Affectionately known as the Atlantic’s ‘floating garden’, Madeira has been popular for centuries, first for its wine and now as an upmarket tourist destination. Sightseeing highlights include Cabo Girão (one of the world’s highest sea cliffs), Curral das Freiras, and the neighboring island of Porto Santo, home to a long sandy beach.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Madeira’s extreme east is a nature reserve with immense volcanic rocks that are streaked with reddish hues. It’s a hike worth doing for the moving views of the Atlantic and for photos that look like the ends of the Earth. There’s also something about the climate and soil that allows unusual flowering plants like cardoons and everlastings to thrive.
In 2012 a “skywalk” was installed on this nearly 2,000-feet-tall cliff on Madeira’s south coast. Don’t try this adventure if you have a fear of heights. The platform overhangs the edge of the cliff and has glass floor tiles that give you a clear, dizzying view to the ocean far below. This free experience, although terrifying, affords the brave amazing views of Madeira.
If you’re up for the challenge, Madeira’s highest peak (6,108 feet) is walkable if you have the right shoes and keep up to date on weather conditions. The route begins at the Pico do Arieiro and takes around six hours. Although there are shorter, more manageable paths to the peak (like from Achada do Teixeira), this trail will give you the most beautiful scenery.
Madeira Island’s topography means that most of the rain falls in the north and northwest, while the southeast can be dry. So beginning in the 1500s and taking cues from the Moors, dozens of channels were carved along winding upland routes to deliver water to drier areas. By virtue of their role, these channels have made some dramatic and impassable locations more accessible. One of the best routes is the Levada dos 25 Fontes, taking you past the marvelous 300-feet-high Risco Waterfall. The Levada do Caldeirão Verde meanwhile dates from the 1700s and carries water from Madeira’s highest mountains to Faial near the north coast and coursing through picturesque São Jorge Valley.
Following the route of an old steam railway line is a modern cable car system that whisks you up from Almirante Reis to Funchal’s upper suburb of Monte. There’s usually a line but it always moves quickly, and then you’ll have 15 minutes to soak up the views of the ocean and the terraced mountainsides clustered with white houses. There are plenty of reasons to make the trip, from the beautiful views to the Monte Palace Tropical Garden or the Church where Emperor Charles I is buried. While getting to the top is done at a leisurely pace, coming back down is simply thrilling. Visitors are ushered into basket toboggans for an exhilarating ride down the slope to the center of Funchal.
On the northern lower reaches of the Pico Ruivo, there’s an enchanting subtropical laurel forest. The high humidity gives the woodland a light veil of mist and coats the forest floor with moss, lichens, and ferns with some of the largest fronds you’ll see in Europe. There’s a whole web of trails, and you can get onto a couple of Levadas from here. But you can also visit for a picnic at the shelter, which is designed like a traditional Santana cottage, with a thatched room and timber framing.
The first thing you’ll see after emerging from the cable car terminal in Monte is the entrance to these exquisite gardens. They are laid out on the terraced slopes around the former Monte Palace Hotel, which was built in a Rhenish Revival style at the start of the 20th century. There are medical plants, herb beds, cacti, heather from Scotland, European azaleas, local laurel forest, and cycads from South Africa. Be sure to pause by the Japanese garden, which has a pagoda and pond with koi carp. Azulejos also appear amid the foliage, most memorably telling the story of the Portuguese in Japan on a large panel with 166 tiles.
High above the Atlantic, in the verdant hills just east of Funchal, these gardens at the Quinta do Palheiro estate are proof that almost any plant will thrive in Madeira’s soil. Since 1885 the property has been in the Blandy family, which has long had a hand in the island’s wine industry. Before that, it belonged to the Conde do Carvahal, a Portuguese nobleman who planted trees and started the gardens’ famed collection of camellias. Arranged on terraces are whimsical topiaries, roses, cypresses, and because of the spring-like climate, the hibiscus and bougainvillea are known to bloom throughout the year.
In Caniçal on the east coast, there’s a museum that recounts the history of Madeira’s whaling industry. Historically, whaling expeditions were based out of Caniçal as late as 1981. The museum opened in 1989 and received a modern facelift in 2011. The museum exhibits whaling artifacts such as tools and vessels, and also gives visitors first-hand accounts of the whaling trade. There is also an exhibit of preserved cetaceans and marine life, full-sized models of whales and dolphins, as well as 3D footage.