Madeira is Portuguese – a mountainous, volcanic island in the Atlantic ocean, to the west coast of Africa, on the same latitude as Marrakesh. Like the Canary Islands further down, it is a popular place for winter sun, being three and a half hours flight from London, in the same GMT time zone.
When to Go
A year-round holiday destination, Madeira is around 20 degrees celsius in the winter. If you fancy escaping Christmas at home, it makes a pleasant week’s holiday. The maritime weather is very changeable, wetter and cloudier in the north and colder inland as the mountain soars up to 1,800m. The capital city, Funchal in the south, is a micro-climate of sun and warm winds.
Where to Stay
Funchal is a chic, bustling place with many museums, churches, parks and gardens. There is a large harbour to accommodate the cruise ships, a marina with cafés overlooking the yachts, palm filled garden squares and a cobbled old town. In the centre of the city are The Wine Lodges – part of Blandy’s, the Madeira Wine Company. Highly recommended for 2 to 4 people groups, self catering, there are 4 apartments in the historic building. Book on Booking.com.
To the east of the centre, in the Lido area, are many big box, luxury hotels, overlooking the sea. One recommended, is the Melia Madiera Mare, with spa, indoor and outdoor pools and lots of outside space to sit in the sun. The Lido area is about 5 minutes drive to the centre of Funchal.
Eating, Drinking and Wine Shops
Some recommendations are:
Ritz Café, centre Funchal. Colonial style bar / café / restaurant on the main drag, balcony overlooking San Francisco Square. Pavement tables, upstairs restaurant. Good cocktails, burgers, cakes and ice cream.
A Pregaria, centre Funchal. Small Bolo de Caco meat chain restaurant. Served on wood platters with fries and salad. Pavement tables with long queues. Nip in and sit at the bar.
La Vaca Negra, Lido area Funchal. Argentine steak house. Relaxed, simple decor, run by friendly husband and wife team. Excellent, authentic meats cooked on the wood fired brasa and local wines. Also take away.
Blandy’s Wine Lodge, centre Funchal, One of the best known Wine Lodges, open during Christmas week. There is a bar / room of old vintages where you can buy by the glass – highly recommended for wine geeks.
Perola dos Vinhos, centre Funchal. Wine shop with small but well chosen range On the way to the Mercado dos Lavradores from the Cathedral.
Diogos, centre Funchal (next to the Tourist Info). Wine shop with good range of Portuguese and international wines. Fairly priced vintage and non vintage Champagne including Palmer and Pol Roger, also in magnum.
EnoMania, 5 minute drive outside Funchal. Wine shop with excellent range of Portuguese producers including Dirk Niepoort and Wine and Soul.
Choupana Hills Resort, 1o minutes drive outside Funchal. Fabulous spot on the terrace on a sunny day for salad, burger, bread and beer.
John’s Poncha Bar, Ribeiro Frio. Tiny café selling excellent poncha. Have a snifter to warm up before setting out on the levada walk to Porto da Cruz.
Muralhas Bar, Canical. Traditional fried seafood restaurant in the whaling village close to the airport. Packed with locals, friendly and relaxed.
Things to Do in Funchal
Sometimes the touristy favourites are still fun. An ascent in the cable car to Monte with dramatic views on all sides, takes about 10 minutes. When you get there, walk a few minutes to the wicker basket toboggans and enjoy a surreal but exhilarating, high speed ride back down the highly polished, steep roads. The basket ride stops about half way down – take a taxi onwards or it is a pleasant half hour stroll downhill to the centre, especially at sunset, arriving back in the old town for an end of day poncha in one of Madeira’s many small bars.
Funchal comes alive at Christmas. The squares and main street Avenida Arriaga, parallel to the sea, are full of choirs and singers, Take a night time bus ride (YellowBus on the main sea road road Avenida do Mar) around the town to see the beautiful lights.
There are lots of peaceful gardens open to the public. See the Tourist Office on Avenida Arriaga for maps or see online websites.
For shopping, there are many small independent shops, touristy places for souvenirs near the cable car and the Mercado dos Lavradores with lots of fruit and vegetables, plus good fresh fish. There are many shopping centres in Funchal, the central one LA VIE has a large Pingo Doce supermarket downstairs.
Two nights before Christmas, on the 23td December, there is a huge street party, centred around the Mercado do Lavradores. Sprawling out through all the side streets in the old town are hundreds of street stalls selling the traditional Carne de vinha d’alhos (pork cooked in wine and garlic – served in a bun) snack and poncha to drink.
Exploring the Island
If you like sea swimming, it is nice to drive straight to the north on arrival and spend the first night at the small town of Porto Moniz. The natural pools are cold but bracing and lovely to swim in. The weather can be hot and calm if you’re lucky, or wild and stormy. Perfect for a one night stop – stay at the Aqua Natura Madeira situated right on the pools with dramatic sea views from a mini sauna on the top floor.
Walking is very popular in Madeira. The numerous water channels called levadas cross the island with paths alongside. There are companies with organized tours or you can just head off on your own. A couple of recommended easy walks are:
1. Have lunch at Choupana Hills Resort restaurant with fabulous view overlooking the pool and gardens towards the sea, then walk down through the hotel gardens and in either direction along the levada. To the right leads to Monte Tropical Garden (and the top of the cable car).
2. Drive from Funchal straight up the mountain towards Ribeiro Frio. About half an hour, over the peak at Poiso then down into the cold, misty valley. There is a fun poncha café and a restaurant at Ribeiro Frio then walk in either direction along the levada, To the right leads to narrow balconies, waterfalls and dramatic views towards Porto da Cruz.
Other places along the south coast that make pleasant lunch stops are Camera de Lobos to the west, with cafés overlooking the fishing harbour and Machico to the east, with a small beach and cafés on the marina. A little further along to the east is Canical, with Muralhas Bar, a excellent, inexpensive, casual fish restaurant, packed with locals. This is convenient lunch stop before heading back to the airport.
Getting to Madeira and travel within the island
Direct flights to Madeira from London Gatwick include EasyJet, Norwegian Airlines and BA. Tap Airlines has connections to mainland Portugal. Numerous cruise ships stop in Funchal for a day or overnight.
Taxis are plentiful on the island, especially in Funchal, however it is worth hiring a car on arrival to explore – the roads around the island are very quiet. There are two fuel stations near the airport, one towards Funchal on the main road and one just past the airport in Machico. Parking is in short supply in central Funchal (included with The Wine Lodges accommodation) but easy and free in the Lido area.