Recently, I travelled to The Azores on a life changing adventure, filled with amazing people, landscapes, food and activities. Well, while I was there, we took a quick flight over to Madeira for a couple of days to explore even more of Portugal’s stunning autonomous regions. Having only heard of this place before from some of my British friends and family, I quickly discovered why it’s such a popular spot to check out with over a million visitors annually.
Existing as a part of 4 islands in the Portuguese archipelago, Madeira is located southwest of mainland Portugal and just northwest of Africa. It’s volcanic, rugged and lush, yet balanced with warm costal beach towns. A little warmer than The Azores, as it’s a bit further south, agriculture and fishing are the main draws for the economy (alongside tourism, of course). The capital is Funchal, situated in a natural amphitheatre, facing the atlantic all along the sunny coastline. But don’t be fooled by this modern city filled with art, bars and restaurants, shops and sights, all surrounded by mountains and lush vegetation.
Upon leaving the city, you’ll find many different mini eco-climates, making you feel like you’re traveling to a new land around every bend. And the food… oh my goodness, the food. I could easily take a trip that consists of solely eating my way through every city in the world. But Madeiran food is actually next level, because most of it is local, caught fresh from the sea daily, or sourced from around the island’s diverse yet abundant land. Literally everything grows there, all types of fruits and vegetables, making it pretty easy to snag fresh goodies everywhere you go.
This place is just so magical, and you’ve gotta visit for yourself in order truly understand. So that’s why I’ve put together a few tips and tricks on where to stay, where to eat and what to do while you’re there!
WHERE TO STAY
Upon arrival, we checked into the famous Belmond Reid’s Palace. Known for it’s rich history and luxurious events, it has an absolutely stunning prime location right on the water’s edge. Boasting as a paradise perfected in a clifftop haven, the property is surrounded by lush tropical gardens, facing the Funchal Harbour. Over a century old, guests used to arrive by boat and be carried up in hammocks. I felt a little ridiculous walking up to the now front door on the opposite side, when some beautiful Portuguese men could have easily just carried me up the cliff-face and into my room. I mean, I don’t hate the idea of them continuing to offer this service… just sayin’.
Perfecting the art of indulgence, from the minute you walk in, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, but in an updated modern way. Each category of room varies from the Charming Rooms, up to the Presidential, Churchill and Bernard Shaw Suites. The decor is crisp yet comfortable, with embroidered bedspreads and luxurious marble bathrooms, wicker chairs and tables, and views for days. Of the three swimming pools on site, 2 of them are heated and one is a tidal seawater pool. Activities on site include tennis, snooker and even dancing classes. Beautiful food is served on site, including breakfast in The Garden Room, the Pool Restaurant, the Edwardian-inspired Dining Room, and The Villa Cipriani.
One of my favourite things about the hotel is the view. I know I mentioned this before, but it’s a bit ridiculous. Around every corner, you see a terrace, a balcony or a window facing out to some of the most stunning ocean views I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience. In all of my time travelling around the world, I can quite easily say that this place is hands-down one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed in. I know that’s a big statement to make, but I truly mean it. And I absolutely can’t wait to go back one day.
WHERE TO EAT
Well, you already know how much I love it there. But, if you’re looking to treat yourself to some age-old tradition, delicious food and stunning views, I would suggest booking yourself in for an afternoon of high tea at the palace. High tea might be one of my favourite things to do, because you get to drink tons of tea (I freakin’ love tea), but you also get a variety of a lot of little things. From delicate finger sandwiches, freshly baked to order scones and homemade pastries, you get to choose from a selection of 24 teas or champagne.
This traditional Madeiran restaurant is elegant and genuine, located in a chalet right in the middle of town. All of the food is created using simple ingredients straight from the earth and seasoned to perfection. Most of their dishes are charcoal-grilled, which brings you back to a simpler time of cooking. Some of the highlight dishes include the caco cake with garlic butter, Santo’s fresh cheese, grilled octopus with potato São João, regional sausages grilled with peppers and mushrooms, and the beef espetada with fresh laurel bay leaf skewers.
This stunning hotel has breathtaking views, located along the northeast coast in the natural reserve Rocha do Navio and Madeira’s highest mountains. Not only are the views to die for, the food is just as elevated and beautiful. With an indoor and outdoor area, from anywhere you choose to sit, you can see the rugged mountains hitting the sea. The menu is balanced with a typical gastronomy from Madeira and international cuisine, with a focus on organic and local products.
Located within the beautiful 5-star hotel Quintinha São João, this restaurant is known for it’s elevated Indian-fusion cuisine. Our special menu for the evening included smoked duck, seared scallops, filet mignon, shortbread with pitaya coulis, and Valrhona chocolate fondant. The food was incredible, but likely the best part of the hotel is the General Manager André. I would absolutely recommend popping in for a visit, but be sure to ask for him for a personal tour! (Tell him we sent you, he’ll love it.)
Italian cuisine in Portugal? Oh heck yes! This Tuscan-inspired restaurant specializes in refined products like their sheep’s cheese, Tuscan salami and olive oil, pastries and wines. I loved the healthy variety of the menu and how sharable the plates can be – because I love a little bit of everything. They also had some fantastic live music and a great atmosphere!
This was likely the most unique and incredible dining experience I’ve had to date! Established in 2001, the restaurant is located at the Historical Fortress of São Tiago, which dates back to the 17th Century. Originally built to defend the city from pirates and privateers. Now you can explore history while enjoying a journey of gastronomical diversity and incredible views. They also have special dinner packages, host events, live music and weddings. If you can get up to the roof, I would highly suggest having a glass of champagne as the sun sets. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
WHAT TO DO
If you’re looking for a fun and adventurous tour with a twist outside of the city, look no further! Madeira Island, spans over 743 kms, of which only 1/3 of this area is inhabited land, as the population is restricted almost solely to the coastline. With unique pre-historic forests, an average altitude of 1300 meters, rugged terrain, deep valleys, massive mountains and micro-climates, there’s so much to explore. Adding to that, you can check out an impressive network of beaten tracks crossing dense forests, secular cobblestone paths almost seeming to extend into to oblivion and connecting villages where time stood still. So, it only makes sense to travel in a 4×4 open-top jeep that can go off-roading with professional, experienced, knowledgeable, friendly guides, right? We spent the whole day being guided on a truly special experience all over the island to places we may never have seen if it weren’t for the fact that we could literally drive anywhere! Also, our guide Hugo was freakin’ amazing.
Visit a Rum Factory
Madeira is usually known for their eponymous fortified wine, they’ve worked hard to bring back the rum culture that was so prominent, around 200 years ago. Although only a couple of them are left on the island, what they produce is pretty amazing. Sugar cane is abundant on the island, and is then processed using almost more people-power than machines, then turned into rum and “Madeiran honey” (or what we call molasses). My personal favourite of the rums we tried, was the rum where a bit of the molasses was added back into it. Then they served it with whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate. So tasty!
Every time I visit somewhere where there’s a cable car experience, I add it to my list immediately and I’ve never been disappointed. Hovering over the city of Funchal, you can see buildings rise alongside gardens, beautiful homes, with the sea and mountains acting as a natural backdrop. Known as the Garden City, Funchal offers a rainbow of colours, sights and smells as you head up the side of the mountain, peppered with the reminders of symbiotic relationship between countryside and city.
If you’re headed up the mountain in the cable car and you’re looking for a creative and really fun way back down – take a sledge car! The traditional Monte Sledge is a century old basket made of wicker and wood, driven by two carreiros (or sledge drivers) wearing white uniforms and straw hats, who control it using their boots as brakes. Going downhill for a distance of 2 kms, you’ll have the time of your life while also learning all about the age-old tradition of how people of affluence or wine makers would get down the mountain over 100 years ago!
Located in the Old Town, this iconic farmers market is where you can find some of the most beautiful flowers of Madeira, like birds of paradise, orchids and proteas. There are also beautiful varieties of fruits and veggies a plenty as well as fresh fish caught daily in the biggest fish market area I’ve ever seen. You can also exit the market and walk all along Rua de Santa Maria to lose yourself in the labyrinth of cute little narrow cobblestone streets filled with art, music, bars, restaurants and culture.
With 9 stops, 11 food tastings and 6 drinks, you can tour around the beautiful city of Funchal by foot, guided by a knowledgeable storyteller. Discover Madeira Wine, gastronomy, architecture, history, and hidden gems. From local restaurants like Venda da Donna Maria, to chocolate shops like Uau Cacau, to shops working on preserving traditional culture like Made in Madeira – there are lots of wonderful things to see, eat and drink on this unique way to take in the city sights.
Hiking is one of my all-time favourite adventure activities. So when I found out that you can hike the network of Levadas all throughout Madeira, I just had to go! These are a series of open canal systems that were developed in the early 16th century to help distribute water from the rainfall, during heavy and wet conditions in the north part of the island, since the south is much drier. These 1400kms of Levadas are built with paths and walkways all along, in order to help with general maintenance, but they’ve also turned into a wonderful way to guide yourself to and from beautiful places. We hopped on a guided tour with Madeira Adventure Kingdom to Levada do Alecrim. Now, while it was such an incredible experience, I would say to always make sure you go with an experienced guide. Not just for the amazing knowledge they provide, but because it’s a much safer experience, all around!
All in all, Madeira was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been fortunate enough to visit. The history, the nature, the food, the people… everything was pure magic. I can’t wait to go back and visit again one day. “A vida e o amor que criamos são a vida e o amor que vivemos.”
Don’t forget to sign up for the DoTheDaniel.com Newsletter
Catherine Sugrue, CNP
*Please note that this is a sponsored post – our disclosure can be found at all times by clicking here.
Photos by Catherine Sugrue
Back to School On A Budget Next Post:
Celebrating Ten Years With One Of The Best TIFF Events