The Case for Madeira: the Island You Probably Haven't Heard of, but You Should Know

If you’re like us, you probably aren’t familiar with Madeira, the Portuguese archipelago west of Morocco and north of the Canary Islands. Perhaps rightfully so; Madeira has long been associated with a much older tourist crowd predominantly from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Scandinavia. If you’re like us, you are blessed with having no preconceived notions about Madeira Island. If you aren’t like us and have only heard about Madeira as a sleepy island chain for older tourists, you are absolutely wrong. Let us change your mind, friends!

North of the Canary Islands, west of Morocco, and southwest of mainland Europe, the Madeira Archipelago is a top global island destination that's experiencing a tourism boom.

Nick and I arrived on Madeira Island at the end of March with absolutely no idea what to expect. The first thing that immediately struck us — aside from the very modern, but seemingly-precarious Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport built on a cliffside — is how mountainous Madeira Island is. Think Hawaii meets Jurassic Park. Every road was dominated by tunnels, making navigating the island easy and unique via newly built Vias Rápidas. Seriously, travel on this highly mountainous island would be a nightmare without the nearly 150 tunnels and 130 bridges. For reference, the island is only 35 miles (57 kilometers) long and 14 miles (22 kilometers) wide. Basically, it is small and jam-packed with major infrastructural developments. Many of our drivers talked about the “old days” before the infrastructural developments when the 30 minute trip from the airport to our hotel would take 3 hours!

 This is just one of the many amazing homes along Rua de Santa Maria in the old area of Funchal. The old cobblestone street - once known as a shadier part of the city - is now packed full of amazing restaurants and shops.

This is just one of the many amazing homes along Rua de Santa Maria in the old area of Funchal. The old cobblestone street - once known as a shadier part of the city - is now packed full of amazing restaurants and shops.

Speaking of hotels, we stayed at Savoy Saccharum in the village of Calheta. Calheta is about a 30 minute drive from the capital of Madeira, Funchal. This tiny but exciting town features a sandy beach (with the sand being imported from Morocco) and this amazing resort, which is part of the Savoy Hotels and Resorts family. We honestly cannot recommend Savoy Saccharum enough. The rooms were well-apportioned and modern. The rooftop infinity pool was stunning. The restaurant and buffet were well-staffed and the food delicious. The spa was relaxing. It was an amazing place to stay. If you are going to Madeira Island, please consider staying here! We do have two words of advice for those wishing to stay at Savoy Saccharum: first, make sure you select an ocean view room and, second, consider upgrading to the Savoy Premium Experience. The rooms facing away from the ocean did not have great views (which may help if you are looking to save money). The Premium Experience package — for an extra daily fee — gives you premium amenities, in-room food, unlimited entry to the spa area, exclusive access to an amazing lounge area on the rooftop, and mini-bar service (because who doesn’t love those tiny shots).

Now, you are probably wonder what there is to do an such a small island. What Madeira Island may lack in size, it makes up for in sheer volume of things to do and experience. On our first full day in Madeira, Nick and I rented a car (a very easy process on the island) and literally drove around the entire perimeter of the island. I can’t recommend doing this enough; it gave us a very unique take on the island’s many different offerings. First, we traveled to Ponta de São Lourenço, the far eastern point of the island. This area of the island experience a great deal of wind, which makes it completely unique to other parts of the island. There are no trees in the area, just low brush and flowers. It honestly looks like coastal areas of the United Kingdom or Ireland. If you have time to spare, the hike from the parking area to some of Ponta de São Lourenço’s best sites takes roughly two hours total. Honestly, we think this hike is a must-see experience on the island, especially for Nick who was getting some hidden-horcrux-Harry-Potter-sixth-movie realness served to him. 

 Ponta de São Lourenço couldn't be more different from the rest of the island. Owing to its geography and the high wind speeds in the area, Ponta de São Lourenço looks nothing like the rest of Madeira Island. This is just one of the many stunning views on the 2-3 hour hike here.

Ponta de São Lourenço couldn't be more different from the rest of the island. Owing to its geography and the high wind speeds in the area, Ponta de São Lourenço looks nothing like the rest of Madeira Island. This is just one of the many stunning views on the 2-3 hour hike here.

Following Ponta de São Lourenço, we headed north in the direction of Porto Moniz. One thing we immediately noticed was the drastic change in climate, leading to an equally dramatic change in the flora. Going from Ponta de São Lourenço to the northern coast highlights how unique the island is with its many changing climates (locals state that Madeira Island has nearly 24 microclimates). The north coast of Madeira Island looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park. The mountains are high and steep, while the weather is humid and hot. This leads to beautiful Mediterranean to tropical climates and temperatures. Adding to the wildness is the fact that — of everywhere on the island — the north to northwest coast of Madeira Island is the least developed. Whereas the south has many accessible highways and tunnels, the north is a maze of roads that wind precariously up the side of incredibly steep cliffs. If you are scared of heights like me, it’s definitely going to get your heart rate racing. Luckily, Nick drove us around during this part of the trip! Highlights for us along the northern coast include the black sand beach of Seixal and the volcanic pools of Porto Moniz (both are must-see). 

Our second and third days on the island involved a lot of relaxation, courtesy of Savoy Saccharum. Just check out the amazing pictures from this stunning resort!

Perhaps one of the most amazing experiences on the trip happened on day four during our visit to Fajã dos Padres. Inaccessible by almost all means except for an incredibly steep cable car and small boat, Fajã dos Padres is called “an island within the island” by locals due to its closed-off locations. Once you’ve descended down into Fajã dos Padres, you are immediately surrounded by the rustic beauty of the organic farm located below. Even better, this farm supports the amazing restaurant located on site. Everything at this restaurant is brought in directly from the sea and the surrounding farm, making for one of the most memorable restaurant experiences we’ve ever had. In addition, Fajã dos Padres features a number of generous, historic cottages that are available for vacation rentals. We were so fortunate to have the owner of the Fajã dos Padres complex give us a tour of the facilities, which included an amazing wine cellar in a 400 year old building. I know I’ve told you that everything is must see, but seriously, do not leave the island until you go here.

 Fajã dos Padres is at the bottom of an extremely steep cliff face, making it accessible only by cable car. Locals have dubbed it an "island within the island" as no roads lead here, and it's easy to see how the beauty of this area has been preserved.

Fajã dos Padres is at the bottom of an extremely steep cliff face, making it accessible only by cable car. Locals have dubbed it an "island within the island" as no roads lead here, and it's easy to see how the beauty of this area has been preserved.

Day five took us to two unique extremes on the island, one being 6,000 feet above sea level and the other being right at sea level. With a wake up call of 4:45am local time, we gathered ourselves as best we could and made the trek up to Pico do Arieiro, the second highest peak on the island. To further give you an example of truly how mountainous the island is, Pico do Arieiro is nearly 6,000 feet (1,818 meters) above sea level! Any griping we had about the early wake up call melted away immediately upon seeing the sunrise from Pico do Arieiro. The views from 6,000 feet gave us nearly 360 degrees of amazing views, highlighting the incredible geography of Madeira Island. We spent a long time there, taking in the view while we celebrated our love, our relationship, and how spectacular our planet is. The day didn’t end here though! Following our trek up to Pico do Arieiro, we traveled right back down to the capital of Madeira, Funchal. 

Situated in one of the few gentle valleys and with an amazing port to boot, Funchal is a sight to see. Not only is Funchal the largest city in the archipelago, its population of over 100,000 makes it one of the largest cities in all of Portugal. The first settlement in the area dates back to the early 1400s, and the historic architecture of Funchal shines through to this days. The beautiful homes are packed tightly against cobble-stone streets in the old part of the city. Is shopping and luxury your thing? There are plenty of beautiful hotels and resorts coupled with great shopping centers in the newer part of the city to the west. Funchal definitely rounds out the island, truly making the island a diverse mix of climates, geographies, cities, towns, and villages. 

 Funchal is the capital of Madeira, and one of the few places on the island that can be described as "gently sloping." With a population of over 100,000, it makes up a majority of the island's population and is the sixth largest city in Portugal.

Funchal is the capital of Madeira, and one of the few places on the island that can be described as "gently sloping." With a population of over 100,000, it makes up a majority of the island's population and is the sixth largest city in Portugal.

If you’ve read this far, you know what we are going to say here: Madeira Island is a must see travel destination, as is all of Portugal. For way too long, we’ve been sleeping on Portugal, drawn instead to the continual favorites of Italy, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Now it’s Portugal’s time to shine. With amazing options from Porto, to Lisbon, to the Azores, and the Madeira Archipelago, Portugal should undoubtedly be on your travel list.