sister with five miles of beach
That sandy little sister island is Porto Santo, part of the Madeiran archipelago and a two-and-a-half hour boat ride from the main island. On the journey, you might see sperm whales or bottlenose dolphins, and you’re even more likely to spot red-blue flying fish flitting in and out of the waves. There’s a sweep of sand that stretches for most of the island’s south coast, backed by rolling dunes. And for such a tiny island – just under four by seven miles – it has a surprising number of excellent restaurants. Don’t miss the tiny capital, with its maze of whitewashed buildings, bougainvilla-lined streets and a 17th-century church.
8. You’ll find jaw-dropping views across the island
Madeira’s landscape is fabulously craggy, so the earliest settlers built small levadas (water canals) to carry water from springs higher up the mountainsides to irrigate their lands. These days, you can walk alongside the levadas – they cover several protected areas including the Madeira Natural Park and the Funchal Ecological Park. You might trek past waterfalls, through gnarly forests or across quilted fields, still tended by hardy mountaineers. Whichever route you choose, the panoramas are likely to impress.
If that’s a little too adventurous, you could always visit the Cabo Girao Skywalk, a clifftop glass-floor viewing platform where you can stand over a 580m drop (it’s Europe’s highest skywalk and second only to the Grand Canyon’s, worldwide).
9. The nature is otherworldly
Two thirds of Madeira is classified as a nature reserve, within which lies the Laurissilva forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll find fantastic species such as the Madeiran long-toed pigeon (a brilliant cyan blue), giant dandelions and tall, knobbly trees that wouldn’t look out of place on a 'Lord of the Rings' film set. Over on the aptly named Ilhas Desertas there’s a breed of monk seal that only lives here, while the Selvagens Islands are home to nine species of seabirds that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.