On The Other Side of The Atlantic
That’s how long it takes to fly from Lisbon to Madeira. It’s a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, covered in lush green banana trees and rows of red rooftops. Ok I’ll admit that I wasn’t prepared for the hills of Lisbon, but I was prepared for Madeira! I originally wanted to rent a car for better access to the whole island, but after reading several articles and blogs about driving in Madeira, it just didn’t sound safe. Plus, I don’t know how to drive manual and automatics were more expensive to rent than manuals. Madeira is a mountain itself so there are steep hills and plenty of winding roads. Sometimes, to get from point A to point B requires a cable car ride because cars can’t reach it!
Once again, we stayed at a Airbnb and it took us a while to choose an apartment. There were so many options and they were all reasonably priced. Some were by the coast, some had a pool and some had rooftops. We ended up living closer to the heart of the island, Funchal, because there was easy access to transportation and restaurants. Just an FYI, you won’t be spending much time in the heart of Funchal because all the great things to see and do are located all over the island!
MADEIRA 101 - Tips
Schedule your airport transfers to avoid any delays! If a local like your Airbnb host can do it for you, trust them! I had a faulty reservation and my driver didn't show up at 4AM and we struggled to get a cab. We ended up calling every cab available online and a guy name Miguel raced us to the airport! It was a bit scary considering all the twists and turns on the road.
Don’t fall for tourist traps. In the heart of Funchal, restaurant staff will try very hard to lure you in. Do your research ahead and know where you want to go eat and what to eat. I'll share restaurant highlights in a few days.
Don’t buy anything at the fruit market because it's overpriced and I guarantee you that it won’t taste like anything you imagine it to be. I’m referring to the passion fruits that you’ve been reading about and have been so excited to try. We couldn't resist and spent 20€ on inedible fruit (ie. the 6 types of passion fruit, banana pineapple). We tried looking for other shops that sell passion fruits but were in no luck.
If you plan to hike, bring a sweatshirt or a light coat because it gets in the mountains. Actually, if you plan to visit the North of the island, it's a few degrees lower than the southern coast.
You will most likely need a car to get around the island unless you do private tours. As I mentioned before, majority of the island drives manual. There are some automatics at the car rental but they are way more expensive. We decided to do a private tour around the island and this was more cost efficient for us and we learned a lot along the way. We chose our own route!
They grow a lot of bananas, you'll see them as you're driving around the island. I was very tempted to ask the driver to pull over and I can pluck one off the tree...
The drink of Madeira is Poncha and they also make their own type of wine! Poncha is a punch made with sugar cane, Brandy, and lemon juice (or any other fruit juice). When it's made right, it's super delicious and strong. Bring home a few bottles of local Poncha to share with your friends!
WHERE TO GO
You might want to spend at least 3 full days on the island to fully get an experience of the culture. Spend half a day in Funchal, getting to explore the old town and then get out of the center and perhaps go to one of their private beaches. There's so much to do on every coast of Madeira and below is a short list.
Sao Vincente Caves - if you’ve never been in a cave or gone caving, this could be a cool experience! The whole experience is about 60 mins (30 mins in cave, 30 mins interactive media). I’d recommend this more for families with kids.
Pico Ruivo - This it the highest peak of the island and it involves a strenuous hike. It's totally worth it an you should plan to spend more than half a day hiking. Depending on which route you take, you might have a shorter hike. You can also start your hike from Pico Arieiro. The path is narrow but you'll be fine and you'll be glad you did it afterwards.
Porto Moniz Natural Pool - this was my favorite part because I never the Atlantic Ocean could be this clean! The barriers for the pool are volcanic rocks (and they paved a walkway so you could walk on it obviously) and the water was so refreshing. The water was about 60 degrees and outside was 70, which was pretty cold, but we knew we had to jump in no matter what. No regrets whatsoever. It’s still the ocean so it does get deep as you get further out. This used to be free, but they started to charge 1.50€ recently.
Cape Girao - this is the highest glass cliff in Europe. Go on a clear day so you can look under and see where the water meets the mountain. If you go early enough, before the crowds, it’s quite peaceful looking out into nothing but blue water and sky. This is free!
Faja dos Padres - this is another beach and small town not too far from Cape Girao. If you plan for this, I would recommend taking the almost-180-degree cable car down to the beach. There is not other way to reach Faja dos Padres other than this cable car. We didn’t get to go since it wasn’t part of our itinerary but it was cool watching the cable descend 200+ meters onto the beach.
25 Waterfalls or ANY waterfalls - I have a newfound interest for waterfalls and there are plenty in Madeira. The most famous one is called 25 Waterfalls, and it takes about 2 hours to hike from where you park your car to the waterfalls.
WHAT TO EAT
Scabbard Fish - this was the first thing that our driver from the airport told us to eat. This is the fish of Madeira. I didn’t believe the driver when he said it was an ugly fish till I saw it for myself at the market. It’s a long black fish with giant bulging eyes. I had it everyday I was in Madeira! It’s usually prepared as a fillet either fried or grilled.
Bananas - why? I have bananas at home... Just know that bananas are the most abundant fruits in Madeira. As you’re driving through the island, you’ll notice banana trees everywhere and sugar canes.
Milho frito (Corn Fritters) - we were confused when they arrived because we weren’t sure what to expect. I was honestly thinking I ordered Roll-N-Roasters corn fritters! The Madeiran corn fritters were pretty much corn meal packed into a cube and fried. I had to dip it in sauce because it was too bland.
Limpets (Shellfish) - these caught my eye because I’ve never seen such a beautiful shell. It has a black shell, similar shape to a clam but double the size, and it was glistening with blue streaks like a pearl! The meat itself looked weird but I tried it anyways. It has a chewy texture but definitely tasty since it’s grilled with garlic butter.
Bolo do Caco (Madeira bread) - if you’re curious, then try it, but I wasn’t amazed... If you eat it alone, it’s dry but most places spread garlic butter on it once it’s toasted. The texture reminded me of English Muffins.
Passion Fruit flavored anything - Do yourself a favor and go to the supermarket to check out all the things you can't find in America. I love spending time in supermarkets when I'm in a foreign country. Call me lame, but you can find the coolest and most unique products here!