Madeira island, Portugal
It’s basically a living, breathing fairy tale. | Balate Dorin/Shutterstock
It’s basically a living, breathing fairy tale. | Balate Dorin/Shutterstock

It’s Always Spring on This Enchanted European Island

Fall under a spell in the middle of the ocean.

Take a piece of a sweet European village—specifically a terracotta-tiled-roof, Lisbon-esque piece—and put it on a tropical island between Portugal and Morocco, and you get Madeira.

All earthy orange shingles against the green trees and fronds, each building sits on its own level on tiered hills, while waterfalls crash down the lush valleys between so that no single view blocks another. The entire island is like an amphitheater—or rather a series of amphitheaters on numerous hills—and the unobstructed stage is the endless blue of the ocean.

Like a land under a spell, Madeira exists in a perpetual spring: Flowers bloom all year long, and even species that normally wouldn't bud at the same time defy nature’s rules. Though you could drive around the cliff edges of the island in about three to four hours, those same bluffs beckon the bold to walk along the rocky shorelines and jump into the sea or swim in the naturally made aqua tidal lagoons. Head inland to rappel down slippery waterfalls or walk along the top of mountains that peak up over the cloud line, so you’re gliding in a world of blue skies and swirling white fluff.

Unlike the Portuguese islands of the Azores up north, on Madeira you can pair the many nature excursions and unbelievable views with cocktail-fueled nightlife, old-world hotels, and Michelin-starred restaurants serving traditional seafood made more creative with exotic sea creatures and dollops of tropical fruit. In the main city of Funchal, you can museum-hop, shop, stroll around outdoor cafes under a river of purple-blossomed trees, take a gondola to a botanic garden atop a mountain, and ride a wooden sled back down. Here are the adventures not to miss in Madeira.

Madeira hiking
How, indeed, did she get up there. | ©Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images

How to get to Madeira (and COVID info)

Claimed by Portugal since the 1400s—in fact, there really isn’t any trace or influence left from the island’s first people, the Guanches from the west coast of Africa, other than unearthed tools in caves—getting to and from Madeira has the same protocols as getting to and from Europe, even though it sits in the middle of the Atlantic somewhat near Morocco.

Getting to Madeira is extremely easy, with direct, five-hour flights from NYC on Azores Airlines. If you’re not East Coast-based or coming through the Big Apple, the typical alternative option is just plain lovely: Most flights from elsewhere have a connection in mainland Portugal. This means many people tag Madeira onto a trip to see Porto or Lisbon for a blissful range of beautiful destinations without having to pop into any other country (or take more COVID tests).

Speaking of COVID tests: Though fully vaccinated American tourists don’t need to take a test to enter Madeira, it’s easy to get a COVID test on the island to return to the US. Walk-ins and appointments are available at Hospital Particular de Madeira, the main hospital on the island, and many clinics offer the same service. The test costs 15 euro and gives results in minutes to your phone and email. You can set it up yourself or ask your hotel, which will often make the arrangements on your behalf, including transportation.

Vereda do Areeiro
Looking down on clouds is totally normal here. | Maya Karkalicheva/Moment/Getty Images

Walk above the clouds and see ancient forests

Since just walking up the sidewalk on such a hilly island can seem to some like a “hike,” you’re really guaranteed action—and panoramas—no matter what level you choose. With 33 well-maintained trails spanning over 300 miles of the island, you’re sure to get some stunning views. Hikes on Madeira are very reasonably categorized into ones that are more like walks, known as levadas, and ones that climb the peaks, known as veredas.

If you want the latter, the Vereda do Areeiro connects the two tallest peaks on the island. You’ll ascend 3,000 feet until you get above the cloud line at the top of the mountain, where you’ll feel like you’re walking in a sunny, swirling marshmallow land only planes should see. It’s about six miles and four to five hours one way, so you can either double that to hike there and back or plan to have a guide pick you up at the top and drive you back.

Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço
The São Lourenço Peninsula is one of many killer-cliff-view hikes. | Reid's Palace, A Belmond Hotel

If you’re looking for an easy day or more of a winding stroll, the incredible views on Vereda do Larano will blow your hiking socks off. The entire walk is extremely flat, but it’s still one of the best hikes on the island. It’s not just the ocean in front of you that’ll take your breath away, it’s also the sheer walls stretching out majestically on either side, plus above and below you, since the trail hugs the side of the bluff. You can choose to go for five miles or onward for several more, since it stretches along most of the coast, and taxis or guides will handily drop you off and pick you up at predesignated spots like in Machico and Porto da Cruz.

A couple other easy hikes include the 25 Fontes hike, which is about seven miles and has numerous waterfalls along the way and at the end, or the Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço hike, accessible via the 113 bus, which goes through caves and ends at a restaurant where a boat can whisk you back to Funchal.

If you choose to hike Vereda do Fanal, you can see the laurissilva forest at Posto Florestal Fanal, which is a UNESCO protected site home to the laurissilva trees that once populated Europe and are now extinct there except for on this island.

black scabbard fish
What’s better: the fish, the wine, the fruit, or the view behind it all? | Reid's Palace, A Belmond Hotel

Eat mouthwatering meals you can’t get anywhere else on Earth

One of the first fish you’ll hear about—and hopefully indulge in—is the black scabbard fish. Native to these waters, the three-foot long, eel-like creatures swim at 1,000 meters deep. At that depth, their skin is a shiny silver, but the pressure from being pulled up from such a distance turns their scales black.

Needless to say, these fishies are much tastier than they look. They come prepared on crostinis, in sandwiches, or as the star of the plate. Though locals at home prepare black scabbard plain, restaurants often top the fish with the island’s local banana or passion fruit in a blend that’s sweet and savory with a tangy kick. The fish is served almost everywhere, but the best low-key bite in Funchal just might be at O Calhau next to Old Town. Whereas the best high-end plate is prepared at Avista, awarded Michelin Gourmand and helmed by a two Michelin-starred chef.

If an upscale splurge is your thing—and if you only have the allowance for one—make it Galaxia Skyfood. Before the tasting menu blows your mind, get blown away by the 16th floor ocean views and the twinkling atmosphere where a tasteful galaxy impression swirls on the ceiling. Then tuck in for the standout dish of Wagyu beef speared on a bay leaf stick, covered in a garlic crumble, and nestled in a bowl of pine branches and a literal-smoking coal that imparts an earthy flavor. After that, the fermented red snapper in a ponzu and avocado puree with mango gel is a bright, tingling treat for the tongue.

Madeira restaurant
Pretty much everywhere you eat in Madeira has a version of this vista. | Reid's Palace, A Belmond Hotel

For a more casual hang, Maktub in Paul do Mar on the western side of the island starts the meal with a traditional sunset drink on the sea ledge just across the street from the restaurant. The chef then expertly prepares whatever local catch came in that day, and you’ll be lucky if you get a thinly sliced tuna crudo. The creamiest, silkiests pastas (shoutout to the lobster and black truffle pasta) can be found at Villa Cipriani, whose cliff-hanging patio steals the show.

But the best of all worlds, where casual guests dine amid such stupidly pretty landscapes that it just feels expensive without being so, is winery Quinta do Barbusano. The glass walls of the rustic tasting/dining room overlook an undulating, verdant valley dotted with the country homes of a small town.

Here, not only can you get a thorough wine tasting for 15 euro, you can also try their espetada: hunks of beef grilled on a rod with truly the perfect amount of salt. The rods are hung vertically above your table, and it’s a learning experience to gracefully slide a piece off with your fork and knife. You’ll also have a hard time eating only three or four pieces of their bolo de caco, the traditional flat, warm bread of Madeira that’s covered in garlic and butter.

Canyoning
Psst… that’s me. | Photo courtesy of Epic Madeira.

Fling yourself down waterfalls and off cliffs

Who wants to stop at just chasing waterfalls when you can then scale down them, superhero style? Canyoning excursions allow you to feel like you’re defying gravity by walking on a vertical wall of rock, often with water flowing down it. The rocks can be slippery and tricky to manage with just feet and no hands, but you’re harnessed to a rope around your waist and carefully managed by a guide at the top and one at the bottom.

After you scale down, you’ll plunge into the pool below in a warm wetsuit before continuing along the water to the next falls. Difficulty levels range from beginners level one to experts level five, so you’ll get different heights and ease of footing depending on what you choose. There are 131 canyoning excursions available around the island, where no two waterfalls are alike.

If you’d rather jump than climb, coasteering is what you’re looking for. In these adventures, rather than going inland to the waterfalls, you’ll head out to the coast and hike along the rocky edges of the island in search of good cliffs to leap off of and into the sea below. Again, you’ll be in a wetsuit and carefully watched by experienced guides.

Seixal Natural Pool
Gorgeous landscapes, less exertion. | ©Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images

Lounge in a volcanic natural pool

If you don’t feel the need to be airborne at all, an easier water adventure involves paddling around in natural pools. Keep in mind these aren’t hot springs, so some mental prep may be needed before making the plunge, but it’s a refreshing swim once you’re in.

Surrounded by holey volcanic rock spires, the pools are both turquoise and somehow clear at the same time. Some, like those in Porto Moniz, have bathrooms and facilities, while others like Seixal Natural Pools have a more wild, make-your-own-adventure and bring-your-own-towel feel. These naturally-occurring infinity pools are sometimes preferred over the mostly pebbly beaches on the island (other than Praia do Porto do Seixal and Machico Bay beaches), and their appearance is far more unique.

Poncha
Probably spiked with passion fruit, which is a-okay with me. | dabyki.nadya/Shutterstock

Drink way too much poncha and Madeira wine

The tale behind the famous drink on Madeira, poncha, might be more adventurous than the list of ingredients in the cocktail, but it’s a story that’ll make you want to keep sipping (we’re nothing if not sticklers for a good drinking tradition).

Since this island was a natural port for sailors crossing the Atlantic to and from Europe, you can bet there was a lot of rum involved (helped, no doubt, by the sugar cane production on Madeira and plundering of colonized lands in the Americas). But sailors were also concerned about scurvy, so Vitamin C-rich lemons were brought aboard and preserved—of course—in the rum. Drizzle in some honey to curb the sour taste, and there you have it: poncha.

The stick used to stir poncha is called a caralino, which means little penis. Take that as you will. You’ll find poncha all over the island at all hours (including at the rambunctious Rua de Santa Maria, also known as the Painted Doors Street) and with all kinds of other fruity flavors. But one of the best is at Pharmacia do Bento, where you can sit at wooden seats in the wide alley behind the building and sip shot glasses of the stuff.

Madeira wine
No cool, dark cellar for these wine barrels. | Kristina Stasiuliene/Shutterstock

The other highly-lauded drink of the island is the eponymous Madeira wine. Not to be confused with Madeiran wine, which you can also find here, this is not just wine made on Madeira. It’s a unique-tasting type of wine that has a protected domestic of origin status (like Champagne), meaning it can’t be made anywhere else.

Like poncha, its birth is also nautical: According to the tale, a batch of wine sailed around the world, and upon return to Madeira, tasted better than when it had first cast-off. After trying to recreate the process and ruling out that the magical liquid wasn’t a result of the boat rocking or the salty sea air, they discovered the heat in the hull of the ship concentrated the wine.

Today, Madeira wine rejects traditional cool cellars and instead is heated for years. It’s extra thick and sweet, but don’t offend the locals and say it tastes like port, because it’s much more refined than that—and way less syrupy. To pretend like we understand vintology for a hot second, the volcanic soil of the island gives an acidity to the wine that helps it rinse clean from your mouth. (Are you impressed?)

Needless to say, it pairs perfectly with any dessert (especially cheesecake IMO). One of the best places to get Madeira wine is Blandy’s Wine Lodge, which was first a monastery, then made into a prison, then finally a winery. And we love a good monastery-turned-prison-turned-winery.

Madeira toboggan
Watch out for cars! | saiko3p/Shutterstock

Ride a toboggan down a mountain road

Yes, you should visit the Monte Tropical Garden in Funchal which, like everything else in Madeira, slopes down a hill. The garden feels like an enchanted maze and is worth a wander (even though you’ll have to clamber back up the hill once you’ve reached the bottom).

But it’s getting to the garden and the windswept, adrenaline-filled return that many of us are really here for. First, to get to Monte at the top of the mountain, you ride up a gentle cable car that slowly reveals several more inches of the ocean-view and makes your cell phone photos of Madeira look like you have a drone.

When you’ve had your fill of flowers and stone steps at the garden, it’s time for the ride back down the mountain—a journey best taken on a toboggan.

Whoever first thought to ride a wooden sled on a paved road down a mountain was either desperate, daring, or just extremely lazy. But we’ll take lazy genius. Just down the road from the garden exit, a group of men known as carreiros wait near a booth selling tickets for a ride down the mountain. The wicker toboggan is initially pushed by two smartly dressed carreiros who then ride on the back and guide the sled around bends and past car traffic as you bobsled your way down the island’s slopes.

Madeira New Years
Doesn’t matter which festa, it’s festa time. | Reid's Palace, A Belmond Hotel

Party all year long

No matter what time of year you visit, you might find yourself in the midst of a celebration, because Madeirans love to party. Spring celebrations start with Carnival, where there’s an enormous Rio-style parade, a drag night, a flower power night, and a Burial of the Bone party to finish it off. As part of the festival, many adults like to put on masks and headdresses and scare children, which is a real hoot.

Then you’ll have a flower festival in May, a cherry festival in June, dancing folklore and jazz festivals in July, a wine harvest and grape stomping festival spanning September through October, plus too many others to list.

It’s worth noting that Christmas here lasts one and a half months from December to mid-January, and it’s simply called The Party. Not only is every tree, building, and walkway strung in twinkle lights, you can smell garlic in the air and get offered carne vinha d’alhos (pork drowned in wine) everywhere you go. On the last day, carolers visit homes singing songs and—best twist ever—eat all the leftovers in the house.

Still, possibly one of the biggest parties of the year is the New Year’s celebration, where the island goes all out in black tie, gala-level attire and watches fireworks and sometimes acrobatic aerial displays in the sky.

Madeira hotel
Wes Anderson meets the tropics. | Reid's Palace, A Belmond Hotel

Stay in Madeira’s best hotels

Madeira was once the luxurious island retreat of predominantly wealthy British vacationers, and Reid’s Palace sure feels like the place where they would stay. The sorbet-pink building and garden grounds sit atop a dramatically sheer cliff for a commanding view. The front of the building actually faces the ocean, since guests used to only arrive by boat (and the women were carried up the steps of the cliff in hammocks)—but the rear is no server’s entrance, with chandeliers and french doors leading to balconies overlooking the water. It’s a bit of a splurge, but it’s a chance to feel like James Bond sans the action sequence.

You’re pretty much guaranteed an ocean view anywhere in Madeira, but a glance out the glass balcony doors of rooms at Vidamar feels almost like being in a surrealist Dali painting of just ocean, sky, and nothing else. Disembodying views aside, this hotel is like an adventure-friendly base camp, with numerous vans and tour guides constantly streaming out front to pick up the daring clientele. That’s not to say the hotel is canvas-tent level; you really get the comfort of five stars with a sauna and three indoor/outdoor, heated salt water pools, plus a pick up point for your nature excursions.

If you want to stay outside of the city of Funchal, a gorgeous bucolic escape awaits at Quinta do Furao. Sat amid a vineyard, the hotel butts up against the edge of the land and looks out at a mesmerizing wall of sea cliffs, drawing the gaze like a magnet. The rooms feel like a homey inn with soft colors, alcove windows, and the requisite ocean-facing balconies. Plus the onsite restaurant provides the same view around a central fireplace and some of the best beef and roquefort cheese puff pastries around.

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Danielle Hallock is the Travel Editor at Thrillist, and she has yet to let go of the rappelling harness.