For the second time this year, I ventured to an island in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Northwest Africa (the first time was to Lanzarote). On this occasion, I visited the relatively petite Portuguese archipelago known as Madeira - a volcanic island commonly referred to as the “Hawaii of Europe” because of its beautiful black-sand beaches, lush forests, cascading waterfalls, tropical flora and reliable sunshine.
The journey from London was quick and trouble-free. The flight was just about three-hours as we landed 40-minutes early. I had pre-arranged an airport taxi (for €22.50), to take me to my hotel, NEXT Savoy Hotel, in Funchal (about a 30-min drive). The hotel granted me early check-in and upgraded me to a sea view. All was going my way!
After checking into the hotel, my first order of business was to get some grub. I took a 15-minute cab to the civil parish of Monte and ate lunch at Babosas Village, which did not disappoint.
I walked about five-mins to Monte Toboggan, paid €30 (cash only), hopped in a traditional wicker basket and was pushed/pulled down the steep hill, for about 2kms, from Monte to Livramento. The descent took about 10 minutes. I highly recommend this experience as it was completely unique to Madeira. *Tip: I asked the runners to take my photo beforehand, rather than buying the professional photos taken by photographers along the way.
In the evening, I headed to the Câmara de Lobos municipality (traditional fishing village) for some poncha (an alcoholic mixture of lemon or orange juice, sugar, honey and sugarcane spirit). *Warning, after two, you might find that you can speak Portuguese, even if you can't.
On the hill overlooking the fishing village, I had dinner at Vila do Peixe. This was said to be Câmara de Lobos' best seafood restaurant, offering high quality Madeiran fare. As you could probably guess, the restaurant's menu was largely seafood-based. I selected dragon fish from the display counter. It was sold by weight, lightly salted and grilled to perfection on acacia embers. Delicious and seasoned boiled potatoes, a selection of vegetables and a bottle of wine served as the perfect accompaniments.
On Saturday morning, I had a little lie-in and then spent half of the day soaking up vitamin D at my hotel.
After munching a quesadilla poolside, I walked into central Funchal, past Cristiano Ronaldo's hotel/museum/statue (a reminder of both a great talent and a great ego), to the 360° Sky & Poolside Bar at the Vine Hotel. Here I enjoyed a cocktail with a side of panoramic views.
Just a few minutes further away by foot, I arrived at Funchal's new waterfront marina, at 3:30pm, for a three-hour whale watching tour. In terms of wildlife, I only saw a loggerhead turtle and a pod of common dolphins. No whales were spotted, but the weather was spectacular and the crew members were accommodating, so I wasn't too bothered. Snacks and an open bar were included and there was an opportunity to swim, if desired.
Viewing Funchal from the ocean offered a unique perspective of the island's mountainous terrain and how the houses were nestled seemingly on top of one another into the steep hillside.
It was nearly time for dinner by the time I disembarked from the catamaran. Since you're so close, I'd recommend heading into the Old Town (Zona Velha) and picking one of the traditional restaurants. Or maybe select one of the seven Michelin-starred restaurants Funchal has to offer?!
For a nightcap, head to the Belmond Reid's Palace, a historic hotel located in the west of Funchal Bay, where Winston Churchill went, in 1950, to write his memoirs. Sit outside on the terrace at this luxurious haven and enjoy a Bellini with a view.
My penultimate day in Madeira was spent exploring the island's striking landscapes in an open-top 4x4 Jeep. The terrain was very bumpy, and the temperature varied substantially, based on time of day and how much sunlight there was. *Tip: Wear layers and bring a towel/swimsuit. Also, bring money for lunch and cash for a gratuity, as neither of those were included.
The full-day tour started and ended at my hotel (at 8:30am and 5:30pm respectively). Along the way, the tour took us through forests and mountains, to beaches, volcanic pools and waterfalls. It was an exciting way to see more of the island!
Bouncing around in the back of a Jeep all day really made me develop an appetite. For dinner, it was Restaurant Kampo on my final night. At the Chef's Table, I had a ‘first class’ view of all that was happening. The menu was inventive, elegant and prepared with technique and originality - a real sensory dining experience! The video below was of the dancing 'black rice with octopus and shrimp' dish.
After dinner, I went to the fifth floor of the funky Se Boutique Hotel where Rui made me a few delicious basil gin martinis.
The next morning, I left Madeira behind physically, but it would not easily be forgotten! I was sad to say good bye to this truly stunning island, with its old-world charm, excellent gastronomy and adventurous spirit.
Know Before You Go:
Bolt was in operation, but taxis were also easily accessible
Everyone spoke perfect English
Carry cash for things like taxis, tips, ice cream and hot beverages
The official currency was the Euro
Driving was on the right side of the road
Madeira had many newly asphalted roads and a recent dual carriage motorway with highly engineered tunnels that took you through/under the huge mountains
The island was very safe
Madeira was home to more than 2,500 kms of hiking (mostly footpaths alongside a network of narrow canals called levadas)
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