Hot tub soaking while diving into a great read. Spectacular sunsets behind towering sea-cliffs. Warm winter evenings sipping on local rum cocktails. Unforgettable hiking through hidden valleys complete with cascading waterfalls. It might sound like a far-away dream escape, but it’s right here on our doorsteps (so to speak).
Okay, so it’s not exactly ‘meeting in the middle’ but meeting in Madeira is perhaps the ‘middle-ground’ we need this winter to embrace some quality time with friends or family that we have been missing dearly.
Just over an hour-and-a-half flight from Lisbon, or under four hours from the UK, it’s the perfect place to come together with our loved ones from abroad. With low infection numbers, thanks to strict procedures, and an airbridge to the UK with free testing on arrival (or on the mainland for those of us living in Portugal), Madeira provides a way for everyone to get together without quarantines or travel concerns, and enjoy what has recently been awarded the title of the ‘World’s Leading Island Destination’ for the sixth consecutive year.
Sitting in the Atlantic Ocean, at the same latitude as Casablanca, the warm and welcoming Autonomous Portuguese archipelago of Madeira packs in plenty. From the street-art and forts of the capital Funchal to the towering peaks and Levada waterway hiking routes, the island offers multiple adventures on land and at sea, while fresh seafood, local rum cocktails and natural ocean swimming pools provide ample opportunity for relaxation.
Here’s how to spend an idyllic week on the south-coast of Ilha da Madeira, while using the authentic and laidback Câmara de Lobos as a base.
Wine, dine and relax in Câmara de Lobos
Having just spent a month slowly sauntering around the island, every corner of it captured my heart, but it was Câmara de Lobos that first cemented my love for Madeira.
This old fishing village, now a sprawling municipality climbing up the banana plantation coated mountains, retains an authentic atmosphere. Fishermen play cards on tables alongside their colourful wooden boats, a lively community of cafés and restaurants spill out onto the streets, and nods to Winston Churchill can be spotted, thanks to his painting trip to the village in 1950.
Walking the streets of Câmara de Lobos allows for plenty of history, experiences and dramatic views, offering many of the same kinds of attractions as Funchal, but in a smaller, more local setting. Henriques & Henriques (www.henriquesehenriques.pt), a Madeira wine producer, have a wine house close to the beach where you can enjoy a tour and tasting of the local produce in four variations from the sweetest to driest.
A walk through the quaint streets will take you past inventive street art, all made from repurposed drinks cans, bringing a new lease of life to both walls and recycling. Shortly after, you’ll arrive at the ‘original Poncha bar’ serving up the islands signature drink. Being a sugarcane growing island, rum is also produced here, and the signature cocktail has many variations, while the most traditional version simply being rum, lemon and honey.
Câmara de Lobos is also the perfect place to try the local deep-sea Black Scabbardfish, often served with banana, a combination that surprisingly works.
Restaurant Coral, in a prime position looking out to the ocean and the towering Cabo Girão, is an ideal sunset spot to enjoy dinner and a drink with an impeccable view.
Check-in to Quinta da Saraiva
Part of what made my stay in Câmara de Lobos so special though was spending the week at the beautiful boutique B&B Quinta da Saraiva. Practically, it’s a perfect fit, with a prime position looking down on the sea and village, a peaceful downhill walk away, but also moments to the highway and bus routes, making it an easy base to explore from.
The Quinta is part of the history of the area too. Built in the 18th century, it was construed by the great-grandfathers of the oldest surviving generation. Now lovingly restored into the perfect home away from home, a collection of black and white photos tells the story of the property along the corridors. The rooms have been renovated to provide cleanliness and comfort, with spacious bathrooms, and the balcony rooms boast exceptional views of the Câmara de Lobos, especially for sunset.
Star of the property though is the swimming pool and hot tub, offering the perfect place to admire the view and fall head over heels in love with Madeira. The grounds of the property come complete with vineyards and banana plantation, goats and chickens – from which you can help yourself to fresh eggs for breakfast or a mid-morning banana snack. The breakfast offering is a lavish affair of delicious local breads, cheeses, fruits and jams – served on individual table platters by the lovely Nélia or hotel manager Roberto, who will also be happy to arrange a BBQ or wine tasting in the onsite honesty bar. It is rare accommodation leaves such an impression on me, but the warm welcome and homey atmosphere really made my stay.
Rooms start from €50 per night, for two, including breakfast and parking. Suites are available with extra beds and cooking facilities, ideal for families, but my tip for the best room in the Quinta is H105. Book direct for the best rates at www.quintadasaraiva.com
Head west to Cabo Girão and cute coastal village
One of the highest sea-cliffs in the world, Cabo Girão sits at a staggering 580 metres above sea level. For those with vertigo, the view from Coral restaurant with a cold local beer of the same name would have been enough, but for the brave, a small, glass-bottomed platform edges out over the cliff, allowing you to look directly down to the small village far below.
Close by, restaurant Miradouro Cruz da Caldeira provides one of the best dining vistas on the island, with panoramic views across Câmara de Lobos and Funchal. The relaxed restaurant is the ideal place to try another local speciality, Espetada Madeirense, which hails from festive events and pilgrimages. These skewers of beef, with salt and bay leaf, are hung above the table and served with fried maize, salad, fries and the local sweet potato bread Bolo do Caco – delicious!
Continuing along the coast, there are plenty of adorable coastal villages to stop off at to enjoy a coffee, view, or even a swim. Ponta do Sol is a picturesque village, especially beautiful during the golden light of sunset, while those who prefer a golden sand beach to the island’s signature black sands and rocky volcanic swimming pools should venture a little further to Praia da Calheta.
Day trip to the ‘Valley of the Nuns’
Breathtaking Curral das Freiras, nicknamed Valley of the Nuns, is an easy half-day trip by car from the Quinta and offers a steep but rewarding walk down from the clouds into the village below.
The stunning view from the Eira do Serrado platform (pictured) can be reached by car too, so for those who want to avoid the hiking trail, you can start here and then drive down into the valley.
Rugged mountains, terraced land, and occasional clouds and rainbows frame this remote spot; so remote in fact it was used as a refuge hence its nickname. When French Pirates came to attack Funchal, the nuns of the Santa Clara Convent uprooted with valuables, and took on the challenging trek into the valley seeking safety. At the time, before the roads and tunnels that we easily enjoy these days, the terrain and climb would have been strenuous, to say the least, making this valley the perfect hideaway from foreign invaders.
Feel festive in Funchal at the Christmas Market
Just a 10-minute drive from the Quinta, the region’s capital city Funchal spreads across the coastline and climbs up the hills towards the forested interior. The relatively compact old town provides much of the visitor offering, with a cable car linking to the Monte Palace and Botanical Gardens high above the city.
From now until January 10, 2021, the city is illuminated with their famous Christmas light display. Walk through illuminated tunnels, marvel at thousands upon thousands of hanging lights, and visit the cute Christmas Market, slightly adapted to this year’s situation. On New Year’s Eve, the island will shine bright with an impressive fireworks display, the perfect celebration to the start of 2021 or, especially this year, to say goodbye to 2020!
Around the city, easily explored by foot, there is plenty to keep all ages entertained. From the Cristiano Ronaldo Museum (the local pride of Madeira) to the forts and palaces that guarded the city in years gone by. A walk through the old town will show you some colourful street-art which has revitalised many shop doors. Stop off to sample the vast array of local fruits, like passion fruit, in the lively Mercado dos Lavradores, and be sure to visit the Cathedral and admire the ceiling, crafted from the island’s cedar-wood. The grand Teatro Municipal Baltazar Dias still has the occasional performance on, so snapping up tickets to a show will allow you to visit this beautiful building and indulge in some much-missed culture.
Venture inland or to the north coast for more adventures
While a relaxed week soaking in the hot tub of the Quinta and enjoying the aforementioned day trips will be plenty for many, for those who seek adventure and a more busy itinerary, the north coast and mountainous interior provides the answer.
The imposing peaks of Ruivo and Arieiro are linked by a jaw-dropping hiking path, often taking you high above the clouds, while the waterfall laden Levada do Caldeirão Verde provides a greener, more tropical-themed half-day hike. The tourism board has recently launched a new website – www.madeiraoceantrails.com – providing a fantastic interactive overview of the many trails available, so you can pick those to best suit your family or group’s tastes and activity level.
Along the north coast, you’ll find countless waterfalls and vantage points, with the black-sand beach of Seixal dreamy for sunrise and the natural swimming pools of Porto Moniz perfect for a refreshing dip. In Santana, the traditional thatched houses are an interesting cultural stop, while kids will love the nearby and free-to-enter Madeira Theme Park.
The impressive collection of tunnelled highways across the island are easily accessible from Quinta da Saraiva, which makes crossing the island much faster than relying on the older, slower and steeper roads, although these can be quite the joy to drive themselves, with multiple Miradouros providing perfect photo pit-stops.
The www.madeiraallyear.com website provides ample more inspiration for a trip to the ‘island of eternal spring’ – enjoy, and I hope you enjoy this little slice of paradise as much as I did.
By Daniel Jones
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An avid traveller, Daniel James 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