Street tobogganing is just one of many memorable activities families can enjoy on the Portuguese island of Madeira, which is part of an eponymous archipelago that includes three other islands.
The island of Madeira marks the emerged top of a huge volcano. Its rich volcanic soil creates a botanical wonderland teeming with diverse flora, and its mountainous terrain offers ample opportunities for awe-inspiring views. With natural lava pools, hikes along levadas (Portuguese aqueducts), lush green landscapes, and opportunities for surfing and sailing, the mix of nature and adventure makes the 35-mile island a great getaway if you’re looking for entertainment of a range of ages.
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Madeira is off the coast of Africa, west of Morocco. Getting to Madeira used to be a trek from the United States, requiring a stopover in Lisbon. But in late November, Inovtravel, in partnership with SATA Azores Airlines, launched direct flights to the island from New York’s JFK Airport, cutting the travel time to just 6¼ hours. We came from Madrid but the direct flight from New York provides the perfect excuse to visit Madeira with the family.
Like most tourists, we started in the capital, Funchal, on the south coast of the island. With a population of around 100,000 and a beachfront lido, or promenade, lined with casual to Michelin-star restaurants, Funchal oozes energy. Most tourists stay in the São Martinho area, and we twice enjoyed sumptuous meals at Konsai Sushi near the marina, where we got dinner for five, including wine, for $131.
Funchal is known for the Madeira Botanical Gardens, which offer sweeping views of the city and the sea. The cable car to the hill area of Monte is conveniently adjacent and we soared over mountains densely covered with trees and spotted waterfalls and hikers on trails down to another garden compound. The terraced tropical garden of Monte Palace is radically different from Funchal’s garden. We started at the top of the trail and walked down, exploring a sculptural exhibition of African art posed by koi ponds and pagodas in the Japanese Gardens, and strolling under waterfalls by the lake. The sleds are just a short walk away.
But what really made our trip special was getting out of Funchal. We spent several nights on the northwestern tip of the island in Porto Moniz, a small town known for its natural lava pools. I fell in love the moment I set foot in the lobby of the original Aqua Natura Hotel and saw the waves crashing against lava formations that acted as breakers for natural saltwater pools. My kids splashed and swam as I took in the view.
Every morning and evening we stood on the porch, enchanted by the scene. On our final blustery day, we were mesmerized by massive waves smashing against the rock formations and spilling into the pools where our kids had been swimming just days before. (The hotel offered more than a mesmerizing view; our favorite dishes were at the Sea View Restaurant, with its menu of elegantly served risottos, fish, meat, and vegetarian dishes.)
Adventures on the northern tip of the island involve difficult drives up steep, winding mountains to see breathtaking views of tree-covered mountains dotted with small villages, as well as the bay and its clear Atlantic waters. I nervously pressed the imaginary brake pedal while my husband navigated the hairpin bends to reach Rabaçal and the starting point for the Levada das 25 Fontes and the Risco waterfall.
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The approximately 9 km long circular hike is known for its levada “25 fountains”. (There are 25 springs that are the sources of the levada.) You walk along an intricate levada system that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since the 15th century, aqueducts have carried water for miles across the island’s mountains and rugged terrain.
For three hours we hiked in the shadow of arching branches that created a tunnel effect. The sections along the levadas were so narrow at times that we had to climb onto the edge of the irrigation canals to let people pass from the opposite direction. When we reached the famous 25-fountain waterfall, we were rewarded with a nice rest stop in an atmosphere reminiscent of a rainforest, and we were refreshed by the mist coming out of the plunge pool.
The north coast has numerous viewpoints (“miradouros”) and in Santana you will find traditional A-shaped Madeiran houses. They’re quaint with thatched roofs, red doors, and shutters, but many have been converted into souvenir shops. We happened upon a home a few blocks from the tourist traps that had recently opened to visitors and felt authentic. The current owner’s grandfather lived there and everything has been preserved as it was when he was alive.
Although Santana offers Instagram-worthy moments, the island’s magic, like the ethereal scene in Fanal Forest in north-west Madeira, is often found off the beaten track. On rainy days, the mist creates an otherworldly tableau that enshrouds the trees while horned cows rest beneath their twisted branches.
With the travel time to Madeira dramatically reduced, it has become a better holiday option. But make sure you step away from the hustle and bustle of Funchal to discover its deeper magic.
Kornreich is a Los Angeles-based writer. your site is leronkornreich.com. Find her on Twitter: @LeronRed.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.