Where did you go?
Madeira, Portugal. I visited several cities and towns on the island, including Funchal, Câmara de Lobos and Ponta do Sol in the south, São Vicente and Porto Moniz on the northwest side, Santana and Porto da Cruz on the northeast side, Paul do Mar on the west side, and Ponta de São Lourenço on the eastern tip.
Where should our guests start their Madeira vacation for unique experiences in Madeira?
The island of Madeira is only 34 miles long with a coastline of about 90 miles. Stay in Funchal on the south coast, capital of Madeira and home to half the population, and you can explore other areas of the island on day trips. Funchal is just a short drive from the mountains, where you can hike the levadas or a short walk to the ocean for a sailing charter on the Atlantic.
Funchal offers luxury accommodations in Madeira aplenty, each with unique amenities, gourmet dining opportunities, and endless ocean views. Resort-hopping is a great way to experience a little bit of everything. Pamper yourself at the Laurea Spa in the Savoy Palace, sip afternoon tea on the checkered terrace at Reid’s Palace, and enjoy a meal at two-Michelin-starred restaurant Il Gallo d'Oro at The Cliff Bay. These properties are all within walking distance of one another.
No luxury Madeira tour is complete without taking a cable car over the iconic, red-roofed hillside to Monte. Explore the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, which has been named one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world. Then return down the hillside via Madeira’s famous wicker sledge cars. You won’t want to miss this unforgettable experience sliding down the waxed streets of Funchal as cart drivers dressed in white work in pairs to maneuver the basket cars with ease. I could not stop smiling after this experience.
For a chance to eat and drink like a local, join a food and wine walking tour of the city. Taste the famous local cuisine of Madeira—Madeira wine, bolo do caco, marinated pork, honey cake, scabbard fish, Poncha, and Madeiran custard tarts, to name a few. Visit Funchal’s fish market and farmers market to view the local catch, tropical fruits, vegetables, and exotic flowers. Madeira has the sweetest bananas in the world.
Describe some can’t-miss experiences and destinations for any luxury holiday in Madeira.
The dolphin and whale-watching charter with VIP dolphins was a must-do experience. Spend the day aboard a luxury power catamaran with friendly, knowledgeable staff and a private chef. Spot pods of pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins (viewing is 98 percent guaranteed) and snap a photo as they swim by. One pod came right up to our boat! Enjoy lunch on a private beach, tasting locally grown ingredients and unique seasonal products foraged from the island. Cool off from the heat with a refreshing dip in the ocean or break out the snorkel gear and paddleboards.
You shouldn’t depart without taking a few different Madeira tours. One of the best ways to appreciate Madeira’s diverse landscape is by Jeep tour. There are multiple tour options departing from Funchal. We explored the north and east coasts. With an emphasis on off-roading, the tour will drive you through the heart of the island along twisting roads in a 4x4. Stop for photos at various viewpoints as you climb higher into the mountains. The weather begins to change the higher you get. It reminded me of the Pacific Northwest.
Pass through the Laurel Forest (Laurissilva), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before a lunch break with fantastic ocean views along the north coast in Santana. Continue to Porto da Cruz for a visit to one of three local sugarcane rum factories on the island. The final photo stop at Ponta de São Lourenço encapsulates the drive as you stand on the eastern tip of Madeira with panoramic views of the north and south coasts, striking rock formations, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Madeira is an amazing destination for hikers, and levada trekking is a popular and unique experience for travelers of all activity levels. Levadas are irrigation canals built to bring water from the mountains down to the cities. There are hundreds of levada hiking trails with varying degrees of difficulty and different landscapes to admire. We walked the Vereda dos Balcões trail, an easy two-mile hike with views of the Laurissilva forest in the valley and Pico do Arieiro in the distance.
If you wish to visit Madeira over the festive season from December 1 to January 15, Funchal is abuzz with Christmas markets and decorated in extravagant holiday lights. Madeira also holds one of the biggest fireworks shows in the world on New Year’s Eve. The island previously held the Guinness World Record for the “Largest Fireworks Display in the World” between 2006 and 2010.
You stayed in some remarkable properties. What made them special?
Savoy Palace is one of the largest five-star properties on the island. Its contemporary design was influenced by a local artist who gives a nod to Madeiran culture, particularly through the art forms of embroidery and cork. Almost all of the guest rooms have ocean views. The One-Bedroom Ocean Suite is equipped with two modern bathrooms drenched in gold accents and a separate lounge/dining room. I highly recommend sipping a cup of Nespresso coffee on the balcony while gazing at the ocean and city below. All suite guests receive the “Savoy Premium Experience,” including a welcome drink, access to the rooftop lounge for exclusive breakfasts, two rooftop infinity pools, a pillow menu based on your sleeping preferences, and unlimited spa access. Each day I received a new “daily delight” amenity and afternoon chocolates.
Describe some of your favorite food experiences.
The volcanic soil allows anything and everything to grow in Madeira, so most ingredients are locally sourced. Their cuisine includes fresh fish and other seafood, tropical fruits and vegetables, and surprisingly a lot of beef. One of the most memorable meals I have ever had was during our visit to Quinta do Barbusano. This winery sits on a quiet hillside in Sao Vincente surrounded by vineyards, grazing goats, and a picturesque view of the chapel of Pico da Cova (the same chapel printed on their labels). Unlike most wineries in Madeira, Quinta do Barbusano does not make fortified “Madeira wine.” The tasting was a rainbow assortment of their whites, rosés, and reds. Lunch included giant espetadas (beef kebabs) hanging from a rod in the middle of the table, which you had to pry off with two forks. It felt like we were getting dinner with a show. We also enjoyed fresh salad and potatoes, the best bolo do caco (garlic flatbread), and passionfruit custard.
For those who do not stay at Reid’s Palace, a Belmond Hotel, I recommend at least stopping by for afternoon tea on their terrace. This property is the essence of luxury and really embodies the TCS experience. The hotel’s iconic pink walls, vintage photographs of Winston Churchill and other famous guests, and black-and-white marble floors made me feel transported to another time. After choosing one of 20+ tea blends, we were treated to an assortment of delicious finger sandwiches, pastries, cakes, cookies, scones, and champagne. Service was exceptional, and the views of both the ocean and Funchal’s red-roofed hillside are breathtaking.
I have never been as stuffed as I was following lunch on the Jeep tour at Quinta do Furão in Santana. The restaurant sits on the edge of the north coast, so every seat has a view of the ocean and cliffs. The menu includes local eats like roasted limpets with garlic butter, braised octopus, and smoked rainbow trout. We also shared giant bone marrow with toasty bread, beef tenderloin, chicken livers, duck carpaccio, and fried cornmeal.
Describe what surprised you about Madeira.
I was surprised by the contrasting landscapes, tropical climate, and nature in general. The botanical gardens are a proud staple of the culture and a focus for many hotel properties. Madeira is home to pine trees from Canada, bird of paradise flowers from South Africa, jacaranda trees from Japan, and other tropical plants whose seeds were brought to the island over time via bird migrations and explorers.
The cuisine in Madeira blew me away. With the multitude of four- and five-star properties in Funchal, there is a demand for equally luxurious fine dining. There are two Michelin-starred restaurants in Funchal, including the two-star Il Gallo d'Oro at The Cliff Bay hotel and one-star William Restaurant at Reid’s Palace. Five other restaurants in Funchal are also noted in the Michelin Guide. Every meal exceeded my expectations. This destination is ideal for those wanting an elevated food and wine experience on their vacation.
I had been warned of the turbulence flying into Madeira. Its location is notoriously difficult to land planes given the powerful winds from the north. However, my flight from the mainland was very smooth, with little to no turbulence, and that is a testament to the skilled Madeiran pilots.
Besides being known for Madeira wine and the birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo, I knew little about this off-the-beaten-path destination. I don’t think enough Americans are aware of this island getaway and all it has to offer luxury and active travelers alike. Luckily, there is a new nonstop flight out of JFK that reduces travel time and avoids the extra stop on the mainland of Portugal. For east coasters, Madeira is like Hawaii’s European cousin but quicker to get to.