Madeira Island holidays

Experience Madeira Island

Experience [destination]

Best Places to Visit

Madeira's dramatic interior is a must for visitors. Rugged peaks, plateaus, gorges, deep forested river valleys and cascading waterfalls merge with a wide variety of wildlife for unforgettable photo opportunities. There's even a dense, primeval forest which is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with several protected nature parks.

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

The soaring cliffs of the island are buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean, and boat trips here take visitors on a whole host of different excursions: from whale and dolphin watching to deep sea fishing. The cliffs themselves are breath-taking, as are the views from the water of the mountains backing the coastal plains.

Porto Santo, easily reached by boat or plane, is Madeira's neighbouring island. With nine kilometres of superb sandy beaches, Porto Santo is Madeira's best-kept secret. The historic main town of Vila Baleira, once home to Christopher Columbus, boasts activities such as horseback riding and golf.

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 extremely traditional, with many of its inhabitants either craftworkers or farmers. Beautiful and atmospheric, it is overlooked by mountains and the lush, green Laurisilva forest.

Once a flourishing sugar town, Funchal's old city boasts stunning 15th and 16th century buildings, mainly found in the towns of 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 oldest church on the island, built in 1430.

Top Landmarks

Madeira has its fair share of historic sites and impressive landmarks, both manmade and natural, giving visitors plenty to do during their holiday. One of the most spectacular natural wonders is Cabo Girão: the second-tallest cliff 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 equally as spectacular.

For even more natural splendour, the São Vicente Caves (close to the village of San Vicente) have impressive lava tubes, stalagmites and stalactites. The highest peak on the island, Pico Ruivo, thrusts its 1,862m jagged head into the clouds. Two trails lead to its peak, the tougher one from Pico do Arieiro and a slightly easier route from Achada do Teixeira. Two-thirds of the entire island are protected reserves, with a number of unique ecosystems.

Madeira's many museums tell the history and traditions of the islands. One of the best, the City Museum, educates visitors on the development of Funchal over the past 500 years. The Sacred Art Museum displays historic, religious artworks, while 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 Portuguese Faience pottery. The Wine Museum traces the history of fortified Madeira wines.

The Cathedral of Funchal 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 24-hour nightlife, with its locals more than happy to enjoy quieter pursuits. Even so, there is still a great selection of cafés, 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 'O Molhe’ (The Pier), set on the remains of an ancient fort and open at midnight on Friday and Saturday. A row of harbourside clubs are found nearby. Many hotels on Madeira offer themed evenings with dinner shows centred 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.

Dining Out

Locally-reared meats include chicken, beef and pork. Starters aren't commonplace here, although hot local bread (bolo do caco) served with parsley and garlic butter is available. Grilled limpits (snails) with garlic and lemon juice is also a local favourite.

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), while 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, serving everything from regional specialities to international cuisines. Fine dining restaurants 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 has regions with pebble beaches and black volcanic sand, while 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 stretches to tiny bays. São Tiago is a small public beach which is popular with locals. Porto Santo's has golden sand beaches that are some of the best, but less well-equipped with water sports facilities.

Romance

Madeira's dramatic and beautiful scenery make it romantic in itself. Its small, village-style beach resorts are quaint, idyllic and are perfect for a serene break away. However, for a perfect honeymoon getaway, the neighbouring island of Porto Santo, with its wide, open sand beaches and laid-back lifestyle, is the perfect choice. Time away from the bustling crowds gives couples the space and peace 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 pebble beaches. The pretty beachside village of Santana has an added attraction nearby, the Madeira Theme Park, a huge display of traditional Madeiran culture and history. It also has amusements, a lake, playground, working watermill and eclectic choice of food. It's a fun day out for parents and children alike.

Adventure

Madeira's amazing terrain makes it perfect for outdoor activities, with many visitors choosing to walk and hike along the beautiful cliffs. From trails following the Levada irrigation canals across deserted countryside to tough hikes in the high peaks, there is something for all tastes. 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 Madeira is Portuguese. There are no indigenous languages or dialects here as the islands were uninhabited at the time of their colonisation, some 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 basic greetings and phrases. Investing in a phrasebook should put you in good stead.

Currency

The currency of the islands is the euro, and the capital, Funchal, has banks, currency exchange shops and plenty of ATMs. However, 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 out with them, there are official exchange kiosks across Madeira - although, these carry a fee. For lower fees, banks are a better option. Bank notes range from 5 to 50 euros, while coins range from 1 to 50 cents.

Visas

Madeira is part of the European Union (EU) and is a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, in which 26 separate European Nations have opened 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. However, it can still be worth carrying a passport, credit card and driving license in the event of needing to hire a car. 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. Temperatures can reach highs of 25°C during the summer months - June through September.

Main Airports

Madeira Airport, set a 30-minute drive from Funchal, is the main gateway to the island. Over two million passengers pass through Madeira every year. There are several main carriers serving routes from the UK to Madeira. The small airport on Porto Santo also receives flights from Madeira.

Flight Options

For UK visitors, flights regularly run from Bristol, London-Gatwick, Manchester and Leeds-Bradford. There are also year-round flights from Birmingham and seasonal flights from Glasgow. Smaller airports like East Midlands and Exeter also serve Madeira. Flight times from the UK average around four hours.

Travel Advice

Travelling outside the major school holiday periods of Easter, Christmas and high summer can save money. Regularly checking for accommodation and flight deals can also help you to grab 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 travel. 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. Bus travel is the cheapest and slowest form of public transport, but many visitors prefer to hire a car. Most taxi drivers speak English.

Bus

Seeing 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.

Air

Madeira's only other airport is the small facility on Porto Santo. Flights to and from Funchal are reasonable but dearer than boat fares. Unless you are short on time, taking the two-hour ferry to Porto Santo may be advisable..

Car

International car rental companies are situated 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.

MAP

MADEIRA ISLAND`S WEATHER TODAY

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AVERAGE RAINFALL (mm)

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FACTS

  1. The Laurisilva Forestt, 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. Funchal, 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 the 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 Laurisilva Forestt, 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. Funchal, 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 the 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.

Holiday Types