9 reasons to add Madeira to your bucket list

Ever dreamed of escaping to your very own treasure island? Step forward Madeira, the balmy island at the heart of the Madeira archipelago in the exotic sounding region of Macaronesia. It's indeed an exotic place that strikes on arrival with its steep mountain slopes and seriously rich vegetation. The bounty of plants and flowers here seems to be taller and larger than anywhere else.

9 reasons to add Madeira to your bucket list © Yvann K - Fotolia.com
9 reasons to add Madeira to your bucket list © Yvann K - Fotolia.com

Some islands offer just beaches. Not Madeira. This Portuguese oasis, north of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, is alive with everything from a characterful capital and picturesque fishing villages, through to world class walks and the world's zaniest toboggan ride. Foodies can enjoy a delicious fish unique to the island that brings in visitors from mainland Portugal, as well as a tasty local sugar cane rum cocktail.

Madeira, a popular destination year round, is also incredibly easy to get to thanks to Thomas Cook. Book your break online today and depart from airports across the UK including London Gatwick and Manchester among many others. Check the latest deals on holidays to Madeira with Thomas Cook and you too could be making the most of the island's many attractions.

1. Funchal

The Madeiran capital is a stunner, well worth a city break in its own right. It enjoys a spectacular location, draped on vertiginous mountain slopes that plunge right down to the Atlantic surf. The revamped waterfront is lively, but the real action is in the backstreets of the Velha. The narrow streets are home to ornate architecture, vibrant bars and independent shops. Brilliantly, the wooden doors along Rua de Santa Maria have been painted by artists, forming a jaw-dropping outdoor art gallery.

2. World's most thrilling toboggan ride

Madeira is a famously steep island and you certainly feel that if you catch the cable car up to Monte. Not so much on the cable car ride itself, but when you board one of the vintage wooden toboggans that barrel back down the hill at ridiculous speeds. I like watching the faces of passengers at the first corner as the toboggans hurl around like they are about to tip (they don't, well seldom do!), and the local drivers laugh.

The world's most thrilling toboggan ride, Madeira © Jan Wlodarczyk - Alamy Stock Photo
The world's most thrilling toboggan ride, Madeira © Jan Wlodarczyk - Alamy Stock Photo

3. Câmara de Lobos

This has to be the most picturesque village in Madeira. It's still very much a working fishing village with a sprinkling of brightly coloured wooden fishing boats lining the harbour. There is little to do here bar admire the remarkable qualities of the ever changing local light dappled across the white walled houses, sip on a cool drink and feast in two of the best restaurants I've ever been to. More on that later...

The picturesque village of Câmara de Lobos, Madeira © Tim Lowrey - Alamy Stock Photo
The picturesque village of Câmara de Lobos, Madeira © Tim Lowrey - Alamy Stock Photo

4. Poncha!

Madeira may have been renowned for its sweet wines since time immemorial - it was even mentioned by Shakespeare - but for me the number one drink here is poncha. This deliciously sweet and strong cocktail is served all over the island, but best enjoyed on the backstreets of Funchal and down on the waterfront in Câmara de Lobos. It's made from local cane sugar rum and be warned - it packs quite a punch!

5. Mighty mountains

Madeira boasts an impressive range of rugged mountains that just beg exploration. I spent a week hiking here during the inaugural Madeira Walking Festival, and the local trails really are world class. My favourite walk is cheating a little. You can be driven all the way up to near the island's third highest point, Pico do Arieiro. If you've no experience or don't have the right gear stop now. Otherwise, you can set off on a long, fairly straightforward ridge walk that allows hours wandering high above the clouds, a deeply special experience.

The ridge walk down from Pico do Arieiro, Madeira © Colin Gregory - Flickr Creative Commons
The ridge walk down from Pico do Arieiro, Madeira © Colin Gregory - Flickr Creative Commons

6. Ugly fish and beautiful beef

Best not judge a book by its seriously ugly cover. Madeira's seafood speciality is the hideous looking scabbard fish. On the plate it's a stunner, best served grilled on laurel skewers. Be careful not to get the fish, known locally as espada, mixed up with espetada. The latter is a Portuguese meat delicacy. It's basically delicious hulks of marinated beef hanging on a skewer. Both are utterly delicious. The best place to try espada is at Vila do Peixe in Câmara de Lobos and for espetada - you guessed it - Vila de Carne.

7. Levada walks

These sinewy irrigation channels are a striking feature of the Madeiran countryside. They are still very much in use today, accumulating water and irrigating farmland. An enjoyable spin off is that they are like pedestrian motorways into the tough landscape as you can walk along many of them. The walking is very straightforward as they are flat. The most popular levada walks are now signposted and, handily, local buses can often drop you off at the start of a trail and you can pick up another at the end.

Typical Madeiran levada path with handrail © Anagh - Wikimedia Commons
Typical Madeiran levada path with handrail © Anagh - Wikimedia Commons

8. That Ronaldo statue

If you've seen images of this new statue of Madeira's most famous modern day son then you certainly won't have forgotten it. To say that the depiction of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo is controversial is something of an understatement. It's certainly an unusual take on a player who normally prides himself on his appearance. I'll let you judge for yourself on the Funchal waterfront.

9. Porto Santo

If you've any spare time on Madeira I seriously recommend a wee trip over to the island of Porto Santo. You can take the regular ferry, but suggest flying over to give you maximum time there. The star attraction on this bijou island is the sweeping six mile long beach. Then there are volcanoes to hike and rugged coastal scenery to explore. The journey over is impressive too as you can see most of the Madeira archipelago en route. The views get even more spectacular as you approach the island of Madeira on the way back as well.

Whether you're into walking, fine seafood, epic views or just soaking in the vibes of somewhere new, Madeira has it all. You can book your escape to Madeira with Thomas Cook online today, and depart from airports such as London Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and many more. You can also check out the weather in Madeira, and see when we think is the best time to go.

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie
Posted on Friday 16th June 2017 in: Culture Europe Excursions Winter sun

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