In this second and final part of our travel series on Madeira, Portugal, we showcase the island’s spectacular natural landscape and unique biodiversity. On a road trip from south to north, we learn why Madeira has been called a ‘world leading island destination‘ and how progress in this paradise has come at a cost.

 

A World Leading Island Destination

If Africa and Europe had an intimate affair, their resulting ‘love child’ might look something like Madeira.

Madeira, Portugal | A World Leading Island Destination

Situated 360 miles Northwest from Morocco or 600 miles Southwest from Lisbon (depending on your world view), Madeira combines characteristics of both continents; the luxury of a year-round subtropical climate with a 600-year-old Portuguese culture.

Our first attempt to visit Madeira was back in 2015 when a particularly cold British winter sent us searching for warmer climates close enough to Europe. However, as most people seem to have the same ‘winter escape’ idea around that time of year, the resulting effect is a seasonal surge in travel costs to Madeira.

In addition, Madeira’s world famous New Year’s Eve fireworks and festivities make it a seasonal magnet for visitors.

We ended up visiting two years later after selecting Madeira as our destination of choice for our Creative Entrepreneurs Retreat.

 

Why road trips in Madeira are special

Although year-round temperatures on the island average between 16℃ and 30℃, with six micro-climates, the weather on Madeira can be temperamental; it is not uncommon for bright sunshine to be interrupted by the odd rain shower.

Madeira, Portugal | View from Caniçal

After spending our first day enjoying an informative food tour in Funchal, Madeira’s capital city, we were eager to explore further afield on our second day. The dark clouds hanging over our residence in Calheta, a suburb in the southwestern part of the island, did little to dampen our excitement.

Our expectations were a blank canvas as we set out with our travel buddies from Versatile Travelers, to paint our own mental picture of Madeira.

https://www.versatiletravelers.com/

The easternmost point on the map, near Caniçal, seemed like a good destination and so we piled into their car, turned up the volume on a soulful Afro-beat Spotify playlist and allowed ourselves to be seduced by Madeira’s beauty.

HDYTI Tip: Use our Esplorio map to follow our journey across Madeira

Road trips are special in Madeira for two reasons: the captivating scenery and the ease of movement.

Before the 90s, it was quite difficult to travel across the island’s basic single-carriage coastal roads. However, with the help of European Union (EU) subsidies, the island’s transportation infrastructure now boasts an impressive road and tunnel network which significantly cuts journey times.

As we chased the sun eastwards, the images of lush-green terraces, banana plantations, cloud-covered mountains and ocean cliffs plunging into the azure-blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean all combined to leave indelible brush strokes on the canvas of our imagination.

Road Trip through Santana, Madeira, Portugal

HDYTI tip: Road trips are a great way to explore the island. Ignoring daredevil Portuguese drivers, driving in Madeira is relatively easy and well worth the effort.

 

Landscapes and sunsets

Approaching Caniçal, the landscape assumed a drier and desert-like hue; a dramatic transformation which saw tropical palm trees replacing pines and barren rocks dominating the horizon.

Madeira, Portugal | Ponta de São Lourenço

Our route took us past the gigantic pillars supporting the runway of Madeira’s international airport. Madeira has very few flat surfaces and so a bit of engineering wizardry was required to construct a functional airport.

HDYTI Tip: At their worst, strong Atlantic winds buffeting the island can result in flight delays and cancellations. Check with your airline before you head to the airport.

While strong winds might be disadvantageous to aircraft, they provide a natural source of renewable energy which Madeira has exploited to become a pioneer in Portugal’s quest to replace fossil fuels.

Madeira, Portugal | View from Caniçal

Stopping first at Caniçal to immerse ourselves in the natural environment, our road trip led us to Ponta de São Lourenço where a number of hiking trails begin. Our group briefly debated hiking inland to one of several rock outcrops. However, with the early pangs of hunger approaching, the consensus was to move on.

This new quest saw us heading north from Caniçal towards Santana, one of the oldest settlements in Madeira. Farmhouses seemingly appearing out of the mountains hinted at the agricultural character of the region.

After some wholesome food at a sleepy little village restaurant, we found a bottle of Madeiran wine and a prime viewing point at Ponta Delgada where we witnessed a dramatic sunset over the island’s wild north coast.

Madeira, Portugal | Sunset view at Ponta Delgada, São Vicente

 

Climbing mountains: A different type of safari

With our curiosity piqued, the next day we ditched the car in Funchal and joined local tour guide and Madeiran native, Hugo Vasconcelos of Green Devil Safari for a private 4×4 jeep safari tour.

The tour traced a loop from Funchal through the mountains of Paul da Serra towards Porto Moniz in the north west.

Waterfalls in Madeira | North West Jeep Safari with Green Devil Safari

A world traveller himself, Hugo proved to be well grounded in history, botany and geography. His enthusiasm for the island, a keen eye for detail and natural sense of adventure provided us with a more intimate, off-the-beaten path experience than we would have managed on our own.

Avoiding the main tourist sites, we were introduced to ‘secret’ coves, alien-shaped black boulder beaches and ancient Levadas (irrigation canals hand-carved into the mountainside).

We chased waterfalls that plunged straight into the ocean, dipped our toes into lava-formed natural pools and marvelled at the unusual vegetation and plant life.

Porto Moniz, North West coast of Madeira

Hugo’s jeep demonstrated surprising agility on the windy and jarring mountain roads as we ascended Estanquinhos (1,607m) for one of the many highlights of the safari: an above-the-clouds view Pico Ruivo (the highest peak in the Madeira archipelago).

View of Pico Ruivo with Green Devil Safari, Madeira

Unfairly labelled as a destination for retirees, much of Madeira remains largely untouched by mass tourism. This creates opportunities for entrepreneurs like Hugo to provide authentic and exciting experiences.

Tired but satisfied after our jeep safari, Hugo sent us off with a traditional poncha salute as we promised to return to Madeira for another outdoor adventure.

HDYTI Tip: There are no natural sand beaches on Madeira. Visitors wanting to combine a beach holiday with their trip should consider a boat transfer to the nearby island of Porto Santo (part of the Madeira archipelago) which boasts a long natural golden-sand beach.

 

Progress in paradise comes at a cost

Statistics for the local tourism industry show year-on-year to growth (tourism accounts for approximately 20% of the island’s gross domestic product (GDP). In fact, industry group World Travel Awards have named Madeira as the ‘World’s Leading Island Destination’ for two years in a row.

Ribeira da Janela, Madeira, Portugal | Green Devil Safari

In line with this growth, the island’s infrastructure has undergone significant transformation including the construction of cruise ship ports. Although Madeira has shed her past image as one of the poorer regions of the EU, this has come at a cost – massive public debt (estimated to be €6b as of 2012).

Road Trip through Santana, Madeira, Portugal

Madeira has recently come under criticism for what the EU describes as a failure to build a competitive economy despite the significant spend on infrastructure.

Increased taxes, a regime of austerity and a move towards sustainability are the ways in which the central Portuguese government is responding to this imbalance.

Ribeira da Janela, North West coast of Madeira

The criticism we discovered wasn’t just from the EU.

Over dinner, a random conversation with a retired, expat British/French couple who seemed keen to talk, revealed their disdain for Madeira’s subsidy dependent economy.

They cited spending on what they termed as Madeira’s ‘vanity infrastructure projects’ as an example of why wealthier countries like Britain were justified in wanting to leave the EU via Brexit.

Funchal, Madeira | A World Leading Island Destination

They, however, failed to see the hypocrisy in their view.

Here they were, living in Madeira, enjoying the benefits of freedom of movement, open borders and improved infrastructure, yet advocating economic isolation. We were rather bemused by their insistence on their right to have their cake and eat it too.

 

But paradise remains as attractive as ever!

It may take more than renaming Funchal airport after local boy and Real Madrid star, Cristiano Ronaldo to sort out Madeira’s debts.

Nevertheless, the real stars of this island, its enchanting natural beauty, excellent cuisine and friendly people remain as attractive as ever.

Funchal, Madeira | A World Leading Island Destination

Besides who cares about politics when you can find a quiet spot somewhere in the terraced mountains around Madeira and paint your own unforgettable images of this island.

Don’t take our word for it. Go and see for yourself and tell us what you think.

Madeira, Portugal | Scenery of North Coast | Ponta Delgada, São Vicente

Disclaimer: We enjoyed a complimentary jeep tour with Green Devil Safari. However, all opinions expressed remain ours.

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Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).

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