Madeira – The Little Island that Could

… Surprise, Deliver, Enchant, Redeem.

Not Patagonia, but quite a resemblance

When our long longed for Patagonia trip had to be cancelled for the third time, not many easy replacement presented themselves in wintry February Europe. At the end it was a choice between Oman and Madeira. Madeira won because I remembered our dentist telling me once that he dreamed of moving to Madeira and opening a dental clinic there. Did I mention we really like our dentist?

Funchal airport is considered the most difficult European airport to land. Note the flag of the autonomous republic of Madeira.

While it is easy to fly to Madeira’s one and only Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport directly from Prague it most certainly isn’t easy to land. While our landing was a bit cramped with one wing dipping into the sea and the other scraping the nearby hills, we only realized how lucky we were when we talked to other travelers. We arrived on Monday afternoon but all flights on Sunday and Tuesday were returned or rerouted because of high winds.

And high winds there were. We did look at the weather report before we flew out and were so taken aback by basically 7 days of predicted rain that we paid no attention to the wind. Luckily the high winds also scattered the clouds some, so the first few days it rained just at night and we had great skies for photography.

While Madeira is well known for its subtropical climate and warm sunny weather it was a foggy forest up North that I was most interested in. After a great big breakfast in our cosy B&B we drove up to the hills of Fanal first thing in the morning.

Just a quick stop at the viewpoint of

and hard break for some out-of-nowhere itinerant cows

Bundle up, it is foggy and windy, indeed.

Ksenija nearly blew over by the sheer force of the wind
Mirek worshiping the hundreds of years old laurels
Mystical and magical

I have seen superb photos of these gnarled Madeira trees in a magazine once and they didn’t disappoint in real life. Clutching my iPhone with frozen fingers I was more than excited for wonderful iconic images of our own. Every day for the rest of the week I debated whether we should go back, but the first impression was so special and strong I didn’t want to disappoint myself.

On the way down the sun started to break through and we soon went from this:

Holding on for dear life

to this:

Sunbathing under a giant foxtail agave flower

Certainly, the sea is not warm enough for swimming in the winter, but still great to admire.

From up high at Cabo Girao viewpoint
Or up close at Ponta de Sao Vicente
Or through the many flowers at Arco de Sao Jorge

As you can imagine getting up to these viewpoints isn’t easy no matter what but especially in a car with a MANUAL transmission. The roads are not only narrow but so steep that I had to fight the thought of failing breaks numerous times a day while driving down and close my eyes when the trucks or buses were hurtling towards us on the uphill. Due to Mirek’s many years of driving in crazy places around the world, we escaped unscathed.

One of the few roads we didn’t drive – it was closed for reconstruction.

It would only take about 4 hours to drive all around the island. The island of Madeira is a temporary dormant volcano about three times the size of the U.S. island of Nantucket, twice the area of the British Isle of Wight, and slightly larger than Singapore island.

It has a fantastic network of roads and unbelievable multitudes of new tunnels that make travel easy. But it also has many deep canyons and ridge roads and portions of old coastal roads that one can still drive. This means fun old narrow one-way tunnels and sometimes a free car wash when you drive under a waterfall.

Now, if you are not lazy old farts like us you have another network to explore. There are more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas that you can walk and many people come to Madeira for exactly this purpose. Levadas are irrigation channels used to bring water to the fields in olden times and many do so till today. But they also offer great exercise and views and some people return each year to walk different ones. There are books and apps and guided levada tours.

We only did a short little levada walk on the last full day of our stay but it was so pretty and full of colorful flowers I was sorry we hadn’t considered doing more.

We probably would have if we didn’t have a few days of pouring rain in the middle of our stay. So we did some inside activities like the Whale and Wine museum, not both under the same roof.

Yes, Madeira is the home of madeira (wine).

We did skip the native son Cristiano Ronaldo’s Museum. The closest we came to this soccer idol was parking in the garage of his CR7 hotel. I did make a fool of myself asking what CR7 stands for. That’s how much I know about soccer: zilch, zero. (Just in case you, too, are on my team, it is his initials and his jersey number.)

That meant we had to go to the marina of Funchal, the capital. To our surprise, we found there a perfect replica of Cristopher Columbus’ Santa Maria ship.

The famous ship and one of the many rainbows of Madeira

Turns out Columbus spent a little time on Madeira, more precisely on Porto Santo, the small island next to it. Long enough to get married and sire his only son. And learn about navigation from the charts of his father-in-law.

45% of a quarter million of inhabitants of Madeira live in the capital, so you can imagine it is pretty dense. Not to mention that pre-Covid nearly a million tourists came in and most stayed in Funchal or close by on the Southern sunnier beaches.

Houses climb up the hills from the port in all directions

We didn’t spend enough time in the old town to give you a proper report, but it does have the historical charm.

The sad part was that we encountered a small group of Ukrainians protesting the start of the war.

At that point, none of us knew how truly horrendous it will become.

It certainly made the rest of our trip soberer and we felt guilty enjoying the simple luxuries of free life.

Speaking of old, not much of old is left on Madeira outside the historical center. Even the further-flung villages mostly have fancy new houses, some built by Madeirans working hard in other EU countries

Tiny spruced up traditional house with a fancy large new one in Santana

or owned by foreigners and foreign retirees. life is very affordable for those, but that, unfortunately means the service industry salaries are kept very low. We had quite a lot of conversations with the young people who all dream of leaving for England or the World.

The sweet cook from a restaurant in Funchal who came to toast us and chat with us. His girlfriend just dumped him so he needed a pep talk.

As a traveler, I have always loved the Portuguese the best. but Madeirans are even a notch above in their friendly, kind, and welcoming ways. From free drinks to free room upgrades they couldn’t do enough to make us feel at home. Our B&B ladies were absolutely darling, our day trip jeep driver was willing to answer any and all personal questions, our car rental attendant made sure we got the best car on the lot.

This lady offered to share her birdseed

One evening we were driving “home” when we noticed a beautiful new quinta vacation compound. We stopped to ask for availability. Turned out they were just getting ready for the grand opening the next day but of course, we had to come and try some of their homemade Madeira wine. We ended up staying for an hour talking and laughing with the family and of course, they invited us to the grand opening, too.

We would be amiss not to mention the yummy food. Again, we were plied with huge amounts of side dishes and or extra seafod in our Portuguese version of paella “because we like you”. When we returned for our last meal to the same local restaurant, where they pointed out the local policeman having his dinner and beer, they must have doubled the seafood again.

One portion!

Madeira is often called The Flower Island and rightly so. Even though the high season and the Flower Festival are held in April or May, already in February flowers were blooming everywhere. From tiny roadside flowers to grand tropical birds of paradise

and clivias there are swaths of color brightening the lush green of the island. The land is at a premium so terraced vegetable gardens are clambering impossibly high and banana plantations are squeezing around the homes.

Many public and private gardens be on for a tour. We managed only one, the Monte Palace Tropical garden, but it was a great relaxing morning excursion before our flight out. At times Madeira reminded us of California or Hawaii, and this garden visit surprisingly brought us back to Japan and the Japanese gardens that we love so much.

They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We say when travel life gives you maddening Corona restrictions make Madeira. It will welcome you with open arms, this Little Island that Could.

15 thoughts on “Madeira – The Little Island that Could

  1. Hvala za zanimivo branje. Vreme vama res ni bilo naklonjeno, a sta zato posnela res nekaj čudovitih fotografij! Sedaj pa na smučanje!Lp Nataša Poslano iz naprave Galaxy

    Like

  2. Hvala Ksenija za vse potopise- jih berem – pocasi- a preberem- ves moja angla je bolj slaba. Sem pac samo nemsko govoreca a tudi s tem si dosti pomagam! Upam, da ste zdravi !vsi! Tudi vnukinja Mara, upam, da je zdrava in vesela in vi z njo.. Pozdravcek od naju iz Šmarce

    Von meinem iPhone gesendet

    >

    Like

  3. Hi Ksenija and Mirek,

    So happy you are enjoying your travels. Thank you for Madeira post. Last week, I watched a short travel program on TV about Madeira and decided I had to visit. Now I have visited twice virtually! Stay safe.

    Hugs, Dorothy

    >

    Like

  4. Lol except for the plane landing & the manual transmission car on steep roads lol, sounds & looks like it was a wonderful experience! I love how you become “one of the locals” on your adventures. Glad you’re back to doing what you love- exploring the world!

    Like

  5. Madeira was my first ever overseas trip – 18 years old and went with my school friend and her family who originated from here. Even though i was a random stranger their family took me in and spoilt me so much. The Madeirans are wonderful people, and the island is just so beautiful!

    Like

Leave a Reply to Dorothy Sivazlian Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s