The Heaven on Earth
Reading time 10 min
You have been working hard for months, the holidays are getting closer, but you are hesitant about choosing a destination. We have all found ourselves at least once in a situation where we do not even know which type of vacation would suit us best. At one point, we think of tropical beaches, night outs, the hustle and bustle, and the very next moment, we imagine a peaceful atmosphere, promenades, flowers, and birds singing. We do not know what decision you made in those moments of turmoil and how satisfied you were with the choice. However, we found ourselves in the same situation, and by chance, we decided to visit the volcanic island of Madeira, which offers all of the above.
And where exactly is Madeira? That was the most frequent question our acquaintances asked us when we said where we were going. Most people have heard of the archipelago but don’t know exactly where it is. Namely, Madeira is located in the Atlantic Ocean, about 650 km west of the African coast and almost 1000 km southwest of Lisbon. The closest mainland to the archipelago is the Canary Islands, at a distance of just over 450 km.
Madeira is the largest island in the group, with a length of 57 km and 22 km in width. Pico Ruivo, with its 1862 meters, is the highest peak of the island. It offers a fabulous view from coast to coast. We could say that the climate is perfect all year round. The average temperature in summer is around 24° C and in winter some 17° C. The sky is often foggy from a large amount of humidity.
As the landing moment approaches, the plane leans unusually strongly to the right to make a turn and approach the runway in the ideal curve. At that moment, the only thing in sight through the left window is the blue sky, and through the right window the blue sea.
Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal, and therefore an integral part of the European Union. The particularity of this island you will experience already at the landing on the airport runway located at the eastern end of the island, which due to lack of space, extends almost half the length into the sea on 180 concrete pillars high 70 m. Impressive, and your first comparison is to the aircraft carrier.
As the landing moment approaches, the plane leans unusually strongly to the right to make a turn and approach the runway in the ideal curve. At that moment, the only thing in sight through the left window is the blue sky, and through the right window the blue sea. This scene takes a breath away from literally every passenger. Some out of fear and others out of delight, but the result is the same.
The capital Funchal is about 15 kilometers from the airport. It is considered one of the cleanest European capitals. It is nestled in the southern, sunniest part of the island, surrounded by green hills, beautiful gardens, and banana plantations. It is known for its many top restaurants, varied offers, large portions at affordable prices, entertainment clubs, wine, and as the birthplace of the well-known football player Christian Ronaldo.
In the last ten years, numerous 4, and 5-star luxury hotels have sprung up rapidly, like mushrooms after rain. You will practically not find 3-star hotels, not to mention those of lower categories. There is a wide choice, and the splendor of the architecture and offerings is stunning. Needless to say about the kindness and service at the hotel where we stayed (Regency Palace). Until then, we had not yet experienced that someone on the second day of our stay in a room with a good view recommended us to move to a newly emptied room with an even better one. Or, due to a cold issue, a doctor comes to the pool (one of the few in the world with underwater music) to prescribe us the appropriate medication and calls us the next day to ask if we feel any better. Little things you remember forever!
Tourists have a variety of activities to choose from. The list of choices includes surfing, diving, boat trips, swimming with dolphins, golf courses, horseback riding, tennis. Finally, as perhaps the most fascinating activity Monte – ride on the slide that attracts up to a thousand tourists a year. Namely, it is an almost breakneck fast ride in a sleigh (woven from wicker) that descends at high speed from the hilly part of the Funchal through the narrow, winding streets to the center.
These sleds are pushed and steered by two men dressed in traditional white cotton clothes with straw hats on their heads. The ride itself takes about 10 minutes, you pass a 2 km long track, and the speed reaches up to 50 km/h. However, this is not the culmination of the experience, so for the adrenaline to be complete, this sled trail intersects in some places with the city roads with driving cars. Fortunately, all drivers know about this attraction, so they are careful at intersections.
If you prefer a quieter holiday, you can visit many theme gardens and botanical parks or walk along the beautifully landscaped and long coastal promenade Lido. Then take the cable car from the city crowds to a quieter part of Monte at 560 m above sea level. Although the city may be crowded, do not miss a walk through the fascinating streets or visit numerous historical monuments, cheerfully paved squares, and streets decorated with colorful flowers. Go in search of the facades full of tiles and colorful market which offer a full range of tropical fruits, vegetables, and (cleaned) fresh fish, that in our more northern parts you will not find.
There is also a former Beatles yacht called Vagrant on the city promenade, which has been turned into a restaurant. Since 2004, the tourist offer included a flight with the helium-filled balloon listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest in the world. The balloon soared all the courageous curious people, up to 20 people at a time, into the air at 150 m height, from where one could enjoy a stunning view of the city and its surroundings. After a successful flight, it was customary to drink traditional liqueur, and each flier would receive a diploma signed by the pilot. Unfortunately, the balloon was damaged during a storm in 2007 and is no longer in use.
The city provides so many opportunities you will feel like a child in a toy store, but we advise you to leave some time to tour the island, which offers a lot of beautiful locations and particularities. The first things that will impress you are the roads and highways, especially if you rent a car. Renting a car is much cheaper in Portugal than in other countries. Also unleaded petrol, whose somewhat funny expression in Portuguese – super san chumbo is burnt in our memory.
The roads have speed limits that you will mostly respect. Not because you are civilized, but simply because you will not be able to drive faster than 100 km/h due to the twisty road configuration. Including the highway narrower than usual and also without a stop lane. Not necessary to describe the experience when you see the intersection in the middle of the tunnel or when you drive through a tunnel that is still under construction. However, despite these somewhat strange roads and customs, we did not see a single traffic accident.
Not far from Funchal (about 5 km) is the former fishing village of Câmara do Lobos, whose picturesque surroundings inspired Sir Winston Churchill to paint during his stay in Madeira. The name came from sea lions (Portuguese: Lobos), which used to be in large numbers in this area. The road takes you further to Cabo Girão, the second-largest cliff in the world and the highest in Europe (580 m). The view from there will leave you breathless. Driving through this area, you will notice how banana plantations are increasingly giving way to vineyards and cherry orchards. Madeira wine is highly valued today. It has a high quality which is not lost even by storage for many years. There are several types, but the most important are Malvasia (sweet), Boal (medium sweet), Verdelho (semi-dry), and Sercial (dry). We recommend you taste them in one of the many wine tasting stores because you will remember those flavors for a long time.
Among the most impressive places on Madeira is Porto Moniz on the northwest side of the island. One of the most significant attractions is the natural pool filled with crystal clear sea, surrounded by sharp and black lava rocks. This pool is a favorite beach for locals. It is one of the main reasons for visiting tourists (including ourselves) in the desire to experience swimming in this unique ambiance. The beaches are mostly rocky due to the volcanic origin of the island and are very rarely sandy. Porto Moniz is also significant for the fishing industry, as well as for holding a large livestock fair that takes place in one of the summer months.
Traveling to the northeast, you will come across São Vicente, where is the Volcanic Center. If you are not yet familiar with volcanoes, the center will explain and show you in a fun way what is happening in volcanic bowels, eruptions, and even the process of island formation. As part of a visit to the center, you can see a volcanic cave 700 m long, where you will be able to admire the results of the eruption created 400 thousand years ago.
On the northern part of the island, prevail green Laurissilva forests under UNESCO protection as a World Heritage Site. Santana, probably the most traditional village on the island, is also located in this region. Still today, you can see unusual tiny houses made of natural stone with thatched roofs, which for centuries served as stables also residential buildings. Because of the cheerful, attractive cottages and also the unusual flora and fauna, for a moment, you will have the feeling like Alice had when she jumped into Wonderland.
You must visit
- Funchal – the capital of Madeira
- Porto Moniz – Lava natural swimming pools
- Monte Palace Tropical Garden
- Porto da Cruz – fishing village
- Sao Vicente – the Volcanic Center
- Machico – the most beautiful beaches
- Câmara do Lobos – picturesque village and surroundings
- Risco Waterfall
- Pico Ruivo – the Madeira’s highest peak
- Laurel Forest (Laurisilva)
Not far from Santana, you will come across Queimadas, the starting point of the Levada hike. Levada is a Portuguese term derived from the word levar, which in translation means to carry. It refers to miniature canals that serve as irrigation systems, which drain naturally collected water from the north towards the southern plantations, drier part of the island. All those who enjoy adventure activities can join one of the organized walks along the trails, which also serves for irrigation system maintenance.
Madeira is worldwide known for its natural beauty, so it is often called the floating garden in the Atlantic. The range of carefully maintained parks and gardens is enormous, and we will list just a few: Quinta Magnólia, Municipal Garden, Botanical Gardens, Orchid Garden, Monte Palace Tropical Garden. At first, all seem to be the same, full of flowers and trees, yet each is special in its way.
We could write indefinitely about Madeira and its beauties, friendly and polite inhabitants, and our impressions. If you choose it as your next destination to visit, we are almost sure that it will meet all your expectations. But you must be aware, one visit to this paradise will not be enough.
TEXT – Vesna Dzuverovich
PHOTO – Robert Blaskovich