Madeira: A Beautiful, Lush, Diverse and Fun Island

Written by Mark Pringle |

We were utterly unprepared for Madeira, at least from an automotive perspective. This unpreparedness was symbolic of the wonder of the Island of Madeira; let me explain. We rented a car, as we always do on vacation so that we could explore the island as it was meant to be explored. As usual, we rented a smaller economical car; however, we would soon find out this was a poor decision. It is not that driving in Madeira is perilous like southern Italy near Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, but it is "adventurous" because the roads are steep. For instance, one day early into our anniversary trip, we were on our way to Madeira’s famous wooden cart ride high above Madeira's capital city of Funchal, but the little car we rented could not make it up the hill. What an embarrassing moment! It was only uncomfortable because on the side of the road was a little old Madeira man who was shouting at us to "give the car some gas," at least that's what we assumed he yelled in his variant of Portuguese. Obviously, I had the pedal to the metal, but still, this powerless car could not make it up the hill. Suffice to say; it is awkward when you must backup down a paved mountain slope because your vehicle doesn't have enough power. I can only imagine what that little man was thinking. Eventually, we found another route, making it to our destination. That little experience, in a nutshell, tells you much about the beautiful island of Madeira. 

Try driving up something like this with a little 4-cylinder car.

Small Island. Many Climates.

Madeira, simply put, is beautiful; a verdant and mountainous volcanic Island with six microclimates. We did not have a full understanding of the multitude of climates on that small island when we first arrived; still, we were able to discern, very clearly and distinctly, four of the microclimates. 

A view of Penha de Águia, Faial, Santana from Viewpoint Portela.

On the northern side of the island, you have the lushest region. The weather comes in from the north, and because Madeira is an island with a volcano plateau in the center of it, the weather sits on the northern side and creates a very lush, green, and tropical climate. The southern side of the island which is home to Funchal, the capital city of this autonomous region of Portugal, has a climate very similar to that of mainland Portugal. It is still very green, but not as overwhelmingly so as the northern side.

Ponta de São Lourenço
Ponta de São Lourenço

To the east of Funchal is a rocky and almost barren wasteland called Sau Lourenço. This area is a stark visual contrast to virtually all of the other sub-climates on the island. Having said that, it is no less spectacular to view and hike. On the west side of the island, on top of the mountain plateau, there’s another environment unlike any other on the island. It has rolling hills and the green farmlands intermingled with forests. It was home to happy cows grazing along the beautiful countryside full of grassy knolls. It is not a scene I expected to see on this volcanic island, and it is one that we would not have seen had we not taken a jeep tour. This tour took us into areas of the island that, frankly, are inaccessible to most tourists.

Irresistible Misty Beauty

Misty water-colored memories of Madeira.

The northern side of Madeira has a misty-tropical environment. The way the moist atmosphere blends into the mountains and the copious vegetation clutches the mountainsides create an almost otherworldly sensation. On this particular day, the fog was hovering the hillsides and wonderfully obscuring the view of the heavens. My wife and I almost expected to see pterodactyls emerging from the foggy vapors as if I were in some Jurassic Park movie scene. It was so enticing that as we were driving in the rain, I had to pull the car over to look in amazement. I stood there for what seems like hours, but it was only a few minutes, and that image is indelibly etched into my memory.

The City of Funchal

It was our 29th anniversary, and we stayed at a luxuriant hotel in the heart of the capital of Madeira, Funchal. In fact, the hotel was integrated into a mall, which you don’t normally associate with luxury, yet it provided stunning views of the city from its rooftop terrace.

A rooftop view of Funchal from our hotel.

Now, the city of Funchal is a very pleasant and walkable town. While it does not have the virgin beauty that it maintained a few decades ago, it is still a welcoming and visually striking town as it embraces the sides of this volcanic island and then cascades perilously into the Atlanta Ocean.

Downtown Funchal
Downtown Funchal

Unfortunately, the waterfront is disturbed by the massive cruise ships that dock directly in the middle of the gorgeous Funchal panorama. This dramatically alters the natural aesthetics of the town, especially from a photographer’s perspective. However, once you leave the waterfront and navigate into the city, about one block or so, you come to a wonderful main strip that is bursting with vitality. Here we saw sculpted tree-lined streets with many cafés and eclectic stores. On one afternoon, we were sitting in a restaurant near the center of Funchal when a group of street performers stationed themselves a few feet in front of the restaurant and began to perform a traditional Madeiran dance. We did not know this at the time, but it was a World Tourism Day which contributed to the vitality of this autumn anniversary visit. The performers excitedly related to the tourists the social and cultural history of Madera through wonderful dance, clothing, and song. This performance was a pleasant surprise that day.

Day two of our anniversary celebration. Sipping Madeira wine. Make sure not to say to Madeirans it tastes like Port.

To the Top of Madeira: Pico do Arieiro

OK, well maybe the “top of Madeira” isn’t exactly accurate. The outstandingly rugged Pico do Arieiro is the third highest peak on Madeira and our drive to this destination no less beautiful. As was mentioned earlier, steep inclines are the norm in Madeira. Once you get to the Pico do Arieiro observatory you may have to park on a slope, so make sure your parking brake is working and your clutch is in gear. Otherwise, you may find yourself or your car at the bottom of the mountain.

From the top of Pico do Arieiro you can see much of Madeira, such as Curral das Freiras, Porto Santo Island and Ponta de São Lourenço. However, what I found even more unique than the mesmerizing and gorgeous cloud-top views, were the many trails stationed atop these mountain ridges. I wish we had been more aware of and prepared for these trails as we would have done more hiking and less simple sightseeing. So, if you intend to visit this wonderful island don't make that mistake. Hiking is an integral part of Madeira and Pico do Arieiro. Even though my wife and I did not hike the trails as far as we wanted to, it was still an extremely enjoyable experience. The phenomenon of being above the clouds and on top of the world is incredible anywhere on this planet, but on Pico do Arieiro the sensation is even more incredible, and the landscape is even more beautiful than many places.

High above the clouds.

The winds were exceptionally strong here, and if you weren't careful, they could easily push you off the paths. To illustrate the point, when the Madeira airport was in its planning stages, the engineers initially wanted to construct the airport on top of the island plateau. However, the winds were so powerful that they had to “hide” the airport on the southern coast of the island, East of Funchal.  

Other Points of Interest: A Photographic Journey

View From a Cave

There were too many memories to record from our many excursions, but this photograph from a cave is one of the more memorable. 

Porto Moniz Natural Swimming Pools

Madeira Botanical Garden

We visited Madeira at the end of September, and the Madeira Botanical Garden is on the less-verdant side of the island.

Without question, Madeira was one of our more memorable anniversary trips, and that is stating a lot since we've been married 29 years. It is impossible to get a true feel of the island in a few words and photos so we've posted and will continue to post more images of the beautiful Island of Madeira.

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Author: Mark Pringle
I'm just a guy who is addicted to the unfamiliar and who fulfills this addiction by traveling and writing about my travels. As a lover of sports, penning opinion articles related to sports is also a pastime.
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