Situated just 250 miles shy north of the Canary Islands, the tropical island of Madeira is a popular place to visit – and for good reason. Winning “World’s Leading Island Destination” at the World Travel awards six times, the “Island of eternal spring” continues to enchant travellers with its fragrant botanical gardens, flower-land levadas, natural pools and black sand beaches. But aside from it being the picture-postcard island to see this year, what are Madeira’s top highlights? Read on to find out.
1. Hike in Laurisilva – Madeira’s unique Laurel Forest
Captain James Cook, who famously visited Madeira in 1768, described the tropical island as the ‘recipient of nature’s most liberal gifts’, and he was right. In every direction, you’ll find lush forests and vibrant-coloured flora, and on our walking holidays in Madeira, you have plenty of opportunities to get immersed in the tropical landscapes by exploring the island on foot.
On day 5 of our Walking in Madeira trip, you’ll enjoy an exhilarating hike through the Laurisilva along the Pico do Arieiro route to reach the island’s highest mountain, Pico Ruivo (1,862m) just in time to catch the sunrise views overlooking the Atlantic. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO back in 1999, the Laurisilva of Madeira that sweeps across much of the northern and central parts of the island is the largest surviving relict of an almost extinct forest that was once widespread in Europe. Research claims that Laurisilva, which covers over 15,000 hectares, is 90% primary forest and is home to a host of incredible flora, fauna and endemic species including butterflies, wall-lizards, bats and the Madeiran long-toed pigeon.
Sections of the trail will be following Madeira’s iconic levadas, a criss-cross network of irrigation channels that were used to carry water from the fertile north to the southern side of the island. Arduously cut and carved from sturdy mountain rocks, you’ll find that some of the levadas date back to the island’s first-ever settlers back in the 15th century. Even today, the levadas still help to cultivate bananas, grapes, sugar cane and passion fruit.
2. Visit Monte Palace Gardens in full bloom
Another notable highlight we visit on our Walking in Madeira trip is the spectacular Monte Palace Gardens. Spanning 70,000 square metres the tropical garden houses some of the world’s most exotic plants. Boasting over 100,000 different plant species, you’ll see the vibrant flowering plant, Proteaceae, from South Africa, blooming Orchids and Azaleas from the Himalayas, Heather from Scotland, and a rare and famous collection of cycads from Australia. These palm ferns have a woody trunk and are known to have a very long fossil history, which is why some dub cycads, “living fossils”.
Aside from the colourfully diverse fauna, Monte Palace Gardens are also a must-visit for their incredible viewpoints. Built on the slope of the mountain, the gardens have panoramic views overlooking Funchal Bay. As you walk through the grounds, you’ll see Japanese Koi fish in ponds around the oriental gardens, along with swans, ducks peacocks and chickens near the central lake. Monte Palace remained a private estate from the 18th century until the 1980s when entrepreneur, José Bernardo, bought it and transformed the area into a huge botanical garden. With Japanese and Chinese pagodas, a permanent exhibition of Zimbabwean sculptures inthe Monte Palace Museum, a man-made waterfall and a fascinating collection of Portuguese tiles from the 15th-16th century, you’ll find there’s a lot to see and do on a visit to Monte Palace Gardens.
3. Enjoy a rum tasting in the traditional fishing village of Porto da Cruz
Porto da Cruz is derived from the name “cross” (cruz) because it was a place where worldwide explorers came to cross the bustling port. Today, however, it’s more known as a sleepy, but picturesque fishing village. With a number of charming bistros and white houses draped in red roses, Porto da Cruz also has an ancient working rum refinery.
On our Walking in Madeira trip, we’ll make a pit stop at the North Mills Distillery for a sugarcane rum tasting. Free to all visitors, you can now walk through the distillery and past ancient steam engines that are still in operation to see each step in the production, from fresh sugarcane juice all the way to the production of their internationally acclaimed rums. If you’re lucky, you can also see the staff prepare the typical Poncha drink in the Rum House, which is made with aguardente de cana (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice), honey and orange juice or lemon juice. Saúde!
4. Take a whale-watching excursion off the south coast of Funchal
On your last free day in Funchal, during our Walking in Madeira trip, we recommend that you head out on the water to spot pods of whales and bottlenose dolphins off the south coast. The best months to spot these incredible creatures are from May to September, but thanks to Madeira’s tropical climate, the likelihood of finding whales and dolphins is quite high year-round.
Whale species differ throughout the year too, so depending on when you choose to go, you might be able to see Bryde’s whales from April to October, and Fin whales, mink whales, sei whales and even orcas in the warm waters during summertime. Heading out on the open water is a great way to end your trip to Madeira!
If this has inspired you to look into an adventure in Madeira this summer, check out our Holidays in Madeira here.