Even if you’ve never visited Madeira, you will likely know the island for one or both of its two major exports: the fortified sweet wine which supposedly graced the table of the Founding Founders, and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.
At least one of those exports is beloved around the world. Neither is a bad legacy for an island of 250,000 people, floating off the coast of Portugal in the North Atlantic.
However there’s far more to Madeira than wines. The island is a place of great natural beauty, where you can hike through forests in the morning and swim in the sea of an evening.
The culinary scene is sensational, a combination of exquisite fine dining and hearty local fare. And as well as the wine, there’s also poncha, made with aguardente de cana, honey, sugar, and orange juice. You’ll learn to love poncha.
Direct flights take a touch under four hours and, while prices obviously vary, the cheapest cost less than £100. While there’s plenty of island to explore, we’ve focused on the capital Funchal and the surrounding areas. Here’s our guide for what to do, where to eat, and the best hotel in town – the fabulous Savoy Palace.
What to do?
A guided tour. Yeah, yeah, you’re too cool for a guided tour – you prefer to experience the city organically, man, see what happens and ride with it – but trust me, this guided tour is worth your time. For one thing, it’s not very guided: you get picked up and driven to several cool places with minimal organised fun or lectures. And those cool places are very, very cool: you drive up to a mountaintop, rivers of white cloud streaming by above your head so close you can almost touch them, and things only go up from there. (Not literally: you’re on a mountaintop. Things go down but they get even better.)
There’s a sojourn in the Nun’s Valley, a beautiful town situated beneath said mountaintop, followed by a visit to the picture-perfect fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, where none other than Sir Winston Churchill painted landscapes of the bay. There’s even a statue of the big man painting away, with a vacant seat beside him just for you. The whole tour takes three and a half hours with most of that time being your own, free to spend at the various stopoffs. Do it.
Obviously, you’re on an island so swimming in the sea is non-negotiable. Visit the natural pools of Doca do Cavacas and splash and sunbathe all day, the cliffs above you and the horizon stretching off into the sky. It’s Mother Earth’s version of an infinity pool. There’s also a bar and restaurant if you really want to get stuck in. You probably will.
Madeira is famously verdant and thus paying a visit to one of its many gardens should really be on your itinerary. The Botanic Gardens in Monte is your best option from Funchal. Accessed via a cable car that departs from the centre of town, you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of flora and fauna, plus numerous ornaments and fish ponds – this is a seriously beautiful spot, inspired by the ornamental gardens of Japan. Keep a lookout for the series of mosaics that tell the story of Portugal via its past monarchs, complete with illustrations.
There’s the option of taking a basket toboggan from Monte – men push you down the hill in a basket – which will sound terrifying or thrilling, depending on your temperament.
The daily farmer’s market in the Old Town is also worth checking out – copious amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables and very recently deceased fish eyeballing you from slabs of ice. (With the squid, it’s quite disturbing.) Indeed a very enjoyable afternoon – or several – can be spent wandering the streets, stopping off for a poncha here, a bite there. Take it easy: you’re on holiday, after all.
Where to eat?
Ideally somewhere that doesn’t have pictures on the menu. (This is a good rule for tourism in general.) We strongly suggest taking a bus – or taxi – to Restaurante Churrascaria Zarcos. This Funchal staple is situated slightly out of town, offering stunning views over the city and bay. Due to its relatively secluded location – and we do mean relatively: it takes 10 minutes on a bus from the town centre – you won’t find many of your fellow tourists here.
What you will find is plenty of locals, a healthy wine selection and portions big enough to feed a family. (Share everything.) The food is phenomenal: from traditional espetada meat skewers, served hanging from a hook, to grilled shrimp and whole octopus swimming in garlic and oil. The value is even better: there’s rumour you can order several courses, a bottle of wine and six glasses of poncha without breaking three figures. Box off an afternoon and luxuriate.
Zarcos might be the heartiest eating destination in Funchal; the coolest is the Atelier Restaurant in the Nini Andrade Silva Design Centre. Andrade Silva is one of the world’s leading interior designers and therefore it’s no surprise that her restaurant is an absolute mood. It’s situated on a rocky outcrop at the very edge of the bay, its monochrome brick and plaster facade resembling the world’s chicest prison. Take the lift to the first floor and try not to hum the James Bond theme too loudly.
If the decor is all style, the food has plenty of substance: the tasting menu included a sumptuous black scabbard fish tortellini and grilled red snapper with potato terrine, so good it made me actively resent the person who ordered it. Every course comes with paired wines and Dennis, the sommelier, kept our glasses topped up throughout the evening – regardless of whether another course was due. At €60 per head, it’s absolutely stonking value – you’ll want to reserve in advance.
If you fancy somewhere a little, well, fancy then Galáxia Skyfood is the spot. With a name like Galáxia Skyfood you can be confident the place will be a cut above your average eatery – indeed, as the moniker implies, the restaurant is situated on the rooftop of the Savoy Palace, with the lights of Funchal glimmering yellow on one side and the ocean on the other. Glance up and you’ll even see a constellation of stars spread across the ceiling.
Again, we advise ordering the tasting menu for maximum returns. Highlights abound: from the wagyu beef skewer to the pork shoulder-blade with pickled vegetables. Assistant sommelier Leandro will offer expert pairing suggestions – he’s 19 years old and resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio but don’t hold that against him, the kid is charm personified and really knows his stuff. Enjoy a cocktail on the rooftop outside once you’re done – the journey back to your hotel room isn’t far…
Where to stay?
Someone like yourself only deserves the best and in Funchal that means the Savoy Palace. Normally the noun would be hyperbolic but if anything it undersells: this hotel isn’t so much a palace but a luxury spaceship, one of such hulking magnificence it would give an inferiority complex to an Imperial Star Destroyer. Place is BIG.
Yet despite its size, the building is one of considerable beauty, with its eye-popping interiors designed by our old friend Nini Andrede Silva and approximately 52,000 plants spread across – and often outside – its 17 floors. (No, I didn’t count them all.) The effect is a Bond villain’s lair crossed with Kew Gardens – both botanists and architects will find themselves in heaven.
And so will you – because this really is a very special destination. The Laurea spa alone would be worth the visit: I can tell you there’s an underground swimming pool, a sauna, a steam room, a jacuzzi, 11 treatment rooms, etc but this information fails to convey the subterranean beauty of the place, the sense of total seclusion once inside.
The spa was inspired by Maidera’s Laurissilva Forest, a 20-million year old UNESCO world heritage site up in the mountains. As you will realise, the Savoy Palace isn’t somewhere that does things by half. (I mean, obviously: it’s called the Savoy Palace.)
For example, as well as the spa swimming pool there are also two rooftop infinity pools and a very gorgeous outdoor pool, large enough to have its own bridge. Take a swim before breakfast and experience your hangover magically disappear into the morning sun.
There are also 15 pool suites for guests who fancy a private dip on their balcony (see what I mean about not doing things by half?). Oh, and there’s the sea, a couple of minutes walk from the hotel, offering both a bathing option and a permanently stunning view.
While all the bedrooms are predictably opulent, if possible treat yourself to one of the premium ocean rooms or suites and enjoy the many accompanying amenities – which include rooftop breakfasts, complimentary spa access and daily gifts that magically appear on your table. (Bottle of local wine? Don’t mind if I do!)
Enjoy a glass on your balcony, overlooking the ocean; freshen up in the marble bathroom; gorge yourself silly on the complimentary fruit platter. There are two widescreen TVs and even a pillow menu – pick the pillow that best suits you. (The menu provides information on each one.)
Maidera is one of the finest destinations in the world; you owe it to yourself to stay at its finest hotel. Just don't forget to toast us with a glass of poncha once you get there.
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Rates start from 250 euros per night for a suite / 195 euros per night for a standard room. Savoy Palace