Madeira touring

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 62 of the March 2014 issue.
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Enjoy sweeping views of Funchal from the Botanical Gardens. Photos by Randy Keck

(Second of three parts)

One of the challenges for first-time visitors to alluring Madeira is how best to approach touring the island. On our November 2013 journey, partially hosted by SATA Airlines (operated in North America by Azores Express) and the Madeira Tourism Board, my wife, Gail, and I discovered an abundance of options. 

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Enjoy sweeping views of Funchal from the Botanical Gardens. Photos by Randy Keck

(Second of three parts)

One of the challenges for first-time visitors to alluring Madeira is how best to approach touring the island. On our November 2013 journey, partially hosted by SATA Airlines (operated in North America by Azores Express) and the Madeira Tourism Board, my wife, Gail, and I discovered an abundance of options. 

Island touring

Our first full day in Madeira, we opted for a guided tour of the western part of the island with Abreu Tours* (Rua Dr. João Brito Câmara, 9, C.C. Dolce Vita, Loja 108, 9000-039, Funchal, Madeira, Portugal; phone [+ 351] 291205910, fax 291205909 or email funchal@abreu.pt). At $40 per person, it offered an ideal introduction. 

With our expert driver guide Miguel Marques and a very spacious, comfortable van, we first visited the colorful fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, located only a few miles from Madeira’s capital, Funchal. The village is situated on a small natural harbor framed by hilly, terraced groves of banana trees that give way to vineyards at higher elevations. 

A wood-and-wicker sledge in full flight from Monte to Livramento.

At our next stop, Cape Girão, we were rewarded with majestic coastal views from one of Europe’s highest sea cliffs (589 meters) before continuing on to explore the charming seaside villages of Ribeira Brava and Ponta do Sol, the latter considered to be the sunniest spot on the island.

Ascending to Paul da Serra Plateau, we discovered wide-open, sweeping landscapes and the starting and ending points of several of Madeira’s very popular walks along the levadas (narrow aqueducts). The distinctly different terrain of the plateau felt far removed from the rest of Madeira.

Descending to popular Porto Moniz, we explored this small town famous for its idyllic natural swimming pools carved into the stark lava rock, not to mention its numerous fine seafood restaurants. I wanted to linger to try the inviting pools, but we were already well behind schedule. 

Farther along the north coast, we saw waterfalls cascading toward the sea on our way to São Vicente, where we enjoyed a seaside lunch of delicious fresh fish at a simple outdoor café. We then visited the town’s 17th-century parish church, with a decorative interior including a painted ceiling depicting St. Vincent blessing the town. 

Climbing back up into the mountains, we briefly stopped at the viewpoint located at Encumeda and the village of Serra d’Agua, where on a clear day you can see the sea on both the north and south sides of the island. 

This “West Island Tour” is definitely recommended for all first-time visitors. I remember being struck by how many of Madeira’s scenic attractions we had been able to experience in a single day. 

On this tour and throughout our stay, we were impressed by the island’s fine road system. Madeira’s roads are punctuated by a cadre of amazing tunnels (seven are more than one mile in length and two are nearly two miles long). Cutting through the mountains, the tunnels dramatically shorten driving distances between the various sites on the island. 

Funchal on the hoof

Gail Keck beside a mural of a mermaid in Funchal’s Old Town.

No visit to the enchanting Portuguese isle of Madeira would be complete without a walking tour of Funchal. We were fortunate to have as our guide Sandra Gouveia from the Madeira Tourism Board, an island native who seemed to know half the people in town.

The colorful Mercado dos Lavradores, located in the heart of the city, was our first stop.

This historic structure is a fine example of Estado Novo architecture, reflecting traits of both modernism and Art Deco design. The mercado is a veritable explosion of fresh flowers and produce, including the widest array of fruit I have ever encountered in one setting. (There were four different varieties of passion fruit!) The lively complex, open every day except Sunday, also houses a fish market. 

Visitors should try to visit Lavradores on Saturday, if possible, when the market expands outside of the main building to include vendors showcasing handmade crafts, including Madeira’s famed wicker baskets. And Saturday draws hundreds of locals, who arrive to stock up for the coming week.

Have some Madeira

After a short walk from the market, we entered Blandy’s Wine Lodge (Avenida Arriaga 28, Funchal; phone [+351] 291 228 978) for a guided tour of its cellars and museum. 

This highly educational tour (5.50 per person) included a full history of the Madeira wine industry and culminated with a tasting of the four distinct types of Madeira wines. We preferred the sweeter Malmsey. 

Leaving the city center, we entered the narrow lanes of the historic Santa Maria district, also known as Old Town, which dates back to 1430. This charming area features colorful murals by local artists and is rightly a major attraction for visitors. It also boats a plethora of restaurants and artisan shops.

Nearby is the preserved Santiago Fortress, completed in 1614, which today houses a contemporary art museum and the highly regarded Restaurante do Forte (Street Portão São Tiago; phone 291 215 580), where we enjoyed dinner on our final evening in Madeira. À la carte entrées run 13-19.

Monte treasures

The popular Monte Cable Car departs from the Campo do Almi­rante Reis in Old Town, transporting passengers uphill to the fashionable hillside parish of Monte in about 11 minutes. The journey provides teasing glimpses of the sweeping vistas that can be seen from the viewing platform at the top. 

On arrival in Monte, we visited a pilgrimage church, Nossa Senhora do Monte, and enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the atrium restaurant of the charming, historic Quinta do Monte Hotel. Its halls serve as a photo gallery chronicling Madeira’s history. 

Nossa Senhora do Monte Church in Funchal’s Monte parish.

We then traversed the winding pathways of the hillside Monte Palace Tropical Garden, which also houses the eclectic Monte Palace Museum. In this serene setting, I particularly enjoyed the Oriental Gardens and the extensive panels of colorful ceramic tiles that illustrate the history of Portugal.

Our final activity of the day was an exhilarating ride on one of Madeira’s famous wicker-and-wood sledges (think sleds), cruising downhill from Monte to Livramento. The sledges plummet down the mountainside on dedicated narrow, paved streets, covering two kilometers in 10 minutes. Each sledge is powered and controlled by two carreiros (sledge drivers) wearing white uniforms, who brake using specially treaded shoes. 

The unique ride was exciting and provided a good photo opportunity, but I thought it was a bit pricey at 25 (near $34) per person. Discounts are available for multiple passengers.

Garden panacea

Also on our itinerary were two of Funchal’s famed hilltop gardens, both of which can be reached by public bus from the city center. 

First was Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens), featuring manicured, checkerboard-patterned flowerbeds that provided a magical photo op when incorporating the panoramic views over Funchal and the harbor. The gardens are easily walkable and not overly time consuming. 

We particularly enjoyed the topiary garden, the perfect birds-of-paradise, the exotic orchids and the overall relaxed feel of the setting.

Later, Gail and I were most impressed with the beauty of the gardens at Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro, located high in the hills above Funchal. The gardens are spread over 14 hectares, with about 650 species of plants, and include the Main Garden, Camellia Avenue, Rose Garden, Sunken Garden and Long Border. 

In the Lady’s Garden there is a lovely teahouse, which is a great place to enjoy an espresso or tea. 

A knowledgeable guide usually can be arranged on arrival.

Next month, I will cover accommodation options and strategies for planning a visit to this exotic isle.

Before you go

Azores Express (508/677-0555) offers the only flights that go from North America to Madeira without routing through mainland Europe. Via the Azores, flights are available from Boston, Oakland and Toronto. 

For information on Madeira, contact the Madeira Tourism Board (phone 1 291 211 930) and visit www.madeira-web.com

Beyond the Garden Wall

❝When one passes from this earthly incarnation, it can only be hoped the next port of call possesses the beauty and serenity of the fertile terraced slopes of Madeira. ❞
— Randy acknowledging the ultimate garden Mecca

*In the print version of this article, ITN published incorrect contact information for Abreu Tours.