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Madeira: Ultimate Travel Guide

Hiking along ancient irrigation canals, memorials to Ronaldo, and one of the world’s most dangerous airports

Madeira is an archipelago consisting of two inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and two smaller groups of uninhabited islands: Ilias Desertas (“Desert Islands” from Portuguese) and Selvagens (“Wild”). The main source of income of this region is, of course, tourism. Trade, infrastructure and transport all thrive on the island. Many cruise ships pass through the port of Funchal (Madeira’s main city and port) on their way from Europe to the Caribbean islands.The weather in Madeira is perfect all year round – it’s mild in summer and never below 17 degrees centigrade in winter. People come here first of all to enjoy the beauty of island nature. In the north – the rugged cliffs, which the waves crash against, in the center – the mountains with trails for hiking, and the south – almost tropical with banana and passion fruit plantations.

Six hundred years ago, in 1419, a storm struck the ship of Captain João Gonçalves Zarca, a young but battle-hardened one-eyed navigator, against an unknown shore in the Atlantic Ocean. Zarku and co-captain Tristan Vashem had originally set out to explore the west coast of Africa, but ended up on an uninhabited island. In honor of their rescue, they named it Porto Santo (part of the Madeira archipelago).A year later, the Portuguese assembled a special expedition to settle Porto Santo and the neighboring islands. A few years later, in 1433, the island of Madeira, literally “Wood Island”, first appeared on the world map and became part of Portugal.Historians suggest that the first mentions of the island appeared even earlier: it is believed that Madeira, the Canary Islands and Cape Verde may have been the prototype of the “Blessed Isles” in ancient Greek mythology – a paradise place of eternal spring and green forests.

Funchal – Cristiano Ronaldo museum and painted entrance doors

A small town with a cozy historic center surrounded by huge hotels. It takes half a day to walk around the old part of the town (Zona Velha). It stretches from the fortress (Forte de São Tiago) to the market. In this area there are many bars, squares with live music and ancient churches.

There are many bars, squares with live music and ancient churches in this area from the fortress to the market. Photo: duncan cumming / Flickr.com

The Mercado dos Lavradores market sells tropical fruits and flowers. The local vendors are as pushy as the Oriental bazaars. The city’s main restaurants can be found in the main streets near the market. Several years ago the mayor’s office decided to attract tourists to Funchal and invited local artists to paint the front doors of the houses. As a result they have become one of Funchal’s iconic landmarks.

A few years ago the city hall decided to attract tourists to Funchal and invited local artists to paint the front doors of houses. Photo: Jong Hyun Baek / Unsplash.com

If you have time, you can visit the wine museum in the old Franciscan monastery of the 16th century, where the cellars of the 17th and 18th centuries are preserved. There you can also taste the Madeira fortified wine (more about it later).In the Fort of St. James there is a Museum of Modern Art (MAMMA – The Madeira Modern Art Museum) and the Church Art Museum, which exhibits a pretty good, even by international standards, collection of Flemish paintings and religious sculptures of the 16th-17th centuries.The Madeira Botanical Garden has plants from all over the world, from the Himalayas to the rainforest. Given the fact that just about everything grows on the island and in the wild, the botanical garden can be skipped, despite its beauty and cool views of the city.

Finally, Funchal has a museum and a statue of the island’s native soccer player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Admission to the CR7 museum (the name of the museum corresponds to the player’s number) costs only five euros, but is recommended only for true fans. Apart from trophies and information about his career there is nothing to see. By the way, the crooked bust of Ronaldo, whose photos were taken for memes a few years ago, stood, of course, also in Madeira – at the airport. A few years later it was replaced by another one, despite the fact that the last memetic bust managed to become iconic and the public was against the replacement.Another item on the standard tourist program is the 3,173-meter-long cable car (Teleférico do Funchal). It begins on the seafront and goes to the suburbs of Monte, rising 550 meters above the city. The ascent takes about 15 minutes, and a round-trip ticket costs 18 euros.

The cable car of Funchal starts on the seafront and goes to the suburb of Monte, rising 550 meters above the city. Photo: Erik Karits / Unsplash.com

Monte – romantic palace and cable car

In Monte, which can be reached by the above-mentioned cable car, there is a tropical park “Manor of Pleasure” (Quinta do Prazer). In the 18th century, the English Consul Charles Murray planted a garden here. And the next owner, Alfredo Guilherme, built in the garden a stunning Monte Palace, inspired by the romantic palaces of the German Rhine Valley region.

In the 18th century, English Consul Charles Murray planted a garden in Monte, and the next owner, Alfredo Guilherme, built the stunning Monte Palace in the garden. Photo: gillyan9 / Flickr.com

In the park you can see not only amazing plants, but also Asian pagodas, African statues mixed with statues of Buddha, bizarre bridges and ponds, historical sculptures and panels. The owners seemed to collect just about everything in the world. For those who have been to mainland Portugal, the garden will remind you of Sintra.Today, the garden and palace are privately owned. In 1987 they were purchased by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Jose Manuel Rodriguez Berardo. Most of the exotic items in the garden is from his collection. Admission to the park costs 12 euros.

In the park “Manor of Pleasures” you can see not only amazing plants, but also Asian pagodas, African statues mixed with statues of Buddha, fanciful bridges and ponds, historical sculptures and panels. Photo: Petr Urbanek, Julio Wolf / Unsplash.com

Next to the park is a pretty church (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte) built at the beginning of the 18th century. The men in traditional costumes who stand in front of the church entrance are the carters (Carreiros do Monte) of wooden toboggan sleds (Carros de Cesto) on which you can go down the mountain. This is the transportation used by the locals a couple of centuries ago. The route from the mountain is about two kilometers, and the sled can reach speeds up to 48 kilometers per hour. Despite the fact that such entertainment sounds rather dangerous, the descent on the toboggan has long ago turned into a regulated tourist entertainment – the sledge runs only on the allocated lane, and the movement of cars nearby is severely restricted.Those who don’t dare to take a ride should at least watch the process. A place in the toboggan for one person costs 25 euros, for two – 30.

The men in traditional costumes who stand in front of the church entrance are carriers of wooden toboggan sleds, which can be used to go down the mountain. This is the kind of transport the locals used a couple of centuries ago. Photo: Ben30 / Flickr.com

Camara di Lobos – where Churchill wrote his memoirs

A fishing town near Funchal, famous for its pretty little cove that was once a favourite of Winston Churchill. Until now operates Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel, in which in the 1950s the politician wrote his memoirs. And from the observation deck “Holy Spirit” (Espírito Santo) he drew watercolor views of the island. It is now renamed Winston Churchill observation deck.

Câmara di Lobos, a fishing town near Funchal, is famous for its pretty little cove that was once a favourite of Winston Churchill. Photo: GlynLowe.com

On the way from Camara di Lobus to the sandy beach of Caleta (about it below) is the Anjos waterfall, which flows down the mountain directly onto the highway, so cars pass under the flow, past the tourists bathing in the roadway.

Anjos Falls, which flows down the mountain right onto the highway. Photo: Allie_Caulfield / Wikimedia.org

Porto Moniz and Seixal – bathing complex and natural pools

The natural pools of Porto Moniz (Piscinas Naturais do Porto Moniz) are turned into a bathing complex with terraces, diving jumps and lockers. Admission is chargeable, but costs only two euros. The pools are adapted for children and the elderly. Adjacent to the complex are the Old Baths (Piscinas Naturais Velhas), which are preserved in their original wild state and entry is free.

The natural pools of Porto Moniche have been transformed into a bathing complex with terraces, diving jumps and lockers. Photo: Torben Höhn / Unsplash.com

There are buses from Funchal to Porto Moniz. The journey one way takes three and a half hours. For example, you can take bus 139 at 9:00 and return at 16:00 on bus 80. It takes a different route, and on the way you can see another part of the island. You can see the schedule on the website of the bus company. A one-way ticket will cost about six euros. Ticket prices depend on areas of the island, and six euros is the price for the most expensive, longest distance.Seixal is a tiny but very pretty village with natural swimming pools, which you can visit on the way to Porto Moniche. There are some beautiful volcanic pools with parking, booths and cafes, as, indeed, everywhere else in Madeira. The tidiness of the beaches and bathing areas on the island is a pleasant surprise.

The tiny Seychelles village has some beautiful volcanic pools with parking, booths and a cafe. Photo: PortoBay Hotels & Resorts / Flickr.com

The “Santana” re-enactment park of village life

In “Santana” you can see traditional thatched cottages and folk crafts. Admission to the park costs one to six euros, depending on whether you’ll visit the theme pavilions. The park is recommended by guidebooks, but real reviews say it will be interesting mainly for visitors with children. Centuries-old thatched-roofed houses and rugged mountain old women in traditional clothes can be found as it is, especially in the central, poor part of the island.

The Santana Reconstruction Park features traditional thatched cottages and folk crafts. Photo: Mark / Flickr.com

Viewpoints

Madeira is a place to visit for its natural beauty. There are dozens of “must-see” viewpoints and mountaintops in every guidebook. We have compiled a list of both popular and lesser-known places.Cristo Rei – Ponta do Garajau. A popular lookout among tourists, also due to the fact that it is easy to get to. Buses 157 and 155 run from Funchal (the ticket will cost less than two euros, and there is parking for cars. To get to the observation deck, you don’t have to scramble up mountain peaks or across rocky beaches. The site is famous for its views of the ocean and the statue of Christ, discovered in 1927.

The Mirador de Cristo Rei is famous for its views of the ocean and the statue of Christ, and it is also popular with tourists because it is easy to reach. Photo: Coeli / Wikimedia.org

Portela. A remote observation point best reached at sunset. From a height of 689 meters you have a view of the island of Porto da Cruz and the steep mountain Penha d’Aguia. Nearby is the Anjos waterfall, which flows from the mountain directly onto the highway, so cars pass under the flow, past the tourists swimming in the roadway.

The Mirador de Portela overlooks the island of Porto da Cruz and the steep Mount Penha d’Aguia. Photo: Tony Hisgett / Wikimedia.org

Ponta de São Jorge Madeira. The viewpoint itself does not stand out, but at the foot of it there are picturesque ruins (Ruínas de São Jorge). Once there was a cane mill, but now only a few walls and a lonely archway to the ocean remain. It is one of the most romantic and photogenic places on the island.

The Ponta de São Jorge Madeira itself does not stand out, but at the foot of the observation deck are picturesque ruins.

Pico do Areeiro. The observation deck at an altitude of 1,818 meters. One of the most popular among tourists – even in the off-season there are a lot of people here. You can not only look down on the central part of the island, but also walk along one of the hiking trails. At the site there is a store, a toilet and a canteen, where for very little money you can have a coffee with a view of the mountains.

Mirador Pico do Areeiro is one of the most popular among tourists: even in the off-season there are a lot of people here. Not only can you see the central part of the island from above, but you can also walk along one of the hiking trails

Cabo Girao. The most famous playground, which receives up to 1,800 tourists a day. It is equipped with a transparent floor, under which there is a view of 580 meters of hollow above the water. Sperm whales are said to sometimes swim to the promontory, such is the deep water at its foot. It is best to arrive early in the morning, towards dawn, or at sunset, when there are fewer tourists, but always on a clear day, otherwise the clouds will obscure the whole view.From Funchal there are Rodoeste buses #4, 6, 7, 8, 115, 142, and 148. The ticket costs three euros. The trip will take about an hour.

Cabo Giraо — cамая известная площадка, которая принимает до 1800 туристов в день. Она оборудована прозрачным полом, под которым открывается вид на 580 метров пустоты над водой. Фото: Holger Uwe Schmitt / Wikimedia.org

Sao Lorenzo is the easternmost point of the island and is located in a protected area. This is where you come to admire the rugged, almost Scottish landscapes with plains and cliffs that reach the ocean. Both from the parking lot and from the public transportation stop, it takes a couple of kilometers to get to the site. The internet advises bringing sunscreen, but in March we were rather short of wading boots and a raincoat.

People go to Ponto de Sao Lorenzo to admire the harsh, almost Scottish scenery with plains and cliffs going into the ocean

Caniçal – the views from here are similar to those of Ponto de Sao Lorenzo, but you don’t have to wade through the marshes.Ilheus da Ribeira da Janela – the viewpoint is not at the top like most others, but in a small cove at the foot of the mountain. From here you can see the three rock islands of Ilheus da Ribeira da Janela. You can grab some food and have a small picnic with perhaps the most beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean in Madeira.

The Miradouro Ilheus da Ribeira da Janela is not located on top, as most others, but in a small cove at the foot of the mountain, overlooking three rock islands

Beaches

Madeira’s beaches are mostly pebbly and the water is quite cold, so you should not go to the island for a beach holiday. The only white sandy beach is Caleta (Praia do Calheta). And even then, it is artificial: the sand for it were brought from Morocco in 2004. For some reason, everyone recommends to visit the beach, but there is nothing outstanding about it.

The only white sandy beach in Madeira is Caleta. The sand was brought here from Morocco in 2004, since all the natural beaches in Madeira are pebbly. Photo: Don Amaro / Wikimedia.org

Praia do Faial (Pebble Beach) is located in a quiet semicircular lagoon. There is a café and parking on the beach, and many viewpoints around it. So at the very least, it’s worth stopping by here for a break before another mountain climb.The capital’s Praia Formosa, with its black volcanic sand that is especially beautiful at sunset, is a must-see. Tourists and locals alike gather to watch the setting sun.For beach holidays usually go to the neighboring small island of Porto Santo. The trip takes about two and a half hours and the two-way ticket costs about 60-80 euros (4,793.0-(6,390.7 rubles), depending on the season. A couple of times a week, planes fly to Porto Santo from Funchal, and they usually cost more than the ferry. Diving and kayaking enthusiasts also go to the island, but apart from the beaches, Porto Santo is not much different from Funchal.

For beach vacations usually go to the neighboring small island of Madeira, Porto Santo. Photo: Reinaldo Photography / Unsplash.com

Hiking and trekking

Madeira is famous for its many hiking trails, many of them along levadas, irrigation canals that were built from the 16th century to the 1970s. Some of the levadas still serve their primary function and irrigate banana and sugar cane plantations. They look like small stone-lined ditches laid out on the mountain slopes to bring water from the northern part of the island to the southern part. There are hiking trails along the canals. Almost all of the levadas lead to lagoons and waterfalls. You can find both difficult routes with many hours of descents and ascents, such as the beautiful Levada de Fana and Levada de Fanal with many steps, and shorter walks for the unprepared, such as Levada de Rei, where there is almost no elevation gain. Almost all popular routes can be viewed on WalkMe or Wikiloc and you can choose the one that suits your level of training.

Madeira is famous for a large number of hiking trails, many of them laid along the levades, irrigation canals that were built from the 16th century to the 1970s. Photo: Don Amaro / Flickr.com

Fanal (Posto Florestal Fanal) is a valley at the very top of the island with ancient and intricately curved laurel trees. In cloudy weather this place turns into a real enchanted forest. The best views with a mysterious haze open at dawn. To get here, you first have to drive to the Fanal Parking, from where there is a short half-hour walk to the cliff past the trees.In addition to hiking, the island is well developed various active sports. They come here to practice paragliding and parasailing. Madeira is considered a traditional destination for lovers of diving and kayaking.Those who are not good at sports, can take a tour by boat to look at whales and dolphins (from 30 euros). It is in Madeira where the movie “Moby Dick” with Gregory Peck was filmed.

Fanal is a valley at the very top of the island with ancient and intricately curved laurel trees. In cloudy weather this place turns into a real enchanted forest. Photo: Colin Watts / Unsplash.com

Food and Drink

Food on the island is a strange mixture of caloric “winter” dishes with butter and herbs and tropical fruits. For example, fried bananas and passionfruit are put in almost every dish, from fish to desserts.In Madeira, a popular fish charcoal (espada preta or pez espada), which lives only in a few corners of the world at a depth of 200-1700 meters. It is, by the way, and is usually served with fried bananas. Traditional dishes include a peculiar meat burger in a tortilla (prego no bolo do caco). Or diced meat with fries and spices (picador “Picadinho”), which is sometimes eaten with a toothpick. You have to take this dish for at least two people at once, because the portions are large. There are many soups on the island that will warm you up after winter walks through the mountains.

In Madeira is popular coal fish, which lives only in a few corners of the world at a depth of 200-1700 meters. Photo: A. v. Z. / Flickr.com

Our usual snack consisted of flat stone cooked tortillas (bolo do caco) and clams (lapas grelhadas) with herbs and garlic. A portion of clams costs three to five euros depending on the place, so dinner rarely cost more than ten euros for two of us. A dinner with meat, fish, and alcohol for two at an average restaurant was not more expensive than 40 euros, and a whole feast with champagne, desserts, and smartly dressed waiters in the expensive by local standards Casa Velha – 100 euros for two. Tasty and inexpensive to eat roughly everywhere, but institutions will look the same with design in the spirit of the 1990’s, the high level of service and speshyalti coffee houses have not yet reached here.Madeira is famous for its tropical fruits, which you can buy both at the market and from locals at the viewpoints. They will be happy to tell you the names of previously unseen fruits. The most popular fruit on the island is passion fruit, but you’re sure to see kuruba (also called banana passion fruit), pitanga (Surinam cherry) and many other obscure fruits – feel free to try and ask for names.

The most popular fruit in Madeira is passion fruit, but you’re sure to see kuruba, which tastes like something between passion fruit and grenadilla. Photo: Marco Verch / Flickr.com

Grocery stores sell sticks of sugar cane, but it’s not easy to know how to chew it so it tastes good and is safe for your teeth. On cold evenings in the mountains, poncha, a drink made from cane rum, honey, and lemon juice, helps. When the weather is hot, the Nikita cocktail helps. This drink was invented in Camara di Lobuche in 1985 and was named after a popular Elton John song. “Nikita” is a mixture of ice cream, sugar and alcohol (most often beer, but white wine can also be found). The combination is a bit odd, but most of those who try it like the taste.Finally, in Madeira, of course, you have to try the madera. It is a fortified wine, aged at 35-45 degrees. According to legend, one of the Portuguese ships was caught in the doldrums and stood in the sun for a long time. When the ship returned to port, it turned out that under the influence of heat the wine in the barrels transforms and acquires a characteristic caramel flavor of madera.

Grocery stores sell sticks of sugar cane, but it’s not easy to figure out how to chew it to be tasty and safe for your teeth

Sightseeing map

Coming soon…

Transportation on the island

Madeira successfully receives grants for infrastructure development, so the roads on the island are excellent. If possible, it is better to take a motorcycle rather than a car – it is much more convenient to admire the local views.We decided to save some money and took a scooter Yamaha XMAX 300 instead of the motorcycle. To rent such a scooter you need a category A or A2 license. I rented it for six days for 156 euros, which is 26 euros a day. It had barely enough power on the hills. You have to drive carefully: there are a lot of tunnels on the island, and goats, cows and stray dogs run out into the narrow roads every now and then. For scooter parking we did not have to pay anywhere at all, as well as to pay for travel on the roads (there are no toll roads in Madeira). Car rental prices vary greatly depending on the model and rental company. On average, an small car will cost from 250 to 320 euros a week. Car parking in the north of the island is mostly free, while in the south you often have to park in the paid blue zone – there are parking pay machines on the street.

Drive carefully on Madeira: there are many tunnels on the island, and on narrow roads every now and then run out goats, cows and stray dogs.

Public transportation on the island is well developed. There are stops even at most of the remote viewpoints. For example, to the easternmost point of the island, Ponta de São Lourenço (Ponta de São Lourenço), where there are no settlements but it is a popular hiking route, several buses from Funchal run. A ticket will only cost 3-5 euros. You can plan your route and see the schedule on the Madeira Transport Network website.

Public transportation on the island is well developed. There are stops even at most of the remote viewpoints. Photo: Rumman Amin / Unsplash.com

How to get to Madeira

Madeira (or Funchal) airport ranks among the most extreme and difficult airports in the world. Pilots flying to the island must pass a special certification. Due to lack of space, part of the runway is laid over the sea and lies on 180 reinforced concrete piers. When landing, pilots point the plane at the mountains and abruptly change course on the runway at the very last moment. For those who are afraid of flying, it is better not to look out the window during landing. The airport is quite busy, in the summer about 40 flights land here safely. By the way, the official name of the airport – international airport named after Cristiano Ronaldo.Getting to the archipelago is simple enough. 40% of all planes arrive from Lisbon or Porto. You can also get directly from most major hubs in Europe: Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid, Brussels, London and other British cities. A Ryanair ticket for a Paris-Funchal flight in low season can cost as little as 50 euros round trip from Lisbon, 37 euros round trip from Lisbon.

There is an Aerobus bus to the city from the airport (one-way ticket costs five euros, full schedule can be found on the website).

Accomodation

We chose a hotel half an hour walk from the center of Funchal, quite old but clean, with breakfasts and the possibility to park a scooter in the courtyard. We paid 187 euros for a room for two for a week. If the question of parking space is not so important, you can also stay in the old center of the capital, avoiding the most touristy and noisy street Santa Maria (Rua Santa Maria). The island is small enough that it only makes sense to move from place to place if you plan to spend a couple of lazy days at the Porto Moniz baths or on the beaches of Caleta. Once settled in the capital, you can tour virtually the entire island during the day and spend the evenings in the bars and restaurants of the old town.Tourism in Madeira is still designed for traditional cruisers and mature public, so the island has many large hotels – from budget ones for 40-70 euros to the luxurious Savoy for 500 euros per night. Glamping and nature retreats are still scarce (the order of prices is about 100 euros per night). But there are plenty of places to camp (you can see the full list of sites on the website). To set up your own tents in other places, you need to get a special permit in advance.

There are many organized camping sites in Madeira. But wild camping requires a permit. Photo: MadeiraCamping

When to go

Madeira has been called the Island of eternal spring and the Garden of the Atlantic because of its unique climate. Thanks to the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, the winter temperature does not drop below 17 degrees, and in summer it hovers around 25 degrees.While the coastline is really warm and sunny in March, the mountains are cool and humid. Low clouds and high humidity chilled to the bone in the evenings, and periodically there were heavy rains. The weather would change every 20 minutes or every couple of kilometers, depending on the direction we were traveling and the part of the island. In general, in the north of the island the climate is more temperate and the scenery resembles the cliffs of Scotland. In the south, it is more tropical, with vivid greenery and banana plantations.In the off-season, in early spring, the mountains are cool, but all the viewpoints are virtually empty. The abundance of tourist cafes in the capital suggests that the weather may be better in the summer, but there is a risk of getting lost in the crowd of older cruisers from the charter liner.Swimming, of course, in the spring will not work, but the beaches in Madeira pebbles, and the water is cold enough – for fans of sunbathing and beach holidays the island and so not the most attractive place. For active tourists, the weather is not a hindrance. So my personal advice is to travel safely in the off-season, packing comfortable waterproof clothes.The abundance of villages, viewpoints, mountain peaks and coves does not leave time for cultural attractions. So museum and sightseeing lovers will need to stay on the island a little longer, but an average of seven to ten days will be enough to see the main sights of Madeira.

Thanks to the warm currents of the Gulf Stream in winter temperatures in Madeira does not drop below plus 17 degrees, and in summer fluctuates around plus 25

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