It’s a good place for thrill-seekers too, with activities, which give the essential adrenaline rush such as mountain biking, canyoning and paragliding. If your idea of a holiday is to walk and look at plants though, Madeira’s volcanic soil means that almost anything can, and does, grow on the island.
The numerous botanical gardens, feature both tropical and indigenous plants making the trip to Madeira worthwhile for budding plantsmen. Located at about three miles above the town centre of Funchal, there is the Botanical Garden, which has over two thousand exotic plants both endemic and from all over the world such as Orchids, Magnolias, Azaleas, Palms, Ferns and Cacti.
A must-do when in Madeira is to visit, the Mercado dos Lavradores. This is a wonderful covered market in the centre of Funchal and the place where the locals buy food. You’ll be amazed by the stalls selling an amazing array of fish, including the shiny black scabbard fish, which is snake-like, and just over 1m long with bulging eyes and fang-like teeth!
You’ll also find, that the market is a treasure trove of local vegetables and fruits including bananas, mango, avocado, papaya, custard apples and the fruits of monstera deliciosa (yes the houseplant), which tastes like a banana crossed with pineapple. Well worth trying are the different hybrids of passion fruit, which have fantastic flavours
While most of the hotels and attractions are centred around Funchal, to get a more authentic taste of island life it’s best to head out to a picturesque fishing village such as Winston Churchill’s favourite painting spot – Camara de Lobos – or go further inland to the quiet and beautiful village of Prazeres, which is surrounded by mountains and lush eucalyptus forests.
Madeira is warm all year-round with temperatures rarely rising above 30C or falling below 16C, making it a great winter destination. Whilst even in the summer you could be battling chilly drizzle one minute and sunbathing on the beach the next – it’s this climate that makes lush and green with plenty of exotic blooms.
Most Madeirans drink poncho, a potent, sweet concoction made from fermented sugar-cane juice and fruit – give it a try and also the locally produced wine. Seafood too is plentiful and one of the specialties is black scabbard – an ugly, but exceptionally tasty fish – with a side of bananas. Another specialty is espetada – large chunks of beef rubbed in garlic and salt, skewered on to a bay leaf and cooked over hot coals.
The ugly, black scabbard is an ugly but exceptionally tasty fish
Another reason to take a trip to this beautiful island is that Madeirans love a party and there are festivals all year round. The week long, Medeira Carnival Festival (19-26 February 2020) is an extravaganza of parades and parties..
The Festa da Flores (2 – 19 May 2019) is a celebration of spring and one of the island’s biggest festivals with colourful parades and cultural events (photo:visitmadeira.pt)
Madeirans also push the boat out over Christmas and New Year and during this festive season Funchal is filled with spectacular illuminations.
Food-lovers will love the annual Rota das Estrelas festival of gastronomy. It’s usually held in February and brings together leading chefs from across Europe.
Here are some of my favorite places to explore
Ponta de São Lourenço is one of the most interesting places on the island, with a stunning arid landscape.
Head to the Pico Ruivo Trail to Pico do Areeiro if you like hiking, you’ll enjoy the trail between the two highest points of the island.
The landscape around the leavada of 25 fontes is dominated by moorland, which includes Erica arborea and Erica scoparia ssp maderensis as well as Madeiran whortleberry, Vaccinium padifolium. This vegetation changes as altitude lowers, with other species predominating, including the rare mountain Pittosporum coriaceum.
The beautiful levadas on the island, are an enjoyable walk with wonderful waterfalls
If you like hiking I can recommend walking any of the trails of narrow stone irrigation channels known as levadas. One of the most scenic is the Levada do Caldeirao Verde, which meanders four miles past leafy glades and plunging ocean views before emerging into a clearing sprinkled by a 91m waterfall.
At Cabo Girão there are 589 metres of cliff from the top of the mountain to the sea – a great view if you don’t suffer from vertigo! Another great view is at Miradouro das Cabanas, which looks down onto the village of Arco de São Jorge
One of the best places to buy regional products is in Casas de Santana, which has typical Madeiran houses or in the Mercado dos Lavradores.
The village of Curral das Freiras is surrounded by an amphitheater of jagged mountains. Aside from the dramatic scenery, the place is renowned for chestnuts gathered from the forested lower slopes. In season, they’re eaten roasted in the street, or you’ll find them on the menu in dishes such as chestnut soup, roast baby goat with chestnuts and chestnut pudding, which can be washed down with chestnut liqueur.
Madeira’s Botanical Garden, which overlooks Funchal, is home to a fascinating collection of a wide variety of plants. It also has an area dedicated to research and conservation
Just outside the Monte Palace Tropical Garden you can “enjoy” taking a thrill ride – speeding at around 30mph downhill in basket sledges, steered by two local men – it takes less than 5 minutes to reach bottom of the hill! These sledges were once used to transport Bananas etc. from the mountain to the city, which is 2km below!
Finally, the costly Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel is my favourite place for a special and romantic dinner as the food and the views are outstanding
For more information visit www.madeira-tourist.com, which also features live webcams.