Madeira: garden island
The Portuguese island of Madeira is an extremely tempting option for a trip.
The Atlantic Ocean, picturesque volcanic cliffs, lush vegetation and excellent gastronomy will be a reason to go here all year round.
After a couple of hours, you understand why, since the end of the nineteenth century, it attracted the British rich, who worshipped Madeira as much as the French Riviera. I can just see gentlemen and ladies with lots of suitcases coming up from the ocean side. On the steep cliffs maids lift them on special stretchers. A little later in the day, ladies and gentlemen will admire the piercing blue Atlantic, walk through orchid gardens, and breathe the fresh mountain air. And in the evening, ladies in cocktail dresses and gentlemen in tuxedos will sit in the smart lounge of the oldest Reid’s Hotel, built in 1891.
Think of any Agatha Crista movie that shows aristocrats on vacation. That was the case in Madeira. European princes and princesses, Rainer Maria Rilke and Bernard Shaw all visited here. After World War II Winston Churchill recovered his health here, in the mentioned hotel his photo on the balcony of the suite is preserved. The British sometimes stayed here forever, if you remember, Jane Eyre’s uncle lived in Madeira. The fact that the island has always beckoned subjects of the United Kingdom, there are many explanations.
For example, the English are nature lovers, and Madeira is a garden. In addition, it is always warm and sunny, unlike in their native country. In winter the temperature never drops below 17 degrees, in summer it is about 25. Area of Madeira – 741 square kilometers, but in such a small area are several climate zones. Moving around, you can find yourself both in the tropics and on the Mediterranean coast.
The secret of blooming Madeira is a unique geographical location. It, along with the Azores and Canary Islands, is part of Macaronesia and is 310 miles closer to the African continent than Europe.
Temperatures never drop below 17 degrees in the winter and are around 25 degrees in the summer. Madeira is 741 square kilometers, but in such a small area there are several climatic zones. Moving around, you can find yourself both in the tropics and on the Mediterranean coast.
Nature is the main wealth of the island, it is diverse: wild in the relict forest and ennobled in the botanical gardens. Oaks, cedars, palms, orchids, calla lilies, passion fruit and ferns miraculously ended up together.
The indefatigable Portuguese sailors discovered Madeira in the fifteenth century. According to one version, the island was set on fire to make it easier to develop the rugged stretches of rainforest. The fire lasted for years and ate all the vegetation, but on the fertilized soil of the ashes it was possible to grow everything.
Seeds and seedlings were brought to Madeira from all over the world, they took root and thus the laurel became a neighbor of the dracena and the sugarcane became a neighbor of the pine. The inhabitants have always been drawn to the cultivation of the land, and over the centuries they turned Madeira into the most blooming volcanic island on the planet.
After an ode to nature, it is clear that this is a place to enjoy it. But for a point of reference, we recommend the following points.
Funchal-Monte cable car
From the tiny capital city of Funchal, the cable car takes you up into the mountains. The ocean and impregnable cliffs take your breath away. In addition, you see the rooftops where the residents plant banana palms and pumpkins. On Mt. Monte, it’s worth going to the tropical garden of the same name.
Roll down the mountain on a traditional sled
In the past, wealthy people used porters to climb the mountain and descended by means of a wicker sled sliding down a cobblestone road. The vehicle is now available for fun. The sled is driven by young men in white suits and braking boots. The descent is long and steep, and though you realize the guys are skilled, the girls tend to squeal at the turns.
The unique relic forest of Laurissilva is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The evergreen laurel forest, the same one that covered the planet during the Tertiary period (millions of years ago), has been preserved thanks to the Macaronesian climate.
The 15,000 hectares are home to laurel trees, ocotea, ferns, Brazilian mahogany, and other specimens that would have enthralled Jacques Paganel. Inside the misty green Laurissilva, it feels like you’ve entered, if not a million years B.C., then the magical forest of the planet Pandora.
After the wildlife of Laurissilva, it’s worth taking a look at the cultivated vegetation. The two large botanical gardens on the island are Jardim Tropical Monte and Jardim Botânico da Madeira, one private and the other municipal. The Jardim Botânico da Madeira is a place where you can indulge your botanical side, with 2500 plants from different continents: orchids, proteas, azaleas, cacti, coffee, magnolia, papaya, sugarcane, mango, Himalayan flowers and everything in between.
Is Madeira an island paradise in the middle of the Atlantic? Or is it not?
When starting a story about Madeira it’s worth remembering that this island belongs to Portugal and is located somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, just north of the Canary Islands, which we have already told you about.
When thinking about islands in the Atlantic Ocean many people see a picture in their mind: beaches with palm trees, sandy azure sea and you yourself on a chaise lounge with a cocktail. But Madeira is not like that, and that’s why I advise to go there!
How to get to Madeira
It’s worth starting with the fact that you have to get to this island lost in the Atlantic Ocean, but low-cost airlines don’t fly there much, and not on low-cost airlines tickets are expensive, and in general in covid times the flights are often canceled. And then Last Minute tours came to our rescue, you buy such a tour in 2-3 days and you have a week in Madeira with meals, hotel and charter flight for the price of a regular flight – it’s just great!
That’s how we got to Madeira, we chose an easier but cheaper hotel, because in Madeira the main thing is nature!
And by the way, while writing this article came the news that the Ukrainian airline SkyUp had launched direct flights from Kiev to Funchal, the capital of Madeira.
Where to stay in Madeira – features south and north?
On the island of Madeira there are basically two zones for living North and South. In the south is Funchal, where public transport is more developed, in the south there are also more vineyards, but also a drier climate and bald slopes (although not all). But the north is characterized by a wetter climate and forests. However, the north has a significant disadvantage, there are very few tours from here, and if you were planning to use the services of an agency, it is better to choose the south.
Well and as has been said before, Madeira is not about beach holidays, there is not very warm Atlantic Ocean, with pretty strong waves. Sandy beaches are a problem here, and the most convenient are concrete slopes in the water. However, in the north, there are several natural pools Piscinas Naturais. Especially in the north-west of the island there are a lot of them. Natural pools, this is either completely or partially fenced off from the ocean pools with ocean water, which is both heated better and quieter. So I advise everyone to try it.
We planned to rent a car and it was not important to us, so we stopped right in the center of the north, near the village of Sao Vicente in the hotel Estalagem Do Mar. By the way, I can safely recommend this hotel – excellent views from all rooms to the ocean and palm trees, swimming pool and sauna, but to eat better in Sao Vicente – tastier and more varied.
What to eat? Traditional Madeiran food and a fruit paradise
All sorts of exotic fruits come to mind when you think of Madeira and those are the first things you find on Google. What is really worth trying?
The main place to buy fruit is the central market in Funchal, where every seller is beckoning to try bananas or cherimoya, and maybe even 5-7 kinds of passion fruit. In fact, most fruits like mango, cherimoya, and papaya come from other parts of the world and are not local fruits, so look at the signs. Bananas, on the other hand, are a local fruit – a kind of green lump, creamy inside with the taste of pineapple and banana at the same time. To be honest, in the bazaar they give you a taste of ripe fruit, but you do not know which one you will get, and we kind of took all the possible tips, but the result was still so-so.
The passion fruit is different, but also one kind doesn’t differ much from the other, except Grenadia, which is sweet and yellow, and the structure is as good as passion fruit, though it comes to the island from Brazil
The second thing you can very often find in local restaurants is clams lapash, small one-piece clams. Here, as with almost all clams, it is important to be well cooked.
Grilled or fried sabre fish are also common. It is a deep-sea fish with big eyes and teeth that tastes very tender and delicious.
And of course the traditional dessert, bolo de miel. A kind of cake with honey and various additives of dried fruits and candied fruits.
Transport in Madeira
Transport in Madeira is a problem. Not really, though. In the south there is a fairly good network of bus routes, but to the north there are a few buses a day, which are evenly distributed between east and west. For example. all buses go through Sao Vicente, but it is impossible to take a bus in the evening to bathe in natural pools, because the last bus leaves there at 16-17 hours. So if you plan to visit a lot of places, then either take a car or use the services of a travel agency. The only place you can reach comfortably from almost every part of the island is Funchal, so it’s worth the trip.
What to see in Madeira?
The main attraction of Madeira is the island itself, or rather its nature. Steep cliffs, forests, ocean, everyone can find something interesting for themselves, although if you like beaches and white sand, then you’re unlikely to come here.
So in short, what is worth visiting while you’re in Madeira:
- The trek from Arieiro Peak to Ruivo Peak
- One, or better several, trails along the old water channels that the locals call levada
- Madeira factory
- Funchal with its main market, botanical garden and old quarters
- Natural pools
- The national park in the east of the island with the cape of Sao Lourenco
Trek from Pico de Arieiro to Ruivo Peak
The island has many vineyards and you can taste the famous Madeira. There are also a lot of trekking routes both simple and quite challenging. By the way, details on the official routes can be found at visitmadeira.pt, as well as there is information about open or closed trail for tourists.
So we found out that our plan to go from Ruivo Peak to Arieiro Peak can’t happen, because part of the access road is closed for repairs. More precisely, we arrived and met a sign, and then began to look for information.
The track from Arieiro Peak to Ruivo Peak is one of the most popular and beautiful tracks on the island. Unfortunately, for quite some time now, one of its options is closed, they say just the most beautiful, but opened a parallel path through the tunnels. It is not as difficult, but there are fewer views in the tunnels.
However, this route even in such a slightly cut version is worth passing, but it is worth considering your strength, because the route in one direction takes 3-4 hours, plus the transfer of the altitude of about a kilometer, and you still have to go back, if you have a car. However, you can use one of the tours and then you will be picked up from the end of the route by car. Or you can just drive a jeep to Ariero Peak to enjoy unforgettable views.
Routes along the Levada
There are canals for water almost all over the island. There are maintenance trails along the canals, but now they are mostly used by tourists, because there are many wonderful places. We walked one of the most famous levadas, Levada do Caldeirão Verde or Green Cauldron levada. The route goes through forests, sometimes the trail enters through grottoes and then leads to a waterfall that is surrounded by steep green walls – almost a real cauldron.
Active tours can always be chosen on aggregator sites, as there you can see both reviews and general information and compare prices from different operators.
The island of Madeira is where Madeira wine comes from, which sounds logical, which means that there are vineyards, and in addition to the vineyards there are also places where it is processed. This means that there are Madeira wineries, where you can not only see what is the secret of Madeira compared to other wines, but also taste the different varieties. We decided not to bother and went to one of the most famous places, Blandys Wine Lodge, located in the center of Funchal. Of course there are vineyard tours, and simply Madera tasting is included in the price of some tickets (but more about that later). However, a brief 1.5 hour tour, where you can get the most important information and taste the wine, is offered right here. This place has several types of tours, as express for 1.5 hours and longer for 3 or more hours.
We decided that we are not so professionals and 1.5 hours will be enough for us, it was enough! We found out a lot of interesting things and the main thing is how to distinguish a madera made of traditional grapes from the mass produced nowadays. You won’t believe it, they just write the name of the grape species on the madera from traditional types: malvasia, bual, sercial, verdelho. From each type of grape you can only get madera of a certain sweetness. Nowadays madera is widely made of Tinto Negro grapes, which can be used to produce any kind of wine from dry to sweet. There is nothing wrong with it, but still the traditional grapes are much more highly valued.
Funchal – capital of Madeira
Funchal is the capital of Madeira and the perfect starting point for most tourists arriving at Funchal airport. The city itself is quite large and spread out on the coastal slopes. The main attractions are Funchal Market – Mercado dos Lavradores. Here you can buy tropical fruits (although most of them are imported) and buy or just look at the fish market, here they sell those deep-sea fish – sabre fish, with big eyes and terrible teeth. The market is open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but here the fish part sells fresh fish, which usually ends by 11 or 12 p.m. So it is worth going here in the morning.
There are also a lot of museums in Funchal and everyone will find something to their liking. From the embankment a cable car (ticket only upwards costs 11 euros) you can get to the park at the castle of Monte. And this is the place I would recommend, because the garden around is one of the world’s top botanical gardens, there are many beautiful paths and plants. In the middle of all this rises the castle of Monte (looks pretty ordinary to me), and the ticket price includes a wine tasting Madera – well, as a tasting, you just choose what you want to try from the two or three presented kinds – one glass in the ticket price, the rest for money By the way a ticket to the castle grounds costs 12 euros adult, but sometimes there are free days, so check the official website.
Then there’s another botanical garden, you can even get there somehow by cable car (at least they sell such tickets), but we didn’t go there, and walked down the hill of Monte. Although we only made it to another Madeiran attraction, and then raced down the asphalt on a wooden sled! Sounds like the ravings of a madman, but it’s not – it’s the traditional way of getting loads (now tourists) down the hills in Funchal. You can find them by typing Carreiros do Monte. There are plenty of brave guys in traditional white suits and sledges on which you can ride down for 30 euros for two (25 for one). Sled goes by itself, but turns and brakes a couple of guys who ride behind and they brake simply. boots, however, with a special thick sole. What an adventure, we even smelled burnt wood on the sharp turns!
Natural pools are all over Madeira, as we have already written especially a lot of them in the north-west of the island. What are the natural pools. Previously they were just ponds or deep hollows where ocean water slammed over natural barriers, usually lava flows, because Madeira is of volcanic origin. So some such pools and remained quite wild, some people have organized a minimum of changing rooms and easy entry into the water (eg Piscinas Naturais do Seixal), and somewhere have made a completely man-made pool with a smooth bottom, comfortable entrance-exit, bar and the like – all that remains of naturalness bit of rocks around and ocean water. Such pools are in the town of Porto Moniz and there is a fee to enter – as much as 1.5 euros!
Sao Lourenco National Park
Sao Lourenco National Park is located on the most northeastern tip of Madeira, there is a fairly large parking lot at the entrance to the park, but it fills up very quickly in the morning. From the parking lot you can essentially only see one stone ridge with an arch, but beyond that. From there it’s just a walk, you can walk to the tip of the island, but it’s pretty far. On the way there are observation decks, the path meanders up and down. At one point it meanders along a narrow ridge, where there are bluffs in the ocean on both sides and leads to a house, and there’s a campsite near it, and the trail goes on.
You can spend a couple of hours or a whole day here, but don’t forget to take sunscreen.
Video of Madeira
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