Visiting Portugal’s Madeira Island

Madeira Island

Madeira is a semi-tropical island rising from sea level to over 6,000 feet. Its steep pitch gives the island six distinct climate zones. The ancient Laurissilva cloud forest at the highest elevations is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, 2/3rds of Madeira is conservation land. It has mountain plains, valleys, high peaks, streams, rocky coastlines, and tidal pools. The island has a unique landscape accessed by a modern roadway system of new tunnels, and the older mountain roads they replaced that wind along the hillsides.

The south coast is sunny, and home to the cultivation of bananas, sugar cane, and grapes. Quaint fishing towns rise off the coast, where small hotels and villas welcome guests. The east coast is home to the historic towns of Caniçal, Machico and Santa Cruz. The wild Ponta de São Lourenço reserve snakes out into the ocean with great hiking and impressive views. The north coast is rugged, and features small towns and great surf. Santana is known for its straw roofed homes and great hiking and Sao Vincente has a series of lava caves. Inland, the massive peaks of Pico Ruivo and Areiro make for wild valleys and cliffs, with lots of grazing sheep and sweeping views. To the west lies the massive flat mountain plain of Paul da Serra, which feels like the surface of Mars, and the crater valley of Curral das Freiras. The sunny west coast runs from the tidal pools of Porto Moniz to the cliffs on the point at Cabo Girão.

Some 30 miles from Madeira is the smaller island of Porto Santo, famed for its long sandy beach, dunes, and vineyards. Porto Santo was where Portuguese ship first landed in 1419. Today, it earns the nickname the “Golden Island” from its undeveloped beaches and features a handful of hotels. Porto Santo’s beach is said to be one of the best in Europe, and its golden magnetized sands are famous for healing sore aches and pains. A new set of spas has recently opened to feature the sands, joined by a new golf course. Dry and sunny Porto Santo gets very little rain, perfect for a relaxing beach getaway any time of the year.

The uninhabited Desertas and Selvagens Islands are southwest and south of Madeira. The Desertas Islands’ three small, volcanic islands are a nature reserve. They serve as the last refuge of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus), the rarest seal in the world. Another 180 miles south of Madeira are the Selvagens Islands, two groups of small islands also serving as a rich nature reserve for some of the rarest plants on the planet. Ideal nesting conditions make the islands a perfect bird sanctuary. Boat trips can be arranged, but environmental laws limit visitor numbers.

The Madeira Promotion Bureau promotes Madeira as a unique travel destination, with a focus on the travel trade. The Madeira Promotion Bureau is a non-profit association founded in August 2004 by a public entity and a private entity – the Regional Tourism Board and the Funchal Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The City of Funchal

“The sea on one side, the mountains on the other, and between these two majestic splendors, the city smiles like a child sleeping, safe and warm, between its parents.” – Júlio Dinis

Funchal is a bustling city that rises from the Atlantic like an amphitheatre. It boasts forts, an historic old town, well-preserved churches, inviting museums, and regionally crafted wines. It is a walkable city with a pleasant harbor and a medieval cathedral more than 500 years old. Funchal is also perpetually sunny, but when the sun goes down, it’s easy to find entertainment, fine cuisine and music in its nightclubs, restaurants, and casino. The black cliffs surrounding Funchal are dotted with world-class hotels. There is an art museum, wicker toboggan rides, wineries, an open market, seaside parks… and so much more.  The Lavradores Market features the colors, aromas, flowers, fruit and fish of Madeira. On the Rua de Santa Maria, a Painted Door Project has highlighted the oldest part of the city and its historic streets. Santiago Fort is the home to the Museum of Contemporary Art. And the Madeira Story Centre offers an interactive look at the archipelago.

According to Condé Nast Traveler, the Monte Palace high above the city, is one the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world. Alongside the flowers inspired by them, the island is known for its embroidery. Unique, handmade pieces come form a team effort that includes designers, perforators and skilled embroiderers.

Wines and Hiking

Madeira is famous for the wine that bears its name and, today, is produced in a number of varieties. Funchal is the center of wine production. Madeira can be a dry table wine, a sweeter dessert wine, or a classic after-dinner drink. Its production is part of the social and economic life of the island. Each September, festivals celebrate the grape harvest. Along the warm south coast, grapes are grown on tiered terraces.

From its earliest days as a producer of wine, the island built a system of water channels, called Levadas that brought water to the vineyards. Today, they also serve as a vast network of hiking paths that run passed waterfalls and spectacular views.

Declared  World Heritage in 1999, the Levadas lead to amazing scenery that includes valleys, mountains and ocean views. The most famous include: Caldeirão Verde, 25 Fontes, Risco, Balcões, and the one that goes to Pico do Arieiro from Pico Ruivo, the highest point on the island, which rises to 6,100 feet.

What’s new?

Madeira to celebrate the 600th Anniversary of the archipelago’s discovery in 2019

Portuguese explorers discovered first Porto Santo and then Madeira Island in 1419. They named it ‘Madeira’ (“wood”) because of the abundance of forests. By 1425 the uninhabited islands were being settled, and soon became crucial in a growing trade network between Europe, the Americas and the East. The islands will celebrate with events, programs, cultural happening and fun over the coming year.

New Savoy Palace to open in 2019

Next Spring the all-new Savoy Palace will open as a 5 star hotel in Funchal. With 580 rooms, the new Savoy Palace will offer three swimming pools, a spa, two restaurants, a rooftop bar, a garden bar and a fitness facility. With ocean views, the Savoy Palace was designed by Madeiran architect, Fransico Cayres, with extensive grounds, terraces and gardens consisting of large trees and varied ornamental subtropical plant species and combined with pergolas and water features, creating a sense of balance and harmony.

Pestana Churchill Bay to open Spring 2019

The Pestana Churchill Bay Hotel is a classic new hotel set in the center of the quaint fishing town of Câmara de Lobos – and it looks to be right out of a painting. The hotel takes its name from Winston Churchill, who was a frequent visitor to the town, and often painted the waterfront where the hotel is set. Nestled right on the Bay of Câmara de Lobos, guests will enjoy views of the sea and the colorful port, which have drawn artists to Câmara de Lobos for generations. The new hotel will feature 57 rooms overlooking the bay, 2 bars and restaurants with buffet and a la carte breakfast service for lunch and dinner and an outdoor swimming pool.

New suites at the Hotel Cliff Bay

The Hotel Cliff Bay, a new five-star luxury hotel, is coming to Madeira in the spring of 2019.

The hotel is set in the heart of Funchal, overlooking the ocean. It will offer large suites, luxurious comfort, wide balconies, an exclusive reception area, an infinity pool, restaurant area, bar and terraces. All this surrounded by gardens, and very close to the Atlantic.

Madeira voted Europe’s leading island destination

The World Travel Awards nominated Madeira as Europe’s leading island destination. This is the 5th time the island has been recognized for its offerings. As the World Leading Island Destination in 2016, Madeira is now in the running for the World title, to be announced in November. On the spotlight of the “Oscars” of Tourism, Madeira was recently tapped to be the host of next year’s World Travel Awards European Gala.

If you go…

Madeira is an Autonomous Region of Portugal. The archipelago has two main inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and two groups of uninhabited islands, Desertas and Selvagens. With a total area of 310 square miles, its capital is Funchal.

Madeira has a population of 255,650, which represents 2.5% of the total Portuguese population (10.5 million). The majority of the islanders live in and around Funchal. Santa Cruz, Câmara de Lobos, and Santana are the next biggest cities.

From the United States, direct (1-stop) flights are available out of cities including  Boston, New York, Newark, Providence, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Miami, and Atlanta. Azores Airlines and TAP are the main Portuguese operators flying directly and at the best rates. United, American, Delta, Norwegian or British Airways also fly to the island via connections.

Traveling from the mainland, Porto, Lisbon and Ponta Delgada airports all have non-stop flights to Funchal. And, the low-cost airlines Easyjet and Transavia also offer good deals and service.

Food + Wine

Fresh fish plays a big role on the menus of Madeira, but grilled local meats are also popular, and molasses is featured prominently in desserts.

Some classic dishes:

Bolo do Caco – A wheat flour/sweet potato bread with garlic butter and parsley.

Carne em Vinha d’alhos – Pulled pork cooked after marinating in wine and garlic.

Bolo de mel – A cake, though the name indicates honey it is actually made with molasses.

Bife de atum à madeirense- Fresh tuna marinated in olive oil, garlic, salt and oregano, then fried and served with milho frito

Espada com banana –A dish made with white fish and local bananas.

Lapas-  Grilled limpets, with garlic and a slice of lemon.

Sopa de tomate e cebola – Tomato and onion soup, crowned with a poached egg.

Espetada – Chunks of regional beef rubbed in garlic and salt, skewered and grilled.

Milho frito – Deep-fried cubes of polenta (corn meal).

Major annual events

Carnaval – February; Like Brazil, Madeira is known for its big parades and elaborate decorations. The costumes and the allegoric floats take a lot of time and creativity to build and the streets of Funchal come alive with decorations.

Flower Festival – May; The island is known as “the flower island” for the incredible amount of flowers everywhere. Every year this is celebrated in the Festival with costumes, parades and performances dedicated to Spring.

Atlantic Festival – June; Celebrating Summer, the festival usually lasts all month with outdoor concerts and fireworks.

Wine Festival – September; This is the grape harvest season and one of the most famous festivities around. Traditional harvests take place all over and people can press the grapes in the old style way: with their feet.

Funchal International Film Festival – November; Exploring new arts and trends, the festival screens from comedy to thriller, short and full-length projections. Independent movies come to the spotlight and movie lovers meet up to exchange their reviews.

New Years Eve – December; This is a time where people from all over the world gather in the island to close out the year watching one of the world’s biggest and best firework shows when the entire bay is lit up with fireworks.

Columbus Festival – This Porto Santo event features  historic re-enactments of the time when this famous sailor lived on Porto Santo. The festival takes place during the month of September in Vila Baleira, and reenacts the disembarking of Columbus. A sixteenth-century market with food, crafts, street performances, circus arts, theatrical representations and staging of historic reenactments, games of skill, weapons training, acrobatics and juggling, lots of music define this popular event.

Travel ideas

Madeira Wine:

George Washington was a big fan of Madeira wine. Both his inauguration and the signing of the Declaration of Independence were celebrated with Madeira wine. The legendary frigate USS Constitution was christened with Madeira wine. The wine has a unique past and is made like no other wine. Visitors can tour wineries in historic Funchal; see how it is made (think hothouse), taste it, and learn about its traditions.

Levada Hikes:

The Levadas of Madeira is a hydraulic engineering marvel and recognized as a world heritage. The building of these mountain channels started in the 15th century and came to be a water transportation system of about 400 miles of waterways and aqueducts. The Levadas (from the Portuguese “levar” – to carry) are a system of channels mostly bordering mountains but also going through them, with several stretches over rugged rocks, to bring water from different sources to the coastal areas. Today, the ‘Levadas da Madeira’ are an exceptional multi-functional landmark, transporting water for human consumption, agricultural purposes and the production of electricity. They are also unique hiking paths for discovering the island’s unique volcanic landscape.

Volcanic Landscapes:

The Madeira Islands are an example of hotspot volcanism. Volcanic activity first made Porto Santo around 14 million years ago, and then Madeira and the Desertas Islands. Madeira is the tip of a huge underwater plain on the African Plate. The island grew and changed over stages of intense volcanic activity. Erosion and the Atlantic built impressive black cliffs, while inland landslides and rain erosion created a dramatic landscape with impressive peak and sudden valleys. Eons later, Madeira offers a wide variety of breathtaking landscapes, rare forests and steep coastlines.


With a mild climate and the setting of the Atlantic, Madeira is becoming a surfing destination.

Surfing infrastructure has sprung up on the southwest coast, around the seaside villages of Jardim do Mar or Paul do Mar, and on the northeast coast near Porto da Cruz. Popular spots include Ponta Pequena and Paul do Mar as well as Faja da Areia on the north shore. Faja da Areia is the best spot for beginners. Most surf spots on Madeira are powerful and there are no beach breaks.  The surf season runs from October through April with November to February being the top months.

The Cloud Forests:

The Laurisilva Forest of Madeira is a living remnant of an ancient laurel forest that once covered most of Europe. Today, it is the largest surviving laurel forest on earth. This forest type is only found in the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands. It contains a unique mix of plants and animals, including many endemic species such as the Madeiran long-toed pigeon. Also called a cloud forest, it often has clouds on top of the trees, drawing moisture from the air into the soil – and then into the levada network of canals. The Parque Natural da Madeira (Madeira Natural Park) contains the largest surviving area of primary laurel forest.  These forests have an intact ecosystem with biodiversity and about 76 plant species endemic to Madeira, together with a high number of endemic invertebrates and two endemic birds species.

Getting to Madeira

Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic on the 32nd parallel north. It lies southwest of Lisbon, and several hundred miles west of the coast of Morocco. It is made up of the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo, as well as the Desertas and the Selvagem Islands.

Madeira has never been easier to get to. TAP Portugal offers easy connections from Lisbon – and with non-stop service to Portugal from 9 US cities on five airlines, getting a connection is easy. It is a 1.5-hour flight from Lisbon, Porto or the Azores and it takes about 15 minutes to fly between the two islands in the group—Madeira and Porto Santo. Madeira’s Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport and the Porto Santo Airport serve the archipelago.  The airport on Madeira is about a 30-minute drive to Funchal, the archipelago’s capital.  Madeira has also become a major stop for cruise ships.

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