Lucire: Lost and Found
FLYING Madeira, off the coast of Portugal, and actually closer to Africa than Europe, is off the beaten path and getting into the hearts of travellers, reports Jody Miller
High: Funchal Cathedral. Above: Funchal Bay.
Who doesn’t dream of a secret paradise? A mythical island seemingly lost at sea. One where cloudy rainforests touch the skies and jagged cliffs tower over a turquoise sea hugging ancient volcanic rocks far below. Where bananas and sugar cane grow on terraced fields alongside fragrant lavender and hibiscus and pastel-colored houses cling to the hillside.
Can such a place exist without traversing the farthest corners of the earth, far from civilization and creature comforts, yet still safe from hordes of noisy vacationers?
In simple terms, yes. It even has an international airport and is less than two hours from Lisbon by plane.
Madeira is Europe’s best kept secret, at least for those who don’t know it or who haven’t ventured to this enchanted island. A paradise like no other that politically belongs to Europe, geographically belongs to Africa, and yet inhabits a captivating universe that will capture your heart as soon as you arrive.
Age of Exploration
An autonomous region of Portugal, Madeira is the largest island of an archipelago in the North Atlantic formed by a massive shield volcano. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1419 and colonized in 1420, the subtropical island is home to the rare laurisilva (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) which abounds with tropical plants and species. Once part of the legendary Barbary Coast, Madeira was a favorite stopover for pirates, explorers and the slave trade that thankfully didn’t last too long. Sugar cane production powered the local economy for centuries, but has largely been replaced by wine production, of which Madeira’s sweet dessert wine is world famous.
It’s not that Madeira doesn’t have visitors. Tourism is intrinsic to the island’s economy. There are a number of luxury hotel properties, some known for their quintessentially British style, as well as self-catering rental units. Occupancy rates are generally high, most often with visitors from Britain, Germany, France, and mainland Portugal. It is also a popular cruise port for many European liners, which makes the port area constantly bustling.
Age of Enlightenment
With a year-round temperate climate, majestic natural beauty, picture-perfect coastline dotted with quaint towns and villages, and a bustling capital with a robust bar and foodie scene, Madeira has remained off the vacation radar for many. , especially those outside the continental mainland. Europe. Sara Marote, executive director of the Madeira Promotion Office, sheds light on what has kept this Portuguese island in the tourist shadow.
“Due to its location – about 300 miles closer to Africa than Europe – and the lack of direct flights from the United States, Madeira has not been at the forefront of travelers’ concerns regarding is about traveling to Europe,” says Marote. “However, with the growing popularity of Portugal and the interest of American travelers in discovering new destinations off the beaten path, Madeira is increasingly well known in the American market. Additionally, new air connections from Boston and New York, as well as expanded connections from mainland Portugal and throughout Europe, provide travelers with more opportunities to experience Madeira.
Much to the chagrin of those who would keep this Atlantic Shangri-la their secret treasure, things are about to change. “Madeira… continues to adapt to accommodate more tourists by expanding and refining its product offerings to cater to tourists with a wide range of interests,” says Marote. “Over the past few years, Madeira has welcomed new accommodation options to target travelers such as millennials, digital nomads, etc. Additionally, Madeira’s food scene has flourished, two restaurants on the island having received Michelin stars for the past 15 years.
With endless hiking and adventure options, which include the famous Levada walks across the island, Marote sees a new breed of travelers ready to explore the natural wonders of Madeira. “Madeira is proving to be a versatile destination with endless outdoor adventures, a rich culture, a growing foodie scene and more.”
Ready to pack your bags to plan your vacation in Madeira? Here are some of the must-see places and activities during your visit to Madeira.
The largest city and hub of Madeira. With just over 100,000 inhabitants, Funchal feels bigger and busier than many cities of its size. To get to know each other, start by strolling through the lively old town (Zona Velha). You will quickly notice a mixture of architectural influences, from Portuguese to Flemish, from ancient to modern. Street art and craft shops adorn the cobbled streets and alleyways, while sidewalk cafes and restaurants offering local and international cuisine fill every possible space.
As stated earlier, Madeira has a robust food scene. It’s no surprise that seafood abounds. The local specialty of black scabbard fish with fried bananas is a must for beginners. Don’t despair if you’re not a seafood lover, the beef is big here. The kebab-like espetada is grilled on bay leaves hung on racks to hang above the table. No table in Madeira is complete without a basket of bolo do caco, a rustic sweet potato bread bathed and baked in garlic butter and parsley.
Madeira sweet wine is not the only drink in town. Poncha is a powerful local cocktail made with brandy cane sugar, honey, lemon and various fruits. Poncha packs a punch with 50 percent alcohol. It’s delicious, yet potentially deadly. Consume with caution.
What goes up must come down. Cable car up to Monte. Tobogganing down from Monte.
Cable car and Monte Palace Garden
Board Almirante Reis in Funchal for a 20-minute cable car ride to Monte, a mountaintop suburb overlooking the city. Slow and soothing, it’s time to embrace the stunning sea and mountain views as you ascend the tiled rooftops before stepping outside.
Once an opulent hotel in the 18th century, Monte Palace is a beautiful botanical garden with exotic plants from around the world. Highlights include Chinese and French gardens, a waterfall, walkways lined with historic mosaics dating from the 13th to 19th centuries, and galleries with alternating exhibits.
When you’re ready to head back down to town, you have three viable options: you can walk about a mile downhill for some exercise and up-close sightseeing; take the cable car back down; or dive down a manned wicker slide that resembles oversized human baskets that began in the 19th century to transport people from Monte to Funchal. Admittedly touristy and a bit pricey, the 10-minute ride takes you to Livramento where you can walk or taxi into town for a well-deserved lunch or dinner.
Soaring 580m above sea level, the Cabo Girão Walkway is a little scary for the faint of heart, but if you take a moment to relax, the reward is priceless. Free, the footbridge is a unique experience to contemplate the majestic coast of Madeira from a new point of view. When you’re done floating on a glass cliff, take the cable car from Rancho to Fajas de Cabo Girão. These fertile fields are used for growing vines and the cable car was originally used by farmers to transport their produce. Plus, you’ll find a secluded beach to spend a carefree afternoon (weather permitting).
Filled with natural, crystalline salt water from the Atlantic, these natural pools are formed from volcanic rock. Majestic is no understatement for its pristine beauty (yes, you can swim in it). Take time to stroll through the picturesque village after the tourists have left and watch the sunset behind the surreal rock formations.
Breathtaking scenery is the real reason you’re in Madeira, and the hugely popular Levada walks are the island’s unique system for getting closer to nature. Levadas were originally developed as mini-canals or irrigation systems in the 16th century to distribute water from the rainy north to the drier, sunnier south. Zigzagging through mountains and forests, the Levadas cover a combined distance of 2,500m. Wander through tunnels, past waterfalls, along a jagged cliff or just stroll through the verdant forest. There are trails for every ability level of varying length and difficulty.
Add a real adrenaline rush to your Madeira itinerary with a walk above the clouds. Vereda do Areeiro is for more experienced hikers who need a challenge with a reward like no other. This is a strenuous trail that connects Madeira’s two highest peaks and takes several hours. There are several such hikes on the island for the more seasoned pioneers that promise unparalleled scenery for those who enjoy a challenge.
If a sandy beach is a must for an island vacation, you’ll need to make the 27km ferry or plane journey to Porto Santo. Christopher Columbus lived here with his Portuguese wife, and there is a museum commemorating his tenure on this isolated islet. Ranked as one of the best beaches in Europe, if not the best, Porto Santo is well worth a visit for a few beach days and wandering around the capital city of Vila Baleira for lazy afternoons and sunsets on the beach. . •
High: Walk above the clouds at Vereda do Pico do Areeiro. Above: Bay of Porto Santo.
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