This far-flung Portuguese isle may have a package-holiday reputation. But, from dolphins to hill walks to splendid horse-rides, Lyn Hughes finds that it offers so much more
Where: Atlantic Ocean, 1,000km south-west of mainland Portugal
Why: Dramatic scenery, good walking, mild climate
When: Year round
The cloud was both below and before me, laying like a thick fluffy rug. Roberto, my guide, was disappointed: “The view is normally amazing. That’s why I suggested we come so early.”
We started to drive on, but then the rug shifted a little, as if someone had tugged a corner, and a sliver of land and sea was revealed. Then, within a few minutes, we could see down to Funchal and the sparkling Atlantic Ocean beyond.
My initial impression of Madeira was that it was more developed than I’d expected. Yes, Funchal is charming, but scanning the city’s skyline for the Reid’s Palace Hotel – a local icon – I’d had to search among a sea of ugly developments. Outside the capital, I’d been startled by all the new tunnels and motorways; they may have speeded up travel across the island, but they also help explain why Madeira is millions of euros in debt.
However, after we left the main highway, things changed. We climbed through different stages of vegetation, from the lush and exotic, through forests of pine and eucalypt, to a rugged moorland plateau; up here the temperature was at least 10°C lower than by the sea. And all this in less than an hour.
I was starting to see how people could fall in love with Madeira. With its equable climate and genteel reputation, Madeira is often viewed as a rather staid destination; somewhere to go when you’re retired maybe. Meanwhile, despite a shortage of good beaches, it has also become a package-holiday choice. But there is much more to Madeira. The island is lush and fertile – nearly anything can grow here, and it is renowned for its botanical gardens. Yet rugged volcanic peaks rise out of all this fecundity, criss-crossed with ingenious irrigation channels known as levadas. Hiking trails follow the aqueducts, making Madeira great for walking, whatever your level of fitness and ability.
If walking isn’t your bag, there are plenty of other options. Madeira’s offshore waters are so deep that whales are often seen, while dolphins are spotted almost daily. On land, there are many villages and valleys to visit. Hire a car or taxi, or jump on a bus, though don’t try to see too much – Madeira may not be big (just 740 sq km) but its rugged topography means it can take a long time to get anywhere.
I continued my own explorations on horseback, following mountain trails from the Quinta do Riacho. Co-owner Paula is originally from mainland Portugal but has fallen for the home of her husband. And, as we sat on a hillside, looking out to the east coast, I could see why. “Every day is different here, the clouds and mist can change everything in minutes,” she said. “I just never get tired of these views.”
Try a glass of poncha: this local’s favourite cocktail is made with white rum, lemon juice
Work up an appetite exploring historic Funchal, hiking the interior or taking to the water
Explore the capital. Start in the centre, with a visit to the 15th-century Sé (cathedral). Then learn about Madeira’s famed fortified wine. Take the one-hour tour, with tastings, of Old Blandy’s Wine Lodge (Avda Arriaga 28) and drop in on the island’s smallest producer, Artur de Barros e Sousa (Rua dos Ferreiros 109), started in 1890 and now run by fourth-generation brothers.
In eastern Funchal, visit the Mercado dos Lavradores, the vibrant main market. Stroll down narrow Rua de Santa Maria, the oldest street in town, where many of the doors have been painted by artists as part of the Arte de Portas Abertas project. The street also has numerous cafés and restaurants; have lunch at Tasca Literária Dona Joana Rabo-de-Peixe (no 77) or return later for a beer.
Next, ride the cable-car over the rooftops to the suburb of Monte, once the summer retreat of Funchal’s wealthier residents. Today, most visitors come for the fine Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, with their historic tile panels and museum of African sculptures.
Nearby, the pretty white church of Nossa Senhora do Monte is a pilgrimage site, home to a statue of the Virgin Mary that is believed to work miracles. Deposed Austrian Emperor Karl I is buried here.
Take the cable-car back down or, for more of a thrill, opt for a ‘toboggan’ ride: drivers will steer you downhill in a wicker basket on wooden runners, their goat-skin boots the only brakes.
Get up early to head into the island’s rugged interior. Drive to the top of Pico do Arieiro (1,818m), the island’s third- highest point. From there, you’ll get splendid views of Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo (1,861m); it’s a 12km walk if you’re feeling energetic.
There are over 2,000km of levada paths so whatever your level of fitness and mobility there will be a walk for you. Invest in Landscapes of Madeira (Sunflower Books, £14), which features 100 walks. Take water, waterproofs and warm clothing, and tell someone where you’re going as conditions can change very quickly. Arrange taxis to pick you up and drop you off.
All that walking will have made you hungry. Take afternoon tea in the genteel surroundings of Reid’s Palace (book ahead) or save yourself for a slap-up meal back in Funchal. Popular dishes are espada (black scabbard fish served with banana), espetada (marinated beef served on skewers) and pão caseiro (sweet potato bread served with garlic). Wash it all down with local wine or a Coral beer.
Madeira is the largest island in an archipelago. If you’re hankering after sand, take a ferry to Porto Santo (2.5hrs) to spend the day on this quiet isle’s 9km-long beach.
Alternatively, take a boat trip around the Ilhas Desertas, three uninhabited islands, home to colonies of sea birds, monk seals and an array of marine life.
There’s a good chance of seeing dolphins, or possibly a whale, if you take any of the boat or catamaran trips from Funchal’s picturesque harbour. Standard boat trips offer
the chance to swim in beautiful bays (or even among dolphins); dedicated whale- and dolphin-watching trips have onboard naturalists. The best time of year to see sperm and Bryde’s whales is May-October; humpbacks are more common during the winter months.
If you do a morning boat trip, spend the afternoon seeing more of Madeira. The new roads mean it’s much easier to get to the small villages that dot the island. Try Santana, in the north – it’s touristy but has some fine traditional triangular houses.
Whether you’re an experienced horserider or not, you can take to the hills on the beautiful but gentle steeds of Quinta do Riacho. It's run by a friendly English-speaking couple who will pick you up from your hotel if you have no transport. Rides follow levadas, wend through ancient laurel woodland and up hilltop trails, offering incredible views. And better still – you’re unlikely to see another soul.
When to go: Mild year-round. Snow can fall in the mountains in winter; rain can fall any time. June is good: fine weather, fewer tourists.
Getting there: TAP Portugal flies Funchal-Gatwick direct from £115 one way. easyJet flies from Gatwick and Bristol. Flight time is 3hrs 45mins.
Getting around: Buses are plentiful, cheap and slow. Taxis with multi-lingual drivers cost around €100 a day. Tour companies offer guided trips. Or you can hire a car.
Where to stay: Reid’s Palace Hotel (Funchal) is an island icon; doubles from €315. Charming Quinta da Penha de França (Funchal) is built around an old manor, and has a newer sister hotel attached; doubles from €56.50. Quinta Mirabela (Funchal) is a boutique hotel; doubles from €60.
Where to eat: Restaurante do Forte (Funchal) is set in a 17th-century fortress. A Bica (Rua do Hospital, Funchal) is great value. Quinta do Furão, in the north-east, has superb local cuisine.
Further info: www.visitmadeira.pt.
Good souvenirs to look out for include bottles of Madeira wine, embroidery, wickerwork, flowers and bolo de mel (honey cake).