Madeira – Our 'Top Ten'

James Keane, 09 July, 2024
James Keane, Inntravel’s expert on all things Portuguese, reveals his ten favourite ways to enjoy this alluring Atlantic island.

An ever-popular, year-round holiday destination among Inntravellers, Madeira offers an astonishing variety of experiences, from fantastic walks alongside its levadas  – the island’s ingenious network of water irrigation channels that allow for level stretches of walking, despite the rugged terrain – to enjoyable coastal explorations, sub-tropical gardens and plentiful birdlife. Here is James's top ten:
1. Take a stroll through the ‘floating garden’
With an abundance of exotic and indigenous plant species flourishing in just about every green space, it’s hardly a surprise that Madeira has become known as the ‘floating garden of the Atlantic’. A real highlight for me is the vast Botanical Garden at Quinta do Bom Sucesso, perched on a hill just three kilometres from Funchal. Here you can savour the glorious colours and scents of a wide variety of flowers and plants, visit a unique sanctuary of rare birds and enjoy spectacular views over the capital.
2. Enjoy a picnic with chaffinches
While on the Levada da Janela, which leads into the dramatic Rabaçal Valley in the north-west of the island, I once had an unexpectedly pleasant encounter. The levada itself is fabulous, with tunnels and moss-lined rock faces, and it was here that I stopped for lunch and was joined by a number of chaffinches. Many Madeiran chaffinches are remarkably tame, and are endemic and unique to Madeira. The male is more brightly coloured than the female, with a pink breast, blue-grey cap and green-brown back. The female's colouring is more subdued, but both have prominent white wing-bars and tail stripes.
3. Take a trip back in time…
A ride in a traditional ‘basket car’ or toboggan is a thrilling way to travel from Monte down to the outskirts of Funchal. Touristy? Yes, certainly; but also thrilling, fun and authentic – as these two-seater contraptions, made of rattan with wooden runners, were popular with locals back in the mid-19th century as they provided the most direct route down to the city. Two carreiros, men wearing straw hats and dressed in white, steer your ‘car’ down through narrow, winding streets, controlling the speed using ropes and their rubber-soled boots! The trip takes an exhilarating ten minutes.
4. Try Poncha – Madeira’s second most popular drink
Besides its world-famous fortified wine, you will notice the local people here enjoying a drink called poncha as an aperitif. It is believed to date from the 16th century, when explorers preserved lemons (known to prevent scurvy) by soaking them in sugar cane brandy and molasses from Madeira. Today, poncha may include citrus, passionfruit or tomato juice. There are also rumoured to be versions with absinthe and whisky, which sound like ‘pushing the boat out’ to us!
5. Climb Madeira’s highest peak
If you enjoy a challenge, the walk from Pico Arieiro to Pico Ruivo is not to be missed. A seemingly impossible path is carved out of the rock – with a dramatic series of steps and tunnels that takes you around the base of craggy Pico Torres – and connects the two highest peaks on the island. Viewing platforms on the summit of Pico Ruivo (1862m) offer spectacular, far-reaching views across the mountains of the interior. A truly unforgettable walk, but not for the faint-hearted!
6. Explore the extraordinary São Lourenço Peninsula
For a complete contrast to the rest of the island, take a trip to the far north-east of the country to the otherworldly terrain of the São Lourenço peninsula. Characterised by sea cliffs sculpted by wind and waves, this striking volcanic landscape features an array of differently coloured rock formations and is home to some diverse flora and fauna, including the distinctive Madeiran lizard. The peninsula’s steep cobbled paths offer sweeping panoramas, including views of the neighbouring Desertas Islands.
7. Discover the painted doors of Funchal
Wander through the narrow, cobbled Rua de Santa Maria in Funchal’s Zona Velha (Old Town) and you’ll see some unusual street art. No longer used, the unloved and decayed doors of the neighbourhood have been painted, often in bright colours and elaborately decorated, adding character to the neighbourhood and providing a unique form of street art. These doors form part of a public project to bring new life to this run-down part of the city, which is now a thriving area with restaurants, bars and small shops.
8. Walk ancient paths from Jardim do Mar and Paúl do Mar
Until the late 1960s, the footpaths connecting the fishing villages of Jardim do Mar and Paúl do Mar were the only accessible routes to the villages. To get there by sea was prohibitively expensive for most people. Wealthy and important inhabitants were transported in a hammock supported by bamboo canes, carried by people known as Redeiros. One story tells of a village priest in the 1930s who was such a large gentleman he wasn’t popular with those who had to carry him!
9. Spot seals, dolphins and (if you’re lucky!) whales
Madeira’s climate and unique position – amid warm, deep Atlantic waters, close to the migration path of sea mammals – makes it an excellent location for spotting whales and other marine wildlife. Take a day excursion, by catamaran or powerboat, to see some of the 20 different species of whales and dolphins that pass close to the island’s shores. You’re highly likely to see turtles and flying fish, and there’s a good chance of viewing whales and dolphins between April and October. You could also visit the neighbouring Desertas Islands, home to hundreds of monk seals.
10. Take a Skywalk (580m above sea level) on Cabo Girão
Drive or take a bus up to the highest sea cliff in Europe, Cabo Girão, and step out onto the Skywalk. From this suspended glass-bottomed platform, you can gaze down (if you dare) at the dramatic cliff face and wild Atlantic below, or simply enjoy the stupendous view. Situated on the southern coast of Madeira, this is a popular starting point for hikers and a launch point for paragliders. For those without a head for heights, nearby is the chapel of Nossa Senhora de Fátima, one of the country’s main pilgrimage sites.

Experience it for yourself...

Choose between our two week-long walking holidays on the ‘floating garden’: Waterways & Flowers is a classic, hotel-to-hotel exploration of the eastern part of the island, while Landscapes of Western Madeira is our single-centre holiday based at a delightful quinta, from where you can explore at will.
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