Across Madeira there are 2,170km of levadas, narrow aqueducts which have transported water round the island since the 16th century – and have created a unique network of walking trails. We went for a moderately strenuous hike up Levada do Rei, one of many free walking trails – and it was stunning. Mini waterfalls, pools you can jump in, views across Gorillas in the Mist valleys, and a close-up of the impossibly green World Heritage-protected Laurisilva forest, which is more prevalent in Madeira than anywhere else in the world and covers a fifth of the island.
Whale watching & swimming with dolphins
With whale hunting banned since 1986 around Madeira, it has become a natural reserve for sea mammals, and 28 of the known species of whale (there are around 78 in total) have been spotted here, from the smaller pilot whales to humpback and sperm whales, and the mighty fin and blue whales. Thus, it’s one of Europe’s best year-round whale-watching spots and, while you’ll be lucky to see the larger whales on a trip, pilot whales and dolphins are virtually guaranteed. We went with Rota dos Cetáceos, led by the charming and helpful team of co-owner Pedro Mendes Gomes and guide Angela Papp, a master’s student in marine biology at the University of Madeira. While it was worth it to see the pilot whales right by the boat and schools of up to 50 dolphins frolicking, the highlight was putting on special all-in-one snorkel/masks and plopping into the sea. As you hold onto the boat, the dolphins dive, jump, play and sing around you. It’s a mesmerising, euphoric experience – and, according to Pedro and Angela, the dolphin’s high-pitched sonar not only induces a happy stoned feeling but is a powerful aphrodisiac. Either way, when we came out of the water, we couldn’t stop smiling. This is more than just a bucket-list tick. rota-dos-cetaceos.pt
Madeira wine dates back to the 15th century, when it was born from an accident – wine from the island was taken aboard trading ships where it was preserved with added alcohol, and then exposed to excessive movement and baked in the tropical heat. The result was a fortified wine with complex nutty caramel flavours that Madeira’s winemakers still try to reproduce on the island’s 14,000 vineyards, many of them backyard plots.
Where to eat
This local restaurant in São Vicente on the north coast of Madeira specialises in traditional dishes, including taberna-style marinated octopus, milho frito (fried cornmeal), and espetada (meat skewers).
Fajã da Areia, São Vicente, +351 291 842 243
Abrigo do Pastor Restaurant
Nearby the Parque Ecologico and Pico do Arieiro, this restaurant is a popular Sunday hangout for local families. The interior features exotic taxidermy – a reference to the site’s history as a hunting lodge – and there’s an impressive wine collection.
29 Estrada das Carreiras, Camacha, +351 291 922 060, facebook.com/abrigo.pastor
Bolo do Caco São Jorge
A roadside restaurant in São Jorge that serves fire-roasted chicken espetada (meat skewers) and the ubiquitous bolo do caco (garlic bread).
+351 291 576041
Madeira’s rugged terrain has given rise to seven cable cars around the island. The oldest connects Funchal to the village of Monte, a 15-minute climb from Almirante Reis in the old town. Once at the top, you can return downhill at speeds of up to 48kph via the Carro de Cesto – a wicker basket on wooden runners, steered by two carreiros dressed in white linens and straw hats who use their rubber-soled boots as brakes. The toboggans first appeared in 1850 as a fast means of downhill travel. When a train came into use in 1893, followed by the cable car in 2000, the toboggans stayed on as a tourist attraction. Today there are around 150 carreiros, including 71-year-old John Nomaro Petita who’s spent the past 50 years ferrying thousands of visitors each year down the 2km stretch of tarmac. While Hemingway claimed the Carro de Cesto was “the most exhilerating experience” of his life, it’s more leisurely these days, offering an interesting glimpse into the island’s history.
The traditional drink of Madeira is poncha, a potent cocktail of aguardente de cana (alcohol distilled from sugar cane juice), honey, sugar, lemon rind and various fruit juices, all mixed together with a timber mixing tool commonly called a caralhinho (little cock). Try it at the charming Taberna da Poncha, in the hillside parish of Serra de Água. facebook.com/poncha.serra.agua
Where to stay
Casa das Videiras
This beautiful four-bedroom home, complete with chapel, is located in the stunning seaside town of Seixal, close to a natural pool.
Quinta de São Lourenço
A seven-bedroom residence with breathtaking views from the pool over the Atlantic Ocean and the picturesque village of Paul do Mar, one of the most important fishing villages on Madeira.
Apartament Old Town Funchal
If you stay in Funchal, the old town is the place to be. This three-bedroom apartment is located just around the corner from the bars, restaurants and painted doors of Rua Santa Maria, one of the oldest streets in Funchal.
All of these properties can be booked through Madeira Rural, which promotes holiday homes and villas on the island madeirarural.com
Check out Madeira Outdoor for more tips: madeiraoutdoor.com
Norwegian flies to Madeira direct from Oslo, Copenhagen and now London/ Gatwick. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com