Although it has long been a popular destination for British, German and Portuguese travellers, Madeira is only now beginning to pop on the radars of North Americans. Those who have heard of this group of four Portuguese islands in the north Atlantic Ocean probably know it as either the hometown of Cristiano Ronaldo or for its eponymous fortified wine.
Azores Airlines offers several flights to Madeira's Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport per week. Flights have a layover in Ponta Delgada.
But with a charming Old Town, excellent restaurants, warm temps year-round and dramatic volcanic landscapes, Madeira is proving to travellers that it has a lot more to offer than soccer stars and aperitifs.
What to do
We’re firm believers that there’s no better way to discover a place than through its food, so we recommend starting your exploration with Discovering Madeira’s Wine and Food Walking Tour. This 2-hour tour of Madeira's capital, Funchal, includes samples of quintessential Madeiran food and drink, including the island’s famous fortified wine and vinha d'alhos, a marinated meat dish that, interestingly, is believed to have inspired India’s famous curry dish, vindaloo.
Each food and drink sample provides insight into Madeira’s culture, from poncha, an alcoholic fruit juice drink that once served as a source of vitamin C for sailors; to scabbard fish sandwiches, a local favourite post-bar snack.
Next, work off all that food and drink by hiking along the island’s iconic network of levadas. These centuries-old irrigation channels were originally built to distribute water from the wet regions in the north to the drier southern parts of the island. Spanning over 2,000 kilometres, these channels have become popular walking and hiking trails, taking visitors through beautiful laurel forests, along scenic coastline or to dramatic mountain lookout points and hidden waterfalls. It’s possible to hike the levadas independently, or plenty of tour companies like Madeira Adventure Kingdom offer guided hikes, which can be a better option for less-experienced trekkers.
Where to eat and drink
Head to Chalet Vicente for traditional Portuguese cuisine served family-style and one of the most comprehensive wine lists on the island. The restaurant is set in a homey, chalet-like building with rustic interior dining areas and lovely outdoor spaces surrounded by greenery. Order the espetada (beef meat skewers seasoned with laurel), impressively served on long skewers dangling from a metal stand; as well as the black scabbard fish with banana and the milho frito (fried cubes of polenta).
For the best dinner with a view, you can’t beat Restaurante Do Forte. This fine dining spot is set in Forte de São Tiago, a castle-like fort dating back to the early 17th-century, which offers gorgeous views over the sea and Funchal. Regular live violin performances add to the magical ambiance and complement the restaurant’s upscale vibe. Elegantly-plated Mediterranean dishes can be ordered a la carte or they have some well-priced prix fixe options with wine pairings.
Where to stay
For a splurge, go for Belmond Reid's Palace, a posh, stately property that counts Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Pablo Picasso among its past guests. Set on a dramatic cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by 10 acres of colourful gardens, the hotel features a Michelin-starred restaurant, several ocean-view pools and lots of interesting historic details.
Hotel Madeira is a smart choice for travellers with a more modest budget, offering simple, modern rooms, a free breakfast buffet and a rooftop pool with great views. Set in the heart of Funchal’s Old Town, it’s a convenient base for exploring the city that won’t break the bank.