#TravelTuesday: Move Over Azores, The Madeira Islands are Portugal’s Hottest New Destination

by Judy Koutsky on May 17, 2022 in Travel,
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The main island of the Madeira Archipelago is called Madeira and is known for its amazing cuisine (think freshly-caught seafood); its rugged beauty (great for hiking and other outdoor adventure) and great cultural and spa options.

The Madeira Archipelago is a group of Portuguese islands located in the north Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy Visit Madeira

This enchanting group of islands is located in the Atlantic Ocean about 600 miles from mainland Europe and a little over 300 miles from Morocco, northern Africa.

Madeira is a part of Portugal and has mild temperatures year around. While many Americans know the Azores (another group of Portuguese islands), the Madeiran islands are not as well known. However, with new direct flights from the United States, these islands are sure to attract more and more American tourists.

Funchal is the main city in Madeira and has beautiful gardens and cobble stone streets. Photo courtesy Visit Madeira

Hotels and Spa in Madeira

The capital of Madeira is Funchal, a city located on the island’s south coast. It’s smart to pick a hotel in Funchal and plan day trips to various parts of the island.

Pestano Carlton Madeira

The Pestana Carlton Madeira has a great location right on the ocean with direct access to the water. It’s also walking distance to downtown Funchal (with its famous cobblestone streets and painted doors) and plenty of nearby restaurants and shops. The property has stunning views as it’s located on a cliff overlooking the bay of Funchal. The picturesque Avenue Infante with its beautiful jacaranda trees is just outside and a short walk is the Santa Catarina Park, a lovely botanical garden.

The Pestana Carlton Madeira has a great location right on the ocean with direct access to the water. Courtesy photo

There are several outdoor pools on property and the rooms and balconies are quite spacious. Be sure to take a soak in the large, oversize bath. Spa aficionados should book an appointment at the Pastana’s on-site Magic Spa. Signature treatments include the Magic Rebalance massage which is perfect for jet-lag as it combines a deep tissue massage with blood circulation and detox therapies, while utilizing essential oils like juniper and grapefruit. The Magic Without Stress body treatment is another popular choice. It’s a two-hour journey that includes massage, facial and exfoliation. The Magic Yin and Yang includes a facial, plus a massage that utilizes volcanic basalt  stones.

Savoy Palace

Just down the street is the Savoy Palace, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. This posh hotel has a rooftop lounge, terraced gardens, and multiple pools (including a spectacular infinity pool on the roof). The property also has several on-site highly-regarded restaurants, a teahouse and game rooms.

Don’t be surprised if you spend a chunk of time at the award-winning Laurea Spa, which takes up a whole floor and has various hydrotherapy facilities. The spa menu is extensive with a variety of facials, massages and customized treatments. The signature Laurea massage utilizes Madeira’s hot and cold volcanic stones—the contrasting temperatures stimulates the circulation, relieve muscle tension, and reduces stress and fatigue. The Power Ritual by Sodashi facial is another popular treatment and includes a head, neck and shoulder massage. For those who need a deeper treatment, the Golfer’s, Hiker’s, Biker’s Special Retreat by Sodashi is a firm-pressure massage with the addition of hot compresses. Be sure to allow at least an hour or two post-treatment to enjoy all the water facilities including the spacious indoor pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and therapeutic showers.

The Savoy Palace has several well-regarded restaurants including Terreiro (shown here), where the Tuna Belly is very popular. Courtesy photo

Where to Eat in Madeira

Design Centre Nini Andrade da Silva

The restaurant at the Design Centre Nini Andrade da Silva is like eating in a beautiful museum. Nini Andrade Silva is a world-famous interior designer and she was born in Funchal. The interior of the Design Centre is stunning, and the exterior is even more so. It’s located in a building known locally as “Molhe” – it’s a beautiful stone pier located on the edge of the sea. The property was once home to Gonçalves Zarco, an old Portuguese sea navigator and colonizer of the archipelago of Madeira. The unique design and atmosphere make dinner here a real treat.

The must-visit island destination of Madeira is known-for its food, especially it’s freshly-caught fish. Photo Visit Madeira

Fajã dos Padres

The Fajã dos Padres is one of the most picturesque places to have lunch in Madeira. It is only accessible by cable car or boat—so half the fun of the restaurants is the journey to get there. The cable car has awe-inspiring views as it journeys down almost 1,000 feet from the top of a cliff to the beach. Once on the ground, travelers can enjoy freshly-caught fish (literally caught that morning), while taking in the views. The pebble beach is a great spot to enjoy the sun.

Terreiro/Pau de Lume at Savoy Palace

The Savoy Palace has several well-regarded restaurants including Terreiro (the Tuna Belly is very popular) and the newly-opened Pau de Lume which is known for its rice dishes (including the fan favorite Rice with Lobster and Shrimp).

Maktub

Dinner and sunset at Paúl do Mar is a must. Located right on the water, watching the crashing waves as the sky turns brilliant hues of pink and orange is the perfect way to end the day.  A good restaurant choice is Maktub which serves fresh fish and has amazing views.

Madeira is renowned for its Mediterranean cuisine and outdoor dining restaurants. Photo Francisco Correia

Wanderer

For true food aficionados, dinner at the Wanderer is one of the most coveted reservations to be had. The five-course tasting menu is a work of art. The presentation is stunning and the ingredients focus on in-season locally-grown products, hand-picked and masterfully combined. It truly is a celebration of tastes, flavors, colors and textures.

Quinta da Casa Branca

The restaurant in Quinta da Casa Branca is a lovely retreat in the middle of the city of Funchal (it feels like you’re out in the country). The quinta (mansion) is a lovely property surrounded by gardens and nature. The menu has local favorites like Suckling Pig as well as a variety of fish and meat dishes.

What to Do in Madeira

Cable Cars

You can’t visit Madeira without embarking on one of the many cable cars the island has. In the city of Funchal, the Madeira cable car is located in the Old Town and connects Funchal to Monte, takes about 15 minutes and offers amazing views of the mountains and city. Once in Monte, be sure to visit the Monte Palace Tropical Garden which has over 700 square feet of beautifully manicured plants, flowers and sculptures from around the world.

One of the most popular tours for Madeira visitors is dolphin and whale watching. Photo courtesy Visit Madeira

Sledge Car

When you’re done at the botanical gardens, try the sledge car experience—something truly unique to Madeira. The sledge is a wicker basket form of transportation that dates back to the 19th century. Sledges were used by wealthy residents who wanted to travel between the village of Monte to the city of Funchal without walking the steep hill. Today, the sledge car is a ten-minute downhill experience aided by two “runners” who are dressed in white and wear the typical hats known as straw boaters.

Island Views

For some of the best views on the island, head to Cabo Girão where travelers can take photos while standing on the suspended glass platform (basically, a glass skywalk). Views of the coastal cliffs with cultivated land on the terraces is quite stunning.

Dolphin & Whale Watching

Dolphin and whale watching is another popular activity. The on-board marine biologist gives plenty of information and the spotters are constantly on the lookout for wildlife. Plus, the views of Madeira from the water are quite stunning.

The visibility is clear off the coast of Madeira Island making it ideal for divers. Photo courtesy Visit Madeira

Diving

For a truly unique way to experience Madeira head under the water with Scorpio Madeira diving center. They have a variety of diving spots around the island and will take travelers to a specific location based on their diving experience and certification. For beginners and those who haven’t dived in a while, instructors will take them to Scorpio House Reef because it has good visibility and is not too deep. There are chances to see star fish, trumpet fish and barracuda.

Hiking & Off-Road

A great option for those who love hiking and spending time outdoors is a Levada walk. Unique to Madeira are the levadas—an irrigation system built in the 16th century to distribute water throughout the island. For those who like to off-road the Sunrise Jeep Tour is a good way to explore in a rugged vehicle. The sunrise views alone are worth the tour.

Bottom line: No matter if you’re into food, wine, active adventure, culture, spa or relaxing, you’re bound to find it in Madeira.

Photo courtesy Visit Madeira

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Cover photo courtesy Visit Madeira

Judy Koutsky writes often about luxury, adventure, spa, and family travel. Her work has appeared in over 30 publications, including Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler. She has traveled to all seven continents. You can see her work at JudyKoutsky.com