Madeira planning

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 61 of the April 2014 issue.
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One can see a magnificent coastal panorama from the viewing platform at Cape Girão on Madeira.

(Third of three parts, see part one or part two)

In the final part of this series about my November 2013 visit to Madeira, I will address planning a trip to this enchanting Atlantic isle. In addition to touring choices and accommodation suggestions, I will list some activity options that my wife, Gail, and I were not able to fit into this first visit.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
One can see a magnificent coastal panorama from the viewing platform at Cape Girão on Madeira.

(Third of three parts, see part one or part two)

In the final part of this series about my November 2013 visit to Madeira, I will address planning a trip to this enchanting Atlantic isle. In addition to touring choices and accommodation suggestions, I will list some activity options that my wife, Gail, and I were not able to fit into this first visit.

Accommodations

Most of the hotels on Madeira are located in and around Funchal. During our 6-night stay, we had the opportunity to experience two fine and distinctly different properties. 

Our first three nights were spent in the hills above the city at the charming, 4-star Quinta das Vistas Palace Gardens Hotel (Caminho de Santo António 52, Funchal 9000, 187, Madeira, Portugal; phone [+351] 291 750 007, fax 750 017)

The 71-room, boutique-style hotel is set in lush, centenary gardens in an attractive hillside residential neighborhood. Each morning, we enjoyed the spectacular panorama of Funchal and the busy harbor below from the hotel’s dining patio, where our wonderful breakfast experience became addictive. 

At the time of our visit, double rooms cost 90 to 165 (near $122-$223) per night, including breakfast. Our oversized deluxe room had a balcony sporting expansive views of the sea, port and mountains. As a bonus, a neighborhood rooster provided a free wake-up call each morning at about 5:30. 

The hotel offers free shuttle service to the city center several times daily, and a taxi into Old Town costs only 6 to 8. 

We moved down the hill into the busy seaside lido district, with its hotels and high-rise residential buildings, to spend our final three nights at the 4-star Hotel Porto Mare (Rua Simplício Passos Gouveia, 21, 9004-532 Funchal, Madeira Island, Portugal; phone +351 291 703 700, fax 703 720 or email portomare@portobay.pt).

The aerial tram from Monte village descending to Funchal’s colorful Old Town. Photos by Randy Keck

User friendly in all regards, the Porto Mare features spacious rooms (doubles cost 90-170, with breakfast, during our visit), an enormous pool deck overlooking the Atlantic, expansive tropical gardens and several on-site dining options.

The central location allows easy walking access to many restaurants and shopping areas, and the hotel provides a complimentary shuttle to both the city center and Old Town. A taxi to the center of town costs 5-6. 

A plan for visiting Madeira

My take is that you can’t allow too much time for visiting Madeira, only too little. The island offers a feast for the senses, all wrapped into a relaxed living style. A minimum stay of one week would be my suggestion for most first-time visitors. Anyone wishing to indulge in special places should stay longer. 

Rental cars are readily available for those interested primarily in self-guided touring, but they are not necessary for most visitors. A great option for exploring Funchal and the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos is a tour on the hop-on, hop-off double-deck Yellow Bus, which accesses most of the popular visitor attractions. Also, public buses are good quality and an inexpensive way to get around the island. 

A walking tour of the main part of Funchal plus alluring Old Town and a ride up the aerial tram to explore hillside Monte village are musts. And no trip to this botanical paradise would be complete without visiting some of the beautiful, well-preserved gardens for which the island is famous, three of which I reported on in part two.

I also recommend doing one or more guided excursions of Madeira, especially a comprehensive tour of the western part of the island as well as the “Levada do Norte” walk with Mountain Expedition (Funchal, phone +351 969 677 679, www.mountainexpedition.pt), which I described in part one.

Savor trumps rush

After only a few days on the island, I knew this was a destination that was beckoning me to savor the experience, not rush. The following inclusions from our “visit next” list will hopefully assist readers in planning for Madeira.

Beautiful Porto Moniz, on the northwestern tip of Madeira, is best appreciated from the hills above the village.

In Funchal, Gail and I want to explore more of the city center and Old Town areas and stroll through several more island gardens. If possible, we will time our trip to coincide with one of the island’s renowned festivals. 

Outside of the city, we plan to do extensive touring of the eastern and northeastern portions of the island. This definitely will include the cultural center of Santana on the north coast. The region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offering preserved traditional triangular homes, rare laurissilva forests and the unique Madeira Theme Park, featuring attractions related to the history and traditions of the people of Madeira.

While we may do a guided tour of part of eastern Madeira, we also hope to do some leisurely exploring in a rental car. This may include spending a night in the small, historic seaport town of Machico, which boasts a nice beach, many historic and cultural attractions and a few smaller hotels and guest houses. 

It is our intention to include Curral das Freiras, known as Nuns’ Valley, a small isolated village nestled into a huge cauldron in the middle of the island, where the locals live a basic existence based primarily on what they harvest. They specialize in growing chestnuts, which are a staple feature in local cuisine and the cause for a popular annual festival. 

Weighing anchor for Porto Santo

Many visitors to Madeira undertake the long, one-day cruise/tour to the sparsely populated neighboring isle of Porto Santo. Most go to experience its magnificent long, golden beach and distinctly different, mostly flat desert landscape punctuated only by a few peaks. 

The Palheiro golf course in the hills above Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

My plan is to spend at least one night on the island in order to experience the tranquility that reportedly envelopes it once the day trippers have departed. Some refer to Porto Santo as Europe’s last unspoiled island paradise. 

Finally, I must add a note regarding the absolutely genuine friendliness of Madeirans. It is simply their nature to be as extending to visitors as they are to each other. This is perhaps Madeira’s greatest treasure. 

Before you go

Our trip was partially hosted by SATA airline, operated in North America by Azores Express (office in Fall River, MA; 508/677-0555), and by the Madeira Tourism Board.

SATA 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. SATA also has a connecting flight from Madeira to the Canary Islands, making it possible to include that exotic Spanish destination in a comprehensive island-hopping itinerary. 

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

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

"When visiting new destinations, it is human nature for travelers to wonder what it would be like to reside for a time as a local
In the case of Madeira, however, such contemplation can easily result in sensory overload "
— Randy confessing his draw to Madeira