Now that TAP Air Portugal has announced it will resume flights from gateway cities like New York in late October, it’s time to move beyond dreaming and start planning for a trip to Portugal’s magical Madeira. For sure this island will be an antidote of sorts for those looking for revitalization after the havoc wrecked by the coronavirus pandemic. The scenery alone is healing—volcanic mountains, forests, vineyards, dramatic coastline and the bluest of sea.
The Madeiran Archipelago is located in the Atlantic Ocean about 280 miles from the Canary Islands, 310 miles from the Moroccan coast, and about a 90-minute flight from Lisbon. Don’t be fooled by its size, just 35 miles long and 13 miles wide. There’s plenty to do and see, from beaches, galleries, museums like the Sacred Art Museum, golfing, footpaths and levadas (handmade channels carved into the rock which serve to transport water), and nature reserves to explore. For the adventurous there’s hang-gliding, paragliding, canyoning, trekking and the like. Much though is centered around Funchal, the capital city, which has nearly 120,000 residents, about half of the population that calls Madeira home.
With so many options for entertainment, consider at least doing one or two tours to maximize your time. For example, True Spirit offers a variety of tours. You pick and choose what tickles your fancy. You can take in Cabo Girão, which at over 1,900 feet tall is the highest sea cliff in Europe. Venture out on the skywalk with its suspended glass floor for views that are beyond spectacular of the Atlantic, Câmara de Lobos and Funchal. This will be no doubt one of the most awesome sites you’ll see during your trip. Consider Rabaçal for a 3-hour walk exploring an evergreen forest, valleys, waterfalls and natural springs. Then there’s the historic fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. Visit volcanic pools in Porto Moniz, one of the most popular spots in Madeira. Swim in crystalline waters with epic surrounding scenery. True Spirit also offers wine tasting of the legendary Madeiran table wines. In Sao Vicente you’ll find Barbusano makers of some of the best table wines in the region.
To end your day with a wow, have dinner at the Nini Design Centre where you’ll feast at Restaurant DC Atelier. Try the octopus, scallops, black angus fillet, lacquered black pork with thyme and lemon, or the snapper with mustard crust, potato terrine and cream of leek. There’s an impressive wine list to pair with your meal. Enjoy the water views of the city skyline aglow at night.
You do want to experience the heart of the city of Funchal. Ride the cable car to reach the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. There are gardens and then there are gardens. This one is in a class by itself. The flora is from South Africa, Belgium, Scotland, Australia, Portugal and more. Two gardens pay homage to Chinese and Japanese culture, with marble dragon, pagodas, Buddhas and lanterns. Throughout the gardens and on the central lake, swans from Iceland and Scandinavia swim. The three-story Monte Palace Museum on site boasts some 700 specimens of minerals and gems from Brazil, Portugal, South Africa, Argentina, Zambia, Peru and elsewhere. You’ll be blown away by the sparkling colors, shapes and gems. The Berardo Collection features stone sculptures from Zimbabwe. All around the gardens there is much to capture your attention, be it tiles from the 15th to 20th centuries along walkways, or the series of tiles that tell Portuguese history. Settle down for a lunch at Patio das Babosas. Forget eating light at this lovely café. Even if you order a salad, it will be a mouth-watering heap of goodness enough to feed two. No worries, wash down whatever you order with the oh-so-refreshing Brisa Maracujá, a carbonated drink made from the juice of purple passion fruit.
Touristy or not, you can’t go to Madeira without a toboggan ride in a wicker basket called a sledge car. Two guys push you down the hilly streets at a dizzying pace. It’s less than five minutes, big fun for you, a lot of work for them.
Do pop in Bordal, where you’ll find artisans creating the famous Madeira embroidery. You can take a historical tour of the factory or learn about the craft via a workshop. Embroidery in Madeira dates back to the 1800s. Since 1893 Fabrica Santo Antonio has made its infamous biscuits, scones, candies, jams, cookies and all manner of sweetness. You can pick up goodies from their store to take home. There’s so much history. The churches, architecture and fountains speak to eras long gone. Make sure you venture down some of the oldest streets like Rua de Santa Maria, Rua dos Ferreiros, and Rua Dr. Antonio Jose de Almeida. Another hot spot is Avenida Arriaga, the gateway to the Cathedral, Santa Catarina park and cafes. Old Town is ideal for checking out historic houses, bars and for a one-of-kind treat that you won’t find elsewhere, there’s the Open Doors Art Project. Artists have outdone themselves painting the doors on Rua Santa Maria, each more outstanding than the next.
Funchal is a city of parks, gardens, restaurants, bars and live music venues. For sure foodies will love Madeira. You won’t be disappointed if you dine at top spots like Akua by Chef Julio Pereira. Try not to fill up on the homemade bread, olives and white butter. Save room for fried codfish cakes, white fish ceviche, seared tuna fish and piglet’s belly with chestnut ragout. For an elegant atmosphere, choose The Dining Room at Quinta da Casa Branca. It’s cozy and in the luxurious Manor House on the grounds of a 5-star boutique hotel nestled in a botanical garden. Somewhere along the way, be sure to eat espetada, (beef on a skewer), scabbardfish, avocado (there are eight varieties) and passion fruit (there are 12 kinds). To ensure you get a good sampling of Madeira’s culinary scene, Wine Tours Madeira offers a Food & Walking Tour that includes stops at spot’s such as the legendary Blandy’s Wine Lodges.
Madeira is great all year round, but the holidays are extra special, with the city’s $2 million in Christmas lights and $1 million in New Year’s Eve fireworks. As for where to stay, there are numerous options, like the Belmond Reid’s Palace that is more than 100 years old and where the A-listers like the British royals have slept, to The Cliff Bay, a 5-star hotel that has undeniably one of the best views of the ocean and mountains from atop a cliff. Don’t feel guilty if you choose to spend one of your days onsite. There’s the 2 Michelin star Il Gallo d’Oro restaurant, pool, jacuzzi, afternoon tea, direct access to the sea, gardens and spa