This Portuguese island is not just about its sweet, eponymous wine. Set 430 miles from the Moroccan coast and with three sister isles (only one other inhabited), the “Pearl of the Atlantic” is verdant yet volcanic, its splashy capital surrounded by subtropical gardens. You’ll find vibrant food, culture and design scenes, with modern hot spots featuring traditional Madeiran handicrafts, and you can descend the steep, winding streets in a wicker toboggan. Meanwhile, there’s a wealth of water sports—surfing, diving, big-game fishing, even swimming with dolphins—along the island’s perimeter. And between the 870 miles of levadas (centuries-old irrigation canals now flanked by hiking, biking and horse-riding trails) and the Laurisilva (an ancient laurel forest and UNESCO World Heritage site where you might spot an elusive Macaronesian sparrow hawk), the mountainous interior offers just as much fun. Here, we explore from coast to coast.
Food and Culture in Funchal
Named after the Portuguese word for fennel, which once grew wild between its terraced hills and tranquil bay, Madeira’s 15th-century capital is now a burgeoning culinary destination. Head downtown to the Art Deco Mercado dos Lavradores (Largo dos Lavradores; 011-351-291-214-080), a lively farmers market selling everything from fresh-caught espada (local black scabbardfish) to dried fennel and laurel leaves to a dozen flavors of maracujá (passion fruit). It’s one of several stops on Discovering Madeira’s (011-351-291-098-485; $58*) new wine and food tour, which also includes the chocolatier Uau Cacau (11 Rua da Queimada de Baixo; 011-351-291-644-620), beloved for its artisanal, island-inspired confections, and Armazém do Mercado (28 Rua Hospital Velho; 011-351-291-640-640; armazemdomercado.com, site in Portuguese), an old-meets-new “market warehouse” from native architect Paulo David. Two highlights here: Oficina (26 Rua Hospital Velho; 011-351-291-640-658; lunch for two, $11), a rare vegetarian-friendly café-bar hosting live music, and the recently opened Restock Galeria/Gallery (28–30 Rua Hospital Velho; 011-351-933-194-680), showing contemporary art from South Africa and Portugal.
Continue your food-and-art crawl on the cobblestoned Santa Maria Street, with its Projecto Arte Portas Abertas, or Open Doors Art Project. To help revive the formerly derelict Zona Velha (Old Town), local artists have covered the entryways of the strip’s abandoned buildings with colorful works. The area is now buzzing with restaurants such as the three-year-old Taberna Madeira (16 Travessa de João Caetano; 011-351-291-221-789; dinner for two, $48), serving small plates like tempura-style espada amid walls of wicker crafted nearby in Camacha village, and bars such as Venda Velha (170 Rua de Santa Maria; 011-351-925-003-460; vendavelha.com, site in Portuguese; drinks for two, $7), modeled after the island’s early-20th-century grocery stores, which also still serve as poncha-fueled gathering spots. This potent cocktail is made with aguardente de cana (white rum distilled from local sugar cane), honey, sugar and lemon juice—and, here, that of fresh-squeezed tamarillos, too.
The crumbling Nossa Senhora da Conceição fortress—a previous home of Madeira founder João Gonçalves Zarco—recently became the Design Centre Nini Andrade Silva (Estrada da Pontinha; 011-351-936-534-276; dinner for two, $95). The Funchal-born designer has interspersed her collection (a chaise longue shaped like a giant limpet shell, oversize pebble pendants, diaphanous dresses crafted with the Madeiran embroiderer Bordal) with artworks drawing from the island’s rocky shores and has tapped Portuguese chef Julio Pereira to helm the glass-walled Atelier Restaurant. His dishes (say, a seafood risotto with a disc of cuttlefish-ink jelly) are high-design and delicious. And farther west, Belmond Reid’s Palace—known for its terraced gardens and traditional afternoon tea and once frequented by Winston Churchill—now has one of the hottest tables in town: The William (139 Estrada Monumental; 011-351-291-717-171; dinner for two, $54), named after the hotel’s founder. Thanks to chef Luís Pestana’s seasonal tasting menus, which source from Madeira’s farmers and fishmongers, it just became Madeira’s second restaurant to earn a Michelin star. Expect sweeping views of the harbor and terra-cotta-roofed houses up high.
From Funchal, take a Teleférico cable car (8 Caminho das Babosas; 011-351-291-780-280; one-way ride, $11) up to Monte Palace Tropical Garden (174 Caminho do Monte; 011-351-291-756-291; admission, $13), where peacocks roam between rare cycads and koi ponds along Portuguese-tile-paneled walkways. You can have coffee with a view at the indoor-outdoor Local Shop (Largo das Babosas; 011-351-291-756-291; coffee for two, $4), just adjacent, then ride back down in a wicker toboggan with Carreiros do Monte (Caminho do Monte, Entrada 151, Door 4; 011-351-291-783-919; carreirosdomonte.com, site in Portuguese; rides, from $26 a person); the carreiros (drivers) run in rubber-soled boots that act as brakes.
Sweet Spots on the South Coast
Fifteen minutes west of Funchal, Câmara de Lobos is popular for restaurants specializing in espetada, chunks of salt-rubbed beef cooked over hot coals on a laurel skewer, typically served with milho frito (fried cornmeal cubes) and bolo do caco (sweet-potato flatbread). Try the family-run Restaurante Santo Antonio (656 Estrada João Gonçalves Zarco, Estreito Câmara de Lobos; 011-351-291-910-360; santoantonioespetada.com, site in Portuguese; dinner for two, $43), 51 years old and recently revamped, or the mod Vila da Carne (30 Rua Dr. João Abel de Freitas, Câmara de Lobos; 011-351-291-099-908; dinner for two, $42), whose windows overlook the water. For fresh seafood in an idyllic setting, visit the newly expanded thatched-roof restaurant at Fajã dos Padres (1 Estrada Padre António Dinis Henriques, Quinta Grande; 011-351-291-944-538; cable car, $11; lunch for two, $22)—a malvasia vineyard and organic farm with banana palms, pitanga trees and birds-of-paradise beside a secluded cove. There’s a new cable car that leaves from a 1,900-foot-high viewing platform below Cabo Girão and descends to Faia dos Padres, which was previously only accessible by boat. It offers a stunning, slo-mo view from one of Europe’s highest sea cliffs.
Carry on to Calheta: With some of Europe’s best waves at the towns of Jardim do Mar and Paul do Mar, the area is becoming known for its pro surf scene. But it’s not only for beach bums. Culture vultures will love the Paulo David–designed Mudas (37 Estrada Simão Gonçalves da Câmara; 011-351-291-820-900; admission, $4), a complex of concrete cubes built into a cliff that has boasted the island’s preeminent collection of contemporary Portuguese art since October 2015. Engenhos da Calheta (29 Ave. D. Manuel; 011-351-291-822-264; admission, free), one of the oldest sugar cane mills and rum distilleries on Madeira—a working relic of its turn-of-the-20th-century boom—is also worth a stop. A few years ago, it opened to the public; you can buy what’s considered the best bolo de mel de cana (sugar cane–honey cake) or sip house-made aguardente de cana.
Meanwhile, the name of the recently opened Madeira-style tiki bar Pukiki (77 Rua das Furnas, Estreito da Calheta; 011-351-291-822-032; drinks for two, $13) honors the Portuguese who migrated west beginning in the 1870s to work on the sugar plantations in Hawaii. It serves local-rum cocktails like “pukiki coladas,” even in ceramic ukuleles (the instrument is a Portuguese export).
Explore Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley), an isolated hamlet of Câmara de Lobos surrounded by mountains, where a convent holed up during pirate attacks circa 1566. Walk down from Eira do Serrado—a dramatic viewpoint—and once there, sample the local chestnuts and ginja (cherry liqueur).
There aren’t nearly as many amenities on the north shore, but you’ll encounter plenty of natural attractions—from swimmable lava-rock pools in Porto Moniz and Seixal to the Véu da Noiva (Bridal Veil) waterfall en route to São Vicente and its volcanic caves. Don’t miss the restaurant at Quinta do Furão (6 Estrada Quinta do Furão, Santana; 011-351-291-570-100; lunch for two, $65), a cliff-top manor with its own vineyard, wine cellar and Santana house (one of the area’s historic straw-thatched huts). Chef Rui Vieira plucks from the gardens to create strawberry butter and regional specialties like a hearty wheat soup, while his “Caldeirão Verde” beefsteak (smothered in Roquefort, wrapped in puff pastry and titled after a local levada) is a favorite among hungry hikers and foodies from Funchal.
Not far away is Porto da Cruz, a tiny cobblestoned village whose black-sand Praia da Lagoa is known for its surf breaks. You can learn how to hang ten with Salty (Rua da Praia; 011-351-967-107-792; lessons, from $53), a just-launched water-sports school from seven-time Madeira surfing champion Belmiro Mendes; he’s even taught his pet dogs to ride the waves. And if it’s not too windy, consider a walk along the barren basalt cliffs to Ponta de São Lourenço, Madeira’s dramatic easternmost tip, a nature reserve where you can see rare monk seals and take in clear views of Porto Santo, Madeira’s little sister, to the northeast.
It’s worth taking the two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride over to the nine-mile-long island. The Porto Santo Line (011-351-291-210-300; one-way trips, from $37) runs its Lobo Marinho vessel to and from Funchal several times daily. The island is surrounded by something its sibling lacks: miles of powdery golden sand, a type so rich in minerals it’s said to be medicinal. If you’re looking to just relax, head to Vila Baleira (Sitio do Cabeço da Ponta, Porto Santo; 011-351-291-980-800; treatments, from $95)—its thalassotherapy spa offers deeply soothing hot-sand baths. Or hit the water with the on-site Rhea Dive (011-351-969-333-777; courses, from $63). Last year, a decommissioned Portuguese Navy corvette was sunk (deliberately) in a protected marine area, creating an epic artificial reef for divers.
Terrific levadas sit alongside Madeira’s north shore, not to mention prime Laurisilva territory. The 17th-century Levada dos Cedros—one of Madeira’s oldest—cuts through groves of ancient laurel trees. Nature Meetings (Marina Shopping Centre, 75 Ave. Arriaga, Shop 247, Funchal; 011-351-291-524-482; tours, from $30 a person) leads half- and full-day treks of all levels—including between Pico do Areeiro and Pico Ruivo, Madeira’s highest peaks, where you can watch sunrise or sunset from above the clouds.
RCI® affiliated resorts in Madeira include:
Unwind at the on-site library or on the pavilion with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. Estrada Monumental 316, Funchal
Member Review: “Reliable staff and clean facilities.”
Private sea access and landscaped tropical gardens. Rua do Gorgulho 17, Funchal
Member Review: “We will definitely be coming back!”
Authentic Madeiran architecture throughout. Estrada Monumental 194, Sao Martinho, Funchal
Member Review: “Great on-property restaurants.”
Walking distance to downtown Funchal. Largo Antonio Nobre, Funchal
Member Review: “Wonderful sea view from our unit.”
Choose from studio, one- and two-bedroom suites in this intimate 98-unit resort. Caniço de Baixo, Caniço
Member Review: “A peaceful setting.”
Shares amenities with Royal Orchid. Caniço de Baixo, Caniço
Member Review: “Lovely cliff-top location.”
Treat yourself to the on-site sauna and Turkish bath. 1 Ponta da Cruz Apartado, Funchal
Member Review: “Spacious apartments and superb sea views.”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Madeira:
Castanheira Boutique Hotel
Expect 81 stylish new rooms in downtown Funchal inspired by the city’s design heritage, as well as a pool with panoramic views. 31 Rua do Castanheiro, Funchal; 011-351-291-100; castanheiroboutiquehotel.com; doubles from $138 a night
Canto das Fontes
Madeira’s first glamping site recently opened on a cliff-top banana farm along the sunny south coast. Caminho dos Anjos, Ponta do Sol; cantodasfontes.pt; tepees from $77 a night
- *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: May 2017