Madeira Island holidays

Experience Madeira Island

Experience [destination]

Best Places to Visit

Madeira's dramatic interior is a must for visitors, even if they're not into adventure sports. Rugged peaks, plateaus, gorges, deep forested river valleys and cascading waterfalls merge with a wide variety of wildlife and bird life for unforgettable photo opportunities. There's even a dense, primeval forest which is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as six protected nature parks.

Levada walks are a journey back to more traditional times as they follow the ancient stone Levada watercourses, still used as part of an island-wide irrigation system which keeps the rich, volcanic soil moist and productive. The walks are unique to the island, run through nature parks and forests, and are gentle enough for most amateur walkers.

The soaring cliffs of the island are buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean in all its moods, and boat trips here take visitors on whale and dolphin watching or deep sea fishing excursions from several harbours on the island. The cliffs themselves seen from the sea are breath-taking, as are the views from the water of the mountains backing the coastal plains.

Porto Santo, easily reached by boat or a short flight from Madeira, is Madeira's neighbouring island. Eight kilometres of superb sandy beaches with an island attached, Porto Santo, is Madeira's best-kept secret for its historic main town, Vila Baleira, once home to Christopher Columbus, and its horseback riding, golfing and relaxing vibes.

The unique village of Santana lies on Madeira's northern coastline and is home to tiny thatched triangular cottages, built with stone and painted white.

The region is entirely traditional, with its occupants earning their living by means of craftwork and farming. Beautiful and atmospheric, it is overlooked by the mountains and the lush, green Laurisilva forest.

Once a flourishing sugar town, Funchal's old city has a rich heritage of 15th and 16th century buildings in its historically important districts, Santa Maria and Sao Pedro. Sao Pedro holds the mansions of the sugar barons and the great Franciscan monasteries of Santa Clara and Sao Francisco, while Santa Maria has the earliest church on the island, built in 1430.

Porto Santo is another of the islands that constitute the archipelago of Madeira. By comparison to Madeira itself, Porto Santo is bereft of lush greenery. However, it does boast 9kms of golden beaches along its south coast, which makes it a very popular destination for tourists seeking beach holidays.

Top Landmarks

Madeira has its fair share of historic sites and impressive landmarks, both manmade and natural, giving plenty to do and see during a holiday on this sunny island. One of the most spectacular natural wonders is Cabo Girao, literally the second-tallest cliff face on earth. It offers superb vistas from the viewing platform at its top. For those nervous about heights, the view of the rearing limestone from a boat is awesome.

For more natural splendour, the Sao Vicente Caves along a pretty river close to the village of San Vicente have impressive lava tubes, stalagmites and stalactites. The highest peak on the island, Pico Ruivo, thrusts its 1,800m jagged head into the clouds. Two trails lead to its peak, the tougher one from Pico do Ariero and an easier route from Achada do Teixeira. Two-thirds of the entire island is a protected reserve, with a number of unique ecosystems.

Madeira's many museums tell of the history and traditions of the islands, with the City Museum focusing on the development of Funchal over the past 600 years. The Sacred Art Museum displays historic, religious artworks and the Sugar Museum gives a fascinating account of the sugar industry and its effect on the island. The Quinta das Cruzes Museum displays antique artefacts and the famous Portuguese Faience pottery and Wine Museum traces the history of fortified Madeira wines.

The Cathedral of Funcha is one of the few 15th Century structures to have survived Madeira's colonisation. It holds a silver cross, donated by King Manuel I of Portugal.

Entertainment

It has to be said that Madeira isn't famous for its riotous 24-hour nightlife, with its population as well as its visitors more than happy to live it up on weekends and enjoy quieter pursuits during the week. Even so, weekend activities more than make up for lost time, with a great selection of cafes, bars, pubs, discos and nightclubs. If partying until dawn is a holiday must, Funchal's central district is the place to go, and there's even a casino with its own nightclub in the basement.

One of the hottest clubs in town is Kool, opposite the popular Number 2 pub in the city centre. Next to the ferry terminal is The Pier Club, set on the remains of an ancient fort and opening at midnight on Friday and Saturday. A row of harbourside clubs is found nearby. Many hotels on Madeira offer themed evenings with dinner shows centring on traditional music, dance and folklore. The haunting Portuguese fado music, played in bars and pubs, is now on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Entertainment and nightlife outside Funchal tends to be restricted to hotel bars and beachside eateries, although Porto Santo comes alive on summer evenings with locals and visitors alike heading for the town centre. The old Bocas area's narrow streets are home to quaint bars gorgeously set overlooking the old harbour and occasional disco nights. Taski is the most popular bar and the Cine-Cafe shows old films projected on a conveniently-placed wall.

Dining Out

Locally-reared meats include chicken, beef and pork. Starters aren't usual here, although the delicious, hot local bread (bolo do caco) served with parsley and garlic butter is a great beginning, and grilled limpits (snails) with garlic and lemon juice stave off hunger pangs.

Sopa de tomate e cebola is a rich onion and tomato soup, and acorda is bread soup with garlic, eggs, herbs and lashings of olive oil. Espetada is a traditional grilled meat dish, skewered with bay leaves and grilled over wood chips, and carne de vinho e alhos is marinated pork chunks cooked in wine vinegar, garlic and bay leaves. Tuna is marinated, grilled and served with milho frito, deep-fried cornmeal patties, and bacalhau com natas is grilled cod served with sliced potatoes and cream. Delicious sweets and desserts here use honey, eggs and cottage cheese.

Funchal has a huge choice of restaurants at all levels, serving everything from regional specialities to selected international cuisines. Fine dining venues are found in or close by the five-star hotels, and the Old City is ideal for traditional Madeiran food. You'll find Madeira's extensive selection of local wines everywhere, as well as the sweet or dry fortified Madeira, for which the Islands have been famous for several centuries.

Beach

The main island of Madeira's beaches are pebbly or black volcanic sand, although beaches at Machico and Calheta have imported golden sands. The water is crystal clear and permanently warm, with enjoyable swimming year-round. Madeira Island's beaches range from strands to tiny bays, with Funchal home to Praia de Sao Tiago, set just by the fort, and black-sand Praia Formosa the largest and best. Porto Santo Island's magnificent natural golden sand beaches are the finest, but less well-equipped with water sports facilities.

Romance

The island of Madeira with its dramatic and beautiful scenery is romantic in itself, with plenty in the way of small, village-style beach resorts giving privacy in a stunning setting. However, for a perfect honeymoon getaway, the neighbouring island of Porto Santo, with its wide, open sand beaches and laid-back lifestyle, is the best choice. Peace and tranquillity away from the crowds gives couples space and time to enjoy each other's company.  

Family

Most destinations on Madeira are great for family holidays, and many hotels have children's pools to compensate for the pebbly beaches. The pretty beachside village of Santana has an added attraction nearby, the Madeira Theme Park, a huge display of traditional Madeiran culture, history and tradition backed up with amusements, a lake, a kids' playground, a working watermill and a choice of eateries. It's a fun day out for parents and children alike.

Adventure

The amazing topography of Madeira is perfect for outdoor activities, with walking and hiking along the cliffs or in the mountains as good as it gets. From trails following the Levada irrigation canals across deserted countryside to tough hikes in the high peaks, there are many options at all levels of activity. For adrenaline junkies, canyoning and rock climbing can be arranged, as can mountain biking, sea kayaking and deep-sea fishing trips.

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Need to know

Need to know [destination]

Language

The official language of the archipelago of Madeira is Portuguese, although it's spoken with a heavy accent. There are no indigenous languages or dialects here as the islands were uninhabited at the time of their discovery by Portuguese mariners almost 600 years ago. In the major tourist areas, English is spoken by most workers in the hospitality industry. However, it is considered to be polite to at least have a go at some of the basics, such as greetings and 'please' and ‘thank you', so investing in a phrasebook is a good consideration.

Currency

The currency of the islands is the Euro, and the capital, Funchal, has banks, currency exchange shops and plenty of ATMs, although outside the capital and tourist areas ATMs are rare. Credit and debit cards are accepted at most restaurants and large stores in Funchal and other tourism hubs, but cash should be carried as well as small outlets and rural areas may not provide this service. However, for those uncomfortable with taking large sums of money, there are official exchange kiosks across Madeira. These do carry a fee of 8 Euros, no matter how much or how little you want to exchange. For lower fees, banks are a better option. Bank notes range from 5 to 50 Euros while coins range from 1 to 50 cents. 1 and Euro coins are also accepted as legal tender.

Visas

Madeira, being Portuguese, is part of the European Union (EU) and is a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, in which 26 separate European Nations have abolished their internal borders with other member nations. As a result, Madeira is open to citizens of all Schengen states. Citizens of EU countries which have not signed the agreement, including the UK, are also granted access to the country without a visa and for an unlimited period. However, it can still be worth carrying a passport, credit card and driving license in the event of needing to hire certain things, such as car-hire. Nationals of other countries should check with their nearest Portuguese embassy for visa requirements and costs.

Climate

Madeira is an island of diverse microclimates. The bay of Funchal, which is bordered by high mountain peaks, enjoys some of the finest sunshine, while further down the west coast, areas such as Ponta do Sol and Calheta aren’t as protected from the sea winds.

Overall, Madeira has a predominately sunny climate, but can experience bouts of rain. With temperatures reaching 33°C, however, you may find yourself taking a brief downpour in your stride.

Main Airports

Madeira Airport, set a 30-minute drive from Funchal, is the main gateway to the paradise island of Madeira. Passenger throughput stands at over two million every year and is increasing. EasyJet, Jet2, Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson are the main carriers serving the UK. The small airport on Porto Santo receives flights from Madeira.

Flight Options

For UK visitors, EasyJet flies from Bristol and London-Gatwick, and Jet2 covers Manchester and Leeds-Bradford. Monarch runs year-round flights from Birmingham and London-Gatwick, and charter operator Thomas Cook Airlines offers a route from Manchester as well as seasonal flights from Glasgow and London-Gatwick, and Porto Santo. Thomson Airways offers flights from Birmingham, Glasgow-International, East Midlands, Exeter, Manchester and London-Gatwick. Flight times from the UK average under five hours.

Travel Advice

Travelling outside the major school holiday periods of Easter, Christmas and high summer can save money, and regularly checking for accommodation and flight deals can help you to book a bargain. Getting around the island is straightforward by bus, although hiring a car gives more freedom to explore remote regions.

Other Transport Options

The Madeira archipelago is located in the Atlantic Ocean, 500kms from the coast of Africa and 992kms from the coast of Portugal. Cruise ships regularly dock at Madeira on Atlantic island cruises, but this is one of the most costly ways to arrive. There is also a regular car ferry from Porto Santo, with the journey taking just two hours.

Getting Around

Madeira is a small island, but its mountainous interior and winding roads make travelling around it more time-consuming than the actual distances suggest. Bus travel is the cheapest and slowest form of public transport, but many visitors prefer to negotiate the mountain roads with car hire. Most taxi drivers speak English.

Bus

Covering the island's attractions by bus is the most economical way to travel by far. Buses leave Funchal from the park on the eastern waterfront and tickets can be purchased at newsstands in the town centre. Six bus companies operate here.

Air

Madeira's only other airport is the small facility on Porto Santo. Flights to and from Funchal are offered by SATA Ait Acores, TAP Portugal and Enter Air, and prices are reasonable but dearer than boat fares. Unless you are short on time, taking the two-hour ferry to Porto Santo is advised.

Car

Avis, Hertz, Budget and Europcar rentals are all available on Madeira, and several local companies also offer car hire. It's usually less expensive to book online in advance than to wait and book on arrival. Most drivers find the coastal roads and main routes unchallenging, but outside the main towns, narrow roads and hairpin bends make driving difficult for the inexperienced.

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FACTS

  1. The Laurissilva Forest, which occupies one of the highest points in Madeira, has been awarded World Heritage Site status, by UNESCO.
  2. The waters surrounding the island of Madeira never fall below 64 degrees.
  3. Funchai, Madeira's capital city, was once the centre of the world's wine trade.
  4. Famous visitors to Madeira include Sir Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw.
  5. Madeira is closer to Africa than it is to Europe.
  6. In 2006, Madeira celebrated New Year with the biggest firework display in the world, as recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records.
  7. The Mediterranean Monk Seal lives on one of the islands in the archipelago.

FACTS

  1. The Laurissilva Forest, which occupies one of the highest points in Madeira, has been awarded World Heritage Site status, by UNESCO.
  2. The waters surrounding the island of Madeira never fall below 64 degrees.
  3. Funchai, Madeira's capital city, was once the centre of the world's wine trade.
  4. Famous visitors to Madeira include Sir Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw.
  5. Madeira is closer to Africa than it is to Europe.
  6. In 2006, Madeira celebrated New Year with the biggest firework display in the world, as recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records.
  7. The Mediterranean Monk Seal lives on one of the islands in the archipelago.

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