In these uncertain times, it’s worth knowing that the Portuguese island of Madeira is working hard to continue welcoming UK visitors. Heavily reliant on tourism, their government is offering free pre-departure Covid tests to everyone before flying home, as well as a rapid antigen test every seven days.
If you’re desperate for some winter sun, you can’t go far wrong with the Best Island Awards Winner 2021. Before you travel, be sure to check Gov.uk for the latest rules and restrictions. Then away you go…
1.Life-affirming levada walks
A teeny little island made up of jagged volcanic rock, Madeira is home to hundreds of winding walkways lined by aqueducts.
Whether you love cliff-side hikes with jaw-dropping ocean views, or uphill climbs surrounded by waterfalls and lush greenery, you’re completely spoiled here. Try the popular 25 Fountains walk to start things off.
A teeny little island made up of jagged volcanic rock...
Such wild adventures come with some danger, so it’s best to book a guided hike. We love Free Spirit Walks for their knowledgable tour leaders, armed with facts about their beloved home (and plenty of snacks).
2. Truly stunning spa days
The Savoy hotel group have the monopoly on super snazzy hotels in central Funchal (the main town), and you should make some bookings there for proper R&R in spanking new facilities.
Savoy Palace is home to the breathtaking Laurea Spa, Portugal’s largest. It was designed by famed artist Nini Adrade Silva, making it feel like you’re a little leaf, floating along a calming levada (or something). Try a treatment, or simply book a day package for use of the beautiful pool, jacuzzi, experience showers (so fun!), ice bath (not so fun), a steam room and sauna. Getting ready is a joy – the changing rooms are gigantic, cloaked in low lighting.
Next door sits the brand new NEXT hotel, where you can end your pamper day with rooftop cocktails and a staggering view straight out to sea. There’s a mini spa inside, too, offering a short menu of treatments.
3. Beautiful gardens… with a special surprise
You might’ve heard Madeira attracts ‘newly weds and nearly-deads’, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. Beloved by honeymooners and the elderly for its reliably good weather, stunning scenery and quiet nature, Madeira isn’t a party island (though they’re happening, if you do want to seek them out. Google ‘poncha bars’).
Thrill seekers will want to try the traditional toboggan ride down from mystical hilltop town Monte. Two guys with brakes on their shoes whizz you 2km downhill at high speed, then drop you at the bar for a Sagres. Happy days.
Do explore Monte Palace Tropical Gardens first, though (accessible via cable car – neither you nor the old dears could puff up that hill).
4. Perfect hotel breakfasts
Madeira’s not short on stunning hotels, but Quinta da Casa Branca has to be in our top three. Despite being rather prim-and-proper, the staff are always warm and kind, helping with all manner of random requests (and super helpful with Covid-related queries).
My best memories of Madeira start with a banging breakfast at QCB. Posh white tablecloths juxtapose with the lush, tropical surrounds, while clouds clear to reveal mountain views. Staff lay on everything from fresh pastries to exotic jams before offering omelettes, porridge, fruit plates, smoked salmon bagels, or a full fry up. Bliss.
We’d highly recommend staying here, so you can start every day of your holiday so happily. Finish them that way, too, at Michelin-approved The Dining Room. Here you can choose from elegant European classics.
Two garden pools are fantastically quiet, making it feel as though the palatial grounds, planted with hundreds of species of plant and tree, belong to you. A large gym beckons you to work off the croissants, but your very own garden lounger back at your room is just perfect for a snooze instead.
5. Super scuba diving
Grab your PADI license, dig out your log book, and pull those flippers on – it’s time to explore Madeira’s super warm (and SUPER clear) waters.
“British divers love wrecks,” our scuba instructor Ralf says. If that’s true, you’ll be pleased to know Madeira Dive Point’s boat can take you to the former NRP Afonso Cerqueira of the Portuguese Navy, a hub of colourful marine activity.
If you prefer to stay closer to shore, or haven’t dived in a while, MDP’s house reef dive offers a pleasant way to refresh your memory, spotting trumpet fish and parrot fish along the way. Snorkelling with wild dolphins is available here, too – a truly unforgettable day.
6. Michelin Star meals
The PortoBay hotel group draws lovers of the fine things in life across Brazil and Portugal (we adore the Porto branch). A massive draw of the hotel has to be its direct access to the Atlantic. There’s nothing like cooling off from sunbathing by diving straight into the ocean from your pool lounger, then wandering to the bar for an iced coffee.
Inside The Cliff Bay just so happens to be one of the best restaurants on the entire island – and the only one to bear two Michelin stars – Il Gallo D’Oro. With a laser focus on local ingredients, Chef Benoît Sinthon makes up beautiful plates with limpets, fish from the coast – not to mention vegetables, fruit and flowers from the PortoBay kitchen garden. Our favourite meal on the island by far, if not just for the bread and whipped seaweed butter selection.
Gone too hard on the wine? No matter, there are hundreds of rooms to retire to, many with outrageously great views of the sea and Funchal bay. Since the hotel is a little set back from the centre of town (about a fifteen minute walk), you’re afforded a wide vista, taking in the coast and the mountains stretching out behind it. When night falls, the twinkling lights are spectacular . Do make time to toast an amazing trip on the balcony at sunset, in your robes.
7. Guaranteed dolphin and whale-spotting
Aside from creating world-renowned views, the absence of a sandy beach from Madeira ‘s coastline has many benefits. It’s quick to get out into the ocean by boat from the marina, and thousands of sunbathers don’t descend come summer to frighten away the wildlife.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to spot dolphins and whales in the waters. Tour company Rota-dos-cetaceos.pt are so confident you’ll see pilot whales, Risso’s dolphins and tons more, they promise to take you out a second time if you’re not satisfied.
We love their emphasis on keeping the sea life safe at all costs, always respecting distance and noise rules.
8. An ever-changing food scene
Madeira is changing fast. With one foot in the past (we’re putting it at around 1998) and one firmly in the future, there are some touristy experiences – and restaurants – that are best avoided. But do your research and book in advance for a holiday chock full of incredible eats, a small circle of talented young chefs exploding the old-fashioned food scene with modern techniques, bags of passion and an island full of lush, home-grown ingredients to show off. Here’s your hit list…
Threehouse: This modern artwork-stuffed rooftop spot (and excellent aparthotel) overlooks the old part of town, still frequented by fisherman and locals. On a Sunday morning, check out market Mercado dos Lavradores before settling in for expertly-mixed cocktails, modern European brunch dishes and big tunes from the in-house DJ. We loved swinging in the egg chair suspended from the ceiling after two or three ‘Peanut’ drinks, stomachs lined with mango smoothie bowls, Turkish eggs and Alaskan King ‘crab bombs’.
Prima Caju: Run by three passionate sisters, this hotel and brunch spot is dedicated to a fully healthy menu – and some of the best coffee on the island.
AKUA: By far the most exciting cooking in central Funchal (rivalled only by meat-focused sister venue, KAMPO). Reserve a seat at the chef’s table to watch Júlio Pereira and his team hard at work, flinging out inventive dish after inventive dish from their pristine kitchen. Black rice with octopus blew us away at KAMPO, only to be beaten by a delicate fish and seafood fideua (a paella-like short pasta dish). Fried codfish tacos were excellent, as were Jaipur sauce-soaked mussels.
La Vaca Negra: its exterior might look as if stuck in time, but the cooking methods used to sear thick slabs of supreme quality steak are bang up to date. Everybody walking past knows the genial owner, promising to be back one more time before they head home. The ethos is simple – juicy Argentinian meats, flame-grilled, served with chips and salad. If you’re a carnivore with a craving, book nowhere else.
9. Rooftop jacuzzi nights
Round off a truly relaxing trip with a night or two wandering the pretty courtyards of Castanheiro Boutique hotel, its shady chill out spaces perfect for ducking into after a long day’s walking.
Filled with imposing artworks and home to a pocket-sized but very pretty rooftop pool, it’s difficult to leave once you’ve settled in. Do try, though, because mere steps away you’ll find Madeira’s coolest bars and restaurants.
On the roof's top floor, there's a surprise waiting...
Bedrooms are a delight to freshen up in, huge spaces decked out in Farrow & Ball-esque colour ways and toile wallpaper. If you simply can’t tear yourself away, no matter. On the roof’s top floor, there’s a surprise waiting – a technicolour jacuzzi waiting just for you.
Plan in some sundowners amongst the bubbles, before joining the weekly Friday pool party. Now that’s how to end a great holiday.
If you plan on exploring the island’s network of levadas and rugged coastline, you’re best off hiring a car. We had an amazing experience with Madeira Rent, our trusty (and pristine) Renault Captur waiting for us outside the airport.
Note: Madeira’s hills can be tough to climb, and the roads very narrow. If you’re a nervous driver, be sure to choose a small car you’re comfortable with – and make sure it’s got hill assist!