Lifestyle & Culture

Dispatches Detours: Dramatic scenery, local flavor make Madeira ‘Pearl of the Atlantic’

(Editor’s notes: This Madeira post is the fifth in our Dispatches Detours series in which we induct you into a class of savvy expat travelers who know there’s more to life than standing in line at Euro Disney.)


When I say “Madeira,” you say, “wine.” Madeira. Wine. Madeira. Wine.

Yes, “Madeira” conjures visions of rare wines in oak casks and ancient bottles. That, and nearly flawless weather 365 days per year. Oh, and volcanic beaches and waterfalls and some of the most dramatic scenery in the Atlantic.

vintagebottles-photo-credit-to-associacao-de-promocao-da-madeiraWhich is why the island of Madeira – “the Pearl of the Atlantic” – has a total population of less than 300,000 residents, but hosts more than one million tourists annually.

When most people refer to Madeira, they are talking about the main island of four in an archipelago whose closest neighbor is the Canary Islands, approximately 400 kilometers away.

Its 12 municipalities offer opportunities for tourists of all kinds, from the casual sightseer, to the history buff, to the hardcore sports enthusiast.

There is no shortage of places to stay on the island unless you are here between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in which case I can’t stress enough how important it is to make your reservations early.

There is a thriving hotel zone on the west end of Funchal and plenty of listings on Airbnb for accommodations throughout the island.

With plenty of opportunities for shopping, dining and sightseeing, Old Town has enough to occupy even the most ambitious tourist for a day in port. After disembarking, passengers can wander along the marina while enjoying gelato or roasted chestnuts and admiring the view of the hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

The streets that run parallel to the harbor are full of kitschy souvenir shops, churches, small art galleries, museums, monuments, and restaurants featuring local specialties. Heading a few blocks east will put you in the center of the city’s community art project, Projecto artE pORtas abErtas, the result of a successful attempt to revitalize the area.


Projecto artE pORtas abErtas

Professional artists and ordinary citizens have covered the doors in this section of Old Town with images of mermaids, historical figures, characters from children’s books, relatable messages (“We all need a hug!” and “Keep Calm and Drink Madeira Rum”), and famous landmarks.

The Mercado dos Lavradores is nearby and provides tourists and residents alike with fruits and vegetables, spices, flowers, and fresh fish.

Another popular attraction is the system of teleféricos (cable cars) that takes visitors up to Monte, which offers a spectacular view of the harbor. Until earlier this fall, the cable cars also detoured over to the botanical gardens, but wildfires in the area damaged 22 percent of the west end of Funchal and disrupted the service until reconstruction is completed.

If you’re a more adventurous tourist or an expat exploring the island, there are countless activities for nature lovers. The levada walks are an island favorite. Unique to the island, this series of aqueducts channels water to where it is most needed for agriculture and provides hydro-electric power for residents and local industry.

The paths that follow the levadas take the hiker through hills and valleys, beside lakes and waterfalls, and to overlooks with stunning views of volcanic beaches.

Storefronts rent mountain bikes for those who want to venture off the beaten path to explore the island on their own. A popular cruise to Porto Santo Island offers a day trip to sandy beaches and the chance to see whales and dolphins on the way. Divers can take a short bus trip to the east end of Funchal Bay where they can visit the Garajau Parcial Nature Reserve, home to coastal species of fish and groups of Atlantic manta rays.

History buffs will enjoy visiting Câmara de Lobos, where Winston Churchill painted some of his most famous landscapes; Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Zona Velha; one of the many churches; or the Fort of Sâo Tiago, built in the 16th century to protect the port of Funchal from pirate attacks.


View from Barreirinha Bar Café (Photo by Beth Hoke)

If you venture to the Fort of Sâo Tiago, be sure to continue up the hill to one of the most relaxing places on the island with a spectacular view of the harbor, the Barreirinha Bar Café.

They will let you sit for hours enjoying your drink and the view, while plying you with locally grown olives and free wifi.

Where to stay – the details:

For my first four weeks here, I stayed in an Airbnb in Old Town (Zona Velha), a charming section of the city filled with spectacular restaurants and lined with cobblestone streets. I had a view of the harbor, where the cruise ships deposited tourists on a near-daily basis.

A few weeks ago, I moved to a different AirBnB on the western end of the island in the hotel zone. As much as I loved Old Town, I wanted an apartment that featured a view of the ocean.

This area of Funchal is chock full of world-class hotels, including Belmond Reid’s Palace, a century-old historic hotel frequented by famous guests Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Roger Moore, Gregory Peck, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

The Pestana Group owns a number of hotels and resorts in this area and a new addition, CR7, a partnership with native son and professional footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, which sits in a prime location between Old Town and the hotel zone.

About two-thirds of Madeira is UNESCO-protected laurel forest. So there’s less development than on party islands such as Ibiza.




Beth Hoke is rejoining the expat life after spending her childhood in Europe and the United States, then settling in Chicagoland to raise two daughters.

Now an empty nester, she is roaming Europe, armed with a TEFL certificate and an online position teaching English for EF.

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