My pre-conceived idea of Madeira was that although in pictures it seems very beautiful, it’s also an island for mostly rich, retired people who want somewhere warm to hang out but also somewhere classier than your usual island getaway. (I.e. The Lanzarotes and Tenerifes of this area). Turns out, there is so much more to Madeira than I once thought!! (Although in terms of classiness, this definitely isn’t your Brits-Abroad, fry-ups and no integration with the locals type situation) This Portuguese island is to the West of the coast of Africa and slightly North of the Spanish Canary Islands, and it’s capital, Funchal, is where we docked every seven days. Although the rest of the island is packed full of things to do and places to see, I stuck to the city of Funchal (so called after the abundance of wild fennel that was growing there many years ago when settlers first arrived on the island) for the duration of my time, so here are the most awesome things that I found to do whilst there.
Find a true Portuguese cafe
Although there are plenty of tourist-filled cafes around, in order to get some true Portuguese atmosphere you need to get off the beaten track a bit. Not too far off; just a block or two back from the main streets will do just fine, no messing…it goes without saying that in order to get a more authentic experience of anywhere in the world the best way is to not follow the crowd and stray from the path, Red Riding Hood style. My favourite place of all was a little cafe called Mercearia D. Mécia, which was always fairly quiet and whose clientele seemed to be mainly locals drinking espresso and reading the paper. You had to walk up a side street and through a gate into a courtyard to find the tiny cafe, but it just goes to show that in this case, curiosity did not kill the cat, and for that I am truly proud.
Funchal is full to the brim with gardens- botanical gardens, tropical gardens, big gardens, tiny gardens. You name it, they’ve probably got it. Some of them are completely free of charge to roam around the greenery and others, like the Monte Palace gardens (for example), charge an entrance fee. The island’s year-round subtropical climate makes it perfect for growing all sorts of fabulous looking flowers, as well as many many extremely tiny bananas (they’re so proud of their tiny bananas, I’ll tell you that for free). Also I really appreciated just sitting still in a park and seeing how any lizards would appear when I blended in to the surroundings like some kind of overgrown non-camouflaged chameleon, but in hindsight that’s kind of a weird activity I suppose.
Go for a good old fashioned swim!
Firstly I’ll get right to it; Funchal is not the place for white sandy beaches and sunbathing under palm trees. As you come into land from the sea you can see that the coastline is, for the most part, rocky cliffs rising majestically out of the water and therefore leaving no room for a nice sandy beach at the bottom. It’s just not the way they do things round there!
However, to make up for this there are plenty of places like the Lido Pool Complex in the city’s hotel district where you can go for a dip instead. Comprising saltwater pools galore, the complex overlooks the sea and is bordered by some beaut gardens (you know how they like their gardens!), with a collection of restaurants and coffee shops nearby as well. A walk along the promenade is good at all times of day; due to working hours we often couldn’t escape the ship till after dark, so although the Lido was closed by then it was still awesome to have a midnight stroll there and see the sea chopping away below you. One night we even saw a shooting star over the sea (or possibly some kind of alien space ship, it could have been either to be honest), so there you go- also a great location for observing the stars, who knew!
Eat steak on a stone
Oh my ears and whiskers. This place was so awesome it gets it’s own section, and as someone who barely eats any meat at all that is really saying something. The owner of Kon Tiki is a jolly chap who takes great pride in serving up fresh pieces of steak on the scorching hot stones plates in front of you. What an absolute gem. You cook the steak as long as you want to on the sizzling stone, and as a result pretty much everyone is happy as there’s no sending it back to the kitchen because it’s too bloody (bleurgh), or too well-done. Obviously not suitable for vegetarians.
On a side note, there’s a little bar next door with a beaut rooftop to sit on in the evening (or in the daytime, it’s up to you), which makes a particularly delicious sangria if you’re up for it.
Have an ice cream and people watch at The Ritz
Ooh la la, now this hotel is one highly lovely place and there is no denying it! Not far from the cathedral and on a wide pedestrianised road opposite more of Funchal’s classic gardens, this place is perfect for people watching whilst eating one of their delicious ice creams 😏
Or you could eat something else, like one of the many many cakes they have under their glass counter, afternoon tea style, or a whole full-on meal if you’re hungry enough. But you know, who’s not up for an ice cream on a sweltering hot day!?
Not one for those with big time height issues, but one of the most awesome things to do in Funchal is to make it all the way to the village of Monte which is sat on the mountain overlooking the city- by way of a good old fashioned cable car in the sky! I went with two of my pals from the ship and had a splendiferous time riding up and waving at the people in the cars coming the opposite direction to us to see if they’d return the wave- and I’m happy to say most of them did. What a bunch of true good’ns. The view the further up you get is highly spectacular, with tiny red-roofed houses laid out like a 3D map underneath you and the sea stretching into the horizon and merging with the sky.
Drink a poncha or two
Right, so obviously the very name ‘Madeira’ will probably conjure up the image of Madeira wine, which is understandable. BUT. The actual number one drink of the island (according to me, at least), is Poncha. Made of distilled sugar cane juice(that’s the alcoholic part, harking back to the days when the island was a big player in the sugar trade), honey, lemon juice, lemon rind and a tad more sugar, it is downright lovely even if it does pack a punch or two. We sat in the gardens of the hotel Quinta do Monte after reaching the end of the cable car line and ordered ponchas all around and I really did appreciate that moment, it has to be said.
Go for a ride in a basket
What goes up, must come down. It’s the law of gravity, basically. And what better way to return to the bottom of the mountain than in a large basket-woven toboggan, pulled by two Portuese fellows in straw boaters!??
Am I right!??
The basket-toboggans have been in use since 1850 when people living in Monte needed a speedy way to get to work in Funchal; they come in either two man or three man sizes, and are basically run all the way down the incredibly steep and winding hill at breakneck speeds by two men situated one on each side. It’s all very exciting, and sometimes you do start to fear for your life, particularly when a car crosses the junction in front of you. In addition to this, when I say they run you ‘all the way down,’ that’s actually a lie. They run you almost all the way, but too far out of reach of the city centre for the average person to feel like walking back down a sharp gradient in the heat of the day when they don’t know exactly where they’re going or where they even are. And that, is where the taxis come in.
We refused the taxi drivers’ very kind offers to take us back to the city, mainly on principle, and chose to walk approximately forty-five minutes down the hill with trembling legs instead; although actually I’m really glad we did this as it took us through the pretty residential streets and parts of town that we wouldn’t have been able to se otherwise.
- Funchal is a full on lovely starting point, but the rest of the island is just downright ruddy beautiful aswell, filled with waterfalls and volcanoes galore and giving off a rather Jurassic Park kind of a vibe. Perfect for road trips if you’re feeling it.
- The weather in Madeira is pretty much permanently stuck on ‘Summertime’ which basically means Good Times All Around. Obviously. From October through winter the temperature can drop to 16-17 degrees Celsius but that’s no biggie to a hardened Brit, know what I’m saying!?
- The island is also considered one of the safest places in the world (apparently) and is virtually crime free. More good times.
- The main language spoken is Portuguese however within Funchal English is widely-spoken as well so panic not if you’re not a fluent Portuguese-speaker.