If not for a church assignment, I would never have known where Madeira Island was. So when I sat eating peanuts and drinking a small cup of apple juice during my flight to the Portuguese island, I did not know what to expect. I pondered how I would change the lives of some of the Portuguese people. However, this unique island and its friendly people ended up changing my life. While living there for eight months I went on breathtaking hikes, ate mouthwatering local dishes, and saw the world’s largest firework show. I found this island to truly be as the local people call it, “The Pearl of the Atlantic.”
The first thing I saw out of the small fogged-up airplane window was that the airport is located literally on top of the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. After landing I saw three small deserted islands which are rumored to harbor buried pirate treasure. We then traveled by bus to the biggest city on Madeira, Funchal. The ride to Funchal was exciting because the winding roads run through banana fields, around cliffs, and hug the shoreline of the Atlantic.
If you gaze to the ocean from any point on the island, the Atlantic looks like a blue canvas, stretching out forever in every direction. In downtown Funchal, I strolled through the five-hundred year old city. The narrow European cobblestone streets blend with palm trees and sunshine. There are numerous enchanting small shops with unique souvenirs like: honey cake, Madeira wine, hand-woven colorful caps, embroidery, and many other items. The local fruit market is filled with fresh pineapple, bananas, sugar cane, figs, papaya, and over 10 different kinds of passion fruit. I was greeted by friendly locals handing out freshly cut samples. It only took this first day to know I would have a once in a lifetime experience on this tropical island.
Madeira is part of Portugal, but the island is closer to the African Coast than mainland Portugal. The location creates an ideal climate, it is rarely too hot or too cold, I call it t-shirt weather. As part of Portugal, the official language is Portuguese, but English is used in all tourist areas. The currency is the Euro. The oceanfront airport has flights from most major European cities including London and Lisbon. Madeira is thirty miles long and ten miles wide. Besides the main city Funchal, there are many enchanting towns to visit. The island has volcanic origins, so visitors notice the towering cliffs near the ocean and the mountains that rise towards the interior. Due to its volcanic formation, the island has few sandy beaches, however there are many pools and ways to enjoy the water. Additionally, a short boat ride away is Porto Santo, a sister island featuring a long golden beach.
The perfect year round weather makes Madeira an ideal destination to visit during any season. Having lived there almost a year, I recommend visiting during the holiday season. During the month of December, every place hangs
Christmas lights all over the streets. The hillside towns are like glowing spider webs of Christmas lights. My favorite light display was an enormous Madeira flag which hung from a bridge outside the city. The mixture of the sparkling lights, palm trees, and the friendly atmosphere creates a magical location to spend the holidays. All of these things set the stage for the grand finale of the Madeira holiday season.
Every New Years Eve, Madeira hosts the largest firework show in the world. It starts with the harbor filling up with multiple cruise ships. When the clock strikes midnight, every cruise ship blows their deafening horns to trigger the show. Not only do the fireworks launch from the dock, but in every direction up the amphitheater like slopes of Funchal there are synchronized fireworks exploding in the sky. The show lasted about fifteen enjoyable minutes, culminating in the incredible grand finale. Like bombs in a battle sky, the strobing flashes and bangs of the finale light up the entire night sky and almost shake the ground. The firework show is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
If the holidays do not work for your schedule there are exciting things to do any time of the year. Everyone enjoys sampling local cuisine, so I will start there. An advantage of visiting an island is the fresh seafood. The surrounding water is deep off the coast which provides great deep sea fishing. The most popular of the deep sea fish is the espada (or black sword fish). Another popular fish is the bacalhau (or cod fish). Cod fish, which is prepared in countless tasty ways, is the unofficial national dish of Portugal. If you are not a seafood fan, there are many other authentic restaurants, thanks to the immigrants from all over the world who make Madeira their home. The variety of eateries includes many authentic Portuguese, German, Chinese, Italian, and British restaurants.
No matter which restaurant you choose, make sure to order some “Brisa” to wash down your meal. “Brisa” is a soft drink which is made right in Funchal and is unique to Madeira. This soda is made with real fruit juice, but is mildly carbonated compared to Sprite, for example. The flavors include: apple, passion fruit, orange, mango, limeade, and cola.
After a great meal, there are plenty of thrilling things to do on the island. I highly recommend taking advantage of the island’s natural beauty and enjoying one of its many hikes. The people on the island use a complex system, called levadas, to water their mountainsides . These levadas also happen to create ideal hiking trails which attract thousands of visitors from all over Europe every year. Hiking on Madeira is cheap, especially if you use one of the buses to get to your destination. Any of the major hikes have easy and affordable bus service to and from the hike.
The hike Pico Ruivo is literally at the top of the island. Once you reach the top there is a beautiful lookout point, which is the highest point in the whole country of Portugal. This hike is fairly demanding and adventurous, but if that sounds like your style just make sure to bring a sweatshirt because it gets cold and windy at that elevation. (I know because I watched my hat fly away down the mountain.)
Another adventurous, yet rewarding, hike is Calderao Verde (Green Waterfall). For much of this hike you climb along the side of a towering green canyon, with only a guide rope keeping you from a steep cliff. I felt like I was Indiana Jones climbing through the tropical wilderness. The trail takes you through two dark tunnels where you have to grasp the guide rope to get through. I had to bend over while walking through these tunnels so as not to hit my head. I recommend bringing a flashlight, as we were unprepared and had to use our cell phones for light. The end of the hike features a towering waterfall. I also recommend bringing a lunch to eat by the clear pool of water at the
base of the waterfall.
If you want an easier hike which doesn’t involve dark tunnels I recommend Ponte de Sao Lorenzo. This hike is on the western edge of the island and is unlike any other hike on Madeira. Most of Madeira is lush green vegetation, but this hike is more like a desert poking out into the Atlantic. From this point you can see three deserted islands. On a clear day you can see Madeira’s sister island Porto Santo. Ponte de Sao Lorenzo is a MUST hike for anyone.
After an exhausting day of hiking, you may want to spend a day lounging on the sandy beaches of Porto Santo. To get to Porto Santo you take the Porto Santo Line Cruise from Funchal’s harbor. The boat has a movie theater, lounges, an arcade, and a variety of restaurants. Porto Santo is a much smaller island, with one entire side of the island forming a long stretch of golden sand. The local people even say that the Porto Santo sand has many natural medical benefits. Porto Santo is a nice day excursion for anyone who loves to spend time relaxing on a golden sandy beach.
If cruise ships are too modern, you can sail the seas like the explorers of old on the Santa Maria experience. Located at the cruise ship dock in Funchal, the Santa Maria is an exact replica of the ship Columbus sailed on to reach the new world. It offers you the chance to feel the rocking of the waves, and hear the creaking of the wooden floors. The ship ride becomes more authentic when you realize Columbus spent considerable time on Madeira and Porto Santo. For about 30 dollars you can sail on the Santa Maria for two hours. I advise, if you have a weak stomach, make sure to be careful about your choice to sail the seas. One seasick member of our party spent some time with his head over the side of the boat. So make sure you can handle the thrashing waves of the mighty Atlantic; if you can it is well worth it.
After living on Madeira for eight months I found these experiences to be the most memorable. It took me eight months to find all these treasures, but you can do it all in about a week. I feel you can judge a destination by your
desire to share it with others. Madeira is now my dream destination to take my wife and children in the future. I want my family to see the firework show, to experience one of the breathtaking hikes, to sample all the exotic fruit from the fresh outdoor markets. That is why it is worth it to visit this relatively unknown destination. I am grateful I got to know the Pearl of the Atlantic.