Surrounded by deep blue Atlantic waters, a few volcanic rocks jut from the waves some several hundred miles Southwest of the Portuguese mainland. Steep mountains capped with emerald green trees tower over colourful homes that hug the coastline. The beautiful archipelago, known as Madeira has a year-round spring-like climate (well 23 micro-climates to be exact), making it a perfect home to exotic plant species from around the globe. It’s also a beautiful destination that somehow, until now, managed to escape me. To be honest, Madeira was never on my radar, until Jet2Holidays invited me on a campaign trip. Now, all I can think about is getting back to Madeira. Five days there was nowhere near enough. I’ve put together of few ideas of what to do in Madeira if you make it out there.
How to get to Madeira
Jet2Holidays offer package deals with direct flights to Portugal and Madeira. If you’re based in the UK, it’s relatively cost-effective to make it out there with any of their direct flights to Funchal from Manchester or London. Make sure to aim for a window seat – the view coming into Madeira is worth it alone.
Where to Stay in Madeira
If it’s your first time visiting Madeira, I highly recommend finding a place to stay in the city Funchal. The city itself is filled with colourful architecture ranging all the way back to the 15th century. It’s the capital city to Madeira and boasts some of the most beautiful exotic gardens I have ever seen. Jet2Holidays put us up in The Vine, a five-star hotel in the centre of Funchal with a rooftop pool and views over the city and the Atlantic. It felt pretty luxurious to hit the hot tub and look out over flickering city lights after an action-packed day around the island.
Activities in Madeira
For some reason, Madeira has a reputation for being a pensioners hotspot. It would appear they are sneaky and have done a damn-fine job of keeping it a secret from us younger folk! Fret not, while food and wine (and bridge games) are always on my list, the island offers plenty of action for the outdoors enthusiast.
With over 2000km of hiking trails, Madeira has something for any level from beginner to the seasoned hiker. Many of the trails run along levadas, which are man-made canals built to carry water from the rain-prone mountains to farmland in the dryer southwest of the island.
We spent a half day hiking the Levada do Rei. Accompanied by the sound of rushing water, and chirping birds, it’s a truly peaceful hike. The trail winds up a gentle slope and is a relatively easy walk for any seasoned hiker. Sidenote: you may get a bit wet crossing behind a waterfall along the way. Make sure to pack some warm clothes and waterproofs. Even when warm in Funchal, the mountains can get quite wet and chilli year round!
If throwing on a fat wetsuit and jumping off of cliffs into freezing water is your cup of tea, then you’re in for an adventure. Madeira happens to be a canyoning Mecca. Having never cannoned before, we opted for a beginners tour with Epic Madeira. Kit is provided. All you need to bring is an appetite for adventure and some swim trunks. They offer several levels, so if you get a taste for more, the option is definitely there.
Having grown up in a small mountain town, there’s nothing that makes me feel more at home than hitting the downhill dirt trails on a mountain bike. We got soaked by a fresh Madeiran drizzle, so make sure to take wet weather clothes in case. While it’s a small island, the climate is prone to drastically change as you enter different areas. There are plenty of services that can provide bikes and a shuttle – I really liked the guys from Freeride Madeira and can recommend them.
Whale and Dolphin Watching
Ever seen a whale in the wild before? I hadn’t until I hopped on one of the many catamarans that leave Funchal for dolphin and whale watching experiences. We spotted a pod of pilot whales and quite a few dolphins. Personally, I found the three-hour tour to be a bit long, but it’s definitely pretty cool to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. They are also very strict about the amount of time spent with a single pod as not to startle them, so expect to be on the move quite regularly.
What to Eat in Madeira
Madeira has so many delicious treats to try. After a day of action, I found myself craving the famous Madeiran Prego Sandwich, and went through quite a few during my brief stay. You can find them at most basic snack bars. Simple, greasy goodness: a thin slab of steak waged in local Bolo do Caco bread with garlic butter. My favourite variation comes with egg, ham lettuce and tomato. Wash that down with a cold maracuja Briso soda, or a locally brewed Coral beer and you’ll be golden.
Another local favourite is the Espada or Black Scabbard fish. It dwells in the depths of the Atlantic and looks like a creature that might inhabit your darkest nightmares (you may see some dead ones at the market, but worry not, they’re only built for the depths, so nobody’s actually seen a live one). Looks can be deceiving, however. Cooked up, they offer a juicy tender cut. In traditional Madeiran style, you’ll find it served up with passion fruit or banana sauce that adds a unique touch.
Walking Food and Wine Tour in Funchal
If you’re into getting a sample of local foods and having a cheeky taste of the sauce, I can highly recommend taking a walking food and wine tour of Funchal. Our guide, Sophia, was an absolute blast, full of great stories and wisdom only a local could bestow upon you. You will see a side of Funchal you may have otherwise missed. Let’s just say I came out of this one more rosy-cheeked than I came in…
I’ve already found myself looking at flights back to Madeira. There is just so much beauty out there. Let me know in the comments if you decide to head out there. I’d love to hear more recommendations of locations for photography and any hikes you can recommend. Also, make sure to check out my article on finding work you enjoy as a photographer (like getting to go to Madeira on assignment).