The airplane has begun making its descent. You anxiously look out the window either to your left or your right.
The azul beautiful water surrounds the views.
Then, suddenly, you see it, the ridgid cliffs, the hills full of houses, luscious green.
The airplane feels like it’s moving faster, even though logically, it’s just the sensation of going down.
Hop, hop, hop.
You have now landed on Europe’s shortest runway that is on the cliff of this beautiful island.
In the Funchal airport, capital city of Madeira, the speakers boast Portuguese, English, and Deutsch. If interested in renting a car, there’s a number of them to choose from as soon as you walk into the arrivals hall, although the best option would be to have your transportation arranged before heading across the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira is a stunning island that formed from volcanic rock. The roads are winding and curvy with some incredibly steep inclines and declines. If you are not a skilled driver with manual shifting, I strongly recommend you pay for someone else to drive you or take tours. There can be dangerous roads, and if someone isn’t comfortable driving it could be fatal (for others or yourself).
With that said, Madeira is one of the most magical places I have visited. My heritage is part Portuguese with my grandparents coming from villages in the north of the island and I still visit cousins when I go. I feel pretty blessed to have local family members telling me some places to check-out. This post will not be a Must-See list of Funchal and the like, it’s about my experience staying in my Avo’s home in Sao Vicente and choosing what to do daily from there.
Located in the north of the island, this tiny town is, for some reason, full of tourist stops during the day. I’m not entirely sure what brings the buses or the rental cars to the Zentrum, but it is quaint and you can find some delicious poncha (more on this later) or food establishments. The street the house is located on even has two vacation rentals now – each time I come there’s more visitors to the island, and it sounds like French and German are the most popular visitors to the north.
One of the many loves of Madeira I have is for the food. Yes, there is excellent seafood, but I don’t eat that, so I’ll stick with describing the land foods. However, a must eat for seafood enjoyers is lapas. You get a plate full of 12-15 of these little shells covered in garlic butter that everyone seems to drool over. Another big favourite are Espatatas. Large metal, skewers that hang down full of grilled meat: fish, beef (the traditional dish), or chicken. Madeira island has tonnes of bay leaf trees, so the tradition is to sprinkle fresh bay leaves and large grains of salt on chunks of beef. Grill this on some coals and gently hit the bay leaves off when ready to eat. You can get batatas fritas as a side dish, of course salad, and my personal favourite is milho frito. I could eat that with every meal!
You can find restaurants serving Espatatas all over the island, but since I’m mainly in Sao Vicente, I enjoy: Churrascaria Brasa Viva or Restaurante Caravela (although the latter no longer serves milho frito).
On this visit, we finally found the natural ocean pool, or Piscinas Naturais. Down from the tiny village on the hill, it’s about a 20 minute walk – yay, walking distance to an ocean swimming location! There are a couple of hotels along the oceanfront on the east of Sao Vicente, and this is where you’ll find Piscinas Calamar. There are also swimming pools open to the public and a delicious bar/cafe up top where you can order snacks and drinks.
I’ve been told, and I also joke, that I don’t eat seafood because I’m part fish: I love to be in the water as much as possible!
Get in the Water
I love swimming. Visiting a tropical island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (which is also geographically closer to Morocco than it is to mainland Portugal) go swimming and take a boat trip. I’m going to list some of the wonderful Praias I have visited, but I also went on a Catamaran tour this time and found it very enjoyable.
Asking my cousin’s for their local expertise in what type of boat tour should be taken, they suggested going on a 3-hour afternoon tour with Seaborn Catamaran. It’s 30 EUR per person. Go to the Marina Funchal to buy tickets in person as well as for the meeting point. The boat I went on had about 40 people or so, they have big catamarans. I love the cordial behaviour of boats on the water, the different companies seemed to be radioing one another when finding some sea creatures. I wasn’t expecting to see dolphins or whales, but I was hoping. And we were lucky! We saw maybe 15 Atlantic Spotted dolphins and 2 or 3 Right whales.
It was so lovely to see these sea creatures in their natural habitat – and not even far off from shore. The weather was perfect, the ocean was like a table top, nice and flat. It was really cool to see and I am thrilled that I did this tour. After chasing these lovelies for a while, we went to the swimming spot. Again, the water was heavenly. Not everyone went swimming, but you had the option and you could even use some snorkelling gear if you asked (although I don’t think there was much to see except for some large rocks and fish). I love being on boats and in the water, and this fit my craving for the time on the island.
Throughout my visits I’ve gone back to beaches or Piscinas Naturais while checking out new ones. For example, the paid one in Porto Moniz. It’s worth it because there are cement blocks added in to make for very large swimming areas. There are also public showers here.
On this trip, one of my favourite beaches was in Seixal. The town is about a 15 minute drive west of Sao Vicente and the beach is volcanic, black sand. It’s super hot on the feet, so be prepared to run from you towel to the water, or park yourself on some sand just about at the damp sand spots so it’s not as harsh on your feet. The view from this beach is magnificent and the water is so refreshing and clean! Along the side, you can find some of those natural ocean swimming pools with lounge chairs and a cafe nearby for some cold beers.
Spending a day with family in the south of the island, we went to their local beach, Madeira Oceanos – Diving Center, in Santa Cruz. This was the only rock beach I visited on the island. The water was fabulous, the temperature – perfect. The rocks felt so warm from the sun’s heating that it was very relaxing and comforting when awkwardly wading out of the water back up to the towels. There’s also some wooden islands built over the rocks for a more stable and flat towel location. We had fun building rock towers and formations.
To my knowledge, there are two beaches on Madeira that have white/gold sand. The sand has been shipped from Morocco. Fun fact: the first time sand was shipped from Morocco, it was full of scorpions and had to be returned for a new, clean load. Praia de Machico is in the town of Machico near Funchal. I didn’t actually swim here this trip, but my one cousin from the town spoke very nicely of her hometown beach. Strolling by it on a walk around the water, it looked inviting.
The other, bigger, sand beach is Praia da Calheta, it’s a small beach town west of Ribiera Bravas. I thought it was gorgeous, but it’s parked behind a couple of big hotels. I imagine it gets to be pretty packed (as all beaches do) during the summer prime. It has a large breakwall to keep the intense ocean current and waves out, making for a perfect swimming spot.
This basically focused on water and Sao Vicente. I will cap it here and focus on levadas, food, and poncha in Part II of my Madeira musings (coming soon). In the meantime, enjoy the beach, if possible. It’s always a refreshing and enjoyable experience to get in the water and splash around, float about, or dive deep.