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Updated: 11th April 2021
Nearly four years after moving to Portugal, my feet finally set foot on the rugged, volcanic island of Madeira. Over the next few days and weeks, as I explored, I quickly realised what a mistake it had been waiting so long to visit. The photos of Madeira I’d seen online before had either been moody and foggy or cruise ships and crowded. In reality, it’s a perfect paradise that packs a lot in.
The archipelago of Madeira consists of the main island, the golden-sand beach escape of Porto Santo, and a few other islands that serve as uninhabited nature reserves.
An autonomous region of Portugal, Madeira’s location at the same latitude as Casablanca and just above the Canary Islands gives it warm weather, while the topography brings four micro-climates to the island. This is what makes it so diverse.
From the sunny south, with banana plantations and cities that climb up cliffs and mountains, to the rugged north, where waterfalls tumble down lush green cliffs coated in ferns towards natural swimming pools below. In her interior, dramatic mountain peaks dance in the clouds, and a network of walking-routes follow irrigation channels.
I only had a few ‘must-visits’ on my list when I arrived to Madeira. The famed Fanal forest which is often coated in fog, the stunning Pico do Arieiro to Ruivo route which takes you above the clouds, and a boat trip to see dolphins and whales. I saved these best till last, for the final few days of my month-long trip – but the weather had other ideas for exploring some of the UNESCO listed nature!
With a hectic storm rolling in and heavy rain, all three of these trips were cancelled. Usually, missing out on the top things in a destination would be upsetting, but over the trip, I’d found so many amazing spots in Madeira that I knew I would be coming back.
So, this is a work in progress; I’ll certainly be adding more photos of Madeira to this essay in the future – but I hope these images inspire you to see what an incredible island Madeira is, even when you take out the ‘must-visit’ and most iconic spots!
Cabo Girao Viewpoint
One of the highest sea-cliffs in the world, Cabo Girao is best admired from the coastal community of Câmara De Lobos – but the view from the top is also pretty amazing. Here you’ll find a glass-bottomed platform where you can walk out and look down on the village below, with panoramic views back to the city of Funchal.
Curral de Ferias – known as ‘Valley of the Nuns’
In 1566, pirates approached Funchal, the capital city of #Madeira, this rugged volcanic island in the Atlantic.
The nuns of the Santa Clara convent packed quickly, grabbing the treasures of the convent and forming a plan. They headed off on foot, seeking refuge in the mountainous interior of the island. A place they would know but pirates would struggle to access, and that place was here, a cauldron-shaped depression hidden from view. They climbed mountains and rough terrain to hide among these peaks.
Thus, it became to be known as ‘The Valley of the Nuns’. Nowadays, thanks to new roads and tunnels, the journey is a mere thirty minutes by car or bus from the capital. It wasn’t until 1959 that the valley was even connected to the road network.
From this viewpoint in Eira do Serrado, you can take the steep final steps of the ‘trail of the nuns’ down into the valley, where you’ll be treated to local specialities like chestnut soup and chestnut liquor, mountain swimming holes and lush green walks. A beautiful hike into the history of this incredible island.
Camara do Lobos
This old fishing village, now a sprawling municipality climbing up the banana plantation-coated mountains, retains an authentic atmosphere. Fishermen play cards on tables alongside their colourful wooden boats, a lively community of cafes and restaurants spill out onto the streets, and nods to Winston Churchill can be spotted, thanks to his painting trip to the village in 1950.
A walk through the quaint streets will take you past inventive street art, all made from repurposed drink cans, bringing a new lease of life to both walls and recycling. Shortly after, you’ll arrive at the ‘original Poncha bar’ serving up the island’s signature drink. Being a sugar-cane growing island, rum is also produced here, and the signature cocktail has many variations, with the most traditional version simply being rum, lemon and honey. With a nearly year-round spring-like climate, this is one of the warmest winter destinations in Europe.
Check in to a Quinta
There are countless boutique accommodation options in Madeira, and away from the built-up resort-like areas just outside Funchal, you’ll find some amazing stays with fantastic views.
I stayed at the incredible Quinta da Saraiva – a small, boutique B&B with breathtaking views over Camara do Lobos. The Quinta is beautiful, especially thanks to the hot tub and pool with their amazing views, but also because of the extensive grounds with banana plants and vines, the very friendly service, and the nice atmosphere of staying in a historic family-run Quinta.
For the best rates book direct at www.quintadasaraiva.com – enjoy a special discount when booking directly by simply entering the code DANFLYINGSOLO – this will give you a €50 discount on any stays of over 4 nights. This also includes breakfast for two, free parking, and a fruit and water welcome pack. (Code valid for reservations until 31/12/2021)
In the north of the island, Santana is a popular spot for tourists to visit due to the traditional style of the houses that can be found here.
The “Casas de Santana” are pretty thatched houses – a traditional style of home in this part of the island from years gone by. These would have been built with straw roofs as cheaper housing, but now a collection of them are around the town as a tourist attraction, combining little shops and history lessons.
As you explore the area, you will still see houses in this shape and style, which are actually in use, not just as tourist attractions, but nowadays they are less common and often made with stone and concrete than in the traditional method. This is also a fantastic place to catch a sunrise, particularly from the top of the cable car.
Levada do Caldeirão Verde
There are many Levada walks on the island, trails which follow the old water irrigation system along narrow paths, and one of the most beautiful is Levada do Caldeirão Verde.
Starting at the Queimadas Forestry Park, where traditional thatched buildings dish out warm coffees to hikers, the trail goes past and through lots of waterfalls and greenery, before the final towering fall in a shaded area ideal for picnics.
One of the main municipalities in the north of the island, Sao Vicente, sits in a valley that opens up to waterfalls and large sea cliffs along the ocean.
One of the main reasons to photograph here is the underground volcanic caves, which sadly were closed on my most recent visit. It’s also a good base to use for exploring the north coast.
The small community of Seixal is home to one of the most striking sand beaches on the island.
The black sand bay here offers amazing vistas of sunrise, and the bay is framed by multiple waterfalls tumbling down the green cliffs really adds to the drama. On the other side of the village are some fantastic swimming pools set into the Atlantic Ocean.
The most famous of the ocean swimming pools on the island, the relatively flat community of Porto Moniz is home to a collection of tranquil pools shaped into rocks to take a dip in.
During my visit, it was when the storm was starting, so the crashing waves and incoming winds made these photos of Madeira a little bit more dramatic than how the pools would usually look.
Ponta do Sol
In the southwest of the island, there are plenty of adorable little coastal villages to visit and photograph. One of my favourites was Ponta da Sol.
I spent a lovely day here swimming in the bay, sipping on local rum cocktails, and admiring the architecture – it felt a little bit Italian here, somewhat like a smaller version of the famed Cinque Terre.
On the far southeast of the Island, the trail of São Lourenço spreads outwards from the mainland, with azul bays and green cliffs on one side, and dramatic waves on the other.
This relaxing three-hour walk takes you to vantage points of lighthouses, the deserted islands, and offers great views back across the whole of Madeira.
I didn’t really do Funchal justice on my trip, using it in my final days as a base for day trips rather than photographing the capital of Madeira and exploring it properly.
The sprawling city spreads outwards and up the cliffs, and there are some lovely buildings to photograph here – such as the cathedral, church and markets, as well as the various forts that protected the city from pirates.
Porto Santo Island
The golden-sand island of Porto Santo is a couple of hours from Madeira by ferry but feels a world away.
The 9-kilometre golden sand beach is totally different from the mainly dark rock beaches on the main island, and it’s a popular place for relaxing and easy hikes, beach holidays and checking into an all-inclusive.
On a side note, everywhere I visited in Madeira, I visited by bus – another misconception is you must have a car here, and while it does certainly make things easier, the transport network, once understood, can get you around the island.
There are so many reasons to visit Madeira, which is why it often wins Europe’s Best Island and this year event the World’s Best Island at the World Travel Awards.
Seasonality is also a good thing to keep in mind for taking photos of Madeira, as there are different events throughout the year, with the Madeira Flower Festival perhaps one of the most colourful times to photograph the island. I can’t wait to go back and explore even more of this magnificent place.
Keen to explore Portugal’s other archipelago? Discover the best things to do in the Azores.