Famous for being the birthplace of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and Madeira wine, this Portuguese island has a reputation as a holiday choice of the staid over-60s. Although it’s part of Portugal, Madeira is closer to North Africa than it is to Europe – and the island is attracting a new generation of independent travellers who know it’s not just another beach destination. Here's the truth about Madeira.
Although there have been no eruptions for about 6500 years, volcanic activity shaped the island and the small natural beaches have black sand. Granted, golden sand has been imported to Calheta and Machico beaches on the south coast, but no one’s pretending it’s the Canary Islands.
While hulking great cruise ships do dock in the capital, Funchal, this characterful city on the south coast is big enough to soak up any passengers who disembark for a bit of daytime sightseeing.
In the evenings, when the cruisers are back on board, Zona Velha (the Old Town) come alive. With plenty of cool bars, Madeira's nightlife is chic and very European – things don’t kick off until at least midnight and it’s mostly locals on the dance floor.
Rigid inflatables leave the harbour for dolphin and whale watching, and although the swell of the Atlantic can be pretty alarming, once these wonderful, intelligent mammals are tracked down and the boat engines are cut, it's a calm commune with nature.
Inland, the largely-deserted peaks and ravines lend themselves to climbing, canyoning and off-road jeep tours. Mountain bikers love the challenging climbs and steep downhills, while hikers can get deep into the forest by following the 2000km oflevadas (narrow canals unique to Madeira) that crisscross the island.
While there are any number of nice-but-bland chain hotels, Madeira is fighting its package holiday reputation. Luxury boutique hotels have opened their doors in Funchal and rustic homestays nestle above the cloud line in the mountains.
On the south coast, Fajã dos Padres is a really special place to stay. Accessible only by boat or a very rickety lift down the soaring cliff face (though a cable car is due to open in 2016), this organic farm spreads across fourteen acres of lush farmland and accommodation is in the old workers' cottages on the edge of the sea.
Back in Funchal, another slice of local life can be seen first thing in the morning at the Mercado dos Lavradores (the farmers’ market). Huge tuna and ugly (but tasty) black scabbard fish are sold here, alongside locally sourced fruit and veg of every shape and colour. Plus, there’s a counter serving strong black coffee and pastéis de nata, which is perfect for people watching.
It’s not! But it is a subtropical island, which means mild temperatures all year round – Madeira rarely gets too hot, but has a minimum temperature of 17°C (63ºF). October to March can be wet (which is great for the island’s greenery), but there are six micro climates which means it’s bound to be sunny somewhere on the island – and downpours usually pass quickly.
Its varied climate is all the more reason to treat the island as a base for activities, rather than just somewhere to lounge by a pool. This Rough Guides’ writer did the exhilarating toboggan run from Monte downhill to Funchal in the pouring rain and felt much more intrepid for it.