Madeira Island holidaysThe sample prices are per person based on two people travelling!
MADEIRA ISLAND HOLIDAYSPortugal
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.
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.
Madeira, being Portuguese, is part of the European Union (EU) and is party to the Schengen Agreement. Therefore nationals of other EU countries, including the UK, and nationals of other Schengen member states can enter visa-free on production of an ID card or passport. Nationals of other countries should check with their nearest Portuguese embassy for visa requirements and costs.
Known as the ’Islands of Eternal Spring’ for its warm, year-round sub-tropical, climate, the archipelago is the perfect all-year holiday destination. The largest island, Madeira, is the top of a massive, extinct undersea volcano and features narrow coastal areas and a mountainous interior which protects it from variations in weather conditions. June, July, August and September are the warmest months, with temperatures rising to around 26°C, with January and February the coolest months at 18°C. November, December, January and February are the wettest months, with an average of 96mm of rain per month over the period.
Madeira Airport, set a 30-minute drive from Funchal, is the main gateway to the paradise island of Madeira. Its single runway juts out onto the ocean and was built in the year 2000 to alleviate former difficult landings due to the mountainous terrain. 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
For UK visitors, there’s a good choice of UK airports serving flights to the holiday island’s Madeira Airport. 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.
Travelling outside the major school holiday periods of Easter, Christmas and high summer can save money, and checking regularly for accommodation and flight deals can help you to book a bargain. Charter airlines often advertise last-minute booking discounts online and at travel agents, with all-inclusive, discounted deals sometimes even cheaper than just the flight costs with a low-cost carrier. Getting around the island is straightforward by bus, although hiring a car gives more freedom to explore remote regions.
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.
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, but taxi travel for daytrips is expensive unless you’re travelling in a group.
Madeira’s only other airport is the small facility on Porto Santo, the archipelago’s only other inhabited island. 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.
Covering the island’s attractions by bus is time-consuming, but it’s the most economical way to travel by far. Buses leave Funchal from the park on the eastern waterfront, as there’s no official bus station, and tickets can be purchased at newsstands in the town centre. Six bus companies operate here, including Horarios de Funchal, Rodoeste and SAM, with the latter providing an express bus service to the resort of Machico.
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.
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 trips from several harbours on the island. The cliffs themselves seen from the sea are breathtaking, 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 totally traditional, with its occupants living by means of craftwork and farming, and is overlooked by the mountains and the lush, green Laurisilva forest.
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.
Once a flourishing sugar town, Funchal’s old city has a rich heritage of 15th and 16th century buildings in its three historically important districts, Santa Maria, Sao Pedro and Se. 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. Se is home to a magnificent cathedral, a fortress, the Bishop’s Palace and the Jesuit College.
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.
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 café-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 centering on traditional music, dance and folklore, and 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-Café shows old films projected on a conveniently-placed wall.
The beauty of Madeiran cuisine is its traditional base and time-honoured ways of preparation and cooking. The islands’ year-round mild, warm weather, rich soil and networks of irrigation canals ensure fresh produce at all times of year, and the ocean offers seafood at its best, including tuna, lobsters, crabs and shellfish. 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 marinaded pork chunks cooked in wine vinegar, garlic and bay leaves. Tuna is marinaded, 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 great for traditional Madeiran food. You’ll find Madeira’s wide selection of local wines everywhere, as well as the sweet or dry fortified Madeira, for which the islands have been famous for several centuries.
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.
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.
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.
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.