Why Madeira should be top of your list for a post-lockdown holiday
The world's best island (it's official!) — complete with year-round sunshine, breathtaking scenery, and a buzzing capital with hip neighbourhoods — is only a 4-hour flight away.
Madeira, a dot in the deep blue Atlantic, remains undiscovered by many. But with its relatively low risk and great UK flight connections, it should be at the top of anyone's 2020/2021 travel list.
We need to talk about COVID
Let's get straight to it — Madeira is doing well with its COVID-19 response. The island shut down at the beginning of the year, but has been steadily re-opening — with measures to keep infection rates low -- since July. Active cases sit well below 100.
Those looking for a last-minute holiday or to soak up some winter sun will need to adhere to these safety guidelines. But as long as you remain sensible, the island is yours to explore:
- Fill in an online health survey before travelling, then
- Provide proof of a negative Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test result received within 72 hours prior to arrival in Madeira. If you bring this, you’ll be able to set off on public transport, dine in restaurants, and shop as soon as you leave the airport, or
- Take a free COVID-19 test on arrival in Funchal airport, then isolate while waiting for results (these are normally processed within 12 hours, so there's not long to wait), or
- Self-isolate for 14 days on arrival
Currently, the island is on the UK's travel corridor list, so travellers do not need to isolate once they return to the UK.
With that out of the way, here's what you can look forward to on your visit:
Putting the 'fun' in Funchal
Going to Madeira without going on a basket toboggan ride would be like going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower -- it's one of the island's top tourist attractions. This thrilling activity dates from the 19th century, when local residents would use it to get from the village of Monte down to the city of Funchal.
Hop into a straw basket and feel the wind in your hair as two runners in traditional straw boater hats guide you on the exhilarating journey down from Monte to Livramento, while you hit speeds up to 30km.
Once you've made your descent, you'll find taxis at the bottom waiting to whisk you off to Madeira's capital. Funchal is home to the island's Old Town, or Zona Velha. Wander down the Rua Santa Maria, lined with over 200 painted doors, watch the world go by while eating tuna steak outside a pretty cafe, or pay a visit to a 60-year old hat factory.
Get back to nature
Having a year-round sunny climate makes Madeira a perfect destination for outdoor activities. Try canyoning down a rushing waterfall, spotting dolphins and whales dipping through the sparkling Atlantic, or kayaking the turquoise waters of Ponta de São Lourenço national park.
Although small, Madeira is almost 2000m high — ideal for mountain climbing and hiking. One of the main outdoor activities here is the levada walks. Levadas, which means "carry" in Portuguese, are waterways that carry water down the mountains. The maintenance paths alongside these waterways have developed into walking trails that criss-cross down the mountains and valleys, carving out scenic routes for hikes.
Bananas, brochettes, and bolo de caco
Forget boring sponge cake — Madeira's cuisine is rich in flavour and variety. Because of the year-round sun, the island is covered in banana trees. Be sure to try espada com banana (black scabbardfish made with Madeira bananas).
This is not to be confused with espetada, which is similar to a kebab or brochette. Large chunks of beef are rubbed in garlic and salt, then skewered onto a bay leaf stick.
Bolo de caco is a traditional Madeiran bread made with sweet potatoes that's usually served hot with garlic butter and a side of fried maize. Or try something sweeter -- perhaps a slice of the local bolo del mel, a dense, richly spiced honey cake topped with almonds.
One of the best restaurants to sample local cuisine is O Lagar, about a 15-minute taxi ride out from the city centre -- be sure to order some milho frito (fried corn) on the side of your meal. Or, if you prefer to go all out in style, try Il Gallo d'Orgo, "the Michelin-starred jewel in Funchal’s culinary crown" (Culture Trip). With two Michelin stars and views out to the ocean, the restaurant all but guarantees a memorable evening.
When it comes to drinking, if you fancy something a little different from the famous Madeira fortified wine, try a nikita cocktail — a combination of beer, juice, ice cream, and pineapple pieces. Or if you want to stick to traditions there's poncha, a distilled alcohol made with sugar cane juice and mixed with honey, sugar, and either orange or lemon juice. The bars along the Bay of Funchal serve these drinks, and many offer live music.
OK, I'm in. When should I go?
You're pretty much guaranteed sunshine whenever you go to Madeira, however the warmest time is between June and August, where temperatures reach a pleasant 25°C. If you fancy a winter break away from the UK's grey skies, temperatures still average 18°C in January and February -- in fact, Condé Nast has named Madeira one of the top European destinations for winter sun, and European Best Destinations voted Madeira the safest destination in Europe for a 2020 Christmas break.
If you travel in early May, you'll catch Madeira's annual flower festival — a must-see for plant lovers — the island showcases its spectacular blooms with a parade through Funchal. Late August to early September is 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.
Want to say goodbye to 2020 in style? Madeira holds what may be the world's most impressive New Year's Eve fireworks. A mind-bogglingly choreographed display, lasting around eight minutes, is set off from locations all around the island and from several barges in the Atlantic. It will ruin you for fireworks anywhere else, ever.