Madeira, island of eternal spring

Madeira © T.Joly
A mere three and a half hours by plane from Paris, Madeira is a volcanic island dotted with breathtaking scenery and luxuriant vegetation. This destination can be visited all year round and boasts charming accommodation and a rich cultural heritage.

[ Practical ]

Getting there
- Air Azur and Sata operate a weekly flight from Paris to Funchal year round. Transavia has also a direct flight in spring, summer and early autumn.
- TAP Portugal operates daily flights via Porto or Lisbon departing from Paris, Nice, Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse.
Time difference
- 1 h.
Madeira boasts a large choice of 3*, 4* and 5* hotels and quintas. Most of them are located in and around Funchal as well as along the South coast. They all have swimming pools.
Getting around
Buses are reliable and affordable but certain routes are only traveled once a day. Hiring a car is the best way to discover the island in depth.
Taxis are available in the major cities and tourist areas.
Good to know
English widely spoken
Travel companies
Donatello, Fram, Estrela, Europauli, Nouvelles Frontières, Jet Tours, Thomas Cook, Top of Travel.
Travel companies offer mainly week stays with or without daily excursions around the island.
Allow from €500 to €900 per person for a 8 days / 7 nights stay including flights, accommodation and breakfast and €850 to € 1100 for a 8 days / 7 nights stay including flights and half board accommodation .
- Madeira tourist office
- Portugal tourist office
135 bld Haussmann, 75008 Paris
Tel : 0811653838
Created by a volcanic hotspot on the ocean floor, Madeira is often referred to as the Island of Flowers or the Garden Island thanks to the richness of its flora. Winston Churchill once said “Madeira is my floating garden”. This piece of Portuguese territory enjoys a subtropical climate which allows many exotic and Mediterranean plants to flourish there. The not-too-hot-not-too-cold temperatures are due to its geographical position 900km south of Lisbon and 600km off the Moroccan coast at the same latitude as Marrakech.

Madeira © T.Joly
 Hundreds of flowers
The island is home to flowers such as geraniums, hibiscus, agapanthus, hydrangea, bougainvillea, euphorbia, fuchsia, orchids, anthurium and strelitzias, better known as the bird of paradise flower. Several tree species such as magnolia, jacaranda, mimosa and sumauma also blossom there periodically.
Unsurprisingly, the locals have been making the most of this incredible plant diversity for many years in creating superb public and private gardens that showcase a symphony of colour.
As pleasant to the eye of the tourist as they are, these plants are not native island species. All were introduced after the island’s discovery in 1419. Originally, the island was completely covered with a thick forest from which it gets its name - Madeira, meaning woods. But its attractions are not limited to colourful gardens and luxuriant vegetation. It also offers a rich cultural heritage and breathtaking landscapes.

Funchal © T.Joly
 Lively town
Nestled in a vast amphitheatre that looks out over the sea, the capital Funchal boasts several historical buildings well worth a visit: the Sao Lourenco fortress overlooking the harbour; the Manuelin-style cathedral; the Municipio square surrounded by 17th and 18th centuries monuments including the charming churrigeresque-style Collegio do Jesuitos church; the Santa Clara convent and its beautiful collection of azulejos; the Quinta das Crizes, which was the home of Zarcos, the explorer who discovered the island and which has been transformed into a museum of decorative arts.
Simply strolling through the town is enjoyable in itself. Take in the shopping district of the historical centre, the waterfront and the old town where the first colonists settled. With its narrow streets lined with lively, working class bars and restaurants, craftsmen and fishermen’s huts, this neighbourhood stretches between the yellow walls of the San Tiago fort and the Mercado dos Lavradores.

Funchal © T.Joly
 Picturesque market
The colourful and picturesque market is best seen in the morning when it bustles with activity and when the stalls are decked out with the myriad varieties of fruit and vegetables produced on the island. Look out for the “espalda”, a fish from the deep ocean with huge eyes and sharp needles for teeth and which is considered a local delicacy.
A little higher up, two of the island’s most beautiful gardens await the flower enthusiast. The Botanical Gardens houses a collection of 2,500 plant species and is divided into six themed areas. The Monte Palace Tropical Garden is situated further up, in the village of Monte at an altitude of 800m. It houses a famous collection of ceramic tiles, oriental gardens, a number of water features and plant collections that include both indigenous and exotic species. Nearby, there are magnificent quintas as well as a baroque church which is home to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Called “Our Lady of the Mount”, she is Madeira’s patron saint and the statue draws many pilgrims.

Monte © T.Joly
 Spectacular views
The church also contains the grave of Austria’s last emperor who died in exile on the island. The best way to get to the village is to take the cable car leaving from Funchal. The twenty-minute journey offers spectacular views over the city and the coastline. For the return journey, why not try the Carros de Cesto, a wooden sleigh directed down the incline by two handsome locals in white hats! Popular with tourists, this mean of transportation was once used by the wealthy heading into town. What better way to end the day than with a drink by the swimming pool of Reid’s hotel where Winston Churchill liked to stay, as well as Rainer Maria Rilke, George Bernard Shaw and Roger Moore. For those eager for a taste of the local life, head to one of the bars where the atmosphere livens up as soon the island’s most famous son, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, appears on the screen.

Funchal © T.Joly
 Christmas destination
Funchal is also a perfect Christmas destination. From the end of November to Epiphany, the city is decked out in some style with thousands and thousands of colourful lights. From mid-December onwards, open-air cribs and musical entertainment fills the streets. Thanks to the mild climate, the groups of tourists and locals can stroll until late in the evening in a warm and family atmosphere. The festivities reach their climax on the evening of December 31st with the famous firework display that attracts spectators from all over Europe. Lastly, don’t leave town without visiting one of Madeira’s wine houses. You can learn about how the wines are made, the differences between the various vintages and the tasting will make you realize just how good they can be.
A relic from the Tertiary period, the Laurissilva native forest still occupies nearly 20% of the island. To see this forest, you have to first travel inland.

Levadas © T.Joly
 Hiking around the island
This is a world of plunging valleys, volcanic corries, waterfalls, view points and steep mountains ideal for canyoning, climbing, mountain biking and paragliding. Most tourists content themselves with hiking. The bravest make the ascent of the island’s two highest peaks, the Pico Ruivo, 1861m, and the Pico Arieiro, 1810m. The less brave follow paths along the “levadas”, centuries-old irrigation canals built to carry water from the humid northern slopes to the relatively arid south. Over 2,150 km of levadas, many hand-carved into the stone and including tunnels, snake their way around the island through farming land and mountains. They provide hiking routes for all levels of fitness.
Of course, Madeira is also all about the sea and the spectacular coastline with its succession of authentic fishing villages, plummeting cliffs and swimming spots.

Madeira © T.Joly
 Vineyards and banana plantations
The north coast is greener due to its higher rainfall and is famous for the natural rock pools of Porto Moniz and the traditional triangular shaped thatched houses around Santana. In common with the western coastline, huge waves batter the coast and provide great rides for surfers. Further east, the island extends to the Punta de Sao Lourenco, a narrow peninsula with a lunar landscape. The south coast is more densely populated and dotted with small sailing harbours and terraced slopes. Here too there are steep cliffs, including the highest in Europe, the 580m-high Cabo Girao.
The terraced slopes are home to the majority of the island’s vineyards, alongside market gardens, banana plantations and stands of sugar cane. Perched on the mountain slopes, they add to the spectacular scenery. In the same area, the sunniest part of the island stretches between Punta del Sol and Calheta.

Madeira © T.Joly
 Water sports
The latter is a small village that possesses an astonishing modern art museum high up above the sea, La Casa Las Mudas, as well as one of the very few sandy beaches on the island. The vast majority of beaches are made up of pebbles. It is for this reason that Madeira is not really a seaside destination. Nonetheless, fishing, windsurfing, water skiing and scuba-diving are all readily available. There are also boat or catamaran trips which provide great views of the coastal landscapes or go around the tiny Desertas Islands, home to a large colony of seals. And if you are desperate to spend some time on a heavenly beach, Porto Santo island is only fifteen minutes away by plane or two hours by boat and promises a nine km stretch of white sand for the visitor.

November 21, 2016
Thierry Joly 

[ Quintas ]

Built in the 18th and 19th centuries by rich Portuguese and English families, the Quintas of Madeira are properties that originally comprised a master house, outbuildings, a landscaped garden and a chapel. Many of them have been transformed into charming hotels where guests are either accommodated in the former owner’s house or in modern buildings constructed for this purpose. The rooms of one such place, the Quinta de Casa Branca, are housed in a building that is a fine example of modern architecture; this is also the case for the modern wing of the Quinta da Rochinha that overlooks the ocean. Most of these residences are situated in the vicinity of Funchal, are always built in a beautiful natural setting and very often offer a fantastic view over the capital or the coastline. They are also genuine historical monuments as the master houses still retain the original furniture and decoration. In addition, some have their own spa or golf course or are surrounded by beautiful gardens such as the Quinta Casa Velho do Palheiro, the Quinta do Monte and the Quinta Splendida. Rates are a little higher, of course, but you can still find some bargains, such as the double rooms in the Quinta da Rochinha or the Quinta Splendida, available at €90.