Although we holiday in Portugal fairly frequently, our visit this year to the main island in their Atlantic archipelago was a first.
Five things I thought about Madeira before we visited:
It has a cake named after it.
FALSE – there’s no real connection.
It supposedly has the perfect climate.
TRUE – well as far as I’m concerned. Year round high teens / low 20s suits me fine.
It’s considered exceptionally beautiful and full of flowers.
TRUE – the smell was also amazing!
It’s a major cruise ship stop.
TRUE – although we didn’t see any.
It’s only for the over 50s.
90% FALSE – but it’s definitely not party central and won’t appeal to clubbers unless they’re ready to hang up their glow sticks!
This last preconception I’d harboured for a while and it had put me off going if I’m honest. The thing is, everyone who talked about the island (and subsequently raved about it) WAS over 50 – until my friend visited last year and told me I was being daft!
There is an older crowd (I do not know how they cope with the incredibly steep hills) but unless you’re looking for all-night parties and endless pub crawls (personally can’t think of anything worse), it would appeal to any age. There are plenty of activities, from walking and jeep safaris, to surfing, paragliding and whale watching, that will keep more adventurous entertained. And for the less active, you can’t go wrong with sunshine, stunning views and fabulous food!
Steak / fish, cooked on a stone slab is a must…and have you seen the size of the strawberries?!
We opted to stay in Funchal, the capital, as we were told this was good for transport links to the rest of the island. However, we ended up walking everywhere, having enough to occupy us without venturing further afield.
Staying in an Airbnb apartment, with a wonderful view out to the expanse of the Atlantic, we spent our days meandering around the streets, strolling along the beachfront walks or exploring the Old Town, full of cute cafés and market stalls.
By our standards, it was the most ‘touristy’ place we’ve stayed for a while so we indulged in some of the ‘must-do’ tourist attractions. First up, the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers’ market).
Operating since the 1940s, there is an abundance of stalls selling mainly fruits, flowers and fish, with a few offering traditional lace work and embroidery. It was after lunch when we arrived so the apparently bustling fish version of Wall Street had all but closed for the day. Just a lone tuna, still hoping to be snatched up 😦 (I’m always amazed by their size!) But the colours on show in the flower market were worth the visit. So many of the blooms were unfamiliar to me and they all appeared huge. Grow big or go home…
Beware of the fruit stalls however – the traders will offer samples and as with many markets, then force a sale. We were aware of this so declined and watched others get sucked in, whilst trying to exit as quickly as possible. Not as easy as it should have been! You know in video games, when your player enters an area, triggering an interaction with characters? Yep, like that…but with fruit. It was so bizarre that as we passed their (presumably pre-arranged) thresholds, it was like the computer had been re-set, ready for the next walk-through!
Following adventures in market land, it was time to head out of town…via a cable car! Monte, a village just outside (and well above) Funchal, was once a health resort for high society, linked to the capital by a railway. However, this was dismantled in WW2, due to a shortage of steel needed for the fight.
The journey gave a fantastic perspective of the capital – it’s easy to feel that the sea must be visible from pretty much everywhere on the island as the little houses are built higher and higher on to the mountainside. Someone had even lost a large amount of washing that had blown from their line – personally, if I kept losing that much, I’d just use a tumble dryer…
Once at the top, there is access to two botanical gardens, a small village and church to explore. You can opt for a return cable car but the most popular is the toboggan back half-way and then a taxi, or for those with calves of steel, a steep downhill walk.
We only wanted to watch the toboggans, wicker sleds ‘driven’ by the Carreiros who use their rubber-soled boots as brakes, as you hurtle downhill for 2km! Once a bumpier ride over cobbles, the roads have been worn smooth but it seemed to delight all the riders looking for a mini adrenaline rush.
Again, as a bit of a tourist trap, it’s quite pricey for a short activity (€30 for two) and they will pester for tips. Just don’t fall for them offering you a taxi from the cable car to the start of the run… it’s literally around the corner – less than 100m!
Technically, I’ve been on them before – my Mum visited Madeira and did the run when she was pregnant with me… Not sure health and safety would have approved in her delicate state but it may account for my love of roller-coasters!
The final night was spent watching the first contestants in the Atlantic Festival – a firework extravaganza running each Saturday in June, where companies compete to be the ones to run the New Year celebrations. Not satisfied with being the birthplace of one of the best footballers in the world, CR7 (Cristiano Ronaldo), did you know Madeira also holds the record for having the biggest New Year fireworks display in the world?
The island is definitely worth a visit and still has so much to offer that we didn’t see: The mountains, levada walks, the north of the island and a trip to the nearby Desertas, entirely a nature reserve, would all be on my list if we returned. I just need to convince Sam that the tarantulas on the Desertas can’t swim…
Image Credits: All mine, so please be sweet and ask before sharing. 🙂