Crowned World’s Leading Island Destination 2020 (for the sixth time in a row) and Europe’s Leading Island Destination 2020 (for the fifth time in a row), it’s safe to say Madeira’s having a moment.
Offering year-round sunshine, staggering mountain terrain, incredible food and magical forests, it’s a semi-tropical island for explorers of all kinds.
While its list of merits is long, one in particular will get your pulse racing. Not being on mainland Portugal, Madeira isn’t subject to Portugal’s latest rules, which require UK visitors to quarantine (unless they’re double-vaxxed). Hurrah!
Pre-lockdown I spent a month on the island, writing a guide on the best things to do. Now it’s back on the fabled Green List, I’ve rounded up the hottest hotels to book.
If your idea of holiday exploration means the poolside drinks menu, Madeira’s hotels will deliver. Choose from hyper modern opulence, or behemoths that have shown hospitality how it’s done for a century…
Quinta da Casa Branca, Funchal hills
Set inside an old Madeiran ‘Quinta’, just outside of central city Funchal, is five star Quinta da Casa Branca.
Architect Joao Favila Menezes interrupts historic surrounds with surprisingly modern features, echoing the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. His aim was to break the island’s traditional architectural mould with clean, modern lines – and boy did he.
Divided into the Quinta and stately Manor House, the latter is home to some super fancy suites with all the mod cons. Calming mornings begin with pancakes and freshly-baked pastries in the garden, all white tablecloths and hushed silver service.
By day you can busy yourself in the large gymnasium, or splash about in one of the two pools. Leaf peepers will be satisfied by the dazzling array of flora and fauna.
Wandering through the breathtaking botanical garden you can learn tons about rare plant species flown in by the hotel’s owners – each has a handy informative plaque. Look out for popcorn bushes, which smell amazing, but will probably kill you if you eat one. Stop to take in the delightful Camphor Trees at the hotel entrance, followed by the luxuriant Floss Silk, Pink Snowball, Yellow Trumpet and Caracas Big-Leaf.
Where to eat nearby
Quinta da Casa Branca is the home of destination restaurant The Dining Room, where you’ll find outstanding à la carte service and an impeccable team of staff. For starters you might try sautéed scallops arranged on green asparagus purée, followed by turbot with dry tomato and lemon risotto and a Piña Colada parfait.
Quinta Jardins do Lago, Funchal hills
Up in the quiet hills of Funchal, wisteria-laden 18th century mansion Quinta Jardins do Lago is the former home to the Commander of the British forces. Here you can expect some of the best views and biggest gardens on the entire island.
Despite boasting 2.5 hectares and 500 species of plant, the hotel’s most memorable feature is grumpy Colombo – the decades-old resident tortoise. Watch him feed on freshly-picked fruits before taking a turn around the tranquil gardens, or stopping to read your book in one of the peaceful seating areas.
Then you can hit the gym, sauna or the enormous pool, followed by a sun-soaked lunch at the poolside bar. An expansive library and billiard room await for rainier moments (clouds tend to burst now and again, with glorious sunshine returning minutes later).
What sets this hotel apart are the spacious villas offering a super exclusive place to stay for larger groups and families; you get access to the pool, restaurant, Turkish baths and gardens shared by hotel guests.
The option to combine the all-out luxury of a five star hotel and service with a private, family focus is truly special. Enjoy perfectly cooked lamb shank and grilled prawns served up by lovely staff, in your villa.
All bedrooms are beautifully appointed with high thread count sheets, and design is a classic British home-from-home.
Think oil paintings, high quality upholstery, polished wooden flooring and antique furniture. It’s like being in England, with palm trees.
Where to eat nearby
Have a breakfast of made-to-order eggs, exotic fruits, pancakes and porridge on the sunny terrace next to a priceless mosaic. Or try grilled meats by the pool – when the complex is this beautiful, there’s really no reason to leave.
Savoy Palace, Funchal
Head to spanking new Savoy Palace for a hyper modern luxury experience – the last word in state-of-the-art comfort. Guests are greeted by an imposing chandelier designed by Madeiran modern artist Nini Andrade Silva. It’s a stunning departure from her usual work, featuring smooth pebble shapes evocative of the island’s volcanic rock formations.
The first port of call is Portugal’s biggest (and most sensational) Laurea spa. Walk down a dark tunnel lit by candles, to discover a cavernous space lit up lime green – you’ll spot more of Silva’s stunning artwork draped above the lap pool.
Made to echo the island’s famed network of levadas (verdant green walkways with fresh water running throughout), the soothing space is a water lover’s paradise. Bliss out in the giant jacuzzi flanked by scented sensation showers, then wander to the sauna and steam room. If you’re brave, try dunking yourself with freezing water, or rubbing ice chips across your body in between.
A destination in itself is the out-of-this-world cuisine. Galaxia Skyfood’s six course tasting menu is served to a backdrop of uninterrupted sea views. Enjoyed next to the stunning rooftop infinity pool and bar, the culinary journey melds a constellation of global flavours.
You might try traditional cozido panelo tacos with Dijon mustard, or fried potatoes filled with morel mushroom sauce and marinated mackerel. Special mention goes to the ‘Madeiran Farm’ dessert: avocado-shaped chocolate encasing lime mousse, banana ice cream and peanut streusel.
Where to eat nearby
Atelier restaurant is set in the old fort that houses Silva’s gallery, on a spit overlooking the water just beyond the hotel. Sunset dinner here features an impressive view and chilled beats.
The Wanderer’s head chef Selim has travelled far and wide to find rare ingredients for his playful private dining experience. Hidden within an old shopping centre just along from the Savoy Palace, you’ll navigate twists and turns before being greeted with cocktails and paired wines to accompany dishes based on a rainbow of foraged ingredients.
Belmond Reid’s Palace, Funchal
Epochal Belmond Reid’s Palace is known to all on the island, the ‘pink palace’ perched on a dramatic sea cliff majestically rising up from the sea. Its gorgeous gardens and Michelin-starred restaurant William have played host to Hollywood stars and politicians (it was a fave of Winston Churchill’s), drawn by second-to-none service, rich decor and the location, right on the water. Walls are plastered with posters and memories of centuries gone by, oozing glamour and glitz.
Nothing short of iconic, this serene suntrap offers staggering views and two Atlantic-facing pools – one salt water, one chlorine (and the warmest I found on the island). Handy to know if you’re visiting in the winter months – Madeira’s pools aren’t heated, so swims can be a touch nippy.
Hundreds of Old World-style rooms and dozens of suites offer balconies with clear sight of the Atlantic and the hotel’s tropical gardens – but inside, history buffs will want to snoop around The Churchill Suite. There’s a tennis court, Bridge room, gym and spa to keep you busy – the latter complete with five treatment rooms and private relaxation balconies, where freshly-massaged guests luxuriate in a state of sun-kissed bliss.
Take advantage of a yoga or strengthening class on the lawns in the early morning, before settling at your pool-side table for a perfectly posh breakfast. Nothing is too much to ask – if you don’t see it on the menu (though that’s unlikely), chefs will happily whip it up.
Afternoon tea on the terrace is an institution – a must, even if you don’t sleep over. You’ll find a selection of typically British finger sandwiches, cakes and deftly-made savoury bites. This is the island’s prime spot for New Year’s Eve; watching the firework display from this vantage point should make every traveller’s bucket list.
Where to eat nearby
Homemade pasta at the hotel’s casual Italian Villa Cipriani, taking in those amazing views.
After days of posh plates and silver service, you might fancy undoing your top button. Head to friendly neighbourhood joint Casal da Penha, offering jugs of local green wine Vino Verde (always a good idea) and some of the island’s best seafood.
In brilliant juxtaposition to highbrow Reid’s, family-run Buddha Tandoori offers buckets of charm, its fantastic Nepalese and Indian dishes served in a super retro setting – just go with it.
Threehouse Hotel, central Funchal
Recently opened Threehouse hotel offers everything we’ve come to expect from London’s design-led, hipster magnet aparthotels (if only we had the weather for an unheated rooftop pool). Stop by to sip brunch cocktails, and get the Peanut, named after the friendly hotel pooch. Inexplicably hard to find on the island is good coffee, but here, they’ve nailed it. Come for breakfast, stay for a boozy bonanza with epic views out to sea.
Heavenly apartment-style rooms enjoy a fantastic city centre location next to the Mercado do Lavradores, and they’re a stone’s throw from the buzzy promenade. Kitchens are kitted out with a range of SMEG appliances, while living rooms feature roomy sofa beds and gorgeous artwork.
Housed within Oudinot community space and commercial centre, access is by lift, with a useful stop off on each floor. There’s a coffee spot on the ground floor, and Ginásio Platinium gym offers a very extensive work out space. We tried a rooftop Body Balance class as the sun rose – a supremely relaxing experience.
Head to the rooftop to catch an epic sunset, before the terrace is wrapped in a blanket of twinkling lights nestled in the surrounding mountains. The DJ spins vibey house music as guests splash in the pool and make their way through the wine list. Pure magic for fans of the super modern – think Shoreditch House with sunshine.
Where to eat nearby
On the roof, of course. There’s a range of modern dishes – think nachos, guac, tacos and wraps. We gorged on red Thai curry, Massala pork ribs and gold-dusted chocolate mousse.
Close by sits yellow São Tiago fortress at the far end of Funchal Bay, where you’ll find historic Restaurante do Forte, delivering fabulous sea views and a wine pairing menu (get the Beef Wellington). For a special occasion, you can book the restaurant’s Austin 12 or Plymouth Pe De Luxe to pick you up from your hotel.
Grab a healthy salad or juicy burger from Cais da Ribeira, sat on a spit a little further along the promenade. You’ll be rewarded with heart-stoppingly beautiful views of Funchal from a whole new angle.
Sé Boutique, central Funchal
Arty types will appreciate quirky and casual four-star Sé Boutique, its lounge area and hallways stuffed with colourful works by local artists. Here you’ll find a Champagne and lobster bar, a shop peddling clothing and trinkets, plus a low key coffee spot. The hotel sits next door to its namesake – the dramatic Funchal (also known as Sé) Cathedral looms at the end of the street, a gateway to the area’s interesting history (you will be woken by the bells, but it’s all part of the charm).
Here you’re within easy walking distance of the main museums, marina and an abundance of cafes, poncha bars and restaurants – a fantastically central location.
If you base your holiday around extravagant meals, book here. It’s a stone’s throw from Kodea Bakery, whose ham and cheese croissants alone demand a visit. Directly above sits KAMPO, where revered chef Júlio Pereira will serve your best meal on the island (think market fish, homemade breads straight from the oven, and sensational steak).
Just down the road, you’ll find unassuming eatery Informal, where young and supremely talented chef Sergio is doing very inventive things with regional produce. Think butternut squash carbonara, sweet potato bread, braised chicken with parmesan orzo and Tonkatsu pork fillet. It’s the kind of place you catch yourself thinking about, weeks after visiting.
Back to the hotel for a sit down, then. A brand new basement spa and swimming pool (we saw it being built in 2020 and wow is it cute) offers a serene stop off right in the centre of town. Afterwards, you can grab a lemon coffee (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it) in the hotel’s casual, brightly painted rooftop bar – again, with amazing sea views.
Where to eat nearby
Excellent sushi can be found at Konsai. Always fresh and inventive, with a huge selection of different dishes, we loved the chicken gyoza to start, followed by salad wakame, hot tiger rolls and tamake.
Hipster haven Museu Cafe does a great line in snacks and teas for lunchtime (and it’s a great spot for some remote working, should you need it). Later in the evening we recommend their simple comfort ‘Plates’ using fresh produce from local farmers – order the black pork cheek, mashed potato and vegetables.
Caju, central Funchal
At the opposite end of the scale from sprawling, tightly-buttoned Belmond Reid’s is contemporary, boutique four-star Caju. It’s a small but perfectly formed hipster haven, placed on Rua da Carreira (one of our favourite streets, full of restaurants, shops and bars). Sister hotel to design-led The Vine, Nini Silva’s by now unmistakable touch is evident throughout. The stunning grey stone of the building’s centennial walls has been artfully preserved, present in most of the 24 rooms and suites.
Hit the basement gym, a calming haven of smooth grey surfaces and rolled concrete, or do a bit of shopping – Zara and H&M aren’t far, plus an abundance of (amusingly old-fashioned) boutiques and gift shops. Caju is well placed for an exploration of the Municipal Garden, Santa Catarina Park or the Municipal Theatre, after which you can settle in for a tasting at one of Funchal’s myriad wine cellars (book the iconic Blandy’s).
All about modern home comforts, and walking distance from everything in town, Caju’s location couldn’t be more convenient. The food is excellent, too, setting the island standard for cosmopolitan brunches expected by wordly travellers.
Here you’ll find chocolate orange oat pancakes scattered with nuts and coconut flakes, freshly squeezed juices, proper coffee (rejoice!), salmon and avo toast (obv) and hot breads straight from the oven. Friendly young kitchen staff sing along to Toots and the Maytals or some funky Neo Soul as they whip you up a breakfast bowl.
Where to eat nearby
Prima Caju at lunchtime, or Taberna do Capitao for dinner – think modern dishes with a twist. We loved roasted pork cacha çoo and chocolate pie. Don’t forget to ask for the story behind the sailing rope hanging from the ceiling in the corner.
1905 Zino’s Palace, Ponta do Sol
A twenty minute drive from Funchal lies perfect pastel 1905 Zino’s Palace, AKA Barbie’s dream house (even the outdoor pool is pink). Full of bourgeoise flair, the Romantic building has served myriad purposes, once a summer residence of the noble family Zino, an Elementary Practical School of Agriculture and even a primary school (lucky kids).
A lovely team of staff are on hand to serve up breakfast (included in the price) in a purpose-built modern glass structure on the terrace overlooking the sea (cereals, eggs, fresh croissants and the like). They’ll be happy to book you a fabulous day trip to get out exploring, too. Try a North East excursion with Green Devils Safari, covering mystical Fanal’s ‘fairy trees’, Seixal’s natural lava pools and UNESCO Heritage Site, the Laurrisilva forest. A highlight of our trip was barreling around steep mountains, holding on for dear life as we stood up in the back of a Land Rover, surrounded by the scent of forest pine and eucalyptus.
There are just a handful of beautifully appointed rooms, with balconies overlooking the sea, crashing waterfalls and miles of banana plantations – without doubt one of the best hotel views you could ask for. Inside, you’ll find flat screen TVs, and furniture you’ll be desperate to take home with you – plus gorgeous pastel colour palettes.
If you’ve got a hire car (heavily recommended – we had a great experience with Rent-A-Car Madeira), it’s a great spot from which to explore nearby municipalities. You can hit Paul Do Mar, Madalena Do Mar and Jardim Do Mar in half a day for some sunbathing and coffee stops. Be sure to try local restaurant A Poita for cheap as chips Portugese fish stew, lovingly made with the morning’s catch.
Where to eat nearby
A five minute drive brings you to sleepy Ponta do Sol seafront, where you’ll find the most sunshine on the island and two outstanding restaurants hiding behind a row of seafront hotels. Steak & Sun’s Tomahawk steak is as good as Hawksmoor’s – and next door at The Old Pharmacy you’ll find the only brunch worth travelling for (plump for the pinchos).
Raring to go? Get more tips from our full Madeira guide and get booking!