How to spend a weekend in Madeira, Portugal's lush adventure island
Against a backdrop of volcanic peaks, waterfalls and lagoons, new hotels and a raft of wild adventure tours are giving new edge to the lush Portuguese isle.
In some respects, Madeira has transformed within a generation. Located in the subtropical waters off northwest Africa, the Portuguese autonomous region was gifted a network of long-awaited highways this century. These snaking roads have opened up the island’s forested summits and mercurial northern coast to visitors previously concentrated around the cruise ship-friendly capital, Funchal, on the southern shore.
This infrastructure boom has allowed the island to shrug off a reputation for being sun-blessed yet fairly staid: any visit to modern Madeira shows it to be a hub of new adventure tours that capitalise on the island’s natural bounties. A year-round, temperate climate, wildlife-rich waters, surf breaks and twisting mountain trails mean there’s more than enough action for a long weekend — the perfect complement to the island’s ever-expanding cosmopolitan offering. Design hotels and edgy restaurants have found homes among the patchwork of vines and banana terraces, and Europe’s first ‘Digital Nomad Village’ opened this year.
But despite the island’s development, its proud traditions are still what characterises any time spent on Madeira: colourful dishes of buttery, black scabbardfish and cooked banana in passionfruit sauce; goblets of honeyed poncha, the beloved local punch; and riotous festivals that light up the night with fireworks.
Day one: off-roading & exotic flora
Start the day by hopping into an open-top, off-road jeep to explore the island. Around a dozen operators run private and small-group tours that pick up travellers from their hotels and take them on a customisable adventure. A half-day trip might take in the UNESCO-protected Fanal Forest; the cloud waterfall beneath the Lombo do Mouro viewpoint; and the ‘lava pools’ of Porto Moniz. Book with Madeira Mountain Expedition or True Spirit, whose petrol-head guides can furnish you with context and tips for the rest of your stay. Should your journey take you towards the island’s stark northeast peninsular, stop off at smart Quinta do Furão hotel, where the terrace restaurant offers one of Madeira’s finest clifftop views.
Nestled in a natural amphitheatre at the centre of the sun-drenched south coast, Funchal — Madeira’s compact capital, home to nearly half the population — is the island’s epicentre. Besides a clutch of small museums and heritage buildings in the historic quarter, the main focus for travellers is the market, with its art nouveau and art deco influences. Admire the flowers and piles of exotic, locally grown fruit that illustrate the legacy of Madeira’s mercantile past, from custard apples from the Andes to pitangas from Brazil. From here, further indulge your inner botanist by taking the cable-car up to Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, a wonderland of exotic blooms, ferns and trees set in the grounds of a palace.
Madeiran architects and restaurateurs have perfected the art of the lofty, sunset-facing ocean terrace, so there’s no shortage of scenic evening dinner-and-drinks spots to choose from on the southwest coast. For elegant cuisine in chic settings, reserve a table in Hotel Ponta do Sol’s high-altitude garden restaurant above the village of the same name, or the chef’s table in the newly opened Socalco Nature Hotel, the brainchild of renowned Madeiran chef Octávio Freitas, set high above the beach and docks of Calheta. Meanwhile, the party’s always in full swing at surfer bar Maktub in the fishing village of Paúl do Mar, where owner Fábio Afonso creates seafood plates with ocean-fresh ingredients, just feet from the water.
Day two: boat tours & bar hopping
Arrive early at Calheta’s dock for a trip aboard a traditional schooner with the marine biologists of Lobosonda. More than a dozen species of whale grace Madeira’s waters, including the blue whale, sperm whale and Bryde’s whale as well as pods of dolphins and even sea turtles. There’s no bad season to head out onto the water, but species are most plentiful between the warmest months, May to September. A half-day tour also offers sensational views back across the island, with its verdant peaks and sheer, black cliffs, as well as an illuminating breakdown of local biodiversity and ocean history. Other operators leave from ports including Funchal and Machico, while guided sport fishing and sunset catamaran cruises are also on offer.
From a distance, Madeira’s slopes appear scored by horizontal lines: these are actually a 1,350-mile network of aqueducts known as levadas, some of which date back to the 15th century. Lace up your walking boots and tackle some sections of your choosing, either on a self-guided hike or in a guided private or group tour with Adventure Kingdom. The latter offers the benefit of botanical and historical interpretation as you go. Among the most scenic levadas are Rabaçal 25 Fountains, Levada do Rei and Levada do Alecrim, all of which offer pathways through sun-dappled corridors of heathers, punctuated by waterfalls and valley views. It’s easy to plan your own hikes, too, as many of the routes are clearly signposted.
Spend the evening in the traditional fishing harbour of Câmara do Lobos with a glass of the local firewater, poncha, a sugarcane spirit mixed with a lemon and honey. Just three miles from the capital, the picturesque port is home to a string of terracotta-roofed taverns, including seafood restaurants Sete Mares and Casa do Farol. Alternatively, start on the narrow Rua de Santa Maria in Funchal, known for its murals, weaving between trendy beer joints like Barreirinha and cocktail bars like Venda Velha. End at the city’s most exciting new dining experience, The Wanderer. Culinary virtuoso Selim Latrous offers an experimental five-course menu in his one-table supper club. Advance booking essential.
Five adventure sports to try in Madeira
Over the past decade, Madeira has seen a rapid growth in new adventure outfits offering wider — and wilder — range of tours. From abseiling down waterfalls to world-class trail running, take your trip up a notch with some out-there activities.
A catch-all term for coastal activities including cliff-jumping, climbing and snorkelling, coasteering is an exhilarating way to see the island. A half-day coasteering tour offers an adrenaline-packed exploration of some of Madeira’s most beautiful, lesser-known outcrops and sea caves in a protected marine park. Helmets, life jackets and wetsuits are included, as are the services of an experienced bilingual guide. €60 (£50).
Hike along the pretty Levada do Alecrim to reach your starting point: the top of a series of scenic waterfalls and lagoons cascading down a canyon from the plateau of Paul da Serra. While gentler tours are available, the 2.5-hour Ribeira do Lajeado group outing is geared towards the intermediate level and the highest abseil covers a drop of 80ft. €80 (£68).
3. Trail running
If you’re interested in off-road running, then you’ve probably already heard of the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MUIT). The 70-mile, cross-island race, taking place on 23 April 2022, attracts the biggest names in the sport. For those looking for a simpler running holiday, Go Trail Madeira offers guided, off-the-beaten track running day tours and longer trips, including yoga and running retreats.
4. Scuba Diving
Diving in the warm, biodiverse waters off Madeira has developed into a serious industry in recent years, with new wrecks being sunk as recently as 2018, and multiple centres, including Manta Diving, catering to beginners and qualified divers. Madeira’s Garajau Nature Reserve is known for its clear waters and varied marine life. Two dives, with equipment, cost €120 (100).
Take to the skies with certified guides and admire the volcanic island’s dramatic geography from on high. Due to a steady, temperate climate, tandem flights depart most afternoons and participants can choose from more than 80 launch sites across the island. Pilots at Madeira Paragliding offer a barbecue before takeoff and drinks upon landing, rounding off the experience in style. €75 (£63).
Top five new hotels
1905 Zino’s Palace
This Wes Anderson-esque, candy-pink, 19th-century ‘palace’ opened as a 10-room boutique in the months before the pandemic, complete with a restaurant and plunge-pool terrace overlooking the bay of Ponta do Sol. From €162 (£137), B&B.
Funchal’s newest five-star (taking the place of the historic Savoy Classic, which dates from 1912) opened to much fanfare — a statement, lagoon-sized pool, twin restaurants and a 300sq ft subterranean spa are just some of the standout features. From €181 (£153), B&B.
Socalco Nature Hotel
With a name taken from the Portuguese for ‘levelled terrace’, this 10-room beauty is woven into a staggered hillside orchard above Calheta. The hotel offers the chance to muck in with garden chores and cooking, too. From €122 (£103), B&B.
Caju Le Petit Hotel
Diminutive and superbly designed, this compact new townhouse boutique has an enviable location at the heart of Funchal’s main attractions. One suite and 24 rooms are stacked atop a Scandi-cool ground floor cafe offering a la carte breakfasts and brunches. From €97 (£82), B&B.
A second outpost for the cool surf hostel in Porto de Cruz, this new iteration in central Funchal offers the brand’s same welcoming hospitality and light-filled rooms. Breakfast features local specialities like bolo do caco (sweet potato bread). From €38 (£32).
Top three festivals for 2022
The island’s annual Flower Festival is a riot of colour: in Funchal’s Praça do Município and along Avenida Arriaga, Madeira’s exotic blooms are on full display across a range of fantastical, fragrant art installations. Join the crowds watching a lavish parade of blossom-bedecked floats and dancers. Expect everything from orchids, birds of paradise and roses to camellias and hundreds of other rare, subtropical species. 8 May 2022.
For wine connoisseurs
With its roots in the agricultural grape harvest, the annual Wine Festival in Madeira is today an altogether slicker affair, mainly gravitating around the capital’s pop-up Wine Village. Madeira’s eponymous elixir is a global export, and there’s a suitably grand programme to celebrate it. Expect exuberant tributes to folklore, exhibitions, tastings and musical performances, culminating in an orchestrated party in the nearby fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. August/September 2022.
For fireworks fans
The island’s penchant for pyrotechnics led to the creation of the Atlantic Festival in 2002, a series of fireworks extravaganzas accompanied by music, nominally celebrating the advent of summer. Funchal’s amphitheatre-like topography lends itself to the waterfront spectacle, and viewers are encouraged to vote for their favourite display, designating one fireworks maestro the festival winner. Saturdays in June 2022.
How to do it
EasyJet flies direct to Funchal from Gatwick, with an average flight time of 3h50m.Quinta das Vinhas, a 17th-century house in Calheta with two outdoor pools and vineyards, from €155 (£130) per night. More info: visitmadeira.pt
Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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