Thanks to a year-round mild climate, Madeira has long been a destination for those seeking sunshine. The Portuguese island’s timeless natural beauty offers up everything from hiking to surfing and scuba-diving. Those looking for a more laid-back pace of life will appreciate its charming villages, contemporary restaurants and ultra-luxe spas. Whatever your whim, here’s our everything-you-need-to-know insiders guide to Madeira.
The subtropical island of Madeira tends to conjure images of oversized banana trees, quaint cobbled streets and its namesake wine. And while it certainly has all three, this autonomous region of Portugal, located in the Atlantic and much closer to Africa than its mainland, offers so much more.
Whether navigating the levadas (hiking trails which crisscross the countryside) and catching waves on the coast or luxuriating in a first-rate spa before feasting on freshly caught seafood, Madeira caters to every type of wanderlust. It may only be four hours by plane but with its dramatic scenery, unforgettable experiences and wealth of five-star hotels, it feels a world away. Here’s why…
Sitting on the south coast, Ponta do Sol is a delightful sun trap. Wrapped around a small pebbled beach with an elegant backdrop of art deco buildings, this petit, traditional village is never flooded with tourists, making it perfect for those who wish to unwind.
Design Hotel’s Estalagem da Ponta do Sol is the place to stay, perched high on a cliff top overlooking a wide expanse of ocean. The decor is down to Portuguese interior designer Carvalho Araújo, whose white walls and minimalist, light-wood furnishings chime perfectly with the hotel’s natural surroundings. While the spa and the infinity pool offer a tranquil respite from the pressures of modern life, the hotel is a great starting point for hiking Levada do Moinho, replete with waterfalls and dramatic views.
The hotel’s restaurant serves up a local menu. While the vegan options do not disappoint, the grilled fresh seafood and fish dishes are particularly strong. A smattering of restaurants in the village include the charming Old Pharmacy, whose owner Maria José focuses on traditional Portuguese cuisine and Madeira wine, while next door, at the unassuming Steak & Sun, you’ll discover the most amazing tuna tataki.
Further along the coast from Ponta do Sol is Madeira’s historic capital city, Funchal, with its 16th century cathedral and botanical garden. Indeed, there can be no more pleasant way to spend a leisurely afternoon than strolling its cobbled streets, soaking up the history.
To ensure you are within walking distance of the pretty Old Town, stay at Les Suites at The Cliff Bay. This exquisite five-star effortlessly fuses its historic setting with all the mod cons you expect from a luxury hotel. Soak up the Funchal Bay vistas from the infinity pool or the restaurant Avista, where chef Benoît Sinthon serves his unique twist on local delicacies. The spa can be found in the neighbouring sister resort, The Cliff Bay, where treatments are taken in a private gazebo. Meanwhile, for old-world glamour the pretty-in-pink clifftop establishment Reid’s Palace (Winston Churchill’s favourite haunt back in the day) has it all.
If you’re here to shop, Funchal is where to do it, whether at the bustling, albeit tourist-busy, Mercado dos Lavradores or one of the organic health stores that are springing up across town (Celeiro has a great selection of lifestyle products for the conscious consumer). Or jump aboard the cable car to Monte for a panorama across rooftops and forests to the ocean beyond.
No visit to Funchal would be complete without homemade gelato and cake at The Ritz Madeira, one of the oldest grand cafés in town. For brunch, head to PrimaCaju for nutritious smoothie bowls and decadent pancakes. And when it comes to dinner, you cannot miss the contemporary cuisine on offer at Chef Júlio Pereira’s Kampo or his recently opened Ákua, where the island’s famous sardines arrive wrapped in aubergine and passion fruit.
Most Madeiran beaches come with pebbles. However in the town of Calheta, also in the south, you’ll find one of the island’s few sandy stretches, where the little coves make it a go-to for those with a love of the water. Catch a few waves with Belmiro Mendes’ Salty Surf School or do your sun salutations with local yoga instructor Freddie Valente-Perfeito, who takes classes on the beach. The nearby volcanic, all-natural pools also offer an alternative to the pebbly beaches (though the best is actually found at Porto Moniz to the north).
What Calheta is really famous for, however, is its luxurious hotels, not least Saccharum Resort & Spa. Here, interior designer Nini Andrade Silva and innovative architecture studio RH+ have taken inspiration from the banana plantations and old-school rum factories that used to populate this area. The result is a sleek, cutting-edge design that makes for a lavish stay. Opt for the Premium Experience and you’ll be able to hit the exclusive Premium Sundeck area, as well as enjoy unlimited access to the Saccharum SPA with its sensorial showers, halotherapy and relaxation rooms. Not to mention The Club, a lounge located on the very top floor that’s perfect for breakfast. Make sure to visit Alambique Restaurant, which takes Madeira’s gastronomy to exciting new heights. Try the local black scabbard fillet that’s wrapped in banana and served with mashed sweet potatoes.
A short taxi ride – or hike along the levada – will bring you to Prazeres. This untouched village is home to XS Cafe, a specialty coffee shop with strong beans and scrumptious pastel de nata.