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  • Tony

Madeira in December

Updated: Jan 2

December 2023

This month, we traveled to the Portuguese Island of Madeira, an archipelago of 4 islands in the Atlantic located south of the Portuguese mainland just west of the African Continent and Morocco. The island is known for its namesake wine, warm, subtropical climate, pebbly beaches, and Lava rock-seawater swimming pools. The main island is dubbed the Hawaii of Europe due to its volcanic origin, lush greenery, and rugged cliff topography. The capital, Funchal, has a lively historic center and expansive botanic gardens and is known for its harbor, Christmas Lights, and extravagant New Year's fireworks show.

There are no direct flights to Madeira from Faro, although we hear that they will become available in 2024. We opted to fly out of Lisbon, a short hour-and-a-half flight direct to Funchal but a two-and-a-half-hour drive from our house to Lisbon. When flying from Lisbon, we usually drive from our house and leave our car at the airport. We decided to try the "Flix Bus" from Portimao for this trip based on recommendations from others who have used it. The coaches were clean, comfortable, and well-equipped for the three-hour and ten-minute trip, with one stop along the way. We drove our car to the Portimao bus station and parked there for free while we were away. The bus takes you to the Orient station in Lisbon, and then it's a 20-minute metro ride direct to the airport. The appeal of the bus, along with not having to drive, is its low cost, 7.99 euros each way per person. Three hours is a long time to sit on a bus, so I am not sure we will repeat this form of transportation.

Lisbon airport is a mess at any time of the year. Everything from construction to impromptu strikes by various workers unions, not to mention that it is significantly over capacity for what it was designed for. You always have to allow for a significant time cushion whether arriving or departing from here. The government has been "researching" options to expand or relocate the airport for years to improve capacity and reduce passenger frustration. It probably won't happen in our lifetime, so we'll deal with it. On the other hand, Funchal was busy but efficient, and who could fault an airport with a spectacular ocean view like this?

We arrived early in the evening, checked in to our hotel, and walked the surrounding area to find a light dinner.

We stayed at the Cliff Bay Hotel on the Estrada Monumental, an area of hotels and resorts about a 20-minute walk to the marina and the old center of Funchal. The balcony of our room faced the Marina, Funchal Bay, and the distant Ilhas Desertas, providing a fantastic view at any time of the day. We could watch the cruise ships, fishing boats, and leisure boats coming and going, in addition to the sunrise over the distant islands.

To start our first full day, we met Madeira residents and fellow ex-pats Gary and Steph for Brunch. We were introduced to them over Whats App by a friend in common who we met in Portimao. They love living in Madeira and were happy to share valuable insights and recommendations with us. Great people that we are happy to now call friends. We spent the rest of the day exploring Funchal on foot.

The Mercado Lavradores (Farmers Market) is a top destination for the colorful displays, fresh tropical fruits, Food stalls/restaurants and of course souvenirs.

The painted doors are a must see in Funchal. Wander down the narrow streets in old town (Zona Velha) lined with restaurants and shops and admire the art created on the doors of functioning and abandoned building doors.

Poncha is a traditional Madeira drink. You will find Poncha bars everywhere serving this refreshing concoction. It's made with Aguardente de cana (Sugar cane distilled alcohol, most made in at-home stills), honey, sugar, fresh orange or lemon rind, and juice pounded to a pulp with a traditional Poncha stick mixed and served.

We rode the cable car from just near the marina up to Monte, one of the spectacular botanic gardens in the foothills. We didn't have time to explore the Botanical gardens but did take advantage of a Toboggan ride down the hill from near the gardens.

We hired a private Range Rover tour of the island for our third day in Madeira. Our new friends, Gary and Steph, recommended Hit the Road Madeira. They have used them often, and when they can, they select Hugo as their driver and guide. We secured Hugo for our full-day trip, and as a double bonus, Gary and Steph came with us, too. It was priceless to get both Hugo's and Gary & Stephs's perspectives on the island. We asked Hugo to take us to places that we wouldn't experience on our own or be able to get to in our rental car. He did not disappoint. Hugo is also quite the character. You can follow his antics and videos @ Madeirahugowego on Instagram. 

This stop at Teleférico das Fajãs do Cabo Girão provided an exceptional view of the coastline/cliffs both east and west, along with the farm at the bottom of the tram. This stop was an excellent alternative to the crowded glass observation deck of Cabo Girão Skywalk just up the road. It is far less touristy, and you can experience several activities here. A viewing platform or take the cable car down to Cabo Girao and grab a nice lunch at "the Top" with a fantastic view. Parking is challenging, so you may need to find a spot on the narrow/steep street to park and walk in. The trio in the picture below is Gary and Steph, with Hugo in the middle.

We continued the journey along the western coast.

We then headed up steep, narrow roads on our shortcut over the mountain to the North side. Gary told us about driving in Madeira; an array of tunnels and highways cut through the mountains, making travel far more efficient than before. He also said if you see a narrow road with steps down the middle or one that is just dirt, avoid them. This was not how Hugo felt as he kicked "the Beast" into all-wheel drive and proceeded to climb both steep, narrow roads with steps and even steeper narrow dirt trails with the remains of fallen trees and deep ruts in the road. When we reached the top, it was a nice break to stop for a Puncha and some traditional homemade Bolo de molo de mel Cake at Rochaos Bar, Arco da Calheta, as a reward.

Our next stop was down a makeshift dirt road to a spectacular cliff-top view of the canyon and town of Seixal below, then just down the road to the Fanal Forest. People love this place for a mystical experience of the fog and ancient Laurel trees. The old trees were certainly present during our visit, but not a hint of fog. Seeing the ancient trees and the surrounding views is still pretty cool. The trio in the picture below is Gary and Steph, with Hugo in the middle.

Still on the north, we stopped in Porto Moniz for Lunch @ Hotel Aqua Natura, Porto Moniz, Miradouro Ilheus da Ribeira da Janela, Seixal, Sao Vicente, and our last stop for a Poncha and snack at Tasquinha da Poncha in Serra de Aqua before descending back into Funchal.

In addition to the cliffs, rock formations, and lush greenery, two other things stood out on the island. First, the terraces! The hillsides, and I mean cliff-like hillsides, were covered with stacked rock terraces. I imagine they were built decades if not centuries, ago to support crops where the water was available; they are a site to see and to think about who made them and the effort it took. Second, you will find ocean water pools in many seaside towns and some resorts. Some are manufactured concrete structures, while others are natural coves that are now controlled to allow enough seawater in. Only a few braved the cooler waters of December while we were there, but I can imagine that the pools are crowded in the summer when the water is more tropical.

On day four we drove on our own toward the east side then to the north. We stopped at one of the most popular hiking trails Ponta de São Lourenço or the Dragon's Tail. A bit too crowded for us so we continued on.  

As we headed North we stopped at Porto da Cruz, Faial, Miradouro da Rocha do Navio, Praia da Alagoa, and the Engenhos do Norte, North Mills Rum Distillery.

From there we dove through Santana, Sao Jorge, Ponta Delgada, to our final stop for a late lunch and spectacular views at Miradouro de São Cristovão and lunch @ Sao Cristovao restaurant, Boaventura