The words ‘Biosphere Reserve’ conjure up the idea of some remote wild corner, cut off from the world and over-taken by nature – but as of November 2020, the whole island of Porto Santo, a golden sandy speck in the Atlantic Ocean was officially recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Part of the Madeira archipelago, short flights on small planes or a two-hour ferry ride connect tiny Porto Santo (around 40km²) with Funchal. Different from Madeira, with its rugged mountains and black volcanic beaches, Porto Santo is nicknamed the golden island, thanks to a 9km long uninterrupted sandy beach, and year-round mild climate.
Unlike some of the other islands in the Madeira archipelago, like the Deserted or Savage Islands, which are uninhabited to protect their wildlife, Porto Santo is home to roads and restaurants, all-inclusive hotels and even a golf course. These developments might not sound quite right in a Biosphere Reserve, but what does this official designation from UNESCO mean, and why does it make Porto Santo an ideal guilt-free all-inclusive destination?
As explained by UNESCO themselves, a biosphere reserve is a “learning place for sustainable development” – essentially lands that have set up “interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems” – and Porto Santo has evidently done that.
From salt-water pools in luxury resorts to rows and rows of solar panels and electric car charging stations across the island, the commitment to going green is evident. With 15 types of flora exclusive to Porto Santo, and being home to the rarest seal in the world (the Mediterranean Monk Seal), there is plenty to protect and preserve here. Finding the delicate blend between tourism and nature is all part of being awarded this designation.
As a visitor to the golden island, you can embrace and explore this nature on hiking trails, through unique plants ranging from types of dragon’s blood tree to cacti, or by scuba diving and snorkelling in natural rock pools. I had a delightful week-long escape kicking back, relaxing, and simply enjoying the fresh air and sea-breeze of Portugal’s petite island escape.
What to do on Porto Santo
The size of Porto Santo makes it easy to explore on foot (the adventurous could even traverse end to end in a day) or by bicycle, although some of the hills would make an electric bike tempting. Scooters and cars can be hired on the island, but with the high costs and eco-credentials, it seems wise to opt for a less intrusive form of transport.
While lounging around on the 9-km beach for the whole visit is certainly tempting, or embracing the water-sports on offers such as kayak trips, diving or snorkelling, a gentle itinerary of activities can also be enjoyed.
Start in the capital of the island, Vila Baleira, where restaurants and bars line the streets. The public bus company run a daily island tour at around 2pm from near the pier, which will give you a good overview of the island in less than two hours. You’ll also find the Christopher Columbus House Museum here, the actual place he lived while on the island, which includes history and island artefacts.
For those who want to strap on their hiking boots, a few official trails exist in the rugged side of the island which will take you to the beautiful Miradouro da Terra Chã viewpoint; on the way you can pass windmills sitting in a prime position with a view down to the settlements and beach. Amongst this landscape, you can enjoy various paths and hikes to the peaks of Castelo, Facho and Juliana, a range of higher points with beautiful views and encompassed by nature.
Perhaps one of the best ‘hidden’ spots on the island is the Porto das Salemas natural pools, up and over the other side from the main beach. These little pools and coves are ideal for relaxing, cooling down, or even snorkelling.
On the other side of the island, overlooking the golf course is Pico da Ana Ferreira, another mountain with caves carved into the side, which perfectly frame the island like a picture frame for photos. The Organ Pipes, a unique geographical structure or almost square tube-shaped rocks rising to the sky is another of the peculiarities of the island.
At first, I thought much of my time in Porto Santo would be spent relaxing on the beach, but I managed to fill much of my days with hikes, and just wandering or cycling around the island – a very welcome escape.
Where to sleep on Porto Santo
During my visit to Porto Santo, I experienced a few different hotels, and the stand-out for me was the Vila Baleira Resort, a confusing name as its location is a fair walk from the town itself. This beautiful resort offers all-inclusive or standard packages, with the option of staying in the hotel building, or the apartment building for those who want more facilities. The rooms facing outwards on the higher levels have fantastic views of the island.
Resorts like these, with their commitment to the environment but all of the facilities you would expect, are what make the island of Porto Santo still an appealing option for a beach break escape.
Sadly, during my visit, the renowned Spa circuit was closed due to the current situation, but both the indoor and outdoor pool remained open. An underground passage from the hotel leads directly to the Spa and main beach of the island. Plenty of sun-loungers and parasols sit around the gardens, outside pool and along the beach.
With a fantastic food and beverage option, and ever so friendly staff, this resort was not only better value than the others I stayed at but also excelled in every way.
During the main season, kids-clubs and activities make it ideal for families, while the multiple pools, restaurants and bars make it suitable for couples or groups of friends too.
When and how to visit Porto Santo
The climate of Porto Santo is much milder than the mainland year-round, even during my November visit swimming in the ocean was pleasant. During the off-season and winter months though you can expect a few more showers and storms, and while some restaurants and hotels do close, the island is open for tourism all year round. Spring is a lovely time to visit if you want to experience the island with fewer visitors.
Twice daily flights (more in summer) take less than 30 minutes between Porto Santo and Madeira, while the six-days-a-week ferries take around two-and-a-half hours, with a morning outgoing and evening return, making it also possible as a day trip from Madeira. TAP offers seasonal direct flights from Lisbon to Porto Santo.
Note: not all the attractions or facilities listed may be open at these times. With the continual change of restrictions, it’s advised to confirm directly.
By Daniel James Clarke
An avid traveller, Daniel James Clarke found a much-loved home in Portugal. Recently, he co-founded Guide2Portugal.com to inspire visitors and locals to explore and discover more of our magical country.
Photos: DANIEL JAMES CLARKE