If you’ve not heard of Madeira in Portugal before, you’re not alone.
Three friends and I were desperate for a cheap surfing holiday so grabbed a map, randomly picked a surf-tastic swell in the Atlantic and hunted down the nearest airport. It turned out to be in Funchal, the cramped capital of this sleepy volcanic rock which shelves straight into the ocean.
Popular with older travelers because it’s hot and rain-free almost all year round, we were warned Madeira could be light on entertainment and more than a bit touristy. But, if you avoid the stacked apartment complexes and venture west along the coast, things can get a whole lot more adventurous.
Just remember to book a hire car, always self cater and be prepared to brave some treacherously steep roads.
Here are a few ideas to get you started…
1. Surfing at Paul Do Mar
Madeira isn’t exactly what you’d call beach holiday material. Being an island off the coast of Portugal it’s all jagged cliffs, banana plantations and cloud-topped mountains. That doesn’t mean you can’t don a wetsuit and hit the surf though.
Paul Do Mar is a rocky stretch on the southern coast popular with local surfers and the odd pro who has made the trip to find out whether the town’s reputation for perfect waves really is true. It is, unless you’re very unlucky and get a rare calm day.
With one board shop and a few seaside cafes for watching the action from, it’s practically crowd-free (aside from local fishermen gutting the day’s catch along the shore) so you won’t be fighting for waves. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no sand, so whatever you do, don’t nosedive unless you fancy a trip to the hospital.
The next town along, jutting violently into the sea, is Jardin do Mar, and it’s expert territory only. If you’re not a supremely confident surfer, skip a dip in the ocean and explore the village instead. Clamber down narrow alleyways, admire the terracotta-roofed houses and discover hidden bars that are friendlier than they look.
Still desperate to top up your tan? There’s a small, man-made half-moon of sand at the town of Calheta which will just about do the job.
2. Walking the levadas
Madeira’s levadas are a unique stone aqueduct system that filters water from the mountains down to the island’s towns and villages and provides some hydroelectric power to boot. Not just ingenious, they’re also stunning and carve steep scenic walks into the gnarled peaks while transporting water back down below the cloud level.
Understandably the climate is much cooler up in the mountains and it can be pretty tricky going so pack a coat and wear decent walking shoes. Luckily there’s fresh water in constant supply in case if you forget to bring a drink.
For a truly spectacular walk, the trek to the 25 Fontes (25 Waterfalls) matches its name and is incredible to stumble across. It takes you past gaping chasms, natural springs and ends at the base of the Fontes, with water cascading down into pools around you.
Another thing to spot on your walking travels is the odd lone cow randomly dotted about the mountains. They seem appear in the most unlikely places, waiting forlornly to be picked up and trucked back down to lower altitudes by local farmers.
3. Whale watching off the coast
As Madeira is such a small island, wherever you stay you are almost guaranteed a sea view – in fact, don’t bother staying somewhere without one, you’ll have been cheated.
Annoyingly, this doesn’t guarantee whale spotting from your bedroom window. The main wildlife you’ll come into regular contact with – aside from the lost and lonely cows – are lizards: hundreds of them that scatter as you walk and disappear into the cracks in baking stone walls.
For dolphins and whales you’ll have to become a tourist for a day and jump aboard an organized boat trip. The harbors at Calheta and Funchal are teeming with fellow whale watchers and reasonably priced tours.
4. The very windy drive to Porto Moniz
Porto Moniz is often touted as the most scenic spot in Madeira. Not for its promenade which is mostly a mix of ugly concrete parking lots and half-finished apartment high-rises, but for its natural swimming pools. Hugging the coast, pools have been formed thanks to craggy lava rocks. They spill over with sea water and are perfect for plunging into.
You’ll get the best view of the town from the dizzyingly high coastal path en route from Calheta, which, if you’re a fan of driving, is one of the craziest roads you’ll come across – and that‘s saying something for an island with a ridiculous, zigzagging road system. Hairpin bends are the norm, your stomach will churn and your ears will pop all the way up. The view is definitely worth it though.
5. The ultimate seafood barbecue – complete with agricultural rum
Forgetting the cake and the wine, Madeira isn’t exactly famed for its cuisine. While on the Portugal mainland you’d be loading up on spicy piri-piri chicken and drinking your body weight in rich red wines or port (or sangria if you’re visiting the Algarve in high summer), in Madeira you’re much better off shopping for fresh fish and seafood and rigging up a barbecue yourself.
Funchal’s fish market is a good place to start. Sloshing with ice, squid, prawns, tuna and stacks of salted cod, it’s the native Black Scabbard (a huge, slimy eel-like fish with pearly eyes and a mouth choked with vicious teeth) that you’ll struggle to avoid. An acquired taste, in restaurants it’s often served with a bizarre passion fruit sauce, but on the barbecue it’s oddly creamy and suits being dished it up alongside salsa and potato salad.
If you’re stuck for a quick snack, toasted chicken sandwiches are on almost every café menu and are reliably lathered with mayonnaise. Also, if you’ve had enough Madeira wine (think port, but stronger) try agricultural rum, otherwise known as Rum Agricola da Madeira. Made from sugar cane, you’ll find it in all good, and not-so-good, supermarkets. Best drunk in shot-form, it’s utterly lethal, will scorch your throat and burn your insides, but seems to be a favorite with all true Madeirans.
Photos courtesy of Ella Walker.
- Ella Walker