Madeira: An island paradise of tropical forests and black sand beaches
Open your maps app and choose a location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, not as far west as Bermuda, but south of the Azores. It will take a bit of zooming to locate this tiny volcanic island, but once you find it, you’ll never want to leave it again.
I had never been to a place as far away as Madeira. Although it is one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal, the island has its own rich culture and a very unique landscape of spectacular cliffs and botanical gardens.
But it was not an easy introduction to this island paradise.
Landing at Funchal’s main airport, one of the shortest runways in the world, was not for the faint hearted. Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport (yes, Madeira is the birthplace of the famous footballer) is known to be dangerous – its 1,600-meter runway is cut off by high mountains and the sea.
The extreme wind gusts created require pilots to undergo special training before being cleared to land here.
But after some turmoil and adrenaline rush bonding with those sitting next to me, we made it to the ground, only to be satisfied with rigorous COVID checks (possibly the reason why Madeira managed to stay on the green list!).
How were the COVID checks at the airport?
Once you’ve cleared airport security and collected your luggage, you open your previously downloaded “Madeira Safe” app, which has your own personal barcode to show a team of officials.
At this point you are directed to a line of light green or dark green people, with markings on the ground to show you the way.
Dark green means the app has processed your PCR test for flyability negative (mine was Qured) and you are free to go, but light green means the result has not yet been accepted, so you need to speak to a nursing team. They inspect your application and ask for proof of a double vaccination certificate or your PCR test before you can finally leave the airport.
Despite the somewhat lengthy process, I found that I had a lot of respect for this complete infrastructure because it made me feel safe in a new country.
“The best hotel on the island”
The smell of eucalyptus lingered in the air as we drove through the main town of Funchal, lush forests on one side and a bustling city on the other. We arrive at Savoy Palace Hotel (“The best hotel on the island,” exclaimed my taxi driver on the way) late on a Friday night.
The taxi ride had given me a good overview of Funchal – lights twinkling in the hills and valleys, with the sea shining under a full moon. I certainly had a good first impression of Madeira.
The Savoy Palace Hotel is grand, with lavish interiors of chandeliers and marble staircases, but comfortable, with velvet armchairs and plants lining the windows.
The hotel was a joint venture between the island’s best designer, Nini Andrade Silva, and RH + Architects, telling the story of Madeira’s traditions and culture through striking design.
After a light meal overlooking the pool at night, I happily collapse into my king-size bed on the 16th floor.
Taking in the panoramic ocean views, I fall asleep, ready to explore all the island has to offer.
A paradise for outdoor adventure
As a winner of ‘Europe’s Best Island Destination 2020’ at the World Travel Awards for its outdoor adventures, it’s clear that Madeira won’t be a beach vacation. In fact, there aren’t many beaches due to the mountainous topography, but the cliffs are even more impressive.
I spend my days trekking around the island, visiting black sand caves, and swimming in natural pools. A jeep tour with Madeira Mountain Expeditions takes us to the famous Serra do Fanal forest.
On the way up, our guide tells us to stand in the back of the jeep to really breathe in the fresh forest and duck air whenever we come across a branch. It is completely exhilarating and the views, at 1150 meters above sea level, are breathtaking.
Fanal, as it is known locally, has some of the oldest trees in the world.
It is home to the largest area of laurel forest still preserved, which is protected by UNESCO World Heritage and is a strange sight to see. This part of the island is subtropical and the volcanic microclimates often make it shrouded in mist, making you feel like you are on a movie set.
Huge gnarled trees stretch out in front of you, in and out of the fog, and the air is humid and warm.
We do cloud forest yoga with a local teacher – it feels like I’m sinking into the earth itself as I move towards the descending dog.
Another highlight is Cabo Girão, the highest cliff in Europe and the second highest in the world. The viewpoint has a suspended glass platform (I tried not to look down) where you stand directly above the “fajãs de Rancho” with a wonderful view of the fishing village Câmara de Lobos .
In the evening, I would come back from a cliffside hike or waterfall excursion and slipped into the rooftop infinity pool to get rid of that hard-earned sweat of the day. I even opt for a massage at the spa one evening because – why not? The verdant room reflects the island landscape with lagoons and waterfalls and a rare Himalayan salt room.
Espada and ponchas
As for Madeiran cuisine, there are several delicacies that I like. Many restaurants serve the typical dish of tuna steak with fried corn, which is delicious.
Then there’s the stickiest garlic bread you’ve ever tasted, called “bolo do caco”, which comes as a starter with almost every meal.
But I fall in love with Espada, the island’s signature dish.
It translates to “Black Sabbardfish” and is a soft white fish and very light on the palate. Best of all, it’s topped with fried banana and maracuja (passion fruit) … somewhere between a sweet and savory dish.
Besides seafood, dinner time in Madeira calls for a ‘poncha’, the traditional Madeiran aperitif, made with honey, fresh lemon juice and a white alcohol derived from sugar cane.
Much like a brandy or strong whiskey, it hits the back of your throat when you swallow, but quickly turns into a fuzzy glow that keeps you warm all evening, even when the sun goes down.
Spoiled for choice by restaurants
We find that there is no need to leave the hotel for dinner as there are so many restaurants to choose from.
I’ll grab a light bite at the Alameda during the day, enjoy sushi in Jacarandá or visit the real highlight of the show – Galaxia – the rooftop restaurant where we dine on our last night.
With a view of the island at night and a ceiling full of stars, Galaxia is a grand restaurant. From the five-course tasting menu, I was won over by the tender Wagyu beef skewers and the mango, avocado and chili fermented fish.
All of this is accompanied by a wine pairing, which is a blend of fortified, white, red and rosé wines – a chance to taste real Madeira wine from the island’s many vineyards.
You could say that my head was cloudy the next morning …
After four days of adventure, followed by relaxation at the hotel and great food, I’m still not ready to go.
I will take a lot of Madeira. The exceptional service in every restaurant and some of the most welcoming locals I have met in Europe. Even as a non-Portuguese it is easy to get around. Everyone I met spoke almost fluent English as the island is very dependent on tourism.
Being so remote, in the middle of the Atlantic and just west of Morocco, allowed me to cut myself off from the digital world and immerse myself in nature. It’s a truly magical island that definitely deserves a spot on your bucket list.
Maeve Campbell traveled as a guest of the Savoy Palace Hotel in Madeira.