DRAMATIC MOUNTAINS. INTOXICATING VISTAS. Spring-like weather. And 5-star hotels. All this originally attracted an older, moneyed crowd to the Portuguese island of Madeira — located in the Atlantic, 700 miles from the Portuguese mainland. George Bernard Shaw learned to tango on the lawn of the iconic Reid’s Palace Hotel (now a Belmond). Sir Winston Churchill came here to paint the island’s staggeringly beautiful seascapes.
But recently the picture on this verdant 35- by 13-mile volcanic island has begun to change.
The silver-haired aristocrats are still here, but so are entrepreneurs attracted by the EU’s favorable business climate for startups, young families escaping the cold northern winters, and hardy adventure seekers. These include surfers looking for world-class waves, cave divers exploring the underwater caverns, distance runners getting fit on ocean trails (think Chariots of Fire) and cyclists braving gravity-defying inclines and the ever-changing weather. Local outfitters like Terras de Adventura and LokoLoko can provide gear and guides.
Start your visit in Funchal, Madeira’s capital city. The name comes from the fragrance of wild fennel (or funchal) that perfumed the air 600 years ago, when the Portuguese discovered the island. Today visitors flock to the old town with its narrow, cobbled streets. Stop at the interactive Madeira Story Centre for a glimpse of Madeira’s colorful past, including numerous attacks by pirates. Have lunch on the rooftop restaurant. Children of all ages will enjoy Museo do Brinquedo; the toy museum features more than 20,000 cars, dolls and even vintage Star Wars action figures. Stroll down Rua de Santa Maria to admire the Art of Open Doors Project, with imaginative scenes depicted on the front doors of each little house and shop.
On Saturday mornings take the family to Mercado dos Lavradores and admire the building’s blue- and white-tiled façade. Then wander through the farmers market, tasting tropical fruits. Start with the honey-scented, no-bigger-than-your-finger bananas. Don’t miss the custard apple and the philodendron fruit that looks like a pineapple and tastes like a banana. Chat with the colorfully attired flower vendors selling fragrant lilies, roses, orchids and birds of paradise. The downstairs fish market is not for the faint-hearted. Along the perimeter of the market, small bars sell drinks and snacks.
Even if you are not religious, consider attending a service at Funchal Cathedral (consecrated in 1514) to admire the painted cherubs, gilded statues of saints and apostles and, especially, the traditional Portuguese knotwork (alfarge) ceiling.
From the old town take a spectacular cable car ride up to Monte (kids under 6 ride free). The rich Madeirenses lived here in the heyday of the sugar cane industry, high above the hustle and noise of the commercial port. Take in the fresh air up here and the endless panoramic views. Many of the 17th- and 18th-century homes and gardens still exist. Stop at the Monte Palace Tropical Garden to enjoy lakes, waterfalls and exotic species of native trees and flowers.
If you have thrill-seeking teens in tow, they’ll love the trip back down the mountain — a hair-raising ride down a curvy road in a wicker sleigh guided by two straw-hatted and white-trousered carreiros, whose thick rubber-soled shoes provide the sleigh’s only brakes. A popular form of downhill transportation since the 1850s, the sleighs can reach speeds up to 30 mph. To explore the rest of the island rent a car; or if you’re not comfortable navigating mountain roads with seemingly impossible hairpin turns, hire a car and driver for the day.
Madeira wows visitors with pretty villages like São Vicente, boasting white-walled houses with deep-green shutters and red roofs. Visit the 17th-century church before heading to Grutas de São Vicente, caves created by underground channels of lava from eruptions that occurred more than 400,000 years ago.
Visit Porto Moniz to splash in lava pools naturally filled by the ocean’s high tides (go early before the tour buses from the cruise ships arrive). Take a dolphin-, whale- and turtle-watching cruise by speedboat or leisurely catamaran. Drive out to the postcard-pretty Ponta do Pargo lighthouse on the most westerly point of the island.
Put on your high-tops for a levada walk — essentially narrow walkways along ancient irrigation channels cut into the mountains nearly 600 years ago. The more than 1,200 miles of trails offer a range of hikes from easy strolls to good workouts. Go with a guided group like Madeira Levadas or Go Trail Madeira, or download a map and head off on your own.
Any trip to Madeira must include sampling the fortified Madeira wine. Some drink it as an aperitif; others like it with the cheese course, and still others drink it with tonic water over ice. Book a Premium Tour at Blandy’s Wine Lodge for a tasting of both young and rare vintages. Stay for a wine-paired tapas lunch at the small 1811 Bistro & Wine Bar.
Although Madeira boasts 99 miles of coastline with gorgeous azure waters, it has few natural sand beaches. For serious beaching, even locals fly over to neighboring Porto Santo, a tiny speck of an island with miles of golden-sand beach. The flight takes only 15 minutes. Porto Santo, a popular scuba destination, offers dives to view ancient cannons and explore a wrecked cargo ship but remains a still-under-the-radar golf destination. Famed Spanish golfer Severiano Ballesteros designed the fun, challenging and always windy 18-hole course.
Madeira Info to Go
Most international airlines fly to Lisbon (LIS). TAP Air Portugal and others offer a domestic flight from Lisbon to Madeira’s Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport (FNC), with a flight time of about one hour and 45 minutes. The airport lies 14 miles from the island’s capital, Funchal. Taxis cost about $35. Another option: Madeira Airport Transfers for pre-booked service anywhere on the island.
Where to Stay in Madeira
BELMOND REID’S PALACE HOTEL Perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the Atlantic, this elegant hotel has hosted princes and sheikhs since 1891. Enjoy Champagne buffet Sundays, dinner dance Mondays and afternoon tea on the terrace, daily. Buffet breakfast included. Estrada Monumental 139, Funchal $$$$
CASA VELHA DO PALHEIRO This 37-room chintz- and antiques-filled hotel feels like an English country house, offering a heated pool set in luxuriant gardens, sauna and steam rooms, tennis, croquet and billiards. Private yacht for deep-sea fishing available. Rua da Estalagem 23, Funchal $$$$
SAVOY PALACE Shaped like an undulating wave, the recently reopened, retro-chic hotel features 352 rooms, five pools, six restaurants and bars, a cigar. club and a 32,000-square-foot spa. All rooms have sea views. Ave. do Infante 25, Funchal $$$
Restaurants in Madeira
IL GALLO D’ORO Boasting two Michelin stars, the restaurant changes its menu frequently but always offers freshly caught fish. Its 400-bottle cellar includes vintages dating to the 1860s. Reserve a. table on the terrace for great views. Estrada Monumental 147, Funchal $$$$$
RESTAURANTE DO FORTE Atop the battlements of 17th-century São. Tiago fort sample a local favorite: black scabbard fish with fried bananas. The menu also includes creamy seafood risotto and vegetarian options. Classic car pick-up at your hotel. Rua do Portão de São Tiago, Forte de São Tiago, Funchal $$$$
RESTAURANTE TOKOS Enjoy unhurried dining in a 12-table restaurant run by a husband and wife in a 100-year-old house. Just-caught fish and local seafood star, grilled to order and accompanied by fresh vegetables. Reservation essential. Estrada Monumental. 169, Funchal $$$$
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