Thousands of people each year cast their gaze out to the great blue of the Atlantic Ocean and wonder: Is Madeira worth visiting? It’s easy to see why. This rugged isle is something spectacular. It rises from the frothing waves in a series of serrated mountain ranges that form daggers of rock in the often-cloudless skies. Below are whitewashed villages dressed in attractive Baroque turrets and churches, complete with black-sand beaches smashed by the swells.
And, as if that’s still not enough, Madeira sits on the same parallel as Bermuda. Translation: The weather is rather sunny and balmy all year round, while the highlands draw enough rain to make for excellent hiking and tasty farm-to-table foods. Then you get the whale watching, the bird spotting, the canyoneering, the wine tasting – the list goes on and on!
If you’re one of the many who has been wondering is Madeira worth visiting, be sure to read on. This list pinpoints seven reasons why Portugal’s Atlantic Ocean archipelago should be a serious contender on most people’s bucket lists, ranging from the food to the backcountry to the unique human culture. Let’s begin…
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Is Madeira worth visiting for the climate? If you’re asking, go grab the atlas. Open it up to North Africa and draw a line across from Safi in Morocco to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Bingo: That’s Madeira, sat perfectly on the same latitude as northern India, the state of Mississippi, and even the Baja California. What unites all those? Well…let’s just say you’ll be needing the sunscreen a whole lot!
Yep, Madeira is warm. Average temperatures in the summer see regular peaks of over 85 F (30 C). On top of that, rainfall counters can drop to almost zero in the peak months of July and August, which are the perfect times to come if you’re all about lazing by the poolside and soaking up the rays.
Overall, though, we’d probably recommend planning a jaunt to Madeira in the shoulder seasons of spring or fall. The rains do pick up a little then, but it’s nowhere near as scorching. That means it’s high time for hiking expeditions. Oh, and the summer crowds from Europe haven’t descended in earnest, so rates for flights and hotels will tend to be a touch less.
Some fantastic hotels
Madeira’s been something of a tourist hotspot for years. It’s packed with hotels and accommodations of all shapes and sizes, to suit all manner of budget. In fact, Booking.com shows that the island has a whopping 2,180 different places to stay up its sleeve, so finding somewhere unique shouldn’t be too much of a chore.
Luxury lovers won’t be shy on places that get the pampering going from the moment you check in. Look to the likes of the five-star Pestana Park Hotel for that. It’s home to a glorious infinity pool that makes it hard to see where the Atlantic begins and the chlorine water ends, along with a grand on-site casino. Alternatively, you could plump for the opulent Saccharum – Resort & Spa. It’s a Savoy signature hotel, built dramatically under a craggy cove beside Praia da Calheta.
For adventurers looking to hike and bike their way through Madeira’s mountains, there’s the rustic farm stays of Quinta da Moscadinha and Casas da Levada, each with pools in the wooded hills away from the coast. Budget backpackers also have a place on Madeira, thanks mainly to the boho-chic dorms of Jaca Hostel Porto da Cruz.
Enjoyments on the water
It should hardly come as a surprise that the ocean really defines the archipelago of Madeira. It surrounds these lands on all sides, after all. What’s more, the nearest major land mass is a whopping 450 miles away in North Africa. Cue all sorts of water sports, water activities and marine safaris…
The most popular of the lot has to the be the whale watching. Madeira is a veritable mecca for seeing the giants of the seas. Come between April and October to give yourself the best chance to spot them. Then, you can head out on day-long or half-day cruises from Machico harbor to encounter cetaceans of all sorts, from colossal sperm whales to humpbacks and bottlenose dolphins.
Those who prefer donning the neoprene and going under for themselves can opt for a spot of scuba. Diving is becoming increasingly popular on these islands, especially thanks to the pristine underwater reefs around Funchal. They include the rugged volcanic rocks of Ponta da Oliveira, which teem with everything from barracuda to scorpionfish, turtles to manta rays.
Madeira is a hiker’s dream come true. You’ll probably be able to tell that from the window on the plane when you jet in. The whole place is draped over the tip of a pre-historic shield volcano, which begins deep below on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. That geological origin, coupled with thousands of years of erosion and attrition, has carved out a place that’s riddled with paths and peaks there for the taking.
One of the routes stands out from the crowd. It’s known as the Vereda do Arieiro and tops out at a heady 1,862 meters above sea level. On that, you’ll traverse paths cut into sheer cliffsides and scramble up rough-stone staircases to flowering meadows on the slopes of the Pico do Ruivo. For visions of misty waterfalls, meanwhile, you simply can’t beat the Levada do Caldeirao Verde, which ends at a huge cataract crashing into a deep gorge.
There’s also more easy-going walking on the coastline of Madeira for those who’d prefer not to pull on the pro hiking gear and get out the poles. Check out the so-called ‘levada walks’ (walks that run next to irrigation channels) in and around Funchal if that’s you.
Is Madeira worth visiting for the scenery alone? Let’s put it this way: Madeira will take the breath away. Seriously, this island chain is a stunner of a place. It rises to almost 2,000 meters as it lurches like a sleeping giant from the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes crashing through the clouds, other times dropping to vine-strewn gorges where meadows bloom with laurel forests and rowan bushes like they’re in some hidden Shangri-La.
A few of the spots are simply not to be missed if you’re here to chase the views. First, head to the Vereda dos Balcões. It’s one of the high points on a levada walk through the center of eastern Madeira, offering sweeping panoramas of forest-clad peaks that shimmer in 10,000 shades of emerald-green. We also love the wave-smashed reaches of the Ponta do Rosto, out on the far eastern cape of the island.
If you can, a trip over to the Deserta Grande Island won’t disappoint, either. It’s a rough sail that usually means you’ll need to book onto an organized tour. But the reward is a whole massif of stone and rock that shoulders out of the sea, often plumed in mists of salt and vapor. Incredible stuff.
The food & wine
Madeira’s unique position in the middle of the Atlantic, between Africa and Europe, has helped to nurture a distinct cuisine and cooking tradition. Drawing heavily on the proximity and the bounty of the sea, but also the lush interiors of the islands, dishes here tend to be a mix of the exotic and the homely, the Iberian and the Caribbean.
Examples include the scabbard fish with banana, or the tuna with maize mash. Those sit alongside onion soups and tomato gazpacho in the taverns of Funchal and other towns. For dessert, passion fruit often features center stage. It’s packed into puddings and sauces to give a sharp and sour hit of the sort of vines that Madeira’s inland farms can grow in abundance.
Then you have the tipples. Most wine aficionados will know these islands for their sweet dessert wines, which get their flavor from a long ageing process known locally as estufagem. The best labels of all go through that for over 100 years, which means you could taste something today that was corked up before WWII – if you’re willing to pay for it, that is!
Let’s put it simply: Madeira is an adventure-travel mecca. This island can sometimes seem tailor-made for getting out and about in nature. There are pursuits in the hills and on the water, along with a few uber-daring options that will take you above the clouds and into the Madeiran skies (vertigo sufferers, avoid that paragliding!).
Let’s start with the interior. Trail running paths have been laid down in recent years to cater for the highland joggers. They include the verdant but relatively easy-going Larano Trail on the north coast and the challenging Porto da Cruz at the higher elevations in the heart of the main island. On top of that, you’ll find more mountain biking than you can shake a Madeiran wine at, although many of the MTB passes are suited to expert riders only.
The Atlantic Ocean calls those who prefer to kayak and sail. Rentals and charters are on offer from a whole array of small marinas around the south coast and Funchal. We especially love the canoe route along the rock walls of the Ponta de São Lourenço. It’s the easternmost part of the island, complete with sheer-cut cliffs, rare seabirds, and even resident dolphin pods.
So, is Madeira worth visiting?
If you asked is Madeira worth visiting, we certainly hope that this guide has got you a-reaching for the passport and packing for the trip of a lifetime. Because that’s what this far-flung speckling of islands in the Atlantic Ocean offers.
Jaws will drop from the very outset, when you lay eyes on the jagged mountain peaks that carve and cut their way around the inland of Madeira and its near neighbor of Deserta Grande. Then you get to uncover the endless hiking and biking trails that pierce those summits, along with scuba diving spots in Funchal, and whale watching opportunities during the summer. Yep, there’s certainly no shortage of adventure on offer.
But Madeira also has R&R by the bucket load. Fantastic honeymoon hotels and eco lodges await with swimming pools overlooking the ocean. There are wineries that have been around for centuries. And you’ll get to gorge on tasty Madeiran dishes well into the evening. Lovely stuff.