Madeira has been described by some intrepid travelers as Portugal’s Hawaii, and the comparison is apt but incomplete, as these things usually go. Madeira is far more lush and mountainous than mainland Portugal, and, like Hawaii, it has a distinct local culture that separates the people who live here from those on the continent by something other than lots and lots of ocean. It’s still Portugal, but the island can feel like it’s not just thousands of miles away, but in a different time entirely.
The ring-road network around most of the island means no destination is more than a few hours away no matter where you are. There are plenty of sights and towns to visit just on the coast, most obviously Funchal, which is at times an awkward combination of colonial and 21st-century architecture but, like any other port city, it has great seafood, plenty of places to grab a drink, a few surprises (our suggestion is to follow the music, always) and a substantial port area that’s been given over partially to clubbing, and we mean, like, baller-style clubbing. It’s not Miami, but its swagger is.
But you’re probably not here just for the big-city nightlife, right? The coast has plenty more to offer: try the great fish restaurants just east of Funchal in Ponta da Cruz or drive out further for a poncha (aguardente, which is a type of brandy, with sugar cane honey and fresh lemon juice), with a serious view of the southern coast in Câmara de Lobos, or keep going until you reach Cabo Girão, whose cliff is so tall (around 600m) that the glass walkway they recently constructed above it actually has people crawling around on their hands and knees because it’s so high up. Chase Winston Churchill, and toast the man with some of his favorite steeple, the world-famous Madeira port-style wine. Go for a world-class surf or just dip your feet in the (admittedly, pretty cold) Atlantic at one of the island’s several beaches, each one with its own unique character. Or drive out all the way east and go for a pleasant two-hour hike at Baia D’Abra.
Our top suggestion even for first-time visitors to Madeira, however, is to go deep.
The roads crossing the interior can take far longer than the ring road thanks to one of Madeira’s most beautiful phenomena: its fog. It comes in suddenly and creates white-out driving conditions, blocks your views from scenic overlooks and covers everything with a film of moisture. But the fog is also one of the main elements behind the island’s mystique. Embrace it.
The interior of Madeira gives the impression of a wild, unruly land, and indeed much of it is. However, this wilderness has been made accessible by the island’s very well developed network of trails. Thanks to the strange rain patterns governing the island, the early inhabitants built a series of canals called levadas crossing the island from north to south, and while they’ve mostly fallen out of use, they have a new lease on life as walking paths that can take you all the way into the middle of the jungle and back.
For the more sturdy walkers, we also highly recommend summiting Madeira’s highest point, Pico Ruivo. Even if the rest of the island is covered in thick cloud cover, chances are you’ll have plenty of sunshine when you get to the top — and if you’re really lucky, you may witness a rare phenomenon: the Brocken spectre.
Here’s a handy map for some walk suggestions from the Madeira tourism board (it’s also great for planning out your driving adventures). There’s more information on the walks here, including a substantial list of warnings about their particular dangers. From our experience, you should be prepared for true mountain weather on some of these walks. And you will get very wet, so staying warm is essential.
Article by atlaslisboa.com