Fun in Funchal: Wine, Whales, and Way More in Madeira, Portugal

Madeira harbor (Source: iStock / Juergen Sack)

You’ve heard the name Madeira, Portugal because of its famous wine, which (according to legend) was served during the celebratory toast after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But do you actually know where that sweet, sweet red wine gets its name? You should—if you’re a lover of stunning red cliffs, sultry climates, and unforgettably sweet island vacations, that is. There’s a reason why once-sleepy Madeira is evolving into Europe’s up-and-coming adventure spot.

A mostly autonomous region that’s actually part of Portugal (as are the Azores), Madeira is an archipelago comprised of one major island, three minor islands, and a group of tiny islets that range from sparsely visited to completely uninhabited. While evidence hints at occasional visitation by seagoing Romans and Vikings, the first documented landfall in Madeira by Europeans dates back to the early 15th century. Claimed for Portugal in 1419, the archipelago quickly became a key asset for both Atlantic travel and sugar cane production. While some agriculture persists to this day—including the delicious local banana variety—the economic drivers for modern-day Madeira are adventure tourism and foreign investment.

Madeira market
A garden of delights in Madeira, Portugal (Source: iStock)

To find Madeira on the map, it’s easier to start looking near northern Africa than mainland Portugal. The archipelago lies some 300 miles west of Morocco, and in many ways it feels more a part of North Africa than of Europe. Travel to Funchal, Madeira’s capitol and cultural hub, is easy from London and Paris and just a hop, skip, and a jump from Lisbon and Casablanca. Even though Madeira is made of islands, your visit will probably involve far more inland destinations than beach-combing spots. So ditch the flip flops, grab your walking shoes, and begin your adventure!

Stay

Most first-time visitors to Madeira will content themselves with the range of accommodations found on Funchal’s waterfront. The most distinctive of these is The Cliff Bay, an elegant 200-room marble-and-mahogany resort whose location atop a bluff provides 360-degree views of the Bay of Funchal and the rest of the main island. Seekers of adventure and solitude may choose more remote lodging options, too—like the vineyard-enclosed Quinta do Furão Hotel in rural Santana, 40 minutes away from the capitol.

Night view on Funchal on Madeira
Funchal by night (Source: iStock)

Dine

If you’re staying at The Cliff Bay, savoring an Iberian-themed dinner at the two Michelin-starred Il Gallo d’Oro is an immersive experience for the senses you won’t soon forget—if you can get a reservation, that is. A somewhat more relaxing experience can be found at O Tasco, whose quintessential Madeiran cuisine features fish straight from the dock, salads bursting with local ingredients, and a curated selection of Portuguese wines.

Relax

Madeira’s location along the migration paths of numerous ocean species makes whale and dolphin-watching a prime tourist activity. Whether by speedboat, catamaran, or yacht, any one of the numerous tour operators in Funchal can provide a memorable sightseeing trip teeming with humpback, minke, and sei whales, striped and pantropical dolphins, and lots of other wildlife. When you’re back on the island, take the bus to the top of Pico do Arieiro or walk the main island’s series of levadas (aka mountainside canals) to get a completely different perspective on the archipelago. Finally, grab a glass of Madeira wine—or even better, Poncha, made from locally grown sugar cane—and watch the sun slowly descend below the Atlantic horizon.

Madeira Dolphin Jumping
A dolphin taking flight outside Funchal (Source: iStock)

Grab a souvenir

Visitors can see, taste, and smell the amazing variety of Madeiran goods and produce at Mercado dos Lavradores in Funchal. The name translates to “Workers’ Market”—a fitting appellation as much of the bounty to be had—including seafood, fruits, and local crafts—comes directly from the hands of the hard-working merchants themselves. One unique take-home treat is Madeiran bay leaves, whose distinctive spiciness will so beguile you that you’ll find recipes for them well beyond soups and stews.

For more on Madeira, Portugal, visit their tourism site.