Getting away from it all seems like an ever narrowing window of opportunity, but if you can squeeze a trip there, Madeira is the place to go. Filled with dense green forests, volcanic mountains and beautiful coastlines, this unique island could very easily be the location of the next Jurassic Park movie. There might not be any dinosaurs, but there is plenty of sun, sea, nature and Portuguese culture to explore.
Flight time is around 3 hours (ish) from Gatwick and takes you to Funchal Airport on the island, around 1000 km from mainland Portugal and 500 km from Africa, which means temperatures in winter are around 17 degrees. Not too bad eh? Arriving at the airport during COVID means everyone is tested and free. This is a well organized and relatively quick operation – we recovered our results (COVID free) within 12 hours.
Our first glimpse of the island is the trip from the airport to our first of two hotels, the Pestana Quinta do Arco and the road reveals extraordinary and spectacular landscapes. Winding roads up and down misty mountain peaks give way to spectacular views of lush green, levadas (small irrigation canals), golden beaches, deep valleys, and majestic hills. It is incredibly beautiful.
Pestana Quinta do Arco is on the north coast of Madeira, giving way to views of the Laurissilva Forest and the Atlantic Ocean. With two pools and lovely rooms with their own kitchenettes and terraces (rates start at € 57 a night), this is a great place. It is also home to Jardim das Rosas, the largest rose garden in the world with over 1,700 species of roses.
Our first adventure in Madeira was a hike along Levada Do Rei. Levadas are like little canals and were introduced to bring water from the north to the south of the island in the 16th century. Stretching for about 3 km, they bring the water down to an altitude of 1862 meters. The Levada Do Rei Trail is 5.3 km long and takes about three and a half hours to reach a maximum elevation of 573 meters. With a panoramic view of the farmlands of São Jorge and Santana, you cannot fail to see the beauty of the island.
Here we are introduced to the native forest, rich in natural biodiversity, including laurels and firefighter and finch birds that we see from time to time. Then, of course, there is the microclimate of Madeira. Old Mother Nature has a field day with the conditions – we have rain, sun, and incredible fog above the treetops. The trail features narrow walkways, low tunnels, and even cuts right under a waterfall. This is the kind of immersive hike we love.
After that, lunch at Quinta do Furao, in the Madeira countryside, is well deserved. The hotel sits atop a bluff that looks out over an impressive stretch of coastline, with blue stretching as far as the eye can see and white-topped waves crashing against the sandy shore. We taste locally caught fish, including the famous black scabbard served with a banana and passion fruit sauce. If you’ve never seen the fish before, it’s worth Googling. We also taste their local Madeira wine. With a vineyard within the hotel grounds, what would be rude not to say?
We then swap the mountain peaks for the deep blue sea and set off by boat from Machico Marina to explore coastal coves and search for dolphins and whales. Depending on the season, you may spot many species of whales, including humpback whales and orcas, and two species of dolphins, with which you can swim, an experience that will be memorable for years to come.
A local family restaurant called Casa de Palha was the place for dinner, which is very cozy and rustic. Here there are some homemade Madeiran dishes to dive in, especially for us the Bacalhau com natas, a baked dish of salted cod and potatoes, is really good.
An early departure the next day saw us waking up in the dark. Even at 7:30 am, it is still very dark (we might have searched on Google for “Madeira time now” lest our phone was lying to us). A roadside stop along the coast allowed us to have a coffee and also one of their precious Pastal de Nata, a staple of our book anytime of the day. In Porto Moniz, we watched the ocean roar against the rocky shore as the sun raised its head. Then we hit the road, literally, on an island jeep tour that takes us off-road and into the hills where the temperature dropped, fog appeared and the shorts we put on earlier seemed be a terrible mistake.
It was one of our favorite experiences of the whole trip as we got to see so many different sides of the island. The scenery really changes dramatically, changing between weird fog-laden woods, lush green plantations, mountainous terrain, red dust roads where cattle stand in the sun and people watch, small villages teeming with life and the towns of immaculate white buildings and terracotta roofs. And just about every patch of hill seems to be growing banana trees.
After all morning in a jeep, lunch couldn’t arrive early enough. This time it was at Hotel Ponta do Sol, another clifftop location with a restaurant overlooking the ocean and more local fish – it never gets boring. It was then a move to Quinta das Vinhas to spend the night discovering the sunny south coast. The main house dates from the 17th century and includes 15 chalets, two swimming pools and acres of vineyards (prices start at € 83 per night). Our room for the night was one of the apartment suites, which had a kitchenette, fireplace, balcony with a sea view, and lots of nice touches.
Even with all of this exploring, we didn’t make it to the capital Funchal, but if you’re planning on visiting the island, there are a few cultural events you’ll want to watch out for. There is the carnival in February / March where people dress up and parade through the city; the flower festival in April / May, which showcases all the flowers that bloom thanks to the island’s subtropical climate, with floats, flower carpets in the streets and storefronts decorated with displays; the wine festival in August / September, where you can discover the secrets of Madeira wine; and markets, street parties and fireworks at Christmas. Who is ready to book a flight?