Natural Pools & Pastel Sunsets: Your Guide to Madeira Island

Madeira Island Tour

The Pearl of the Atlantic… the Isle of Timber… the Island of Eternal Spring… this place was simply not on our radar until one day in the Spring of 2017 when our friend asked us “have you guys thought about Madeira?” After some quick research, we went from “where’s that?” to “flights purchased!” in less than 20 minutes.

Our impulse decision to visit Madeira was maybe the best we’ve made during our time traveling together. We couldn’t have stumbled upon a more diverse, dynamic & beautiful landscape to spend 4 days on a whim. We look forward to returning someday soon, but we truly hope some of y’all get there sooner… Enjoy!

Background

  • Madeira’s Double-Definition
  • 5 Fun Facts
  • Topography & Climate
  • Getting There
  • Getting Around

⌲ Accommodation & Satiation

  • Where Most People Stay
  • Where We Would Probably Stay Next Time
  • Dining & Imbibing

 Suggested Itinerary

  • Day 1 – get familiar with Funchal
  • Day 2 – explore the northern coast
  • Day 3 – take a day trip to Porto Santo
  • Day 4 – hike, surf, or relax

⌲ Background

 

Madeira? or…Madeira?

The Madeira archipelago consists of Madeira island, Porto Santo island, the Desertas Islands and the Savage Islands (a separate archipelago nearly 200 miles away). The entire archipelago includes 24 total islands and islets, 19 of which are uninhabited.

When you hear people talking about “Madeira,” it’s safe to assume that they’re referring to Madeira island. In this guide, when we refer to Madeira, most of the time we’re also referring to the island, although there are some exceptions:

  • “one of the best restaurants on Madeira” → we’re talking about the island
  • “Madeira is one of two autonomous regions of Portugal” → we’re talking about the entire archipelago

We found this infographic to be pretty helpful!

Source: http://reregions.blogspot.com/2010/03/madeira-archipelago.html

 

5 Fun Facts

  1. Madeira was settled in 1420, making it the first discovery of the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
  2. Roughly 270k people live on Madeira, but over 1 million tourists visit the island each year.
  3. July 1st is Madeira Day – commemorating the date when Madeira was granted political autonomy from Portugal in 1976. Today, Madeira has its own government and President.
  4. The annual New Year celebration on Madeira holds the Guinness World Record for the largest fireworks show in the world!
  5. The ukulele was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Madeiran immigrants in the 1880’s! In fact, it’s based on two guitar-like instruments from Madeira: the cavaquinho and the rajao.

Topography & Climate

The island of Madeira is actually the top of a volcano, poking its head above water nearly 4 miles (6 km) above the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The Madeira of today is tropical in feel and enjoys a Mediterranean climate with mild year-round temperatures. Most rain falls between October and April.

travelhelix trivia: Madeira’s formation period began over 5 million years ago and ended over 700,000 years ago. The island’s last volcanic eruption was over 6,500 years ago.

The center of the island is dominated by a mountain ridge that reaches just over 1 mile high (1.8 km) at its highest point: Pico Ruivo. In the winter months, Madeira’s mountains will usually experience some snowfall.

travelhelix trivia: with a total area of 286 square miles (741 square km), Madeira island is slightly smaller than Madrid, Spain. Different perspective: you could fit 5 Madeira islands inside Rhode Island.

Madeira - central mountains
The central mountains of Madeira island.
Madeira Island Wall Lizard
The Madeiran wall lizard: exclusive, endemic & camouflaged → you won’t find any other lizards here, you won’t find this lizard anywhere else & you may not find this lizard!

Getting There

If you’re traveling to Madeira, it’s more than likely that you’ll fly in and out of Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport (FNC). Named after futbol phenomenon Cristiano Ronaldo, the 4th busiest airport in Portugal offers direct flights to over 30 European airports and nearby islands. The most frequent flights are to Lisbon: anywhere from 8-12 flight options per day, taking around 1 hour & 45 minutes. The airport is located in Santa Cruz, on the east side of the island, about a 20-minute drive from Funchal.

Madeira is also a major cruise destination. In fact, the main harbor in Funchal is the #1 Portuguese port for cruise dockings between Europe, the Caribbean and North Africa.

Madeira Island - Funchal harbor
Sunset from the harbor of Funchal.

Getting Around

If you want to explore the island outside of Funchal, renting a car is the way to go. We found the major roads and highways that cross the island to be modern, smooth and safe.

Madeira Island - Renting a Car
A man and his Panda (errr….Volkswagen Panda).

travelhelix tip: we arranged a rental car through our hotel. The process was simple, and many hotels offer this service as a courtesy. A 24-hour rental was a convenient & cost-effective way for us to visit Porto Moniz, São Vicente & Câmara de Lobos all in one day.

 

 

Other modes of transportation around Madeira island:

  • The bus company Horários do Funchal can get you pretty much everywhere on the island. This guide is pretty cool and can help you plan your own Madeiran bus trip.
  • Taxis are also available on the island.

travelhelix tip: discuss taxi fares with your driver before you begin your trip, as certain destinations may cost a fixed rate (we encountered this in the suburb of Livramento).


⌲ Accommodation & Satiation

 

Where Most People Stay

Located on the southern coast, Madeira’s capital, Funchal (pronounced “foon-sholl”), offers a charming combination of walking streets, parks, gardens, markets, cafés and restaurants. Funchal also offers accommodations to suit all travelers, ranging from modest apartment rentals to 5-star resorts.

Many of the hotels and resorts are family-friendly. Most also have swimming pools and terraces that are well suited for some laid-back relaxation.

travelhelix tip: if you’re looking at lodging options on a map, west of the harbor, you’ll notice many hotel options along a 2-mile strip that appear to be right on the water. While some hotels may indeed be “oceanfront,” they’re not quite “beachfront” as they’re built on cliffs a few hundred yards/meters above the ocean. Nonetheless, the views are spectacular, and the water is usually accessible via pathways and the oceanfront promenade that will take you all the way to central Funchal.

Where We Would Probably Stay Next Time

When we do make it back to Madeira, we’d absolutely book a longer stay: at least 7 days, and possibly as many as 14 days. The island is large enough and diverse enough to justify splitting time between Funchal and 1 or 2 other villages.

Option #1: the pearl of the northern coast is the quaint Porto Moniz. The 4-star Aqua Natura Madeira offers elegant rooms, beautiful views, and manmade swimming pools filled with Atlantic saltwater.

reflections from DnA: as we ate lunch here, overlooking the swimming pools, our brains shared one simple thought: why didn’t we bring an overnight bag?!

Madeira Island - Aqua Natura Hotel
Lunch views from Aqua Natura Madeira, Porto Moniz.

Option #2: if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, yet still close to Funchal, try the charming fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, roughly 15 minutes west of the island’s capital.

Option #3: nearby Porto Santo island seems to be the right type of place to “take a vacation from your vacation.” Perhaps we’ll spend a couple days here next time!

Dining & Imbibing

From black scabbardfish to Espetada… from Poncha to Nikita… Madeira is home to some incredible cuisine that dazzled our senses of sight, smell and taste from morning till night. So much so, in fact, that we designed a separate travel guide solely focused on the what to eat and drink while you’re on the island. Check out 7 Delectable Flavors and get ready…to get hungry.


⌲ Suggested Itinerary

 

DAY 1: GET FAMILIAR WITH FUNCHAL

We explored Madeira for 4 days & 4 nights, and more than 50% of our time was spent in and around Funchal. One can easily get lost in Funchal for several days – even a week – exploring & relaxing. But for those of you that prefer to remain on-the-go – or if your time on the island is limited – you can see the main highlights and hotspots in one day.

Check out our Funchal travel guide Flora, Fauna & Funky Rides to get the full breakdown on how best to plan an action-packed day in Madeira’s capital city. We’ll tell you this much: it includes 2 cable cars, a downhill street toboggan and a tuk-tuk. You’ll also find a couple of short music videos so that you can relive our fast-moving Funchal adventures along with us! Check it out!!!

And here are a few of our favorite Funchal photos, just to wet your appetite a little more 🙂

DAY 2: EXPLORE THE NORTHERN COAST

Our day-trip to the northern coast of Madeira was a memorable one. Below, we’ve outlined the itinerary from beginning to end. Click on the map image below – or click here – and begin planning your own adventure!

Here’s a high-level overview, with some suggested times thrown in, based on our experience:

  • 8:00am – depart Funchal
  • 9:00am – arrive in Porto Moniz
  • 9:00am – 12:00pm – choose an activity in Porto Moniz
  • 12:00pm – 12:45pm – take a quick dip in the natural pools
  • 12:45pm – 2:00pm – lunch
  • 2:00pm – 2:30pm – drive to São Vicente
  • 2:30pm – 4:00pm – cave tour & Volcanism Center
  • 4:00pm – 4:15pm – drive to Taberna da Poncha
  • 4:15pm – 5:00pm – afternoon refreshment!
  • 5:00pm – 5:30pm – drive to Câmara de Lobos
  • 5:30pm – 8:30pm – wander & dine in Câmara de Lobos
  • When you’re done – head home to Funchal
Note: the time and distance shown here reflect the complete round-trip from Funchal to Porto Moniz and back to Funchal.

Take a Dip in the Natural Pools of Porto Moniz

Depart early from Funchal and make your way toward the undiscovered pearl of Porto Moniz, located on the northernmost point of the island.

getting there: the direct route through the center of the island is 30 miles (49 km) and should take you about an hour. You’ll ascend quickly on curvy roads, drive through loooooong tunnels built into mountains, and descend upon the northern coast – all the while surrounded by tropical beauty.

travelhelix tip: an alternate route along the southern coast is about 40 miles (53 km) and will take you closer to 1.5 hours. Whichever route you choose, this drive will probably be your longest drive of the day!

For a village of its size (just over 200 inhabitants) Porto Moniz offers a wide variety of fun things to do for all ages, including scuba diving, canyoning and visiting the aquarium. Our 3 hours in the village consisted of lunch, a promenade stroll overlooking the ocean, and an excursion down to the natural swimming pools.

The natural pools of Porto Moniz were formed by volcanic lava hardened into rock. The saltwater of the Atlantic flows into this 1 acre (3800 square meter) area, offering a great way for locals and tourists to cool off on hot days. The network of pools is interconnected & accessible by a combination of natural lava rock & manmade walkways.

when to go: this destination is small, popular and crowded depending on the day. When planning your trip, consider the season, day of the week, time of day, and the weather. Hot Saturday at 2pm in August? Expect the pools to be packed. Cool Wednesday morning in April? You’re more likely to luck out with a bit of privacy.

travelhelix tip: Madeira may be a volcanic island, but we are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. These pools are COLD! If you plan on getting in the water, don’t forget to bring a towel. Air-dry at your own risk!

Go Spelunking in the São Vicente Caves

Las Grutas de São Vicente (the São Vicente Caves) were formed by an underground lava flow from a volcanic eruption over 400,000 years ago. If you like caves, this might be right up your alley. If you don’t like caves or if you’re claustrophobic, probably better to stay outside or grab a drink from the cafeteria! We found the 30-minute tour to be interesting and informative.

getting there: head east along the northern coast until you arrive in São Vicente. This beautiful drive should take about 20 minutes.

travelhelix tip: the cave tours don’t begin at any regularly-scheduled times. Once a large enough group is assembled (ours was 25-30), a tour will begin. Our tour guide said she does 10-12 tours on an average day, so it’s safe to assume that a new tour will begin every 45 minutes or so. 

travelhelix tip: although 6:00pm is the published “closing time,” don’t expect to show up at 5:45pm and get a tour! Arrive no later than 4pm, to be safe.

The Volcanism Center was something else entirely! This 20-minute experience at the end of the cave tour involved educational exhibits about plate tectonics, the history of the Earth, and the evolution of Madeira.

reflections from DnA: we’re still not sure what our favorite part was: the realistic elevator ride down to the Earth’s core at the beginning, or the 3-D movie at the end!

Madeira - Las Grutas de São Vicente
Las Grutas de São Vicente – the caves of Madeira.
Madeira Island - Flora & Fauna
Local flora & fauna outside Las Grutas de São Vicente.
Madeira - Las Grutas De São Vicente
Outside Las Grutas de São Vicente, looking towards the ocean.

Stop (and Sip) at Taberna da Poncha

What’s Poncha, you ask? Our food & beverage guide to Madeira will give you the full story. For now, take our word for it: you’ve gotta try some, and the best place to try it is at Taberna da Poncha in Ribeira Brava.

getting there: the drive from São Vicente should take about 15 minutes.

Nestled alongside the highway, this timeless tavern offers the perfect blend of local charm, off-the-beaten-path privacy, and lively crowds. Peanut shells cover the floor, business cards line the walls and bartenders mix up delicious Poncha right before your eyes.

Enjoy the Quiet Calm of Câmara de Lobos

After a long day, the quaint village of Câmara de Lobos is the perfect place for some natural decompression. Wander the streets down to the harbor and you’ll observe fisherman returning from a long day of hard work, and kayakers just getting started with some late afternoon exercise.

getting there: the map indicates that this drive will take 15 minutes, but at this time of day there may be a bit of rush hour traffic, so 30 minutes is more realistic.

Madeira - Câmara de Lobos
Câmara de Lobos

Câmara de Lobos also happens to be home to 2 of the best culinary creations we discovered during our time on Madeira: Nikita and Espetada.

A Nikita is essentially an “adult milkshake,” created by blending vanilla or pineapple ice cream, pineapple juice, white wine and beer. Espetada is a skewer of meat smothered in garlic and grilled to perfection. We enjoyed both delicacies during dinner at Casa do Farol.

OK, we know that was a big day, but we promise you: IT CAN BE DONE!

Check out this video snapshot of everything you just read about DAY 2 on Madeira:

DAY 3: TAKE A DAY-TRIP TO PORTO SANTO

travelhelix confession: unfortunately, we didn’t make it out to Porto Santo during our first trip to Madeira, but we’ll absolutely be spending a few days here during our next visit!

Located 27 miles (43 km) northeast of Madeira, the island of Porto Santo is an Atlantic oasis entirely devoted to tourism. The village of Vila Baleira is the center of the island’s activity, home to most of its 5000 residents, and the starting point of a beach that stretches 6 miles (9 km) southwest to Ponta de Calheta.

Sandy paradise + mild climate + warm waters = the perfect destination for a day-trip or extended stay, any time of year.

If you’re searching for something other than pure relaxation as an excuse to visit the island, Porto Santo parties hard in February for Carnival, celebrates the festival of São João in June, and stomps grapes during the last week of August for the annual Wine Festival. Porto Santo is known as a laid-back place to relax by day, and a good place for nightlife on Fridays and Saturdays in the summer.

getting there by plane: Porto Santo Airport (PXO) offers several daily flights to and from Madeira (15-minute flight time). The small airport also offers seasonal direct flights to Lisbon, Porto & other international destinations (Billund, Denmark anyone?!).

getting there by ferry: the Porto Santo Line transports passengers & cars between Madeira and Porto Santo every day (2 hour & 15 minute travel time). Check the website for timetables, ticket purchases and  discount packages which combine ferry tickets with activities like golf, cycling and spa access.

where to stay: the island offers plenty of options for vacation rentals & hotels, most of which are located along the 2.5-mile stretch of beach between Vila Baleira and Cabeco Da Ponta.

DAY 4: HIKE… SURF… or CHILL

If you’ve still got the energy, Madeira offers some other outdoor activities to help you burn off some of those Poncha & Nikita calories!

Hike Alongside Levadas

Arguably the most iconic engineering landmarks that can be found on the island are its levadas (aqueducts). In the 16th century, Portuguese settlers began building levadas to transport water from the rainfall-heavy northwest to the comparably dry southeast. Over 500 years later, the levadas are still used to transport water and to generate hydro-electric power for the entire island.

The total network consists of over 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas, many of which are complemented by walking paths and hiking trails – a major draw for tourists and locals. If you didn’t have a chance to do any hiking while visiting Porto Moniz on day 2, you may consider a repeat visit for a levada hike through the lush Laurissilva Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

travelhelix tip: Madeira’s levada hikes range from relaxing 1-hour strolls to challenging full-day treks. Consult the official Recommended Paths Table, come prepared, and hike cautiously!

Surf Some Mid-Atlantic Swells

With over 90 miles (150 km) of total coastline kissed constantly by mid-Atlantic swells, Madeira seems well-positioned to be a world-class surf destination. Few people visit Madeira for the beaches (better described as rocky, jagged cliffs), but surf connoisseurs should add this wave-haven to their bucket list.

This article provides a great list of the island’s top 11 surf spots, while this one offers some useful info based on season.

travelhelix confession: when it comes to surfing, we are far from professional. In fact, we are barely amateur. Our most extreme surfing story involves our experience in Byron Bay, Australia, where the 2-foot waves were equally as threatening as the bluebottle that stung our friend…

… the same friend that convinced us to visit Madeira. Full circle? We think YES!

Cheers!

-DnA

PS – you could also just relax in Funchal. There’s plenty of cool stuff to do in the island’s capital!

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