MADEIRA
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|December 2021
Against a backdrop of volcanic peaks, waterfalls and lagoons, new hotels and a raft of wild adventure tours are giving new edge to the lush Portuguese isle.
Amelia Duggan

In some respects, Madeira has transformed within a generation. Located in the subtropical waters off northwest Africa, the Portuguese autonomous region was gifted a network of long-awaited highways this century. These snaking roads have opened up the island’s forested summits and mercurial northern coast to visitors previously concentrated around the cruise ship-friendly capital, Funchal, on the southern shore.

This infrastructure boom has allowed the island to shrug off a reputation for being sun-blessed yet fairly staid: any visit to modern Madeira shows it to be a hub of new adventure tours that capitalise on the island’s natural bounties. A year-round, temperate climate, wildlife-rich waters, surf breaks and twisting mountain trails mean there’s more than enough action for a long weekend — the perfect complement to the island’s ever-expanding cosmopolitan offering. Design hotels and edgy restaurants have found homes among the patchwork of vines and banana terraces, and Europe’s first ‘Digital Nomad Village’ opened this year.

But despite the island’s development, its proud traditions are still what characterises any time spent on Madeira: colourful dishes of buttery, black scabbardfish and cooked banana in passionfruit sauce; goblets of honeyed poncha, the beloved local punch; and riotous festivals that light up the night with fireworks.

DAY ONE OFF-ROADING & EXOTIC FLORA

MORNING Start the day by hopping into an open-top, off-road jeep to explore the island. Around a dozen operators run private and small-group tours that pick up travellers from their hotels and take them on a customisable adventure. A half-day trip might take in the UNESCO-protected Fanal Forest; the cloud waterfall beneath the Lombo do Mouro viewpoint; and the ‘lava pools’ of Porto Moniz. Book with Madeira Mountain Expedition or True Spirit, whose petrol-head guides can furnish you with context and tips for the rest of your stay. Should your journey take you towards the island’s stark northeast peninsular, stop off at smart Quinta do Furão hotel, where the terrace restaurant offers one of Madeira’s finest clifftop views.

AFTERNOON Nestled in a natural amphitheatre at the centre of the sun-drenched south coast, Funchal — Madeira’s compact capital, home to nearly half the population — is the island’s epicentre. Besides a clutch of small museums and heritage buildings in the historic quarter, the main focus for travellers is the market, with its art nouveau and art deco influences. Admire the flowers and piles of exotic, locally grown fruit that illustrate the legacy of Madeira’s mercantile past, from custard apples from the Andes to pitangas from Brazil. From here, further indulge your inner botanist by taking the cable-car up to Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, a wonderland of exotic blooms, ferns and trees set in the grounds of a palace.

EVENING Madeiran architects and restaurateurs have perfected the art of the lofty, sunset-facing ocean terrace, so there’s no shortage of scenic evening dinner and-drinks spots to choose from on the southwest coast. For elegant cuisine in chic settings, reserve a table in Hotel Ponta do Sol’s high-altitude garden restaurant above the village of the same name, or the chef’s table in the newly opened Socalco Nature Hotel, the brainchild of renowned Madeiran chef Octávio Freitas, set high above the beach and docks of Calheta. Meanwhile, the party’s always in full swing at surfer bar Maktub in the fishing village of Paúl do Mar, where owner Fábio Afonso creates seafood plates with ocean-fresh ingredients, just feet from the water.

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