I visited Madeira island for the first time last year and it was not at all what I expected. I anticipated a touristy beach destination and was so pleasantly surprised to find an island full of culture, amazing hiking possibilities, and delectable gourmet food. Here are eight things I learned about Madeira on my first trip. You'll find even more recommendations for what to do on your trip to Madeira on my Findery notemap.
1. Don't go for the beaches.
Simply put, Madeira island isn't a beach destination. The island might well be 35 miles long and 13 miles wide and boast 99 miles of coastline, but the shore is all rock and cliffs. It's a mountainous island; the highest peak is 1862 meters/6,100 feet high.
2. It's perfect for adventurous road trips.
Madeira is a great island to rent a car for a day of exploring - or surfing! Head to the north of the island to São Vicente, and visit the 17th century church downtown before heading to the pebble beach, where I hear you can experience some of the best waves of Europe. If surfing isn't for you, just enjoy the scenic cliff views, and visit the São Vicente Caves "Grutas de São Vicente," created by an underground channel of lava from an eruption that occurred about 400,000 years ago.
North Madeira and São Vicente. Photo by Katja Presnal.
3. Ride a cable car up - and a toboggan down.
One of the best ways to see the views of Funchal in Madeira is to hop on the cable car that takes you up to the Botanical Garden or the Monte Palace. Even if you don't want to visit the gardens, the trip is worth it for the views, and you can enjoy the most unique way to come down the hill - the toboggan.
Cable car in Funchal, Madeira. Photo by Katja Presnal.
Take the iconic Monte sledge, a wicker toboggan, down. It has been a popular form of transportation in Monte since 1850. Each toboggan has two sledge drivers called "Carreiros," dressed in a straw hat, white pants, and special shoes that help them keep traction. Their leg muscles, reminiscent of those on soccer players, allow them to run, kick, and steer the large wicker sleighs down the curvy road. Yes, I said curvy. And a little scary. But so much fun!
Toboggan in Monte, Madeira. Photo by Katja Presnal.
4. Climb above clouds.
Climb the mountain top Pico do Arieiro or just take the (tourist) bus up, and soak in the magnificent views of Pico do Arieiro mountain top. You can spend an entire day hiking and get from Pico Arieiro to the highest peak of Madeira to Pico Ruivo. Or you can just go for a day visit to walk among the clouds and enjoy drinks at the mountain top restaurant.
Hiking on Madeira. Photo by Katja Presnal.
5. Don't just drink Madeira wine, sip Poncha.
I knew of Madeira wine, but what I had never heard of before my trip was Poncha. It's an alcoholic drink made with Aguardente de cana (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice), honey, sugar, lemon rind, and lemon juice. It is all mixed together in a pitcher with a special Madeiran muddler called a mexelote. The taste is sweet, it doesn't have a strong alcoholic taste, but you might want to sip carefully anyway, packs quite a punch! Where to get it? Almost anywhere, but for the authentic experience, head to Taberna da Poncha, a small pub about a 20-minute-drive from the capital Funchal. The floors are covered with peanut shells, and the walls with business cards left by visitors from around Europe and the rest of the world.
Authentic poncha making on Madeira. Photo by Katja Presnal.
6. Taste the exotic fruits of Madeira.
Madeira was a big European banana exporter until the EU regulations on the size of bananas changed. Many of the bananas that grow on the island of Madeira don't grow to EU standards, and so cannot be exported out of Portugal anymore. What is remarkable is that the new regulations from the 1990's didn't kill the banana business of a few hundred years, nor are the islanders all that upset about it (at least not anymore). The islanders believe that "smaller is better" and ooze with pride for their bananas. You can't go on a vacation on the island without hearing about their "small bananas", which are much sweeter and taste better than the larger ones.
Madeira bananas are small and sweet. Photo by Katja Presnal.
Madeira is not just famous for their small bananas. The farmer's market is full of exotic fruits. One of them is the English tomato, or tamarilho, that typically only grows in high altitudes. It's red and looks like a cross between a plum and a tomato. Another one is a custard apple, an apple-looking fruit that really tastes like a peachy custard. Make sure also to taste the philodendron fruit, a pineapple-looking fruit that tastes like a banana.
7. Madeira is an excellent culinary destination.
The exotic fruits and the availability of amazing seafood makes Madeira an excellent culinary destination. See the local food selection yourself at the Workers' Market, Mercado dos Lavradores. In addition to local produce and fish market, we also saw a shop where a lady was drying Madeira bay leaves, another great Madeiran specialty and an all around great spice to take home. One of the signature dishes on the island is "espetada" - meat, bay leaves, and garlic impaled on a stick and grilled to perfection on an open fire. For great espetada, head to Vila da Carne in the village of Camera do Lobos.
For the best dining experience on the island, go to Cliff Bay Hotel - an excellent resort. Cliff Bay's Il Gallo d'Oro restaurant is Madeira island's only Michelin Star rated restaurant, and their food is an experience not to be missed. No wonder Cliff Bay and Il Gallo d'Oro host the annual Rota das Estrelas, the "Stars Route," gourmet food festival.
8. The best tourist attraction is an irrigation system.
Even if the mountains and seaside cliffs already sold Madeira to you, I still encourage you to visit the levadas. A levada is an irrigation system of the island of Madeira, which is basically a man-made river built on the side of the mountain. It was much more amazing that I ever expected. I am always up for a little hike, however, I am afraid of heights, and was a bit worried about the narrow walkway by the mountain side. I wasn't quite sure if I was fit enough to attempt the adventure.
I'm glad I tried it. The stunning views blew my mind away, the walk was not too hard, and more importantly, the pathway was wider than I thought, and not as steep. With over 1400km/860 miles of the levadas, I am sure there are walks for every skill level, so your experience might be very different depending on the exact location of your hike. We walked good 3 hours, and it was a good workout, but perfectly doable. Truly one of the most unique hikes I have ever done.
Levadas of Madeira. Photo by Katja Presnal.