Madeira’s made it onto the government’s ‘green list’ (with no quarantine on arrival, unlike in mainland Portugal). So, my month spent finding the island’s best restaurants, spas and hotels has finally come in handy.
If you’re booking a holiday this week, all the research has been done for you. You simply need a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival (and probably a spray tan).
Picture a subtropical island, under four hours’ flight from London. It’s a land of indulgence, with world-famous cake and wine on every corner. Now add jaw-dropping scenery: magnificent cathedrals, cobbled streets and rooftop bars bathed in year-round sunshine. Sounds pretty good right now, huh?
Named one of the safest holiday spots for 2021 by European Best Destinations, Madeira’s got the practical stuff on lock. Firmly on the Green List, you don’t have to quarantine upon arrival or return – and they’re offering a free PCR test when you land.
Visit Portugal have pioneered the ‘Clean and Safe’ stamp and app, displaying hotels and restaurants Covid-19 safety measures.
But, Madeira. That’s where elderly people go, right? Elderly people who love trail runs, swigging local moonshine, mountain biking, scuba diving, paragliding, and surfing barrel waves, sure.
The island of Eternal Spring, the Pearl of the Atlantic, the Hawaii of Europe… Madeira’s charms spark tons of cheesy monikers. But not all of them are flattering. You might’ve heard it’s heaven for ‘Newly-Weds and Nearly-Deads’ (charming – and accurate, to be fair), but it won’t be long until the island’s fully shaken that one off.
Last year crowned World’s Leading Island Destination for the sixth time in a row, and Europe’s Leading Island Destination for the fifth, I’m not alone in my love for the place. Once discovered, it’s easy to see why travellers might keep it to themselves – and it starts to make sense why we don’t hear of it more often.
Getting there is a breeze
In times of uncertainty, the sheer ease of travel to and around Madeira is truly blissful. The island is absolutely tiny – just 13 miles across – so within half an hour of landing you can be in the capital Funchal. As soon as you hit the road, you get panoramic sea views. You’ll spot hawks and kites swooping from jagged cliffs that rise up from the sea. A cloud might burst, huge rain droplets battering the car, before a double rainbow forms across the horizon. Thoughts turn to Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, The Flintstones – something about the place feels primordial.
Arrive in Funchal and you’ll find the clocks have turned forward, though in some parts, not quite to 2021 (and thank god). Kitsch cafes and statuesque buildings line every street, old fashioned lamps lighting up cobbled alleyways. Ancient-looking shops still peddle the exact CD player you had in your bedroom as a teenager. There’s something uncanny yet comforting about revisiting simpler times – pre Instagram and the definitely pre the C-word.
So then, what do you do?
Eat, drink and explore. Funchal’s best hotels, shops and restaurants are within walking distance of the sea. Booting the city into the present day is Christiano Ronaldo’s waterfront museum and hotel, CR7 – from which you can catch a glimpse of one of the star footballer’s seven houses on his beloved native island. Just along the promenade you’ll find the island’s best attempt at after-hours nightlife (though a raving holiday this is not) in nightclubs Vespas and Marginal.
Getting out of the town is easy – hundreds of tunnels cut through the mountains (the locals call them ‘Swiss cheese’), making Madeira unique in that the best tourist spots are accessible in about half an hour. In one day, it’s feasible to do a bit of shopping, complete a scuba dive, puff through a two hour mountain hike, have a nap, then finish up with a gourmet dinner. The best way to explore is by hire car. We had an excellent experience with a zippy Fiat Panda via Rent-A-Car Madeira – shout out to David for patiently schooling us on hill assist (a must – the roads are *super* steep, even in urban spots).
Sounds cool. Shall I book stuff beforehand?
Trail runners and hikers fly from all over the world to explore the island’s mountain ranges and network of verdant levadas (irrigation channels that double up as lush walking paths, leading you through rainforests and beaches).
It’s a bad idea to go alone if you’re inexperienced, so we’d recommend calling Free Spirit Walks. Led by bubbly and super knowledgeable guide Rubina, we conquered the challenging 13km route from Pico Arrieiro to Pico Ruivo, the island’s highest point – and we’d have literally been lost without her. If running’s more your thing, hit up Go Trail Madeira – led by Daniel, you’ll go at a pace of your choosing, exploring high sea cliffs or delving deep into the forest with confidence.
If you fancy exploring hiking areas that are harder to reach, grab a ride with Green Devil Safari, their jeeps easily tackling the rocky terrain with the canvas removed, so you can stand up to enjoy spectacular views. We took a dip in Seixal’s natural pools and walked around foggy, fairytale Fanal, dotted with cows and gnarled trees. Pack a bikini and a raincoat.
Young professionals often escape Lisbon for the weekend (just an hour and a half away) to go whale watching (the guys at Rota dos Cetaceos know all the best spots for sightings) and wine tasting – entire days can be lost at Blandy’s Wine Lodge.
Save for a couple of man-made beaches, Madeira’s shores feature black volcanic rock. This would be a downside, but beach bums can get their fix via the ferry to neighbouring island Porto Santo. Here you’ll find golden sands, hotels and beach cafes.
In-the-know foodies flock to Fajã dos Padres, a valley that’s so much of a hidden secret it pains me to include it here. Accessible only by cable car, there are three little houses you can rent for the night, allowing time to forage for fresh fruits and try truly fresh local lapas.
There are four PADI Scuba diving centres dotted about – led by super friendly instructor Ralf, I spotted arrow crabs, fire worms, trumpet fish and parrot fish on a house reef dive at Madeira Dive Point. Jumping in feels particularly cool, overlooked by the iconic pink palace of Belmond Reid’s hotel (once a haunt of Winston Churchill and Cary Grant). Explorers of the two local wrecks swim with dolphins, monk seals and stingrays – and huge grouper fish skulk in the waters beneath the Cristo Rei statue.
Any other tips?
Forever scenic drives are half the fun, so plan a day trip or two out of Funchal. In the North you’ll find the traditional houses of Santana, São Vicente’s astonishing caves and the natural pools of Porto Moniz. Drive the unforgettable ER101 route from Ponta Delgada to Boaventura, your car splashed by the surf, with dramatic waterfalls pouring overhead.
The 5km hike around the easternmost part of the island, Ponta de São Lourenço, is spectacular, with incredible views out to sea. If views are your thing, drive up to Cabo Girão, the highest cape in Europe (avoid the clear walkway if you’ve got vertigo). Sit down to lunch after a round at the Palheiro golf club, nearly 500 m above sea level, with dramatic views of the skyline and Atlantic Ocean.
The 18-hole, par 72 championship golf course meanders through pristine maritime pine and botanical woodland. The adjoining estate offers stunning gardens and walks for all ages (and fitness levels).
Head to Ribeiro Frio for short, easy levada hikes. Balcoes viewpoint is a great choice if you want the walking experience and dazzling views, with minimal physical effort. All of these spots feature cute cafes along the way, so you’re never too far from a coffee (or the local hooch, Poncha. Just one, mind, or you’ll start speaking ‘Ponchaguese’).
If you prefer to stay close to town, Monte Palace Tropical Garden’s exotic plants, water features and art collections offer a colourful day out. Hop on the cable car from the Zona Velha area and you’ll enjoy spectacular views. Tuk Madeira City Tours offer a novel way to tackle the island’s hills – a driver will take you to all the best viewpoints, offering info on everything from local history to the best lunch spots. Speaking of which…
What’s the food like?
There’s plenty of culinary magic happening here, beyond the obligatory (and excellent) pastel de nata, espetada (skewered meats), bolo do caco (think English muffin, slathered in garlic butter) Madeira wine and honey cake.
Savoy Palace’s celestial restaurant and bar Galáxia Skyfood was made for the ‘gram, its sparkling ceiling and floor shooting you into outer space. The inventive tasting menu melds a constellation of flavours from all around the globe. 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’ – avocado-shaped chocolate encasing lime mousse, banana ice cream and peanut streusel.
If you prefer cosy, family-style food with a lot of heart, KAMPO and AKUA stand out from the rest. Led by Portugese head chef Júlio Pereira, they set the standard for young chefs on the island, with a heavy focus on meat and fish. Book a chef’s table spot and enjoy the show. Venture down cobbled streets to find these cosy kitchens, balancing friendly chat with stellar service. Famed local wines are hand-picked to accompany each dish – we recommend braised tuna with razor clam rice, or market fish with coconut and almond.
Just down the street is newly minted Informal, where 28 year-old chef Sandro’s got a novel take on traditional limpets, celebrational Carne Da Noite, and pretty much everything, actually. Always having fun with his cooking (and his customers), he’s determined to make Informal a destination restaurant – and already making headway. The sommelier might suggest a bubbly Loureiro Alvarinho Vinho Verde with mackerel fillet and Mandarin mayonnaise, or an ‘easy drinking’ red for your hearty lamb shank. Watch out, KAMPO and AKUA – there’s a new kid on the block.
Where should I stay?
There are so many gorgeous places to stay, I wrote an entire guide on it – click here to read about the best hotels in Madeira.
Funchal is the obvious choice – the beating heart of the island, it combines old world charm with little bursts of cosmopolitan flair.
At a glance…
If flowers are your thing, you’ll be hard pressed to find better hotels than Quinta da Casa Branca and Quinta Jardins do Lago. The former boasts two pools and an in-house banana plantation, while the latter enjoys 2.5 hectares bursting with 500 species of plant life (and a grumpy tortoise called Columbo).
Hyper modern luxury haven Savoy Palace is absolutely huge (and home to aforementioned Galaxia restaurant). Its cavernous Laurea Spa is the biggest (and best) in Portugal. For an extra fee, the exclusive rooftop infinity pools enjoy unparalleled sea views.
Steeped in 18th Century glamour is the pastel pink Belmond Reid’s Palace, jutting from a dramatic sea cliff. Here you’ll find stellar service, direct access to the sea, and one of the best heated pools on the island. Most special are the tropical flower-laden grounds, framing never-ending views of the Atlantic.
Mornings are for yoga sessions overlooking the water, before world-class breakfasts are served by the pool. Gaze down at the coastline from neighbourhood Italian restaurant Villa Cipriani, or dress up for a night at Winston Churchill’s old haunt, William. The latter is one of the two Michelin-starred restaurants on the island.
A beautiful place to hang out any time of day, design hotel Threehouse echoes the best hipster spots in London – if they had rooftop pools and year-round sunshine. The cocktails are banging, the music is on point and the artwork is genuinely intriguing. Rooms include SMEG appliances, power showers and huge TVs. The location is perfect, too – moments from the water, and next door to must-visit flower, fruit and fish market Mercado dos Lavradores.
Sé Boutique is stuffed with local artworks and sat right next to its namesake, the dramatic Funchal (also known as Sé) Cathedral. Savvy owners spent 2020 converting the basement into a cooling spa and swimming pool area, complete with a range of treatments.
Upstairs you’ll find a jazzy rooftop bar peddling zingy lemon coffees and cocktails with great views of the sea. If the weather’s not on your side (this is a tropical climate, remember) enjoy a sumptuous afternoon tea upstairs. The hotel sits in an enviable location, too – right in the centre of town, walking distance from the iconic harbour, colourful Mercado dos Lavradores and bustling shopping area. It’s a brilliant central base for foodies – wander to Sakura for a huge plate of temaki or Hamburgueria do Mercado for a towering Market burger and fries.
For trendy exposed brickwork and boujie, London-style brunches, Prima Caju is unmatched. Sitting on Rua da Carreira, it’s housed within boutique hotel Caju. The brunch menu is extensive and served all weekend, the coffee’s good (yay!) and there’s a compact basement gym where you can work it all off afterwards. Luxurious rooms come in white and concrete colourways, with the softest beds and indulgent rainfall showers.
If you want to stay out of Funchal, head to the hills of seaside town Ponta do Sol. Stay at 1905 Zino’s Palace, where you’re greeted with an espresso and a pastel de nata – joy. Picture Barbie’s dream house, if she grew up and got seriously into interior design. Even the pool is pink!
Summer 2021 looking a little soon to venture abroad? I implore you to consider a Christmas trip. Locals line every surface with wreaths and glittering lights, giant trees and LED tunnels illuminate the promenade and the smell of hot chestnuts wafts down the streets. Lights line every road up in the hills that wrap around the bay, so come nightfall, promenade walks are lit up by millions of twinkling stars. Stay for New Year’s Eve – the fireworks are mind-blowing. What better way to toast a return to normality – and a more hopeful year ahead.
Ready to book? Read my full guide to the best places to stay in Madeira in 2021.