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Lying off the coast of Africa, Madeira is a small Portuguese island in the Atlantic ocean. We booked a week’s stay on the sleepy island in the dreary month of January in search of winter sun, but what I found was much more than just a place to catch some rays.

‘Have we come on an OAP holiday?’ Dave asked me as we strolled down the waterfront on our first day on the island. Looking around us at the crowd of middle-aged couples dressed in comfortable light chinos and pastel linen shirts who had just descended from the giant cruise ship docked in the harbour, there was no denying the fact that yes, we definitely had.

I never realised Madeira was so popular with the older crowd until we got on our flight and found ourselves the youngest on board by about 30 years, but I’m glad we never let its popularity with the more mature audience put us off from visiting, because there’s good reason why those seasoned travellers come here year after year.

How to get around in Madeira

There are buses you can use on the island, but we decided to rent a car for the duration of our stay for convenience. It was super affordable, costing us about £10 per day when booked in advance, plus £38 in fuel for the entire week – not bad for the 600 miles we covered.

Despite being a very hilly island, the road system in Madeira is incredibly efficient and well-maintained, and it turned out to be the perfect place for me to try driving a left-handed car for the first time ever.

Where to stay in Madeira

Knowing that Madeira might be a little quiet and that it was a country whose diet primarily consisted of meat and fish (we’re vegetarians), we decided to go self-catering for the first time ever on holiday. As we also had a rental car, we wanted to stay out from the centre for easier parking, so we booked our seven-night stay at the Paraiso Turistico Apartementos located not far from the centre of Funchal.

While basic, it was the perfect base for our stay and came with all of the amenities we needed. Our studio room had a small balcony and kitchenette, and cost a very reasonable £240 for the week. Parking was also available in an underground car park just around the corner for an extra €5 a day.

If you’re looking for somewhere plusher to stay, hotel VidaMar across the road looked beautiful, and there’s also the 5-star Belmond Reid’s Palace nearby.

Top things to do in Madeira

We spent most of our days driving around the length and breadth of the island in search of viewpoints and attractions, and this is the best of what we found.

Go swimming in a rock pool

There are so many reasons why I wish I lived somewhere warmer, but Madeira reminds me that one of those reasons is for outdoor swimming. You can find a number of beautiful (and natural) rock pools on the island which are perfect for enjoying that subtropical climate – even in January, if you’re brave enough.

The first one we went to was Piscinas Naturais. Located about 20 mins walk from our hotel just by Funchal, it was a small rockpool that juts out into the endless ocean. Entry costs about €5, with sun loungers available for rental.

Next we took a drive up to Porto Moniz where there are two more pools to be found. The first was more natural and free to swim in – Dave braved the freezing cold waters and took a dip while I stayed on the side and egged him on.

The natural pool on the other side of the coastline in Porto Moniz is much bigger, and while less natural, it takes the shape of a more traditional pool with space to lounge out on around the sides. You do have to pay a small fee to enter (€4.50), which lots of people did just to walk around for photos.

There’s also another rockpool located at Seixal a little east from Porto Moniz which we skipped since it was far too cold to really swim.

Drink Poncha

Madeira is famous for its wine, but its other poison is poncha, a strong concoction of rum, sugar and lemon juice. You’ll probably love it or hate it, but it’s worth trying the potent mix when you’re on the island – it definitely kept us a little warmer on our first evening on the island when the rain clouds and chilly winds drifted in.

We first sampled it at Rei de Poncha, a small bar in Funchal which we really liked. Each glass is served with a pot of monkey nuts and costs €2.50, but don’t underestimate the small serving size – it’s very strong! If you can brave more than one glass, there are a variety of fruity flavours you can try along with the original recipe – my personal favourite was passionfruit.

If you’ve watched Richard Ayoade’s 48 hours in Madeira, the poncha bar they visit in the episode is called Taberna da Poncha. It’s located on the side of the main road that runs from the north to the south of the island, so you’ll need a car to get there.

We stopped for a quick tipple on our way back from a cave tour (more on that later), and the drink nearly knocked us for six. As I was driving, I barely took two sips of my tiny glass before swiftly ordering an orange juice.

Not only can you watch them make the drink right by the bar there – I’ve never seen so many oranges being juiced in one minute – but you’re also able to leave your mark by attaching your business card onto their lengthy paper chains that drape the walls. It’s also customary – and weirdly satisfying – to throw your peanut shells directly onto the floor, which is littered with the remnants of previous drinkers.

Find the best views

One of my favourite ways to spend a road trip is just driving around looking for scenic viewpoints, and in Madeira, we found a bunch…

The Ponta do Pargo Lighthouse was the first place we stopped at that gave us a taste of the Madeiran sea view. It’s located on the most westerly point of the island, and you can walk around the lighthouse right to the edge of the cliffs – and it really does feel like you’re right on the edge of the island here, just about to fall off. Looking out onto the horizon here was also the first time I really felt the remote location of Madeira – you’re on a pretty small island in the middle of the ocean, over 300 miles away from the nearest continent!

On the opposite side of the island in the east, there’s also the Pico do Facho viewpoint which we had all to ourselves on a drizzly weekday afternoon – we really didn’t get as much sun as we’d hoped to during our stay 😉

You’ll need to drive through some winding roads along the mountain to reach it, but at the top is a great viewpoint of Machico beach and the surrounding valleys below, as well as the island’s only airport right on the edge. There’s also a small group of cats (a clowder of them, to be pedantic) who appear to be living up here among the cactuses and plants. It looked like someone was looking after them as there’s a little makeshift shelter set up with water and food bowls. If you’re a cat lover then that’s probably reason enough alone for a visit.

The most well-known viewpoint on the island is the Cabo Girão Skywalk which we visited just before sundown. There’s a nice coastal view of the island from the 580m high viewing platform, and if you’re not scared of heights like me, then you can also risk your life by standing on the glass platform which dangles over the edge of the cliff. We didn’t pay an entry fee to visit the skywalk but there were gates there, so I’m not sure if it will remain free.

These were all great views, but I think the best scenery on the whole island can be found at…

The Lourenco coastal walk

We drove to the Ponta de São Lourenço one afternoon in search of views, but what we didn’t realise was you could actually hike the cliff top here to reach the most easterly point of the island, and so we actually came back and dedicated a full day doing the hike and it was my absolute favourite thing that we did in Madeira.

The two times that we came to the area was also where we saw the most sun during our trip which just made me love it more, but it was the scenery that really blew me away. I can’t believe I never knew how beautiful Madeira was before we visited. I’ll just let these photos do the work…

The Sao Lourenco trek takes about 1.5 hours each way, and there’s a little cafe at the end as well as a little beach where you can stop to recharge. The trail is not too difficult to do, but it is rocky in places so wear appropriate shoes.

Even if you don’t feel up for the full hike, you should definitely still go to see the scenery which is beautiful even from the car park. There are also a few other equally stunning coastal viewpoints within a few minutes drive from here.

Hike to Pico Ruivo

For the ultimate hike on the island, put on your walking shoes and head up to the mountains.

The highest peak in Madeira is Pico Ruivo located over 1,800 metres above sea level, and can be reached on a two-hour trek from Achada do Teixeira or a full day hike from Pico do Arieiro. We opted for the shorter one, though I would’ve liked to have done the longer with more preparation. The drive up to Achada do Teixeira is an experience in itself, and involves what felt like a never-ending twist of narrow and winding lanes along the mountainside. We were so high up, clouds began drifting across the road in front of us, and it became increasingly foggier as we reached the car park to begin our trek.

Light rain was drizzling down and the temperature was a lot lower than in the city, so much so there were puddles of snow and frost on the ground! The trail was very well maintained and not too strenuous, and two hours after we set off, we reached Pico Ruivo. We could only tell by the markers though, and not the view, because all we got to see was a blanket of white fog! This is not the first time such a thing has happened to us – it only reminded us of our doomed trip to Australia and the Blue Mountains.

Judging from Google images and the few glimpses of the view we did catch through the clouds, it’s sure to be a really spectacular trek if you do it in clearer conditions.

Tour the lava caves

On our last morning in Madeira we drove up to São Vicente to tour the caves in the area. I didn’t really know what to expect, but we enjoyed learning about Madeira’s interesting history and how its landscape was formed – did you know it’s actually a volcanic island?

Before the tour began, we were first taken into a small museum to watch a bizarre model of a volcano reenactment, followed by a short 3D film. Be warned that both of these are quite dated, but it did give some context to what we were about to see in the actual lava caves.

Tours of the caves are guided and run regularly throughout the day, and entry costs €8 each.

Indulge in the best afternoon tea

We found Madeira to be very budget-friendly overall, but we did have one indulgence during our week’s stay and booked a table at Belmond Reid’s hotel to sample their famous afternoon tea.

I’ve had a couple of afternoon teas here in the UK which weren’t anything to write home about, but I have to admit that this one really is worth the trip as well as the €36 cost per head.

We both had the vegetarian menu, and were treated to a selection of tasty finger sandwiches (smoked tofu, grilled vegetables, pesto and cheese, tomato and avocado), scones that were light and still warm served with fresh cream and jam, and about a dozen small and varied patisserie cakes. Everything is washed down with as much tea as you can drink from their extensive menu. It was both delicious and filling, especially as you’re able to have a second serving of sandwiches and scones.

As it’s a five-star hotel, there is a smart-casual dress code which you should follow. The hotel probably won’t turn you away if you didn’t happen to pack your finest suit, but you will likely be the next subject of one of the many angry TripAdvisor reviewers who were apparently ‘disgusted’ by guests who dared to turn up in trainers… perhaps they’d have a better time looking at the beautiful seaview instead of what’s on people’s feet?

Whatever you arrive in, this is one I can definitely recommend for a relaxing afternoon.

See the traditional houses in Santana

If you happen to find yourself on the north-east of the island, it’s worth making a quick stop to see the unique Santana houses which are traditional to this area in Madeira.

There are a few in Santana which have been set up as little tourist stores which you can visit for free, or to see them furnished like they were in the past, you can also visit Parque Temático da Madeira nearby to learn more about the island’s cultures and traditions.

Ride the cable car to Monte

One of the most popular things to do in Madeira is to ride the cable car up to Monte. I’m not sure why I keep getting on cable cars because I’m terrible with heights and end up having my eyes closed the entire time with my hands gripping the rail, but the views are excellent if you’re brave enough to actually look at them.

Once at the top, you’re just a short stroll away from the Church of Our Lady of Monte, as well as the tropical gardens (Jardim Tropical de Monte). But the main reason people come up here is to…

Ride the Monte basket toboggan

What began as a way for the local residents in the area to travel quickly downhill to Funchal, the Monte toboggan ride is nowadays a popular tourist attraction that’s as synonymous with Madeira as the gondolas are to Venice.

Each basket is made from wicker and ‘driven’ by two men named carreiros who dress in white and wear straw hats and rubber soled-shoes which act as the brakes.

We paid the €30 fee and slalomed sideways down the 2km length of winding roads (which are still active and see cars passing through!) which was great fun, though we didn’t travel quite as fast as I thought it’d go. The end point of the trip is at Livramento on the outskirts of the centre, from where you can take a bus, taxi, or walk the 15 mins downhill back to Funchal centre.

Sip cocktails from a rooftop bar

If there’s one thing I think Madeira could have more of, it’s rooftop bars. On our last night in town, we were glad to find a beautiful one at the top of Sé Boutique Hotel where we enjoyed a cocktail as the sun went down.

More things to do on your trip to Madeira

If that’s not enough to fill your week in Madeira, here’s some more ideas which I didn’t get the time to do.

  • Visit the botanical gardens – this is a ‘must-do’ in Madeira which we didn’t actually do. You can get to it from Funchal by taking the cable car up.
  • See the Madeira Film Experience – a 30-minute film in Funchal where you can learn more about the history and culture of the island
  • Visit the CR7 museum – Funchal-born footballer Cristiano Ronald is unsurprisingly Madeira’s star, and you can visit a museum dedicated to his career by the port. To be honest, I was only looking forward to seeing that really unflattering portrait statue of him that was unveiled a few years ago, but sadly it’s now been replaced.
  • Daytrip to the Valley of the nuns – This is another popular place to visit in Madeira but we found it a bit underwhelming. There are definitely some nice views here, but nothing comparable to the others I’ve previously mentioned, and aside from one small church, there is hardly anything to do in this valley where there are actually also no nuns (anymore). There is some interesting history behind the place though (its location was chosen as an escape from invading pirates), but aside from eating roasted chestnuts which are popular in the area, I didn’t think it was worth the difficult drive to reach it. If you do go, I can definitely recommend the chestnut cheesecake at Sabores de Madeira restaurant.

Where to eat in Madeira

Although we went self-catering, we did enjoy a very tasty vegetarian dinner (a rare find) at Olives Restaurant in Funchal, as well as lunch at MadMarket, a small local deli-cross-restaurant.

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