Madeira is particularly popular amongst the Europeans and it shows, sometimes in a bad way. The less touristy bits are great, though. The weather during my trip was excellent. The sceneries were stunning. And I enjoyed the food too. It feels like the two weeks went by too fast.
I'll go through some highlights of the trip in this post so read on if you want to know what Madeira is about.
View Larger Map
By examining the map above, you can see Madeira is quite a small place. Keep in mind, though, that it's quite mountainous. The highest point, Pico Ruivo, is respectable 1862 meters high. The island doesn't have any natural sand beaches. There's a man-made one at Calheta.
|Porto Santo Beach|
If you are a friend of beaches, fear not! If you travel to the nearby Porto Santo at northeast, you'll find one of the perhaps most beautiful beaches in the whole world. Nine kilometers of beach await you there. Best of all there are not too many people around this time of year there yet while the weather is excellent (not too hot).
The population of Madeira is somewhere around 270000 people. Of these roughly 110000 reside at the capital area in Funchal at the south coast. At some point more people lived there but thanks to the EU and its money they've managed to rebuild much of the road infrastructure making it more lucrative to live in the other parts of the island.
There were plenty of taxis around too though I never used one. Just one word of warning. If you use a taxi, make sure you negotiate the price before stepping aboard to avoid surprises.
Madeira makes up for its lack of sandy beaches with its beautiful nature. The island contains whopping six microclimates. The weather is temperate (around 18-24 whole year on average) on sea level. Especially the south part of the island is sunny. The north in comparison receives more rainfall and is colder.
In order to deal with the dryness of the south the Madeirans have constructed irrigation channels known as levadas. These transport water from the north to the south. They are also used to generate electricity. The construction began somewhere around 16th or 17th century. As a result they have well over 2000 kilometers of these around. Now they focus mainly on maintenance.
As Madeira is a part of Portugal it's currency is the Euro. This makes it extremely convenient for many Europeans to travel there. No need to deal with currency conversions. Standard ATM's seemed to work well too.
Especially the touristy parts of the island seemed a bit expensive to me. If you want to get good food cheaper, go where the locals go. One day I visited a sports bar of sorts and ate like a king for mere five euros (tip included!).
The same goes for souvenirs. Most of the shops seem to sell the generic tourist crud you see everywhere. There are some exceptions of course. If you keep your eyes open, you might be able to snatch something unique for a good price. It seems people are willing to bargain a bit if you come up with a nice offer (ie. three of these for n euros).
I'm not much of a gastronomist myself. You'll probably find pretty much anything to eat around here. You'll find a particularly good selection of meat and fish foods, however. Particularly espetadas (literally meat-on-a-stick) and espada (some kind of fish living deep in the ocean) based foods seemed popular.
I tended to favor omelettes and such. Also a burger based on local bread, bolo do caco, became a favorite of mine. You'll also find these filled with chorizo for a very decent price.
|Cat at the City|
One of the things that makes the island truly unique is its flora. The fauna isn't that interesting. You have a lot of indigenous lizards and some birds. Besides these you have the animals the man has brought to the island cats, dogs and rats included.
The flora you'll see on the island is likely very different you've seen before. This has to do with the fact that the ice ages haven't really touched the island. The flora you see here goes way back. As a result you'll see many common plants growing in monstrous proportions.
If you are a nature buff, you'll likely enjoy Madeira. The best way to experience the nature is to take a hike. Madeira is probably one of the ultimate hiking spots in the world. The weather is just perfect for that. And the sceneries are something out of a good painting.
A Hiker's Paradise
During my two weeks at Madeira I walked somewhere around 200 kilometers. Ran a bit too. That sure felt great! Sure, it was a bit hilly at times but it's not like I'm complaining. The organized walks I took felt quite easy, Pico Ruivo one included. I did see some tourists struggling a bit.
If you don't walk at Madeira, you'll be missing a lot. Caldeirao Verde, pictured at right, is one of these places. You'll have to walk there (around 13km trip to and fro). No other way. It actually looks a lot more impressive than that! The views on the route are just amazing too.
You'll probably save yourself a lot of headache by employing a local guide. I used mainly the services of Madeira Explorers and Madeira Adventure Kingdom. The guides were friendly and I really wouldn't mind participating on walks like these again.
Besides Caldeirao Verde and Pico Ruivo tour I would probably recommend checking out the eastern peninsula of the island. It provides the perfect opposite to the rest of the island. It's scenery is more like what you'll at Porto Santo rather than lush Madeira.
In addition to walks mentioned you'll likely find it interesting to explore Funchal by feet. There aren't as many parks as I would like and it can feel a bit too urban at times. Still, there's plenty to see.
Particularly the old town is interesting. It has experienced some kind of a renewal just a few years ago. Now it has been branded as the art center of Madeira and you'll see some artists around. There are also a few museums nearby. I wasn't really fond of the museum of modern art at Fort Sao Tiago (I guess I just don't get it). The building was nice, though.
|Cabo Girao (589m)|
Particularly Porto Santo was an amazing find. If you want a relaxing week or two at the beach, that seems like the place to go to. Besides that's the place where madeirans spend their vacation. Or so I heard. This wouldn't surprise me, though.
Madeira definitely left a lasting impression. Overall the trip was great. If you are considering where to spend your vacation at, keep Madeira in mind. It seems a good place to visit especially for an european.