Madeira is Portugal’s hidden gem and its off-the-beaten-path location from mainland Portugal, adds to its charm. Madeira Island is the largest in the archipelago or group of islands, of the same name. Despite being only an hour-and-a-half flight from Lisbon, it lacks the crush of tourists. Madeira welcomes visitors with elegant, flower-trimmed streets, ocean-view parks, friendly laid-back people, and usually temperate weather.
Editors’ note: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly changed the face of travel, we hope our stories stoke your memories of past trips and kindle ideas for future adventures. This story takes our readers to sunny Madeira.
Whether visiting for a weekend or stay for a week, the island invites relaxation by the sea as well as opportunities to enjoy local foods and wines and Michelin-star dining; and countless natural settings laced with walking trails and dotted with colorful gardens.
Funchal is Madeira Island’s capital and main city. As you stroll along the charming cobblestone streets of its vibrant Old Town, you’ll see historic buildings, beautiful homes, and classic churches as well as modern shops, restaurants, bars, and art galleries.
Art lovers will enjoy the Painted Doors Project on Rua de Santa Maria. Here, a range of artists have used doors—and sometimes walls, windows, and other spots—as their canvases.
To get a great view of Funchal from above, including its architecture, gardens, and the Atlantic Ocean, take a ride on the Funchal cable car. The 15-minute trip takes you to Monte, a hilltop village where lush Botanical Gardens are filled with tropical flowers, fruit and coffee trees, koi fish ponds, peacocks, and exotic plants from around the world.
To feel like royalty, spend a half day at the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. The extensive grounds include a large lake with ducks and swans floating on the water. Inside the Monte Palace Museum, a multilevel exhibition displays over 1000 contemporary sculptures from Zimbabwe, as well as hundreds of unique mineral specimens collected from around the globe. Artisanal tile panels produced as early as the 15th century decorate the walkways and offer a glimpse into history.
Seeing more of Madiera
Madeira’s wonderfully diverse landscape offers peaceful meadows, green valleys, luscious vineyards, spectacular cliffs, and ocean views. A nature stroll along one of the many walking routes and trails provides a more intimate way to experience the island’s beauty. Options range from short, leisurely jaunts to challenging half-day hikes.
Especially enjoyable are the Levada trails, which are unique to Madeira. These trails pass small aqueducts or channels that were created to bring water from the northern part of the island to the drier south. Today, they are also used to provide hydroelectric power for the island, now one of Portugal’s greatest assets.
Sunrise on a mountain top
Early risers will be richly rewarded for taking the 45-minute scenic drive winding from Funchal to the Pico do Areeiro’s nearly 6,000-foot summit. The prize: Watching skies turn from black to various shades of orange, with a glorious sunrise over the peaceful island.
The silence of the setting makes you feel as if you are peacefully alone—and yet, at one with everyone and everything—at the same time. Eating breakfast as the sun rises in the sky feels amazing. Resist the urge to photograph it all and just immerse yourself in the experience. Enjoy the unforgettable luxury of just being in the now.
Different tour operators offer a variety of packages and island tours. Our jeep tour with Discovery Island Madeira included a ride up to catch the sunrise and enjoy a healthy, tasty and portable organic breakfast.
Feast on the food
Madeira honors the Portuguese tradition of having some of the best cuisine in the world. That includes fresh seafood, specialty meat, hearty grains, and a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Most restaurants are laid back and casual, even high-end ones. This is not a place to be in a hurry; relax, enjoy, and savor the island’s culinary delights.
Some dishes are unique. One favorite served island wide is limpets, or lapas as Madeirans call the single-shell mollusks that thrive along rocky shores. Typically, they are sautéed in garlic butter and served with a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Another specialty is Bolo do Caco, a flat, round bread made from flour and mashed sweet potato. It takes its name from Caco, the flat stone on which the bread is baked. Often served with delicious garlic butter, it could be a whole meal by itself. Bolo do Caco also shows up in sandwiches made with beef, grilled pork, tuna or even a simple, but yummy, ham and cheese.
Vendors display their wares on multiple floors of the historic Mercado Dos Lavradores, in Old Town Funchal. Flowers and plants, fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, herbs and more are abundant. Many vendors offer free tastes to encourage purchases. The fresh fish market on the lower level sells local fish, including spooky and prehistoric-looking black scabbardfish, which is very popular with locals. Don’t forget to admire the market’s beautiful azulejo tiles and panels that portray various regional themes.
The best of beverages
Not only does Madeira have incredible foods and wines, but it also has wonderful beverages, even for those who don’t enjoy alcohol. Madeira’s world-famous fortified wines, made with both red and white grapes, range from dry to sweet. The most common red grape is the Tinta Negra. Popular white grapes are Sercial, Verdelho, Terrantez, Bual, and Malvasia. Malvasia grapes, also known as Malmsey, tend to make the sweetest and mellowest Madeira wines.
One of the most indulgent ways to enjoy Madeira wines is at a tasting. Blandy’s, a well-known brand, offers tastings and tours. If you want to dive deeper into the wine culture, rent one of its four lovely apartments next door.
For a casual evening of local foods that pair well with Madeira wines, try a wine bar like Paixão do Vinho. To learn about the process of growing grapes and making wine, choose a tour that visits a vineyard, winery, and tasting rooms for the total experience.
Poncha, an alcoholic drink, packs a punch. A local favorite, this potent, fruity punch is made from cane sugar alcohol known as aguardente. The recipe adds honey, sugar, and citrus juices (like lemon and orange) into a deceptively delicious drink. Each bar has its own preferred recipe, so a Poncha crawl can be interesting. Some of the best spots for Poncha are Madeira Rum House, Casa da Poncha, and Rei da Poncha.
For those who’d prefer to skip the alcohol, Brisa is a nonalcoholic soft drink. The sparkling drink is light and refreshing. It’s available in flavors such as orange, lemonade, and apple, but passion fruit is the most popular flavor among locals.
Call of the mall
For shopping amidst exceptional international design, visit Nini Design Centre. Renowned designer Nini Andrade Silva has fashioned a unique museum-gallery space filled with interesting exhibitions that offer insight into her philosophy and artistic viewpoint.
Afterward, relax in the cafe lounge with a water view. DC Atelier is a prestige restaurant where you can get an elegant meal with the sophisticated but low-key ambiance present throughout the Centre. Be sure to make a reservation in advance because seating is limited and it’s a popular spot.
Places to stay on Madeira Island
The Cliff Bay, a stunning five-star resort, sits on a bluff above the Atlantic Ocean. Ensconced in this exclusive luxury hideaway, you’ll find excellent food at the resort’s two-star Michelin restaurant, Il Gallo d’ Oro. Guests at Les Suites at The Cliff Bay, newly expanded with 23 luxurious suites, have access to all the Cliff Bay amenities. The menu at Avista restaurant at Les Suites offers both Madeira specialties and Asian cuisine. Avista also offers afternoon tea.
IF YOU GO
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Madeira is just a short 90-minute flight from Lisbon
- You’ll avoid the crush of tourists found in more populous areas of Portugal’s mainland
- Casual elegance and natural beauty are easily accessible all over the island
- Some major hotels, such as The Cliff Bay and Les Suites at Cliff Bay, have a free bus that goes directly to downtown on a set schedule making it easy to plan excursions.
Disclosure: The authors’ trip was supported by Discover Madeira and TAP Air Portugal.
On FoodTravelist: What To Do In Madeira
All photo credits: Sue Reddel and Diana Laskaris
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