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Portugal’s Madeira is a lush autonomous archipelago located in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa, some 400km west of Morocco and 968km from Lisbon.
Volcanic Madeira is the vibrant main island and the centre of tourism, and its main city Funchal is the region’s capital and the site of the international airport, but the administrative area also includes the islands of Porto Santo, the Desertas and the Savage Islands.
This is a subtropical paradise with natural scenery that ranges from pretty pebble beaches to verdant mountains and vertiginous cliffsides, not to mention a warm, inclusive culture that welcomes visitors from around the world.
With so much varied terrain to explore, it’s an amazing place to drive around and Enjoy has a range of reliable vehicles at your disposal. To get your engine running, read on for our fantastic guide to Madeira!
Currently a Volkswagen Up or similar (mini size) is just £17.03 a day in Madeira, an economy sized car like a Renault Clio is just £18.02 a day, while a Mercedes A-Class or similar (intermediate size) is only £31.13 a day and a premium-elite car like a BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe or similar is available at around £49 a day. Choose your vehicle online through Enjoy and you can confidently cruise around Madeira in complete comfort. Here’s a bit more about this idyllic part of the world:
About Madeira: these islands have been part of maritime lore for countless generations. Writing in 75AD, Greek philosopher Plutarch relates a tale of Roman military commander Quintus Sertorius, who passed away in around 73BC and was active in the Iberian peninsula, speaking to sailors about beautiful Atlantic islands off the west coast of Africa called the ‘Isles of the Blessed’.
Furthermore, archaeological evidence has been produced to suggest that the Vikings may have been present in the islands some time between 900 and 1030AD and these islands could be seen on European maps as early as 1339. But in many ways, the modern history of Madeira begins in 1418, when two sea captains under the authority of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were driven off course to an island which they named Porto Santo (Holy Island) because it provided them with life-saving sanctuary from being shipwrecked. The following year, a formal expedition set off on behalf of the Portuguese Crown and discovered the larger island of Madeira, which the first Portuguese settlers started to colonise in 1420-25. Subsequently, Henry the Navigator ordered various alternative crops to be planted in order to mitigate a crisis caused by a fall in Portuguese grain production, and by 1480 Madeira had a major sugar trade which attracted merchants from Sicily, Genoa and further afield. Portuguese sugar production shifted to locations like Brazil by the 17th Century and the islands’ most important export then became wine.
You can still drink rum made from local sugar in Madeira today and its wine is consumed worldwide, but tourism is a huge contributor to the regional economy and, at least in part, its roots can be traced back to 1894 when the renowned Reid’s Palace hotel in Funchal was opened. The vision of William Reid, a Scottish crofter who arrived in the vicinity in 1836, this elegant establishment based its customer service on quintessentially British traditions like afternoon tea, and over the years it’s welcomed luminaries like Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, David Lloyd George, and George Bernard Shaw. When Madeira Airport opened in 1963, it opened up the main island Madeira in particular to the mass tourism market and today’s visitors mainly come from the UK, Germany and Scandinavia, many arriving by plane but also by boat, because Funchal port has become a favourite stop-off point on Atlantic cruising routes. Apart from delicious cuisine, legendary hospitality and awe-inspiring scenery, you might like to try awesome activities like hiking, mountaineering, deep sea fishing and surfing.
Airport & Access:
Madeira Airport (FNC) is now officially called Christiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport, after the island’s most famous footballing son. A bronze bust of the iconic attacker was given pride of place at the airport until it was criticised by some for resembling former Irish captain Niall Quinn and replaced by a new statue which his family felt was more fitting ̶ decide for yourself if it’s a realistic depiction when you get there! Located 13km east-northeast of Funchal, the airport is Portugal’s 4th-busiest and its stilted runway is an impressive feat of structural engineering. This is one of the world’s most challenging airports for pilots to land at and they undertake specialist training to stay safe. Once you land at FNC you can pick up your pre-booked car from Enjoy and roll out to explore the rest of the island ̶ Funchal is only around 20 minutes away via the VR1 road and from there the rest of Madeira is your oyster.
Driving around Madeira: the terrain in Madeira is made for drivers and provided you drive with caution (especially around serpentine hillside roads) you’ll be rewarded by eye-popping scenery during every road trip ̶ here are a few highlights:
To explore the rugged and ravishing north coast of Madeira from Funchal, drive through eastern regions Santa Cruz and Machico (via the VR1) before turning back westwards onto the panoramic coastal road from Porto da Cruz to Porto Moniz (via the VE1/R101/R211/VE2). You’ll roll past impressive cliffs that fall from the mountains straight into the ocean and black sand beaches thrashed by white horse waves at surfing hotspot Seixal.
Alternatively, the west of the island is peppered with pretty fishing villages and offers stunning sunsets and further surfing spots. To explore this side, drive in a wonderful westerly loop from Funchal through Ribeira Brava, Ponta do Sol, Madalena do Mar, Calheta, Jardim do Mar, Paul do Mar and Ponta do Pargo (via R116/R115/VR1/R104/R105/VE2/VE4/R104). You can watch the sun melting into the sea at Jardim do Mar, see dolphins frolicking in the sea at Calheta and find out how rum is made at Engenho da Calheta (but don’t sample the product until you get home if you’re the designated driver!).
Famous Madeira: despite its diminutive size, Madeira has produced its fair share of famous inhabitants. For instance, 16th Century Portuguese navigator and naval officer Antonio de Abreu was born here in 1480 and headed the first European expedition to Indonesia’s Timor and Banda Islands in 1512, as was Menasseh Ben Israel (in 1604), a Portuguese rabbi, diplomat, writer and printer who established the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam in 1626.
The aforementioned Christiano Ronaldo overshadows most of Madeira’s most recent contributions to global celebrity, but 20th Century Portuguese poet Vasca Da Gama Rodriguez is also a Madeira native, as were British writer and women’s rights campaigner Alicia Little and founding member of post-punk band The Raincoats, Ana da Silva.
Guide to Madeira
Funchal is a fabulous city to visit ̶ its western sector is home to elegant expansive 20th Century boulevards, ancient lanes and picturesque squares sequester chic boutiques, cool cafes, sublime seafood restaurants and fascinating museums. Meanwhile, boho Zonha Velha is the main attraction in the city’s eastern sector ̶ previously a rundown fishing neighbourhood, it has been resurrected as a funky cultural quarter packed with brilliant bars, gorgeous galleries and eclectic eateries. The jewel in the crown of Zonha Velha is probably Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal’s bustling and buzzing farmer’s market, where you can see the region’s fantastic fruits and vegetables laid out lusciously and browse authentic local souvenirs at your leisure.
Sun, Sea and Sand
Most of Madeira’s beaches are black volcanic sand or sea-polished pebbles, but don’t let that put you off, because they’re still beautiful and their standards of cleanliness, water quality and temperatures are first-class. On the island of Madeira, hotspots include Ribeira Brava Central Beach, with its central location, canoeing facilities and football areas, the pristine pebble beach at Paul do Mar, with its restaurants, bars and surfing and watersports facilities, and the legendary natural rockpools of Porto Moniz, which have an otherworldly, somewhat lunar, appearance. However, if you’re based in the smaller island of Porto Santo, you can look forward to 7 miles of magnificent golden beaches and sand which is said to have therapeutic as well as aesthetic qualities!
Take a Hike!
If you’re feeling fit, Madeira is one of the world’s best places for vigorous hikes and walks. The PR1 trail from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo is a pretty good place to start ̶ it’s 7km each way, has a 300m ascent and connects Madeira’s two highest peaks. You pass through five tunnels and several heady viewpoints high above the clouds where the views over the mountainous vista are outstanding. Alternatively, the PR6 Levada das 25 Fontes trail is 4.8km each way with a much gentler gradient and takes you past two terrific waterfalls.
Things to do in and around Madeira
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
If palatial buildings and carefully curated flora from around the world float your boat, then you’ll love wandering around Monte Palace. Located in the luxurious outskirts of Funchal, this sprawling estate was originally created by English Consul Charles Murray in the 18th Century and has gone through various incarnations, including being a high-end hotel in the first half of the 20th Century. It was sold to entrepreneur Jose Manuel Rodrigues Bernardo in the late 1980s and promptly transformed into a lush 70,000 square metre playground permeated by koi-filled lakes, oriental statuary and exotic plants from every corner of the Earth.
CR7 Cristiano Ronaldo Museum
Whether you’re a fan of Ronaldo or simply appreciate ‘the beautiful game’ it’s worth popping into the museum dedicated to this local legend. Adjacent to the hotel that also bears his name at the Port of Funchal, here you’ll see unique memorabilia, interactive exhibits and stunning photographs that vividly convey the story of an all-time great player who has won 126 trophies in the course of a glittering global career. Highlights from the bulging trophy cabinet here include his two Ballons d’Or from 2008 and 2013 and the two Golden Boots from seasons 2007/08 and 2010/11.
If you’ve always wanted to try surfing but have never quite managed to hang ten on previous holidays, Madeira could be the perfect place to find your feet. There are superb surfing spots in several locations around the coast, but the SeaBookings surf school at Jardim do Mar is a nice place for novices to dip their toes into the water for the first time. Patient and professional surfing instructors will teach you to pop up on the board before guiding you gently towards white water where you can catch your first wave!
Eating out in Madeira
Being an island archipelago, you’d probably expect seafood to make a splash in cuisine in Madeira and you’d be right, but in the cafes and restaurants of Funchal and beyond, there’s something to satisfy every palate ̶ from sizzling steaks and on-point pastries to gourmet burgers brimming with tasty toppings.
The Ritz Madeira was founded back in 1905 and it’s one of the oldest grand cafes in Funchal and the ornate whitewashed exterior and plush interior provide an ambient setting that’s ideal for an afternoon cocktail on the terrace or a romantic evening meal. However, delicious dining is the main attraction ̶ try the lip-smacking Thai green curry, which tastes terrific either with tender chicken breast, or in its vegetarian version.
If you’re a confirmed carnivore, Zarcos is another Funchal spot favoured by foodies in the know. Various viands are on the menu but we can’t see past a melt in the mouth fillet steak with sumptuous peppercorn sauce ̶ wash it down with a couple of glasses of poncha, Madeira’s high-strength signature punch made from lemon, honey, sugar and aguardente de cana (distilled alcohol from sugar cane juice).
Genteel Afternoon Tea
As mentioned, afternoon tea at Reid’s Palace is a tradition you really shouldn’t leave Madeira without experiencing at least once. Tea is unlimited and you’re welcome to second helpings of delicious sandwiches and pastries, so it’s definitely value for money, and sipping a cuppa while you relax on the balcony in good company somehow simultaneously feels sophisticated and relaxed without being stuffy.
As mentioned, Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport (FNC) is the international airport for this autonomous Atlantic archipelago, but there’s also Porto Santo Airport, the domestic air hub on the island of the same name.
If you want to park up your car for a day and let a professional take on the driving duties, Madeira also has a reliable public bus system which can take you to any location in Funchal and attractions elsewhere on the island like Camacha, Santa Cruz and Santana, to name but a few destinations on the network.
To help you make the most of ridging in Madeira, we’ve gathered together a few tips to keep you safe and sound.
Madeirans drive on the right side of the road and so should you!
You’ll have gathered that there are many majestic coastal roads to cruise along here, but please be extremely careful, drive at a sensible speed and apply appropriate caution on blind corners and narrow cliffside sections.
The speed limit in villages and cities is 40-50km/h and 90 km/h on motorways.
Seatbelts are mandatory at all times and children under 12 years old aren’t permitted to sit in the front of vehicles.
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