Magical Madeira

An island destination full of surprises, offering a wealth of things to see and do all year round

by Edel Cassidy

Known as the ‘floating flower garden’, Madeira is famous throughout the world for its natural beauty. Of volcanic origin, it is an autonomous region of Portugal, made up of an archipelago of two inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and two uninhabited archipelagos, the Desertas and the Selvagens. It is situated in the North Atlantic Ocean, 590km off the African coast and 1,000km from the Portuguese mainland, and is celebrated for its magnificent scenery, top-class hotels, warm welcome and its namesake fortified wines.

Madeira boasts of a rich history, uninhabited until 1419 when first discovered by Portuguese explorers. However, the Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD23-79) mentions it in his Natural History and it appears on a Medici map of 1351 as ‘Isola de Lolegname’ (Wooded Isle).

Wine and coffee on a table overlooking Madeira

When the first settlers arrived in the early 1420s, the whole island was covered in sub-tropical rainforest and it was given the name Ilha da Madeira (Island of the Wood). To clear the land for farming the dense forests were burned and cut down and slaves were brought from Africa to work in the sugar cane farms and mills. Irrigation channels called levadas were built, to bring water from the mountains to nourish the crops. By 1500 Madeira was flourishing and had become the world’s largest exporter of sugar, known as the ‘white gold’. However, by the end of the 16th century, Brazil and the Spanish colonies in South America overtook Madeira in sugar exportation and wine became its most important commodity.

The first vineyards were planted in the early 1400s with the mild sub-tropical climate and the fertile volcanic soil providing ideal conditions for grapes to thrive in. While popular locally, it was during the British occupation of Madeira during the Napoleonic wars that Madeira wine became popular as the luxury tipple of the British. Important markets were established throughout global British trading networks, including the North American colonies.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Madeira became a popular holiday destination with the upper-class wealthy British and, with the opening of the airport in the 1960s, tourism became one of the main sources of economic growth. As a holiday destination, Madeira has warm and pleasant temperatures all year round and excellent tourist facilities. There is a wide variety for all to see and do. Here is what I managed to fit in on a recent short visit.

Wine and Food Walking Tour in Funchal

A delightful tour, sampling of some of Funchal’s best food and drink. Here are some of the highlights:

Blandy’s Wine Lodges:  First stop was at Blandy’s Wine Lodges, where we sampled some Madeira, a fortified wine produced in four wine styles, dry, medium-dry, medium-rich and full-rich, all available in both vintage and non-vintage blends. Madeira wine’s unique quality is due to a process of heating and ageing, a practice that would be frowned upon by other wine-producing countries. It dates back to early in the island’s wine-making history, in the Age of Exploration, when it was sent on long voyages to the South American colonies and the East and West Indies. Exposure to heat in the ships’ holds was found to improve the wine.

A Mercadora:  A traditional Madeiran grocery shop, where everything is sold by weight. A must to take home is the A Mercadora’s unique blend of spices. Ideal for fish, chicken and particularly good for fish soup, the secret recipe is only known by the owner. Here I tried my first poncha, a traditional drink that purportedly cures all ailments from the common cold to a broken heart. It is made up of two parts of Madeira rum and one part lemon juice, with regional honey or sugar to taste.

Cristalina Chique Bar:  Here, we enjoyed a black scabbard fish fillet sandwich. This tasty fish is considered a Madeiran gastronomic speciality. The accompanying beverage was a Brisa Maracuja, a very refreshing non-alcoholic drink, which was the first soft drink in the world based on pure passion fruit juice. Our guide, Sofia, proudly tells us that her father invented the formula for this invigorating and thirst-quenching drink in 1970. It is known far and wide on the island as a great hangover cure.

Farmers’ Market:  A particular highlight of the tour was being brought through the Farmers’ Market, in Funchal’s city centre, a riot of colour with huge varieties of fresh local produce including fruit, vegetables, fresh fish, plants and flowers.

Tropical gardens
Monte Palace tropical gardens

Monte Palace Tropical Gardens

The entire island of Madeira is a paradise for any garden enthusiast but most especially the breathtakingly stunning Monte Palace Tropical Gardens that occupy an area of 70,000 square metres and house a huge collection of exotic plants from all over the world, including 1000-year-old Roman olive trees. A former private residence and later a hotel, it was purchased by local entrepreneur José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo in 1987 and has been open to the public since 1991.

The gardens are accessible by bus or taxi but, at an altitude of 550 metres, by far the best way to get here is by cable car, which provides amazing views of the island and the sea as it whisks you up to Monte.

Nestled within the beautiful gardens is the Monte Palace Museum which consists of three floors. Two floors are dedicated to sculptures – one of these housing the Berardo Collection of Zimbabwean soapstone sculptures. On the third floor is a unique and priceless assortment of minerals and semi-precious stones gathered from all over the world.

Cable car over Madeira
Monte Cable Car

As scary as it sounds, coming down from Monte by toboggan is an absolute must and so much fun to experience. Back in the middle of the 19th century, these wicker sledges were the primary means of downhill public transportation in Funchal. Today it is one of the main tourist attractions. The toboggans are manoeuvred by men working in pairs dressed in white and wearing straw hats. Their thick rubber boots are used as brakes.

Being transported back to our hotel, our wonderful tour guide Graça thanked us for visiting and encouraged us to return, with an inspirational quote from Saint Augustine, ‘The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.’

Magical sunrise at a mountain top above the clouds in Madeira
Sunrise at Pico do Areeiro

Sunrise at Pico do Areeiro

Having heard that watching the sunrise high above the clouds at Pico do Areeiro would be an unforgettable experience, I booked with Adventureland Tours. Dragging myself out of bed at 5 am is not my idea of a relaxing holiday, so I was hoping it would be worth the effort. It took forty-five minutes driving in the dark to reach Pico do Areeiro – 1818 metres altitude. The sunrise was magical and the view over the central mountains of Madeira Island was spectacular. On the way back we enjoyed a picnic breakfast at one of the island’s nature reserves, provided by our two guides, both called Pedro.

This is also the starting point for one of the most spectacular hikes to the archipelago’s highest point, Pico Ruivo. It is not for the faint-hearted or those who suffer from vertigo, as it passes through tunnels and traverses very steep ridges.

Backs of pilot whales in the sea
Pilot whales

Dolphin and Whale Watching

A truly unforgettable experience! We met at the offices of Rota dos Cetáceos for a briefing on all aspects of safety, respect for the wildlife and what to expect from the excursion. We were also warned that dolphin and whale watching depends on their appearing – so  no guarantees. Luckily they decided to oblige and gave us quite a performance. Throughout the year, there are twenty-eight different species of cetaceans that can be seen in these waters. We first came across a school of spotted dolphins known for their curiosity of humans. Before we knew it they had the boat surrounded, swimming underneath and alongside the boat jumping in the air. There is a stop for those who want to swim with the dolphins – snorkels and goggles are provided.

We moved on to where we saw some pilot whales, adults and babies, surfacing and diving, but, unlike the dolphins, they did not venture close to the boat. As we had just witnessed two of the twenty-
eight species that reside here, Helena our guide suggested that we will have lots to see when we return.

Cathedral interior
Interior of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption 

Funchal Cathedral

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, Funchal’s 16th-century cathedral, is one of the few structures that has survived from the early colonisation of Madeira. It once oversaw the world’s largest diocese as it served all territories discovered by the Portuguese, from Madeira to Brazil to Angola. The simplicity of the exterior is in vast contrast with the grandeur of the interior.

The cathedral features characteristics of Manueline and Gothic styles with a ceiling of Madeiran cedar wood with ivory inlays. The main altar dates from 1517 and is a magnificent work of religious art.

The cathedral is a trove of treasures of great beauty and historical value, some of which are on display at the Sacred Art Museum in the former Bishop’s Palace. The highlight of the collection is the processional cross, given by King Dom Manuel I, which is considered one of the most remarkable pieces of precious metalwork of the Portuguese Manueline style.

Madeira’s sugar exports explain the presence of Flemish paintings which would have served as payment in exchange. On display is an important silver collection with fine examples of sacred vessels such as the chalice, ciborium, monstrance and pyx. There are also collections of vestments, sculpture and jewellery dated from between the 15th and 19th centuries. 

Ancient cathedral steeple
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
  • ‘Magical Madeira’ is published in Anthology Volume 13. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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