24 April 2023
Pearl of the Atlantic
Nestled in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago known for its rugged landscapes, exotic flora, and world-renowned wine. Measuring just 741 km², Madeira is a tiny island - driveable from one end to the other in just two hours! But what it lacks in size, the island more than makes up in personality. Home to 260,000 souls, this liliputian isle boasts a vibrant community with a rich cultural heritage and locals known for their warmth and hospitality.
Despite its relatively small size, Madeira boasts an impressive range of landscapes, from towering mountains and lush forests to dramatic coastlines and pristine beaches. With its temperate climate and stunning natural beauty, Madeira is perfect for our nature loving Explorers and outdoor enthusiasts. Hike through the verdant hills and discover hidden waterfalls, or explore the island's dramatic coastline where you can catch a glimpse of dolphins and whales frolicking in the crystal-clear waters.
But Madeira's charm goes beyond its natural wonders. From historic monuments like the 15th century Santa Clara Convent to the flavoursome local cuisine, this tiny island is filled to the brim with culture. Delve into a world of contemporary art, live music and vibrant gastronomy as you sample all that Madeira has to offer.
What makes Madeira, Madeira?
1. The most incredible landscapes
The island’s natural world is a wonder to see, with an incredible diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. Along the coastline, towering mountains covered in lush rainforest are home to a variety of native species, including the rare La Gomera laurel tree and the striking stinkwood, which can reach heights of up to 130ft.
A visit to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Laurissilva forest is a must. A relic of the ancient forests that once covered the Mediterranean Basin, this is one of the most enchanting and biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Located in Madeira's central mountain range, the Laurissilva forest of Madeira stands as a living testament to the island's unique geology and history. Covering an area of approximately 15,000 hectares, the forest is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, including the Madeiran long-toed pigeon, the Madeiran firecrest, and the Madeiran chaffinch, all of which are endemic to the island. These birds are well adapted to life in the dense forest, where their colourful plumage and uniquely beautiful birdsong add to the forest’s enchanting atmosphere. As you wander through the forest, you'll be surrounded by the soothing sound of trickling streams and waterfalls, and you may catch a glimpse of the rare Madeiran wall lizard basking in the sunlight. The forest feels like a mystical world, where towering trees create a lush canopy where sunlight filters through to create an ethereal atmosphere.
Venturing higher up, above the treeline, you'll encounter a more rugged and wild beauty. Rocky pastures filled with pretty flowering heathers and native blueberries dot the landscape, providing a stunning contrast to the lush rainforests below. At Ponta de São Lourenço, Madeira's easternmost point, you'll find fragrant grasslands atop striking sandstone cliffs, offering panoramic views of the sparkling sea below. All along the coast, small farms occupy verdant valleys such as Chão da Ribeira in the north, where tiny villages huddle together at the foot of black cliffs, taking shelter from the wild ocean waves below.
2. Exhilarating extreme sports
If there’s one thing Madeira’s breathtaking scenery provides an excellent backdrop for, it’s extreme sports. This tiny island is a playground for adventure seekers, who come from all over to take part in some of the most exhilarating activities. But extreme sports in Madeira are not just about the thrills - they're also an opportunity to connect with nature, to challenge yourself, and to push your limits in a safe and controlled environment. So, whether you're an adrenaline junkie or a nature lover, here are just a few experiences to get your heart pumping on this island.
Madeira's rugged terrain offers some of the most challenging canyoning experiences in Europe. I had never tried canyoning before, but Madeira’s rugged landscape offered the perfect setting to go for it. I’m terrified of heights, and the mountainous terrain of Madeira is a far cry from my usual city surroundings, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Navigating down the island’s steep drops, narrow gorges and cascading waterfalls was an incredible way to experience its beauty. The rush of adrenaline as I rappelled down imposing cliff faces and plunged into cool waters below was exhilarating. As we continued down the gorge, navigating the narrow passages and scaling steep drops, I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe at the stunning natural beauty that surrounded us. The lush greenery, towering cliffs, and cascading waterfalls all seemed to blend together into the most breathtaking landscape. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, but I loved the challenge. The sense of accomplishment and camaraderie that came with completing each section was incredibly rewarding.
For those who prefer to stay above ground, coasteering is a thrilling activity that combines hiking, rock climbing, and cliff jumping. The coastline of Madeira is jagged and wild, with towering cliffs and hidden coves that can only be reached by jumping into the water. It’s a great way to explore the coastline, with its hidden coves, towering cliffs and rock formations that seem to defy gravity. Before starting, you’ll be outfitted with a wetsuit, helmet, and buoyancy aid. As you make your way along the coastline, you'll climb your way up steep cliffs and through narrow passages, and at times you’ll even need to take the plunge into the ocean below and swim to the next section of your route. For thrill-seekers, it’s a great way to explore the island’s stunning coastline and get up close and personal with parts of the island you can’t get to on land.
Fun fact: Madeira is home to the world's second-highest commercial abseiling cliff, the Fajã do Mar. At 300 meters tall, it's a popular spot for adrenaline junkies looking for a thrilling descent!
Madeira's dramatic cliffs and crystal-clear waters offer the perfect backdrop for cliff diving. The sport involves jumping from a high platform or cliff into the water below, with divers reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour before hitting the water. As you stand on the edge of the cliff, looking out at the ocean below, it’s impossible not to feel a rush of adrenaline. The feeling of freefalling through the air and hitting the water at high speeds is exhilarating, and you’ll dive right into the most stunning underwater scenery.
Madeira is home to a network of underground caves and tunnels, many of which have never been explored before. Caving involves exploring these caves and tunnels using a variety of techniques such as crawling, climbing, and rappelling, and as you crawl, climb, and rappel through the narrow tunnels, you'll feel like you're exploring a different world. But the eerie darkness of the caves is offset by the stunning beauty of the rock formations and underground lakes. It's a great way to see a different side of the island and experience the thrill of exploring the unknown.
Fun fact: The Cabo Girão cliff is one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe and offers stunning views of the ocean and surrounding landscape - it's a popular spot for paragliding enthusiasts.
3. Natural swimming pools
Madeira's natural swimming pools are a stunning natural wonder that offer an unforgettable swimming experience. Formed by volcanic rocks and sculpted over time by powerful Atlantic waves, these unique lagoons are a stunning work of nature. They’re filled with crystal-clear seawater and can be found all over the island - from Porto Moniz to Ponta do Sol. I spent an afternoon at the Porto Moniz natural swimming pools - the most famous on the island, located on the northwest coast.
Made up of a large main pool and several smaller ones, these unique pools are surrounded by rugged cliffs and panoramic sea views. A natural rock barrier gives the illusion that the pool’s edge is a sheer drop, but it provides a great viewpoint over the ocean’s tumultuous waves; it made me feel like I was in nature’s own infinity pool.
At the Seixal Natural Swimming Pools, you'll find a different kind of beauty. Located on the north coast of the island, these pools are nestled between towering cliffs that rise dramatically from the sea, creating a natural amphitheater of sorts. The water here is a deep blue-green, reflecting the surrounding landscape in its surface. To swim there feels like being in a secret cove, tucked away from the rest of the world. It’s also the perfect place to people watch: the cliffs surrounding these pools are a popular spot for rock climbers who scale the jagged edges and imposingly sheer cliffsides to get a better view of the surrounding scenery.
Finally, at the Ponta do Sol Natural Swimming Pools, you'll find a tranquil oasis amidst lush vegetation. The pools here are smaller than at Porto Moniz and Seixal, but no less stunning. The water is calm and clear, and the surrounding landscape is a riot of greenery, with palm trees and other tropical plants providing a natural canopy. It’s the perfect place to relax and soak up the beauty of Madeira.
Good to know: Some of Madeira's natural swimming pools are heated by natural volcanic activity! The Porto Moniz pools are supplied with seawater that is heated by geothermal activity in the area, for instance.
4. The festivals
One of the most striking aspects of the culture on this archipelago is its festivals. From the colourful Carnival to the Festa da Flor (Flower Festival), these cultural festivals are a vibrant and colorful expression of the island's rich heritage and the perfect way to unite people from all walks of life as they celebrate their shared history and traditions. It’s hard not to feel struck by the energy that fills the streets during these celebrations, with music, food, and dance playing a central role.
Carnival is undoubtedly one of the most popular and lively festivals in Madeira. Usually held in February or March, this vibrant celebration is a time when locals and visitors alike don colorful costumes, masks, and wigs, and take to the streets of Funchal to dance, sing, and party. The air is filled with the sound of samba music, as parades of elaborate floats and groups of performers wind their way through the streets. Children and adults alike join in the fun, tossing confetti and streamers at one another, and sampling traditional carnival treats such as malasadas, which are fried doughnuts coated in sugar.
The Flower Festival that happens at the start of Spring is a stunning display of the natural beauty of Madeira, as the island's streets and parks are transformed into a sea of colorful blooms. During this festival, local florists and gardeners create intricate floral displays, which are showcased in public spaces and in the city's parks. The highlight of the festival is a parade of flower-covered floats, which make their way through the city accompanied by music and dancing. Festival-goers can also attend workshops on flower arranging, and sample local delicacies such as honey cake and Madeira wine.
The September Wine Festival is a celebration of Madeira's famous fortified wine, which has been produced on the island since the 17th century. During this festival, visitors can sample the various varieties of Madeira wine, attend workshops on wine making, and get stuck in with grape stomping and wine pressing demonstrations. The festival also features live music, dancing, and a traditional street parade, with locals dressed in traditional clothing and carrying baskets of grapes.
The Festival of the Atlantic
This spectacular celebration offers unique insight into Madeira’s maritime heritage and culture. This spectacular celebration of the sea is where one of the most impressive firework displays in the world takes place. The display is set to a specially composed soundtrack that includes popular songs and music from Madeira's cultural heritage. Fireworks are launched from multiple points around Funchal Bay, creating a breathtaking display of light and sound that lasts for around 20 minutes and reaches heights of up to 200 meters.
As if the incredible firework display wasn’t enough, this festival also features a vibrantly colourful procession of boats and ships decorated with flags, banners, and lights. The boats make their way along the coast of Funchal, accompanied by live music and dancing, offering visitors a unique perspective on the city and the surrounding ocean. The festival also features a variety of nautical-themed events, such as boat races, fishing competitions, and sea shanty performances. Visitors can also sample fresh seafood dishes and traditional Madeiran sweets.
Good to know: The Festival of the Flower is not just a celebration of the island's beautiful flora, but also a competition! Local gardeners and florists compete to create the most impressive floral displays and arrangements, with prizes awarded for the best entries.
5. The best (and most challenging) hikes
The Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo hike is hands down the most beautiful in Madeira. Considered by many to be one of the best hikes in the world, this trail connects the highest points of the island and offers countless viewpoints of the colourful valley and rock - but be warned, it is not for the faint of heart. Everywhere I read online said that this hike is about 6km, but according to my Strava, it’s actually more like 12km, and lots of it was on a steep incline or decline… I loved the hike, but maybe we accidentally took a more challenging route than we meant to, because my legs were jelly by the time I was done.
The hike begins at the Pico do Arieiro, which stands at an impressive 1,818 meters above sea level, making it the third-highest peak in Madeira. The trail starts with a steep climb, and as you ascend, you'll be treated to stunning views of the surrounding mountain ranges and valleys. We started our hike early enough to see the sunrise and wow, was it worth it. That early in the morning, the air is fresh and crisp, and the cool mountain breeze makes the hike chilly enough to need a coat. But as we sat at the peak of the mountain, watching the sun slowly creep up over the clouds and bring that morning glow, I couldn’t help feeling inspired by the beautiful simplicity of this island. Your proximity to nature in Madeira really makes the place special.
The first kilometer of the trail is full of insane views. Dramatic staircases wrap themselves along the mountain’s steep ridges. Low-lying clouds make you feel like you’ve been transported to another planet. And the steep drop of the mountainside makes the hike just that bit more exhilarating - but don’t worry, there are hand rails all along the trail, so you won’t fall! (at least, that’s what I kept telling myself…)
Following the trail along the ridge towards Pico Ruivo, you’ll find tunnels that have been carved out of the mountain. If you’re over 6ft, be sure to watch your head - these tunnels are more like low caves. Each one feels like a new adventure, as the tunnel swallows you whole, enveloping you in darkness and spitting you back out on the other side to enjoy stunning new vistas. This was a really unique segment of trail and was on a bit of a plateau, so my legs and I were grateful for the break from any steep climbing or descending. If only I’d appreciated it more…
Probably one of the toughest parts of the journey comes near the end… Just when you feel like you’ve reached your limit, the trail turns into a steep set of winding stairs up a pass in the mountain - and there’s barely any room to stop without blocking other hikers on the way. This section was my biggest hiking challenge to date and being the city girl that I am, I wished I could just Uber it off the mountain at that point (spoiler alert: you can’t and even if you could, there’s no service on a mountain!) But reaching the top of that path was so worth it. Not only did I feel massively accomplished (once I’d had the chance to sit down and remember how to breathe, of course), but the views… Wow! The path opens up to the east, revealing layers upon layers of mountainous ridges kissed by the morning glow of the sun. Easily one of my favourite moments on the trail - even if it was the worst just moments before.
Towards the end of the hike, there is a rest stop where you’ll find toilets, a place to fill up your water bottle and a small shop to buy snacks if you need to refuel. I took the opportunity to sit for a long time before braving the final stretch of the hike (which really felt more like a climb). Once you reach the summit, you’ll officially be at the highest point on Madeira: 1,862m above sea level. Take in panoramic views of the island - this is the perfect opportunity to get your map out and figure out where exactly everything is. Or, if you’re like me, it’s a great spot to nap and recoup your energy after such an intense journey!
Once you’re done taking in the sites, you can either choose to hike back the way you came, or continue on for another 2km to get to a cafe and nearby taxi rank. Any guesses which option I chose...
Good to know
In Funchal, there is a risk of pickpocketing and petty theft, so keep an eye on your belongings and don't leave valuables unattended.
This is a destination with a lot of hikes to do and natural scenery to explore, so make sure to pack plenty of water, sunscreen, and comfortable, sturdy shoes.
The weather can change quickly in the mountains, so bring layers and rain gear, even on sunny days.
Take advantage of public transportation options, such as buses and taxis, which are affordable and efficient. Taxis can be hailed on the street and both Bolt and Uber exist on the island.
Look up the things you want to do beforehand - for the most part, my friend and I were able to get around easily on public transport, but we did end up hiring a car for 3 days to access some more out-of-the-way hikes.
English is widely spoken in Madeira.
Be respectful of local customs and traditions, especially during religious festivals and ceremonies. It's recommended to dress modestly and to ask for permission before taking photos of people or sacred sites.
A natural gem
I was blown away by the natural beauty of Madeira. It reminded me of travelling in Asia - except it’s way cheaper and easier to get to. The hiking trails are incredible, with breathtaking views at every turn. And for the more adventurous, there are plenty of extreme sports to try. It's a nature lover's dream come true!