In the process of familiarising ourselves with Portugese culture, we have also made a few visits to the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo, both of which are off the west coast of Africa. Traditionally, Madeira is seen as something of an “old folks” destination, something along the lines of Eastbourne but with actual sunshine, but I would really urge people to look beyond this stereotype – it really is a great and extremely beautiful place, with plenty to do even for demanding 30-somethings like us!
A volcanic island, Madeira is often overlooked by the sun-seekers flying straight over it on their way to the resorts of the Canary Islands, because it doesn’t really have beaches. As the island drops straight into the sea, there are plenty of Lidos and bathing platforms, but with a few fairly insignificant and small, pebbly exceptions, there are no big beachy spaces. (I am excluding the man-made beach at Calheta.) For real beaches you take a tiny flight or daily ferry to the island of Porto Santo. There you will find around 7 miles of beautiful white sand and, at the right time of year at least, lovely warm water. The sand is even known to have healing properties, which gives a great excuse for fully grown adults to play “bury each other in the sand” games.
Other than a small selection of hotels and resorts, Porto Santo is beautifully unspoiled. There are however signs of quite a lot of development, so get there before they spoil it!
Madeira itself is very different. The whole place is stunning and really quite different to mainland Portugal. The capital, Funchal, is a pretty and busy town with a lovely fresh food market called the Mercado Dos Lavradores. Here you can buy some incredible fruit including bizarre things you may not have seen before. We ate some things that I think were some kind of cross between bananas and mangoes…they were truly delicious but, without painting a picture, something our stomachs weren’t quite ready to deal with in the quantity we ate them!
Funchal is divided up into the main old town and a far more touristy “hotel zone” which runs out past the casino. We stayed at a great self catering quinta in the main part. There are some SERIOUS hills to walk up and down but we loved staying in this part of town away from the tourists. There is plenty to see around the rest of the island, though driving is challenging to say the least. We particularly enjoyed the natural rock pools in which you can swim at Porto Moniz on the north of the island.
Eating in Maderia is perhaps not quite the pleasure that it is in the rest of Portugal. I’m sure people will disagree, and there are some fabulous restaurants, but when we weren’t guided by travel books, we did have a few meals that were actually quite poor. Fish, boiled potatoes and overcooked veg is the standard. One place in particular “The Vagrant,” on a fixed boat in the harbour, (formerly owned by The Beatles,) served us a quite expensive and really rather unpleasant meal. When we got back to our accomodation and checked the guide book, it said that this establishment was good for a drink or icecream along with some people watching – I wish it had also added “But NOT for a full meal!” I have listed a couple of places at the end of the post that we really did enjoy.
The ferry to Porto Santo takes, as I recall, about 2.5hours and it is a beautiful journey, you can see all of Madeira island as you pass, and if you are lucky see some James Bond-esque landings that the planes have to make when they fly into Funchal airport (valium recommended for nervous flyers…) Once you have arrived there are taxis waiting to take you to the beaches and the tiny, beautiful town.
That brings me on to the deranged taxi driver. Our friends and family have something of a running joke that my wife and I never go on holiday without something eventful happening. From the sad (witnessing a death on a golf course in the UK,) via the scary (serious food poisoning on first night in Antigua,) to the daft (destroying all of our electrical gadgets with one wave whilst climbing around rocks in the sea in Spain.)
It was on the way back to the port at Porto Santo en route back to Madeira on a 2007 holiday that we encountered crazy Portugese driving at it’s worst. Affter being collected from our hotel, I was quite shocked at the raw speed this man was managing to extract from a somewhat squeaky yellow Mercedes. I think the fact that I am quite slow at converting kilometers into miles was a saving grace as I looked at the speedometer over his shoulder – it was best not to know!
My blood pressure finally started to reduce as we entered the port, relieved that I only had 20 or so more seconds of danger ahead. Unfortunately at that very moment we passed another vehicle coming the other way, and a stone chip flew up from the road resulting in a small crack in the taxi windscreen. At this point in the UK you swap insurance details, or probably just call “Autoglass repair, Autoglass replace” like they tell you to on the radio. My hopes of leaving the car were dashed as the cab driver spun round on his handbrake and chased after the other car. Although our ferry back to Madeira was leaving in only 20 mins or so, we went zooming back across the island and soon I was once again reading a speedometer with a three figure number on it.
Once we had actually passed our hotel and were further away from the port than when we had started, our polite cries of “nao,” “se faz favor” etc. turned in rather more aggressive cries of ”agora” (now,) and then “POLICIA!” (I never claimed to be fluent in Portugese.) When these cries got us nowhere either we did what any sensible people would have done and switched to actual English swear words. We eventually convinced the lunatic to let us out (complete with suitcases) at the base of a large hill. We walked back to our hotel, very shaken, and somehow managed to get another cab back to the port. Looking back, our “getting kidnapped” story amuses me, but we were actually really quite scared at the time! One of the language modules I have done recently was all about using taxis in Portugese – it seems the author of the course left out “stop and let me out now you lunatic,” and, thinking about it, “put your meter on matey, I’m not a mug,” would be useful in Madeira too!
I’m sure to come back with some more tales of travels in Madeira and Porto Santo, but for now, here are a few recommendations of places we liked.
Self Catering Accomodation in Madeira - Quinta Mae Does Homens – great self catering accomodation set in lovely gardens, about 10 mins walk from the cetre of Funchal (but very steep on way back.) Lovely quiet pool (though very cold like most in Portugal,) honesty bar. Family run. Along with cheap Easyjet flights you can make a very cheap holidy to Madeira off-season with this place. www.qmdh.com
Self Catering Accomodation in Porto Santo – Aparthotel Luamar – Pretty basic accomodation but a very nice place, right on the beach with a lovely pool and decent breakfast. We booked on a package with the Porto Santo ferry and it was seriously cheap. http://www.hotelluamarportosanto.com/Aparthotel_Luamar_Home.html
Restaurants – Our very favourite place was under new management when we last went, but here are a couple we liked. Arsenios in Funchal has lovely fish on a small outside terrace, a good jovial atmosphere, and a personal recommendation from Michael Winner(!) – it also has performances of Fado music. It is fairly expensive. A good budget choice was Arco Velho, slightly surly service but great food and good house wine and pleasant outdoor tables.
Please feel to ask if you want to know anything more about our times in Madeira. We also did the Blandys tour where you can sample Madeira wine from the 1800s, so I think that will have to get a write up at some point soon!