After close to a month’s worth of travel, stays in the capital, in the hills of the interior and on the coast, we know this beautiful, green gem of an Atlantic island pretty well. There’s a very good reason why anyone you know who has been to Madeira will say they have been numerous times, or that they are planning to go back. For such a small island it packs in a lot. And, as they say, it gets into your heart and stays there.
The scenery is spectacular and dramatic, the year-round Mediterranean-style climate is (generally) pretty perfect, neither too hot nor cold, there is fascinating culture and history, the people are friendly and welcoming, the roads and public transport are excellent, and, despite impossible geological features, the civil infrastructure defies belief. All this, plus excellent food, fresh local produce, masses of tropical fruit (Madeiran bananas are the tastiest I’ve had), blooms of scented flowers on every hillside, breath-taking sea views from almost everywhere (due to the steep elevations) and then there are the levadas for which the island is probably most famous.
Madeira’s levadas are an engineering marvel. These irrigation channels which take pristine fresh water from every mountain down to the towns and villages on the coast made settlement on the island possible. Today, the hundreds of miles-worth of channels form a massive network of unbelievable hiking routes through some of the most pristine laurisilva forests in Europe. The hikes are generally quite long and linear, following the paths next to the levadas which were created as maintenance access, but there are a few shorter routes. Often, they cling impossibly to mountainsides, with sheer drops at their sides, but usually they are well maintained with clear signage and repairs made where practical.
While our young son is a strong walker, we have only managed a tiny fraction of the levada walks, but this has given us enough of an appreciation for their charm. The longest walk we undertook was in the hills above the town of Santana on the north-east coast. A single lane road winds its way 900 metres up to the Queimadas National Park, the start of the walk to the Caldeirão Verde (Green Cauldron). There is some parking along the road, although it is advisable to get here early. The magical eight mile walk (four there, four back) follows the levada along the edge of vertical sided ravines, through low, man-made tunnels (torches required), alongside giant ferns and moss covered rocks and along narrow paths at dizzying heights. At the end is a huge amphitheatre of steep rock faces covered in the lushest vegetation and a powerful 100m waterfall cascading down into a pale blue and pink pool. With the clear, fresh air and all the excitement of the dramatic scenery, our 6 year old son quite literally took the eight miles in his stride, to the amazement and admiration of fellow walkers who regularly passed us on their way to and from our destination, often on the narrowest of ledges. At our ‘family’ pace, the walk took six and a half hours, and we were all left with muddy shoes and trousers, aching limbs, ruddy complexions and a sense of achievement.
While the levada walks are a must-do, as one of the few ways to see the beautiful and unspoiled interior of the island, there are some jaw-dropping miradouros well worth visiting by car and it is easy and advisable to hire a car from the airport (20 mins drive from Funchal, the capital) to really make the most of your stay.
The following guide gives you some of the best places to visit and things to do that are easily accessible by car. There is also an excellent bus service and for stays in Funchal it is possible to visit many of them without hiring a car, although this would restrict the amount of places you could get to in one visit. We would often find ourselves making the most of the Via Rapida (the VR1, the main route west to east), using the tunnels and bridges to hop from one side of the island to the other in under an hour.
Our favourite place to stay on the island is Machico, less than half an hour’s drive east of Funchal and only ten minutes from the airport. It is a small town with a compact centre, a manmade beach, well stocked local shops (the greengrocers just off the square doubles as a bar for local chaps on the Madeiran wine), a close-knit community and a picturesque old church in a leafy square. From the hills above the town there are beautiful views over the Atlantic Ocean to the three small Desertas Islands, convervation islands for black seals. The drive to Machico passes under the airport’s stilted runway and from the town you can see the planes making their difficult approach overhead. There is a sheltered harbour where boats from Madeira’s smaller sister island, Porta Santo, are often moored (you can take a ferry to the island from Funchal), and local children learn to surf in the shallow water by the beach.
When staying outside of Funchal and driving in, we have found that the best place to park is in the multistorey car park by the bottom of the cable car in the Zona Velha (the old town). This area is the location of the island’s oldest market where there are tropical fruits galore, along with a fish section and souvenir stalls, but beware of high prices as this can be something of a tourist trap! Much better to pop into the bakery, Pau de Canela, on the narrow street to the seafront side of the market and buy some cheap and filling bolo de caco (the delicious local bread made with sweet potatoes). We love this for breakfast with Madeiran bananas and oranges. From the Zona Velha you can take a stroll along the seafront and then up through the tree-lined streets to the main boulevard, the Avenida Arriaga, along beautifully black and white tiled pavements, visit the Sé (Funchal’s cathedral), stop for a drink at one of the many bars and restaurants, and on passed the Teatro Baltazar Dias to the Jardim Municipal for a rest in gardens surrounded by scented flowers and palms. Head up through the narrow streets from the gardens to visit the Museu Arte Sacra, and its tempting café (which has interesting vegan options). Then take a leisurely stroll through the San Pedro area, full of old manor houses and a picturesque church. Wrap back around to the roundabout at the top of Avenida Arriaga from where you can head back to the harbour to ogle cruise ships and smaller craft in the marina. Join Madeiran families on an evening passear along the front and back to the Zona Velha where there are lots of bars for a nip of poncha (the local alcoholic sugar cane spirit made with a variety of different fruit juices).
When to go
For us, a lovely time to visit Funchal, and Madeira in general, is early January. It’s a great place to escape the cold in northern Europe, with temperatures on the island hovering around the mid to high teens (in degrees C), and often reaching the mid-20s in the midday sun. There can be the odd rainy day but this just provides a great excuse to go for a drive. Madeira’s hills can be incredibly atmospheric in the rain (although I don’t recommend the mountains, unless you like being in the clouds! And take care on the roads). Another wonderful benefit to being in Madeira in early January is that the island’s towns and villages are still adorned in Christmas decorations, so you get the festive-feel without the festive prices. On the Avenida Arriaga, in Funchal, a Christmas market is in full swing until the second week in January, complete with an area of traditional Madeiran crafts, poncha and food stalls, the odd farm animal and a huge diorama of the town in its infancy. On January 5th, it is the traditional ‘Three Kings’ festival, which we have joined in the pretty little central square in Machico. The whole town turns out for singing around the nativity scene, meaty sandwiches in bolo do caco, and a share of the longest fruit pastry I’ve ever seen, laid out on trestle tables around the square.
Half-day trips from Funchal
At 550m above sea level, the village of Monte is a verdant, peaceful, yet rather touristy suburb of the capital, full of parks and tree-lined pathways. It is accessible via the cable cars which make a hair-raising ride up from the seafront, or from a slip-road off the VR1.
Also signposted from the VR1 is the Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley), which gets its name from a local legend. The story goes that the village became the home of nuns from Funchal who were escaping from pirates keen to plunder the church treasures in the 16th century. It’s easy to see why, as it lies in a valley within a vast cauldron of rock at 600m. The village is now more famous for its chestnut harvest festival in October. Local cafes serve the sweet, flavoursome and pleasantly chewy chestnuts hot on a small griddle pan with a plain salt dressing and despite the touristy prices it’s worth trying as a pan is filling for two as a light lunch. Just outside of the village, a turning to the right off the road leads up to a viewing point at 1000m in Eira do Serrado. From here, you can see straight down into the valley below and a number of roads winding out of Curral das Frieras, dotted with smallholdings and dwellings, but apparently leading to nowhere, halfway up steep hillsides.
Further west along the VR1, past Funchal, signs direct you to the glass viewing platform Caba Girão from where you can stare through between your feet to the Atlantic Ocean crashing onto rocks 580m directly below. It is worth holding on here until sunset when, if the clouds oblige, the whole scene can be transformed into a riot of peaches, oranges and pinks. It is also fascinating to watch the comings and goings of other tourists and local visitors, all negotiating the death-defying platform in their own careful way.
Just beyond the Caba Girao turning on the VR1, is the exit for Camara de Lobos, an old fishing port and home to thousands of banana trees. It is worth a stop-off to see the traditional fishing boats, all beautifully painted and lovingly restored, moored up on the beach. The little harbour is a suntrap and lined with cafés for much needed refreshments.
A few miles west of Funchal, down the coast road, is the Frente Mar (sea front) from where you can walk down the lido area to the beach at Praia Formosa. By the lido are gardens and nice, sheltered spots for a picnic lunch with views out to sea and the hardy souls braving the crashing waves and chilly waters of the Atlantic. There are paths lined with masses of bright pink bougainvillea and seafront cafés along the route. The beach itself is around a small headland and provides a stark contrast to the hotel zone of the Frente Mar, windswept and wild, with crashing waves, volcanic rock pebbles smoothed by the sea, a wooden board walk and a few bars selling Coral (Funchal brewed lager), poncha and bicas (espressos).
Twelve miles west along the VR1 from Funchal, take the VE4 at Ribiera Brava for some stunning mountain scenery. The road takes the route of the Central Valley, which splits the island in two and makes for some dramatic views, before diving down into one of the island’s longest tunnels, under the Encumeada Pass. The tunnel emerges at São Vicente on the north coast. One of the main attractions, just outside of town, is the Grutas e Centro do Vulcanismo (Volcano Centre and Caves). Here a fascinating tour starts with a film on Madeira’s 5 million year old volcanic history. The highlight of the trip is a 700m guided walk through the five real lava tubes created when the islands were formed. Our guide explained (in Portuguese and English) how the tubes came to be, their discovery by locals and later exploration by a British palaeontologist called James Johnson, and the different types of pyroclastic flow that led to the various rock formations we could see.
From São Vicente you can follow the old back route out of town and head up to the Encumeada Pass, 1000m above along twisting roads and offering miradouros with incredible views of the surrounding mountains which, when we visited, were sent into sharp relief by the late afternoon sun.
From São Vicente, a good road leads through a series of tunnels to the windswept outpost of Porto Moniz on the far northwestern tip of the island. Here rugged volcanic rocks jut out of the rough seas and, when the sun disappears around the headland, leaving the sky a brilliant pink, the sea turns an inky blue, in stark contrast to the crashing white surf. The rocks here are the most incredible shades of pinks and reds, and it is worth a stroll out along the purpose-built pathways by the Restaurante Cachalote. In summer, you can take a dip in the natural pools carved out of the volcanic rock by the action of the waves.
Ponta do Sol
A few miles west of Ribiera Brava, back on the sunny south coast is Ponta do Sol, where a basalt rock beach provides the ideal spot to watch the sun set over the sea and enjoy a meal overlooking the ocean (there is a reason this place is called Point of the Sun). The pretty, character-filled village itself is a lovely place for a stroll, with narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, a maze of stone steps leading to quiet squares and terraces with views out to sea. It’s a reminder of how travel on this tiny island evokes memories of so many other countries. I have been known to compare different parts of the island to places as varied as New Zealand, Italy, Bolivia, Iceland and Australia.
Paúl da Serra
From Ponta do Sol, a winding, wiggling road from the Via Rapida heads up and up through banana plantations and eucalyptus groves 1500m to the Paúl da Serra plateau; mile upon mile of flat heathland dropping off to the clouds below. Giant white wind turbines stand stark against a bright blue sky with long straight roads flanked by gorse and heather stretching out in all directions. Take a short drive east towards the Encumeada Pass, and on the left the peak of Bica da Cana is a short hike away. Park along the road by an unprepossessing gate and follow the terracotta coloured track behind an old motel to a mirador with a 180-degree view of Madeira’s highest peaks, with the sea glinting off the north coast.
The region around the southwest coast town of Calheta is the warmest and sunniest part of the island, the roads out of town winding around small, neat fruit and flower-filled gardens and low wooden dwellings lending an almost Caribbean feel. Calheta seafront has quite a touristy feel, with a few high rise hotels, a concrete promenade and beaches made with imported Saharan sand.
The interior of the east of Madeira, which you can easily cover in one long day trip from Machico, also has some spectacular scenery, but is very different in character to the west. Take the VE1 road north from Machico and turn off left at a tight switchback junction signposted São Roque for one of our favourite miradouros on the island. It is marked by a brown sign pointing right off the road as you head up into the village. It leads up what appears to be a private driveway to a tiny cemetery (the road goes all the way around the cemetery to create a turning circle). This is a great spot for a picnic lunch with incredible views up to the centre of São Roque, which clings impossibly to a narrow hillside, rising like a dinosaur’s backbone up to the island’s three highest peaks beyond. On the other side of the cemetery there is a view right the way down to the sea at Porto da Cruz.
Follow the road up from Sao Roque to Ribiero Frio (Cold River) for a short 1.5kms levada walk to the magnificent Vereda dos Balcões viewing platform, teetering on a rock jutting out over the steep-sided verdant valley and giving a complete vista from the mountains down to the sea. If you’re lucky and time it right, you might just get this spot to yourself, with time to take in the fragrant, green forested landscape and visited only by the odd, rather tame Madeiran chaffinch looking for picnic crumbs. You can take the steps back to the village, through terraced allotments, passing locals tending their potatoes and greens. The village also has its own trout farm which is free to visit and is surrounded by lush vegetation and wound through by a rechannelled levada which is filtered into huge outdoor tanks where hundreds of fish are bred. A huge ‘daddy fish’, as my son refers to him, presides over the outdoor tanks from a glass enclosure. There are some wonderful misty views from here up through to the head of the narrow valley from behind atmospheric tree ferns. Bring a jumper as it can be pretty chilly in Ribiero Frio, which, at 800m, can still be shaded by hills for much of the day.
Continue on the road from Ribiero Frio on a steep upward trajectory and follow signs to Madeira’s third highest peak, Pico Arieiro, the only one accessible by car. The road winds ever upwards until the white domed radar station eventually comes into sight and, after more twists and turns, and a lung-busting walk up a steep slope and several steps, you reach the stone marker at the 1800m summit. It’s worth the effort though for breathtaking views of mountains, clouds, sea stretching for hundreds of miles, and the whole Madeiran archipelago. An eight mile walk, taking in Madeira’s three highest peaks, kicks off nearby, and a daring trail follows the path for a kilometre, negotiating a narrow sliver of land linking the mountain with its neighbour, and with no safety rails or barriers. On either side of the stone paving are increasingly steep slopes of loose shingle, but from the viewing point halfway along it is possible to see straight down into the two steep-sided valleys on either side of the mountain. It is a very exposed spot though and not recommended in inclement weather. Even on a clear day, when the sun is hidden by clouds, a chill wind can whip up in moments.
Ponta de São Lorenço
Another drive worth taking from Machico, and much less hair-raising, is the expressway east, passing the industrial port of Caniçal and on to the Ponta de Sao Lorenço peninsula. At the end of the road there is a car park and the start of a 6km walk to the far eastern tip of the island. Short of time on our visit, we only made it to the first viewing platform but from this we got a true sense of the island’s incredible volcanic history as the peninsula is covered in geological treasures. There are cross-sectional lava funnels cutting fissures through the rock, scattered basalt rock bombs littering the slopes as if flung from a massive volcanic ejection, and incredible stratified rock in multiple colours of red, brown, yellow and ochre. Our son was so impressed that he dug out some ‘lava’ with his fingers to keep as a souvenir. The landscape here is barren and treeless but the colours of the rock contrast beautifully with the blue sea and white crashing waves. On the way back along the road, follow the brown sign to the miradouro and take a walk up the hillside to the left of the car park for a panorama of both the south-east and north-east coasts of the island complete with aeroplanes taking off and landing immediately overhead to and from the stilt-raised runway, also visible down the coast. It was at this spot that our son declared ‘we are definitely coming back here!’
Photo credit Tom Pitchford. All rights reserved. Please contact us through our Facebook page for more information.