While Madeira is a terrific place to dive and snorkel, we’d just wrapped up a wonderful dive week in the Azores and were looking for a little variety. We also wanted to avoid the bustle of Madeira’s capital, Funchal, which is where most tourists stay.
So we headed to the north side of the island for a week in Arco de São Jorge, where we took in the beauty of the Portuguese territory known as the “Garden of the Atlantic.”
Want to see the best of the place Mike said was like a real-life Skull Island? These are our recommendations for 11 things to do while you’re in Maderia:
1. Take a hike. There are loads of great hikes all over Maderia, but this was our favorite. The trail began at our Airbnb in Arco de São Jorge and climbed above and to the east of Solar de Boaventura. Along the way, we found a manmade cave dug into the side of the cliff next to an abandoned milling town with an ancient waterwheel and a mill house that collapsed long ago.
If you aren’t a hiker — or just aren’t into steep cliffside climbs — you can experience the trails of Madeira through the magic of the Internet with our Google street view photosphere. (Yes, Ben has three legs in the photosphere. It’s what makes him such a great hiker. Ha!)
Take a closer look at the milling town with this second Google photosphere Mike captured during the hike.
2. Build a cairn. In a place as wild as Madeira, it is somehow soothing to create a bit of manmade order among the chaos. Cairns are the perfect way to build something lovely, albeit temporary, from the abundant natural materials.
3. Drink some poncha. Made with orange juice, a splash of lemon juice, aguardente de cana (sugarcane rum), sugar, and honey, the Maderian cocktail called poncha really packs a punch-a. We first tried it at at Restaurante Roseiral, when owner Énio Andrade brought us glasses after a wonderful dinner. Énio and his wife, Joana, have such a lovely space and serve such terrific food that we had three meals there over the course of a week.
4. Stop and smell the roses. As the “Garden of the Atlantic,” Maderia is covered with gorgeous flowers at every turn. So imagine our delight when we visited the Quinta do Arco rose garden, which took flower power to the next level. With more than 17,000 roses in 1,550 varieties, these manicured gardens are bursting with mind-boggling color and fragrance.
5. Visit the tide pools in Porto Moniz. No matter where you stay in Madeira, build in plenty of time for day trips. We drove from Arco do São Jorge to Porto Moniz, where we explored the tide pools, caves, and bridges and even took some time to play in a fun fitness park.
6. Explore the forest. Madeira’s Laurisilva was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, when the organization recognized the 15,000 hectares that are home to many unique plants and animals. “Most of the property is believed to have never been felled and includes some massive old trees, possibly over 800 years old, which have been growing since before the island was settled,” UNESCO noted. “The property also contains an important testimony of human use. The settlers of Madeira constructed water channels, known as levadas, which run through the forest following the contours of the landscape, and clinging to the cliffs and steep-sided valleys. Typically 80-150 cm wide and constructed of stone or more recently concrete, they carry water from the forest to hydropower stations and to the towns of the south, where they provide essential drinking water and irrigation supplies.”
While you can hike and drive much of Laurisilva, it’s also possible to appreciate the forest from below. It’s often seen shrouded in mist, leading to Mike’s King Kong reference.
7. Get a bird’s-eye view. Don’t want to drive or hike Madeira? Or only have a day to see all you can? Take the Funchal cable car. The 20-minute ride, known as “a journey between heaven and earth,” climbs nearly 10,500 ft (3200 m) over cities, homes, gardens, and forests as you rise above the Atlantic Ocean.
8. Celebrate the flora. You can’t visit the “Garden of the Atlantic” without appreciating its natural beauty, and Madeirans go all-out with the flower festivities each May. “Springtime is honored like a queen,” when the whole island celebrates with the Flower Festival parade and the giant Wall of Hope, a mural of flowers created at the Praça do Município by thousands of children dressed in floral fashion.
9. Eat the garlic bread. Better still, try to stop eating the garlic bread. Bolo do caco arrives at your table as a steaming, floury flattened loaf. Pull off a slice, and you unleash the amazing, buttery, garlicky steam. You know it’s too hot to eat it, but you can’t help yourself, and soon the entire plate is empty. It’s so delicious, and it goes with everything from eggs and salads to grilled meats and stews.
10. Learn a bit of Portuguese. If you want to meet and get to know locals, you’ll have to speak the language. Outside the capital of Funchal, we didn’t encounter many locals who spoke English. While “hello” (“olá”) and “thank you” (“obrigado” to men and “obrigada” to women) are the basics, you’ll need a bit more to carry on even a basic conversation.
11. Watch the sunset. While this is a good thing to do no matter where you are in the world, Madeira’s sunsets are some of the most beautiful we’ve ever encountered. And on this particular day, it was also the longest sunset we’ve experienced, and we loved every minute of it.