With its mild winters and balmy summers, Madeira is the perfect all-year-round destination. When you approach Madeira by air it seems to be just a blip in the Atlantic Ocean but you will soon discover an enchanting island bursting with colour, tradition, warm and friendly people, gastronomic delights, dramatic and verdant scenery, banana plantations, flowers that bloom all year round and a relaxing and laid-back attitude which makes it the perfect escape. And of course let’s not forget Madeira’s namesake wine which can only enhance your visit.
After a visit to Madeira in 1825 H. N. Coleridge, the nephew of the famous poet, said “I should think the situation of Madeira the most enviable on the whole earth. It ensures every European comfort with almost every tropical luxury.”
If you haven’t visited Madeira before, here is just a taste of what you can expect.
Where is Madeira?
Madeira is a small Portuguese volcanic island which rises dramatically out of the Atlantic, north west of the Canary Islands and a little further away from the north west coast of Africa. Although it’s only 56km long and 20km wide it packs in some spectacular mountainous scenery with the highest mountain, the Pico Ruivo, rising to 1862 meters.
Madeira is part of the Madeira Archipelago which is made up of four islands – Madeira, Porto Santo and the uninhabited islands of Selvagems and Desertas. You can reach the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo by sea or air.
The Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira international airport (renamed in 2016 in honour of the footballer Cristiano Rinaldo who is a native of Madeira) is just over 13km from Funchal and is considered to be one of the most perilous airports in the world because of its position between the sea and mountains. In the 1970s the runway was extended to allow larger aircraft to land but as tourism grew the runway was extended again and in 2002 the new terminal and runway were officially opened. Locally the airport is known as Aeroporto da Madeira (Madeira Airport ) or Aeroporto do Funchal (Funchal Airport).
The climate of Madeira
Because of its sub tropical climate Madeira enjoys warm summers and mild winters so Madeira is the perfect all-year-round destination. In the summer it is rarely too hot and in the winter it is the ideal place to escape the cold winters of the northern hemisphere. Locals say that Madeira is the only place where you can have four seasons in a day and that is certainly true if you travel from the south of the island to the north. Within just a few kilometres the weather can change significantly.
Most of the rain falls on the north side of the mountains and the temperatures here are generally lower than on the south coast. Even a ride on the cable car from Funchal to Monte can be a chilling experience. In just a 15 minute ride, the temperature can drop noticeably as you rise from Funchal to Monte 550 meters above sea level.
Funchal. the capital city of Madeira, has to be up there as one of the most picturesque of capital cities. It sits in a natural amphitheatre on the south coast of Madeira amidst banana plantations and exotic gardens with a backdrop of lush green mountains which protect the city from the cooler climate of the north.
Funchal is the perfect mix of old and new with its old cobbled streets, traditional restaurants and 15th century cathedral sitting comfortably alongside modern shopping malls and hotels and a beautiful promenade and modern marina and harbour (Madeira is a popular cruise destination) surrounded by stylish restaurants and clubs.
Funchal is also the stage for two unmissable events. On December 31st at the end of the Christmas festive season there is a spectacular New Year firework display with people partying and celebrating on the streets. In mid spring Funchal plays host to the annual flower festival which includes ‘fabulous floral displays, music and a wonderful parade through the streets of Funchal with floats decorated with natural flowers and fairy tale costumes’ with the inherent message of ‘love and respect for nature and people’.
Monte, with its wonderful panoramic view over Funchal bay and the city of Funchal, was once the place where wealthy families retreated to in the summer to escape the higher temperatures of the coast. Like the rest of Madeira, Monte is overwhelmingly green and lush and the municipal gardens which cover much of the parish of Monte will not disappoint.
The original Nossa Senhora do Monte church situated at the top of an impressive flight of 68 stone steps, was built on the foundations of a primitive 15th century chapel, but in 1784 it was destroyed by an earthquake. The church you see today was built following the earthquake and was finally completed in 1818. In the church you can see the tomb of Charles 1 of Habsburg (the last emperor of Austria) who went into exile in Madeira in 1921 having abdicated during the First World War.
One of the lost features of Monte is a rack railway which once connected Monte with Funchal. Due to a shortage of steel during the Second World War, the track was dismantled but you can still see the old train station.
Another highlight of a visit to Monte is the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. It was set up by José Berardo and is part of the Quinta Monte Palace owned by the José Berardo Foundation. The garden includes a vast collection of exotic plants from all over the world, a beautiful oriental garden and one of the most important tile collections in Portugal.
When you have exhausted all the sites of Monte you can slide back down to Funchal in an iconic wicker toboggan. These toboggans which slide on wooden skids have been a popular form of transport since the mid 19th century when they carried the wealthy of people of Monte down to Funchal. The hair-raising ride down the steep winding streets is pushed and steered by two drivers known as Carreiros who wear the traditional white cotton clothes and straw hats and special rubber-soled shoes which they use as brakes. The downhill 2 km journey takes about 10 minutes and can reach speeds of 48 km/hour. You can find the toboggans lined up ready for action at the foot of the steps to the Nossa Senhora do Monte church.
Curral das Freiras
The small village of Curral das Freiras about 19km from Funchal and over 600 meters above sea level sits in a remote valley surrounded by high mountains. The village got its name (translated as Nun’s Valley) around 1560 where it served as a shelter and refuge for some nuns who had escaped from Funchal when the city was plundered by Lutheran pirates who had invaded Madeira.
Given that it wasn’t until 1959 that a road large enough for a vehicle was constructed through the mountains, it must have been a slow and treacherous journey. Even now the progress along the narrow, winding road passing deep ravines and in the shadow of high mountains is quite slow.
This area is also famous for its chestnut trees and so you will find it hard to miss the local goodies such as chestnut cake, chestnut liquor and chestnut soup. In honour of the chestnut there is an annual chestnut festival held on the 1st November.
Santana (short for Santa Ana) on the north coast of Madeira, is characterised by its A-frame houses (Casas de Santana). These small triangular-shaped houses are built out of stone and covered with thatch made with bundles of tied wheat and rye straw. They have been used for centuries by the local inhabitants as stables and dwellings. In the centre of Santana there is a preservation area where you will find some typical Santana houses which are now being used to sell local crafts and products.
If you are looking for a beach holiday Madeira is not the destination for you. Despite it’s almost 100 miles of coastline it is mainly made up of cliffs which plunge dramatically into the Atlantic ocean below with little room for beaches. However, it is because of this lack of beaches which makes Madeira a haven from the mass tourism usually found in beach resorts.
For long golden sandy beaches, head for Porto Santo a small island about 50km to the north east of Madeira, where you will find the best beaches in the Madeira Archipelago. There is a ferry link from Funchal or you can fly there directly from a number of European airports. There are also regular flights from Funchal international airport.
Because of the influence of the warm Gulf stream, the seawater temperature averages 22ºC in the summer and 18ºC in the winter so yet another reason why Madeira is the perfect all-year-round destination.
Madeira is famous for its man-made irrigation channels which are used to distribute water from the high mountains in the north of the island to the rest of the island. The first channels were built in the 15th century. Although they are still used to distribute water they are now one of Madeira’s main tourist attractions. Alongside the irrigation channels there are foot paths or levadas which provide easy and relaxing walks together with some more challenging walks all of which make their way through some of the most breathtaking landscapes of Madeira.
Market gardening and farmers’ markets in Madeira
The Madeira Archipelago is famous for its market gardens and so there is no shortage of traditional markets selling fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, eggs plus all sorts of other local produce and food specialities. One of the most famous farmers’ markets is the Mercado dos Lavradores in Funchal. It’s not only famous for its wide variety of exotic fruit and vegetables and other local produce and products and traditional delights such as bolo de mel (honey cake) and its flower sellers in traditional costume, it’s also famous for its large fish market selling a wide range of weird and wonderful sea creatures.
If you stay nearby, as we did, you can watch the fishmongers setting up their stalls early in the morning and then preparing the wide variety of fish for sale. These include the long black scabbard fish (espada), tuna, bacalhau (codfish), gaiado (a regional fish treated like codfish) and potas (similar to a huge squid) all of which are used in traditional Madeiran recipes.
Madeira also used to be a big exporter of bananas until EU regulations introduced in the 1990s deemed that the bananas grown in Madeira were too small. However, that didn’t deter the Madeirans. They still grow bananas in abundance and they are justifiably proud of their smaller, sweeter and much tastier bananas.
And finally, a bit about Madeira’s namesake wine. Madeira wine is aged under heat and fortified with brandy because it was discovered back in the 17th century that the wine needed to be fortified to survive sea voyages. Also at this time Madeira was an ‘important provisioning point for journeys to the Americas and the East Indies and shippers would load up on Madeira wine on their way to England and the Americas. The casks of Madeira wine would be heated and cooled as the ships passed though the tropics and shippers noticed how the wine’s flavour deepened and became better‘. And so to this day the wine is heated and cooled many times throughout the ageing process.
There are two types of Madeira wines – blended and single-varietal Madeira. Blended Madeira wines are typically cheaper and of less good quality but there are a few better quality blended wines which carry an age description and make good sipping wine. Single-varietal Madeira are the best quality wines and are good as aperitifs or dessert wines.
Madeira wine festival
For two weeks from the end of August, Madeira celebrates its wine-growing roots and traditions. In the centre of Funchal there are light and sound shows associated with traditional wine making, performances by local folklore groups and wine-making paraphernalia such as presses, casks, grape-picking baskets and traditional means of transport adorn the streets. In Estreito de Câmara de Lobos the festival begins with a live grape harvest on a Madeiran farm, followed by a parade and a re-enactment of the treading of grapes. This is all accompanied by mouth-watering regional cuisine and live musical entertainment.