Hillsides covered with tropical fruit trees, swinging waterfalls, rocky cliffs plunging into the Atlantic: the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira is home to one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. Add in affable locals, everlasting spring temperatures, trendy surf spots, above the clouds hikes and idyllic wilderness swimming spots, and you’ve got one of Europe’s coolest island destinations. Here is why you should go to the “Pearl of the Atlantic” and what to do when you get there.
Discover the hot spots of wild swimming
Those who prefer a bit of breaststroke in the great outdoors (and away from chlorinated pools) will want to explore Madeira’s natural bodies of water. The most famous are the photogenic lava pools to the northwest of the island at Porto Moniz and Seixal, where swimmers enjoy pools of crystal-clear sea water formed by the Atlantic Ocean lapping through ancient volcanic rocks. Poça do Gomes is a more organized place to swim near the capital Funchal: think of sunbeds, lifeguards, stairs with access to the ocean, and pretty natural rock pools. Another popular swimming area for locals is Poço dos Chefes, a rocky pool created by locals in the Nuns Valley.
Hike above the clouds
It would be unforgivable to visit Madeira and not walk through one of its magnificent levadas. Once used to transport water from the humid north to the drier south, these irrigation tunnels, which stretch for 1,900 miles, are now used as hiking trails. There are over 200 in total, each offering something different – some take you under waterfalls, others cut into the mountains via tunnels you will have to crouch through, while others on the point. feet above the clouds along narrow peaks, skirting vertiginous cliffs and descending into pretty villages.
The most famous is the Pico do Arieiro hike and, on a clear day, offers mesmerizing views of the entire island. Although it is only a little over 4 miles long, it is one of the most difficult as you will be walking at an elevation of 1500 meters in places. If you prefer something less crisp on the calf, try the Levada das 25 Fontes, which takes you to a plethora of stunning waterfalls – a good option for families. You can hike the levadas alone, but best to go with an experienced guide as the weather can change quickly and getting lost is a real possibility.
Discover magical beaches
Madeira is full of great beaches, one of the best being Prainha do Caniçal – a picturesque, craggy cove with a windswept snack bar, sandy beach, and calm waters. Another popular spot is Seixal, in the north of the island, and is famous for its photogenic black sand and the spectacular green cliffs of Jurassic Park. Pebble beaches are common in Madeira, so if you’re comfortable with something harder underfoot, Ponta do Sol is a good option. The sunny cove, located in the southwest of the island, has Italian Riviera charm, a lively beach bar and tranquil waters suitable for swimming. Recently it has become the world’s first village for digital nomads, so don’t be surprised if you see tanned millennials by the beach hunched over their laptops while sipping. ponchas (sugar cane syrup with orange sugar or lemon juice).
Surf big waves
Serious surfers have plenty of places to carve big waves in Madeira, with Jardim do Mar the most famous on the island. Once named the best big wave point break on the planet by Surfer magazine, it has attracted many professional surfers over the years. Nearby, Paul do Mar is another popular spot for advanced surfers, thanks to its reliable, glassy cylindrical waves. Porto da Cruz and Machico are more suitable for beginners, offering accessible waves, sandy and rocky bottom reefs, and affordable surf schools. Paddleboarding is a less adrenaline-charged option for those who prefer a quieter experience on the water. Many companies offer guided tours, such as AroundFreedom and Madeira Experience.
Catch rays all year round
The “Island of Eternal Spring” has an annual average temperature of around 19.4 ° C, although it fluctuates above and below depending on the season (summers are hotter, winters cooler). The weather also depends on where you are on the island, thanks to an abundance of microclimates. Funchal, the capital of Madeira, is pretty consistent – warm and bright with a few showers. The southwest coast (Madalena do Mar, Ponta do Sol, Arco da Calheta and Calheta) is the sunniest area, while the north (Ponta do Pargo, Porto Moniz, São Vicente) is slightly cooler and wetter. Still, you can usually find some sun somewhere on the island regardless of the season – and you can get from one side of the wider part of the island to the other in little more than a day. hour by car.
Stay in fairytale settings
Stay in a traditional setting quinta (country house) with breathtaking views and lush gardens, like Quinta da Bela Vista, a 19th century mansion set in eight hectares of gardens, or go to the spa at Castanheiro Boutique Hotel, both overlooking the capital Funchal. Nature lovers can choose to sleep under the stars at one of the island’s camping or glamping locations, or stay at the sustainable icon Sentido Galomar, a 100% energy self-sufficient coastal hotel in Caniço . To splurge, the Savoy Palace is one of the most esteemed hotels, known for its cruise ship-shaped structure, an array of restaurants, swimming pools and lavish rooms designed by the famous Madeira interior designer. , Nini Andrade Silva.
Explore the Atlantic Ocean
One way to see a different side of Madeira is to go through the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds it. Take a kayaking and snorkeling tour of Garajau Nature Reserve – a protected marine reserve east of Funchal – to see stingrays, barracudas, and octopuses. Diving enthusiasts can also explore the wrecks of the Madeirense (a freighter) and the Corveta Pereira d’Eça (a former warship) off the coast of Porto Santo, diving to depths of around 30 meters. If you don’t feel like getting wet, boat trips provide a great opportunity to see whales and dolphins – tours depart regularly from Funchal and Calheta.
Glide on adrenaline sports
You might not associate Madeira with adventure sports, but it’s one of the best places in Europe for an adrenaline rush. Paraglider soar above banana plantations, pretty hillside villages and the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. Canyoning is another solid option for thrill seekers wishing to explore the topography of the island: consider rappelling down waterfalls, natural slides, and jumping into natural pools.
Visit the neighboring islands
Madeira is the largest island in this volcanic archipelago, although there are others nearby that are worth a visit. Porto Santo, two and a half hours by boat from Madeira, is where you go to relax. The Golden Island is home to a sandy beach over 5 miles long – hence the nickname – and crystal clear waters that rarely dip below 17 ° C. Despite its size, it is very convenient, for water skiing, from surfing and mountain biking to windsurfing and fishing. There is also a golf course on the island designed by the great Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros.
If you’d rather explore a less-traveled island, head to the Desertas Islands – a triplet of narrow islands around 30 miles from Madeira. Here you will find one of the last refuges for monk seals, colonies of seabirds and a species of tarantula endemic to the island. Think about it, with its protected wildlife and stony terrain, like the Galapagos of Europe. Although you can’t stay overnight (it’s uninhabited), day trips are available from Madeira.
Taste the local cuisine
Fish with bananas is a new tourist dish, but you can ignore it because Madeira has so much more to offer. Pick up a bunch of anonas (creamed apples), banana maracuja (passion fruit bananas) or tabaibo (prickly pears) at grocers. Order a espetada (grilled steak skewer) at a local snack bar and stock up on bolo do caco – a soft and pasty flatbread generally served with garlic butter. Let yourself be tempted by the wealth of seafood available, from bife from atum (meaty tuna steaks), polvo (octopus) and the step (limpets). Finish with a few sweets, such as broas de mel (honey cookies), maça pie (apple pie) or cereja cheesecake (cherry cheesecake).
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