Paradise on my Doorstep – Madeira, Portugal

Unexpected Magic in Madeira:

Palm Trees in Madeira

Two trips to Portugal already this year, I perhaps should  have learnt to expect the unexpected.  Having found rice fields in the Alentejo, ancient rock carvings at Foz Coa and a Flintstone-like village built in between the boulders at Monsanto, you might have thought I’d realise that Portugal is the land of the unexpected.  But, arriving at Funchal airport in Madeira, after a three hour flight from London, there was a bizarre moment when I had flashbacks to my childhood in Malaysia.  It was warm and humid even in December. Sub-tropical forests cover the volcanic slopes of the island.  Sugar cane, avocados, pineapples and bananas all grow on the terraced farmlands and even when the clouds descend and it rains, the gardens are alight, a blaze of colourful flowers.

Mountains of Madeira

Madeira lies some 900 km South West of Lisbon, in the North Atlantic. The main island of Madeira is part of an archipelago which includes the island of Porto Santo and the Desertas Islands. It was first claimed by the Portuguese crown in 1418, at the time the island was uninhabited and densely wooded. In fact the name given to the island means wood in Portuguese.  Populated only by birds, the Portuguese settlers had to clear the land (a process that was at least partly by controlled fires over a seven year period) and build a complex network of deep drains and canals, levadas, to drain the slopes and bring water to those parts of the island that had none.  While the climate may be clement with averages all the year round between 17 and 25c, the terrain is mountainous with steep cliffs leading down to the sea.

Madeira - Funchal from the Fort

Our recent trip was based in Funchal, the main City on the island.  And while we spent much of the time learning more about the spa facilities offered by hotels in Funchal, which appear to be almost a de facto requirement, a trek out to the mountains gave us some insight into the way of life of the people of Madeira. There seemed to be a lot of a local cocktail involved, Poncha. It’s traditionally made with the local sugar cane rum, aguadente de cana, honey, sugar and lemon juice and rind mixed together to make a really delicious and rather lethal drink.

Poncha madeira

There was a similar insight into the life of the settlers on Madeira as we toured the Madeira Winery and were shown a goatskin sack that would have been the main method of transporting wine across the mountains.  Our guide claimed that the farmers would set off with a full sack and gradually drink the content so that when they arrived in Funchal it would be half empty.

Madeira - transportation of wine

Transport was also by toboggan.  We took the cable car to the top of Monte, the hill just on the outskirts of Funchal with the plan of travelling down by traditional toboggans pushed and pulled by two locals.  It was just a little misty when we started from the top, that kind of drizzle that makes you damp but not wet.  But, within two minutes a tropical storm started.  Behind us, we could hear the guides trying to hold the ropes attached to the wickerwork toboggan crying ‘Sante Maria…Sante Maria’ as they tried to stop us from tumbling down the slope.  The road was a river within seconds and, dressed in jeans and a light top, I arrived drenched from head to toe.  Definitely an experience, but I’d hope that any normal visitor would pick a sunny day if they want to attempt the toboggan run.

Madeira - storm brewing

Spa facilities aside, Madeira has a fascinating heritage.  The island is heavily fortified, originally to protect it from pirates and at one time at the end of the 15th century it was the world’s largest producer of sugar, both from cane and from a type of sugar beet that was brought from Sicily in the 1400s.  The island still grows some sugar cane and beet, together with a seemingly borderless selection of fruit and vegetables brought to the island by the Portuguese who populated the lands during their own greatest period of exploration.  Food and drink is excellent, with menus, like much of Portugal, dominated by fish. And, dining out is remarkably good value with top restaurants offering main courses at around 15 euros and with poncha in local bars at around 2 to 3 euros a glass.

Bananas in Madeira

Given the climate, the wealth of leisure activities and the food, it’s not suprising that the island of Madeira welcomes over a million visitors to the island each year.  It’s an all year round destination, in December it was warm enough to need sun-cream and not to need a jacket. Perhaps for that reason, except in certain parts of Funchal, the Island doesn’t feel too overwhelmed by tourists.  Or perhaps that is just part of the magic of Madeira, a quirky, nearly tropical island that serves up a Caribbean style experience Portuguese style.

I was a guest of  the Madeira Promotion Bureau and the Portuguese Tourist Board
For more information about Madeira please check the Visit Madeira  website
I stayed at Quintinha de Sao Joao
TAP Portugal has a daily flight from London Heathrow to Madeira, prices start at £169 return including all taxes. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0845 601 0932.

5 / 5 stars     
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Comments

  1. I have never thought of visiting Madeira, but you have helped to put it on my list. Great post.

  2. Pamela Morse says:

    This looks like it could be more interesting than the Canary Islands. The cost makes it great for the English people. So close and yet so warm…great post, Fiona.

    • it has a more tropical climate than the canaries, I’ve been there too and found it quite arid. It’s also heavily forested, so rather beautiful in a different way.

  3. I already have seen some advertisement for Madeira lately and thought by myself that might be a lovely place to go. You surely confirmed that with your luvly post.

  4. impressive trip.. and I too have been places that were awesome but we ran into icky weather. Looks like you still had fun!

  5. I am sooooooo keen to go. Lucky you and fab sounding trip

  6. Win a trip to Madeira
    I work in a marketing company in portugal and we´re looking for the best headlines about Madeira (Levadas, Funchal, Mountains and Winter Sun).
    The best 13 headlines win a trip with 7 night stay in Madeira.
    For this, I need you to publish some comments/headlines about these topics on sites like tripadvisor.
    Thanks for your collaboration,

    • jacques dobbelaere says:

      My slogan is: ” You have to see Madeira before you before the end of the year yeach ”

      I have never been there, but was always on my list. I defenitely have to go there before I am to old (63)

      Jacques

  7. Looks like a wonderful trip! You’re visiting a great place when it manages to surprise you every time! Thanks for sharing!

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