In search of a destination in Europe with a good chance for nice weather in November, we ended up on the island of Madeira. Madeira is actually a group of 4 islands that are part of Portugal but are located just off the coast of Africa, not far from Spain’s Canary Islands. As a result, Madeira is known for its year-round spring like weather. And if it’s raining in one part of the island, just move to another location and you will likely find sun.
Funchal and South
We decided to base ourselves in the city of Funchal at the beautiful Vine Hotel. We had a sweeping view of the ocean from our upgraded corner suite. Their rooftop pool and bar also had an incredible view of the city of Funchal.
Funchal was a bit touristy as it is the main stop for cruise ships stopping in the area. As a result, walking through the old town can be a bit frustrating as every restaurant uses high pressure tactics to lure you in for dinner. Rather than walking through the old town, we enjoyed strolling along seaside promenade, past the vendors selling roasted chestnuts and families enjoying an ice cream.
We spent one full day during our four day trip to Madeira exploring the city of Funchal and the surrounding area.
Madeira Cable Car
If you walk along the oceanfront promenade, you will eventually reach the Madeira Cable Car. The cable car will take you to the hilltop town of Monte above the city of Funchal. The 15 to 20 minute journey travels a distance of 3,200 metres. In addition to the amazing view from the cable car, there are a few tourist stops in the town of Monte including the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, Madeira Botanical Gardens, and Church of Our Lady of the Mount.
A round trip ticket on the cable car is 16€ but you could purchase a one-way ticket for 11€ and ride one of the famous wicker baskets down the streets steered by two “drivers”. The drivers are dressed in all white with straw hats and black boots which they use as brakes. These traditional toboggans, called “Carro do Monte”, will take you to the suburb of Livramento and it will be necessary to take a taxi or bus back to Funchal city centre.
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
After our cable car ride up to the town of Monte we decided to go to the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, located right by the exit of the cable car. The garden was huge and included several styles of gardens with an extensive collection of exotic plants and flowers, along with koi ponds, and ducks and swans swimming in the central lake. We spent several hours enjoying the serene setting and taking pictures in the sculptured gardens. In addition to the tropical gardens, there is also a museum dedicated to African art and an exhibition housing a private collection of minerals.
We stopped by Cabo Girao on our way back to Funchal from our hike in the Levada Das 25 Fontes. Located in the city of Camara de Lobos, Cabo Girao is a near vertical cliff, 580 metres above the ocean. It is one of the highest cliffs in Europe and offers panoramic views of the ocean from a glass floored skywalk. The drive through the town of Camara de Lobos offered equally breathtaking views. Not far from Cabo Girao we tried the Madeiran specialty of espetada (beef cooked on laurel skewers) at Restaurante Santo António in Câmara De Lobos.
Blandy’s Wine Lodge
We couldn’t leave Madeira without trying the namesake Madeira wine, so we went to the centrally located Blandy’s Wine Lodge for a tour and tasting. Blandy’s is one of the oldest and largest Wine Lodges in Madeira. The 45 minute Premium tour introduced us to the specially made barrels used to age the wine, the different types of grapes, a museum showcasing the history of Madeira wine and finally a chance to taste the wine. We each received a glass of Verdelho 5 years (dryer) and Malmsey Harvest 2010 (sweeter). They also offer a 60 minute Vintage tour which delves deeper into the aging process of their dated wines.
The complexity of the Madeira wine and what differentiates it from other types of wine is the heating process used during production. In the 15th and 16th century when the island of Madeira was an important stopover on voyages overseas, ships would stock up on wine in Madeira. The wine would heat up as the ship travelled to tropical destinations resulting in a more complex flavour. Madeira wine became quite popular in the 18th century and was even used to toast the Declaration of Independence. Today, Blandy’s wines are aged and heated in barrels in the warm attic of the Wine Lodge in a process called Canteiro.
Other things to see and do in Southern Madeira:
- Mercado dos Lavradores
- Madeira Botanical Gardens
- Church of Our Lady of the Mount
- CR7 Museum
- Get away from the main tourist area for dinner. Many of the restaurants we tried in the Funchal’s Old Town were overpriced and overrated.
Where to Eat/Drink:
- BeerHouse – came here for craft beer tasting and seafood rice with a nice location right on the waterfront.
- Restaurante Santo António (Câmara De Lobos) – recommended by a local for the Madeiran specialty of espetada (beef cooked on laurel skewers) and did not disappoint.
- Barreirinha Bar Cafe – great place to enjoy a beer by the ocean.
Ponta da São Lourenço
The Eastern part of Madeira has a completely different landscape than the rest of the island. The dry, barren cliffs were sculpted by the Northern winds which makes the hiking trail along the narrow peninsula feel like the end of the world. The pictures we took did not do it justice. The steep ascent at the end of the trail took us to a viewpoint with 360 degree views of the nearby Desertas Islands and Porto Santo Island.
Verada Ponta da São Lourenço (PR8) is a 6km round trip hike and it took us about 3 hours including numerous stops for pictures and a picnic lunch near the Sardinha Port. There is a small cafe and bathroom (available for a small fee) near the end of the trail. We saw quite a few people on this hike on a cloudy day. We snagged one of the last parking spots in the parking lot at the beginning of the trail when we arrived around 10:30am. I imagine the heat on this trail would be unbearable on a sunny day as there are no trees to provide shade. Although there are two spots to take a dip in the ocean at Praia das Sardinhas and another black pebble beach near the beginning of the trail.
Levada das 25 Fontes/Levada do Risco (PR6 and 6.1 – 4.6km each way)
One of the wonderful activities available on Madeira are the numerous levada walks all around the island. A levada is an irrigation canal built by the Madeirans to distribute rainwater from the rainy north of the island to the dryer southern part of the island. The levada walks follow these centuries old irrigation canals through forests, past waterfalls and along cliff faces.
The drive to the trailhead was an adventure in itself due to the ridiculously steep and narrow mountain roads. The thick fog at the top of the mountain did not help the situation. We arrived at the parking area for the trail which was just off the ER110 regional road. You can either walk down the dirt road (2km or about 20 min) from the parking lot or take a van (for a small fee) to the Casa do Rabaçal where the hike begins. There is a small cafe and bathrooms at the beginning of the trail.
Each of these levada walks begins at about the same location and you can easily visit both in one trip. We started with the Levada das 25 Fontes which takes you to a lagoon formed by 25 springs. Legend states that anyone who dove into the lagoon would never return to the surface. Apparently an Englishman decided to test this and was never seen again.
We backtracked on this trail aways to return to the cross-roads for the Levada do Risco. This trail was not as busy as the other trail which was a nice because it wasn’t necessary to pass large groups while hoping not to stumble into the water filled canal or, heaven forbid, off the side of the steep cliff. This trail ended at an impressive waterfall. Overall it was a great day exploring in central Madeira.
Other things to see and do in Central Madeira:
- Nun’s Valley (Curral das Freiras) – town located in a deep valley surrounded by steep mountains used as protection by nuns during pirate attacks.
- Eira do Serrado viewpoint – view of Curral das Freiras and starting point for a hike down to the town.
- Vereda do Pico Ruivo (PR1.2) – challenging hike to the highest point of the island
- Vereda do Areeiro (PR1) – third highest peak of the island and can be reached from Pico Ruivo.
- Vereda do Caldeirão Verde (PR9) – another levada walk that ends at a 100ft waterfall
- Vereda dos Balcões (PR11) – short walk to a viewpoint overlooking Ribeira da Metade.
Porto Moniz Natural Pools
When I saw pictures and videos online of the Porto Moniz Natural Pools, I knew they were going to be on my must see list for Madeira. As the name suggests, these are natural swimming pools filled by the ocean waves. There are actually two sets of pools within walking distance of each other.
The larger of the two sets of pools is a mixture of man made and natural rock formations and includes a bar, changing rooms, a playground, sun loungers and a lifeguard. As a result of these amenities, there is a fee to enter these pools.
There is another set of natural pools closer to the aquarium that are made entirely of volcanic rock. These pools are free but offer little in terms of amenities. However, the experience of swimming in the beautiful surroundings would be memorable.
We didn’t get the opportunity to try out either of the pools as they were closed due to the stormy weather. We still spent more than a hour watching the waves crash against the shore and attempting to capture the strength of the ocean waves on our cameras. We even stopped for a delicious lunch at Restaurant Sea View which had a front row seat for the huge waves that were completely engulfing the pools.
Achadas da Cruz Cable Car
Achadas da Cruz was one of the last stops we visited on our trip to Madeira and it was magical. An inexpensive cable car ride down the side of a cliff brought us to a Jurassic Park like setting with dramatic cliffs on one side and the ocean waves crashing on the black pebble beach on the other side. It is also possible to hike down starting at the trailhead near the small shop by the cable car (Vereda do Calhau or Vereda da Ladeira paths).
There were not many tourists visiting this area and we explored the beachside pathways pretty much on our own. It was also possible to walk the small dirt paths between the few houses and huts past the vegetable gardens and what looked like sugar cane. We were told that the area is used by locals for farming and was previously only accessible by boat. No one lives in the area full-time but we also found out that there is an airBnb property down by the beach if you are looking for some serious isolation.
Things to see and do in Northwest Madeira:
- Sao Vincente Caves
Porto Santo is a small island just a ferry ride away from Madeira. For all the wonderful things to find in Madeira, the one thing it is missing are nice sandy beaches. This is where Porto Santo comes in. Porto Santo is a small island but is home to a 9km long golden sand beach. We will have to save a trip to the neighbouring island of Porto Santo for our next vacation in Madeira as we didn’t have enough time to visit on this trip. Porto Santo can be reach by ferry or flight from Funchal. There are also some international flights to directly to Porto Santo.