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Madeira, Pearl of the Atlantic


1000+ Posts

Madeira has been on the tourist tick list for about 175 years and is still as popular today with thousands of visitors coming to enjoy its mild climate and wonderful flora.

It had been a long hard winter and I was in need of warmth and sunlight. I had read many positive reviews about Madeira and decided it sounded an interesting place to visit. I was particularly attracted by the mountainous scenery and the flowers which I knew would be at their best at the end of May.

Checking out different companies I decided to go with Riviera Travel which offered the most interesting itinerary at a reasonable price and had a choice of dates from Manchester Airport. The package included some evening meals and there was the opportunity to book an additional dining option to giving half board, at a very competitive rate. A definite advantage as I was travelling by myself and didn't have to go out and find somewhere to eat.

It was a very early morning flight from Manchester, so I booked the Radisson Blu on the airport the previous night. I’ve used them before. They aren’t the cheapest but it is a very comfortable room and a short undercover walk to the terminal for an early check in.

DAY 1 - Arrival in Madeira
Flights were with Jet2. Check in was efficient and it was a pleasant flight. Coming into land at Madeira Airport is exciting as the aeroplane has to swing round the bay before landing. Strong winds mean that flights can be cancelled at short notice, something the guide books rarely mention, but we were lucky.

Immigration was swift and accurate instructions from Riviera meant we soon found our guide and were taken to our coach for the short trip into Funchal.

We were booked into Enotel Quinta do Sol which is a convenient location about 20 minutes walk into the centre of Funchal and with a regular bus service from the road outside. Being a single, I was allocated a small twin room at the back of the hotel. This was adequate for me but would have been cramped for two. The hotel has two sittings for dinner and guests are allocated a set table for their stay. Rather than being seated at large group tables we were allocated individual tables. Again as a single I was given a table tucked away in a corner by the wall and away from the rest of the group, who were by the window. I did rather feel the hotel regarded singles as second class citizens. Food was buffet style. It was good and there was always plenty of choice.

After checking in, I walked down to the harbour and Jardim de Santa Catarina, with its lake and views across Funchal.


DAY 2 - Funchal and Palheiro Gardens
In the morning there was a guided walking tour of Funchal with a local guide. We began at Mercado dos Lavradores before heading to the Se Cathedral for a brief look and then to Pereira d’Oliveira for a tasting of different Madeira wines. We finished in the Old Town for lunch before going to Palheira gardens for the afternoon.


DAY 3 - Western Madeira
Today was spent exploring the western side of the island. We began with a stop at Ribeira Brava before continuing to Madalena do Mar where we had a short walk through a banana plantation. We then drove north across the mountains with a stop at a viewpoint at Paul de Serra before dropping down to Porto Moniz for lunch. After lunch we headed east along the coast past Seixal to a viewpoint of Bridal Veil waterfall before continuing to Sao Vincete. We then headed south back through the mountains with a detour to the viewpoint at Cabo Girao before returning to the hotel.


DAY 4 - Monte Palace Gardens and free time
This morning was a guided tour of Monte Palace Gardens with a local guide followed by a free afternoon. I left the guide and explored the gardens by myself before walking back into Monte and visiting Igreja Nossa Senhora do Monte. I watched the toboggan ride taking tourists down the mountain side before heading to the cable car. This dropped me off in the Old Town. I visited Capela do Corpo Sante, Igreja do Socorro and Sao Tiago Fort before walking back along the waterfront to the hotel.


DAY 5 - Eastern Madeira
We drove east past the airport to the view point at Ponta do Rosto on the eastern most tip of Madera. From there we headed to Porto da Cruz on the north coast, visiting the sugar cane factory. Afterwards we drove to Sanata to see the traditional A frame houses and have lunch. We then drove back to Funchal through Ribeiro Frio National Park to a viewpoint at Pico do Arieriro.


DAY 6 - Free day
I spent this exploring Funchal by myself, visiting the Jesuit College, Convent of Santa Clara, the English Church, Igreja San Pedro and Igreja do Colégio. I dropped out in Jardim do Sao Francisco during the heat of midday when all most of the attractions are closed.


DAY 7 - Central Madeira, Curral das Frietas and Câmara de Lobos
This was a half day beginning with the dramatic drive up the narrow and very steep Valley of the Nuns to Eira do Serrado Viewpoint overlooking Curral das Freitas. We had a short time at Curral das Frietas before driving back down the valley to the small seaside town of Camara de Lobos for lunch and then back to the hotel. It was a very hot afternoon, so I headed to Jardim de Santa Catarina, where I dropped out for the rest of the afternoon.


DAY 8 - Return to UK.
We booked out of the hotel after breakfast for a lunchtime flight back to Manchester.

• Viewpoints at Pico do Arieiro and Eira do Serrado
• Engenhos do Norte, the sugar cane factory at Porto da Cruz
• Igreja do Colegio
• Guided tour of Santa Clara convent
• Walk through a banana plantation
• Mercado dos lavradores in Funchal

Comments about the holiday
Overall I didn’t feel the holiday lived up to the experience of other Riviera Travel holidays I’ve done. I know it is difficult to please everyone on how long to stop in the different places. I enjoyed the excursions but was very frustrated as in many places we just didn’t have long enough. Ten minutes to see Se Cathedral is much too short. We had 90 minutes at Palheira Gardens, but twenty minutes was needed to walk from the coach to the start of the gardens and back again.

The drive to Curral das Freiras was wonderful, but I did have to question whether it was worth it considering we were only given 30 minutes once we got there. Similarly we just had 75 minutes at Camara de Lobos - not long if you wanted to have lunch and see something of the place. This was a short day, getting us back to the hotel about 2pm so adding extra time shouldn’t have been a problem.

I could give many other examples.

The tour guide was knowledgeable about food but told us very little about the history or culture of the island and was poor at briefing us about what to see and do in the different places.

On previous trips, the guides have provided maps of the places visited. These have always been excellent and better than maps I’ve found on google. Nothing was provided. I did ask the hotel for a map but all they had was a leaflet showing the route of one of the HOHO buses - not quite what I wanted.

In many ways I felt short changed by the holiday. Not only hadn’t we had enough time to explore many of the places on the itinerary, I came back feeling that I had seen a lot but had learned little about the island.
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There isn't a lot of information about Madeira on the internet and there are few dedicated guide books. It is relegated to just a few pages at the back of guides to Portugal. The best one I found was Rough Guide Directions : Madeira and Porto Santo.

Small island in the Atlantic off the coast of North Africa. Twenty five miles to the north east is the smaller island of Porto Santo. Sixteen miles to the south east is the long narrow chain of uninhabited islands known as the Desertas, which are an important nature reserve.

The island was known to C14th sailors and appeared on early maps but its discovery is attributed to Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira who landed on Porto Santo in 1419, having been blown off course in a violent storm. They returned the following year and landed on Madeira, taking possession of it for the Portuguese crown. There is no record of any indigenous population before then. Within a few years there was a small colony of early settlers attracted by he fertile soils and warm climate. It became an important staging point on voyages from Europe to the Americas. It is now an autonomous region of Portugal.

In the late C19th, Madeira became a popular winter holiday spot of wealthy Northern Europeans. Today, Madeira remains a popular holiday destination and tourism forms a major part of the economy. It is also a popular stop for cruise ships which tower over the harbour and passengers flood the town, particularly from October to April.

Small kiosks sell tours of the island and there are ranks of yellow taxi cabs everywhere. Nearly everyone speaks good English.

The island is noted for its Madeira wine, hand embroidery and crafts including leather work.



Hand embroidery was very much a cottage industry with the women and girls decorating household items. Originally it was sold to visitors at the harbour or at their lodgings. in the 1860s, Elizabeth Phelps, the daughter of a wealthy wine merchant, began to sell the embroidery in Britain. Much of the embroidery sold in tourist shops is now manufactured in factories. The best and most expensive still hand embroidered by women in the home. Bordal on Rua Dr. Fernão de Ornelasis the best place to go for hand embroidery. It may be possible to watch women at work and there is a small display inside with patterns and explaining how these are transferred to the cloth for embroidery.



Madeira enjoys a mild climate throughout the year with temperatures ranging from 19-26˚. Most rain falls between October to mid April. The rest of the year rarely sees rain. During the summer cloud can often build up over the tops of the mountains during the day. The air is often clearer in late afternoon than mid day.

Many attractions close between 12-3pm when temperatures are at their peak. It is usually only tourists who are seen out walking at these times!

Madeira was covered with woodland and particularly laurel forests.

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Madeira is volcanic and the basalt weathers to produce a very fertile soil. Forests were cleared by burning and terraces built on steep slopes to increase the amount of cultivatable land. Water channels known as levadas were constructed to bring water from the mountains to irrigate the crops. These now make popular walking trails.


Sugar cane was introduced in 1425 and led to the rapid economic development of the island. Sugar from Madeira flooded the European Markets and was referred to as ‘white gold’. Wealth enabled the building of impressive mansions known as Quinta and also funded the building of churches including the Se cathedral. The arrival of cheap sugar from Brazil in the C17th lead to a diversification into the production of syrup and rum.

Sugar cane is still grown on the island and harvested by hand.


Engenhos do Norte in Porta da Cruz is the only steam powered sugar cane factory on the island crushing the cane to produce rum.


The wealth of Madeira attracted the attention of pirates and Madeira suffered a major raid by French pirates in 1566. Small forts like Sao Bento in Ribeiro Brava were built along the coast.


The British occupied the island briefly during the Napoleonic Wars, returning it to Portugal in 1814, and an English Church was built to serve the garrison.

Vines had been introduced in the C15th by Henry the Navigator but were mainly used for small scale local production as the wine did not travel well. In the mid C18th was found that fortifying the wine and ageing in warm surroundings improved the wine. Madeira wine was born and rapidly became popular drink in Britain. The production of Madeira wine expanded rapidly with the arrival of British families of wine exporters, like the Blandys in the early C18th. It is still a major export. Now there are many other major producers, many offering tasting sessions.


Bananas have been grown on Madeira since the C16th, mainly in small family plots.


it wasn’t until the C20th they became a major export. The fruit is smaller than those from Latin America and EU regulations now mean they cannot be traded outside Portugal.
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Madeira was formed by volcanic eruptions and is is mountainous with peaks up to 6000.’ It is dissected by very steep sided valleys.



Sides are wooded. The tops are bare with broom and heather.


Eucalyptus was introduced in the late C18th and was used in making paper. Driving through the trees there is always a strong smell of volatile oils. These unfortunately are highly flammable and have been the cause of many fires.

The eastern tip of the island is completely different. Soil is thin and vegetation low growing. There is little settlement or agriculture. Solar panels are now appearing on the hillsides as well as aerogenerators.


Flat land is at a premium and even the airport runway is built on stilts. This is described as one of the World’s most dangerous airports as aeroplanes have to swing round to come into land. it can be closed by strong winds. It is built on a platform on stilts, with the main road running beneath it.


The land rises steeply from the sea with high sea cliffs. Any beaches are black sand. The Atlantic Ocean is very clear.



Most settlement is around the coast, usually at valley mouths. The houses surrounded by small terraced gardens climb up the hillsides.




Traditionally houses are white with orange pantile roofs Many are surrounded by a plot of land, used to grow crops for family use and to sell at market. The dark volcanic soil is very fertile.



Every settlement has a small market but the biggest and best is Mercado dos Lavradores in Funchal with its flowers, fruit and Vegetable and fish markets. This is the place to see women in native costume selling flowers.


Enotel Quint do Sol had a Madeiran night with a group of dancers and musicians performing in national costume.

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IMPRESSIONS continued....

Churches were funded by the wealth from sugar cane and later Madeira wine. They are traditionally white buildings with dark basalt corners and frames. Many have brightly coloured tile roofs.


Many have splendid Baroque interiors. Walls are covered with traditional azulejos tiles.



One of the largest displays of azulejos tiles is found in Monte Palace Gardens.


A lot of EU money has been used to improve roads in Madeira. Many of the old roads were narrow ledges cut out of the side of the hill with no safety barriers and many tight bends. Journey times were slow.



New roads have been built with bridges spanning the valleys and tunnels through the hillside. In places there are so many tunnels you don’t see the scenery...



IMPRESSIONS continued....

The main streets through towns are wide and often lined with trees, Jacarnada and the lovely red flowered African Tulip tree being particularly popular.




Pavement are traditionally made from small pieces of black basalt and white limestone, often arranged as patterns.




There are several attractive small public gardens in Funchal as well as the large showcase gardens like the Botanic Gardens, Palheiro and Monte Palace Gardens, growing endemic Madeiran flora as well as plants from the rest of the world.


Imported plants include the exotic Strelitzia or the bird of paradise plant, which grows across the island and is a popular cut flower.


Agapanthus is found growing wild along roadsides.


Every May there is a flower festival with floats and displays of flowers along the waterfront in Funchal.


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