Hop on a cable car, toboggan or galleon ship to explore the semi-tropical paradise of Madeira.
Rising up out of the Atlantic Ocean like a craggy hand reaching for the sun, the dramatic volcanic amphitheatre surrounding Madeira’s capital, Funchal, is carpeted with lush foliage. Funchal, which has been the capital city of Madeira since 1421, gained its name from the fennel that grows on the island. The 56km by 21km Portuguese island sits 580km off the African coast, and has been a trading link since the 16th century.
What to see and do
Funchal is a popular call on Atlantic island and transatlantic cruises, with ships berthing along the breakwater, 10 minutes’ walk from the city centre. Known as the ‘floating garden’ island, Madeira is semi-tropical and covered in exotic wild flowers and botanical parks. Opposite the cruise ship terminal is the beautiful Parque de Santa Catarina, which has spectacular views.
Turn left from the terminal to reach the hotel zone where exclusive resorts line the waterfront, including the 19th century Reid’s Palace. Past guests at Reid’s Palace include Sir Winston Churchill. You can enjoy afternoon tea in this historic hotel. Most attractions are on the right of the cruise terminal and it’s around a 10-minute walk to the marina where boat tours sail from.
At the cruise ship terminal, there’s a replica of a 15th century galleon called Santa Maria de Colombo, which runs whale-watching trips.
Around 25 minutes’ walk from the cruise terminal (or a short taxi ride) is the Madeira story centre where you can learn about the history of the island through interactive exhibits (open 10am to 6pm, €9.60, www.storycentre.com). Combination tickets for the story centre, old Blandy wine lodge and cable car to Monte can be purchased from the cable car station opposite the centre (€10 one way; €15 return). it takes 15 minutes for the cars to ascend the 1,837 feet, passing over the old town and through deep ravines to reach the pretty village of Monte.
Here you can enjoy the Monte palace gardens (€10) or take a toboggan ride back down (€12.50pp). The two-seater wicker sledges have been used since 1850 and are steered by two men wearing traditional straw hats and white suits using their rubber-soled boots as brakes on the 10-minute ride.
In the countryside, walking along the levadas (irrigation channels) is a popular day out from the city, as is a half-day trip to Curral das Freiras (‘nuns Valley’). This small village is in a deep ravine that earned its name in 1566 when Santa Clara nuns hid there when pirates attacked the island. Pirates might have got there first but now, centuries later, cruise passengers are discovering Madeira’s hidden treasures for themselves.
Next to the marina is the beach; a stretch of pebbly, black volcanic sand ideal for sunbathing. Further up the waterfront is the lido area of seawater pools. if you’re after golden beaches, and have more than a day in Funchal, take the ferry from the cruise terminal to Porto Santo (return tickets from €42.10. leaves 8am, returns at 6pm).
Where to eat
The waterfront is a good place to try espada, a local delicacy known as the black scabbard fish, which is as delicious to eat as it is ugly in appearance. Tourists can see them amongst other seafood at the Mercado dos Lavradores (workers’ market) in the old town, about 20 minutes’ walk from the ship (open 7am-8pm weekdays, until 2pm Saturdays). Taste fresh passion fruit and pineapple at the fruit market next-door.
Where to drink
Funchal itself has plenty of charming sights to enjoy, from the black and white patterned paving in the main shopping streets to the old town’s narrow streets. Madeira is most famous for its sweet wine, and at old Blandy wine lodge you can experience a working winery. a young wine can be tasted for free and connoisseurs can pay to try rare wines or take part on a guided tour and tasting (€4.50).
★ Norwegian Cruise line
Mediterranean cruise starting in Barcelona and calling at Madeira.
★ P&O Cruises
European cruises in spring, summer and autumn. Stops include Madeira, Tenerife and Lisbon.
★ Fred Olsen Cruise lines
Caribbean cruise this autumn for 25 nights, leaving from Southampton.
★ Royal Caribbean International
Canary Islands cruises leaving from Southampton. Stops include Madeira.
An 11-night Western Mediterranean cruise from Savona, Italy, calling at Madeira this autumn.
13-night cruise this autumn around the Canary Islands.
|When to go||Average temperatures are between 18 and 24°c, making it a year-round destination.|
|Currency||Like Portugal, Madeira uses the euro.|
|Getting around||Local buses cost €1.60 return for any zone in the city. Taxi tours are offered across the city – expect to pay around €70 (up to four people) for a four hour tour to nun’s Valley (www.madeirataxis.com).|
|Shopping||Pick up some edible local products such as Madeira wine and honey cake or buy traditional crafts such as the bright bobble hats worn for folk dancing.|
|Food and drink||Try espada (scabbard fish) with bananas, drink Madeira wine and look out for bolo do caco stalls along the waterfront selling hot doughy bread oozing with garlic butter and stuffed with chorizo or bacon for only €2.|