Upon arrival at Funchal Airport we were met by Funchal Airport Transfers. Easily prebooked online with payment of €25 in cash to the driver, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our economy ride in a basic small car had been upgraded to an 18 seater black Mercedes van – classy and huge! The drive from the airport to our hotel only took 20minutes, what a ride! What an island! It is all volcanic mountains with houses, hotels and infrastructure clinging to the sides of the black rock. There are 120 tunnels on the island, and these roads shoot out of the sides of mountains across soaring bridges and back into other tunnels. Villages, towns and cities are all glued to the landscape, seemingly vulnerable, but time has proved not so much, rather they are strongly embedded in the stone; engineering masterpieces.
On our first afternoon we booked some tours of the island for the two full days we were there and tried some local beers at the Red Lion Pub down the street. There were Brits everywhere, and they were certainly catered for. Tourism is Madeira’s main industry, but they are already seeing the negative impact of Brexit – already the number of tourists from the UK have dropped, and it doesn’t look like it will improve any time soon.
Our hotel in Funchal was Enotel Quinta do Sol. It was apparently 4 stars, but barely! While the public areas were fine, the rooms, corridors and restaurant were very tired and looked the worse for ware. And in this day and age, internet should be fast and reliable, which this wasn’t. But it was only about $147 AUD a night, so it was value for money. We did have one of the best rooms in the place – a large corner room on the 4th floor with balcony and views of the sea down below. Being in a corner room also meant a lovely cross breeze with sliding balcony doors open on both sides. The bed was comfortable and there was plenty of space. The room also had a little bar fridge for our wine and snacks from the corner store, so we were sorted there.
On our first night, dinner was a short walk away from the hotel in one of the restaurants I had shortlisted – Indian Palace Restaurant (#2 on TA). It was a tasty, good value for money dinner. We had vegetable jalfrezi at vindaloo hot – yummo! We also shared onion bhaji (which really was all onion, not all batter – fabulous) and mixed vegetable pakora. Three beers, bread, pappadams, pickles and raita, cumin rice, fried rice, two other mains and the whole thing came to €25 per couple (about $40 AUD). Very reasonable. Had a night cap on the way back to the hotel at the ‘Hole in One’, an Irish pub popular with expats. Its ‘Queen’ night was going in full swing – the band, not drag.
HALF DAY MIDDLE ISLAND TOUR
Our scheduled 10am for our private tour of the middle of the island gave us time for a lovely sleep in and leisurely breakfast. Oscar (pronounced Oshcar) was our driver and guide and we set off in a spacious station wagon that actually provided comfort and room for three adults in the back seat, something we had not encountered before.
The big attraction for the middle part of the island is Nuns Valley, and we began by driving to the Nuns Valley viewing point, 1,000m above sea level. The plunging gouges in the valley below us with its small hamlet looked impossible to reach. Once upon a time, it took 8 hours to walk out of the valley to Funchal. In fact, many people were born, lived and died in that valley never having left it. It’s so bizarre to think of that.
It was a bit cool at the lookout, so we headed down the steps back to the car and drove to the valley itself. It was a quaint little tourist town, but quite desperate for tourists. Considering it was the high season, it seemed quite empty. We stopped for coffee in a little hole in the wall place with locals and a honking big coffee machine. Good coffee meant happy travellers. However, we left all of the souvenir shop workers disappointed as we declined their offers to enter and have a look.
Jardim Botanico Funchal
The Jardim Botanico Funchal was the last stop on our half day tour. We had expected that we would have to find our own way to the gardens via the cable car in the afternoon, but it was included in the tour. This was fortuitous, as our driver mentioned that the cable car wasn’t running today, so that would’ve royally stuffed our afternoon plans. We spent nearly an hour enjoying the various plants and views to the sea. The cacti were particularly interesting! Nothing like a well though out and bountiful botanical garden to please a travel party over the age of 40!
Old Town of Funchal
From there our driver, Oscar, dropped us in the old town of Funchal and we sought out a restaurant for lunch in the cobblestoned alleyway of Rua Santa Maria. This little mecca in the old town is lined with doors painted by local artists (some more artistic and skilled than others!), but it was impossible to treat the alleyway as an outdoor gallery and peruse with impunity – assertive restaurant touters made us quicken our step and move on.
We finally succumbed to the pressure and ate at Taberna Ruel, which was disappointing in terms of service. Firstly, they brought us the extensive and expensive menu, but didn’t inform us that there was actually a more modest menu with smaller meal serves and snacks. We discovered this due to a friendly German couple sitting near us who were having sandwiches, which were not on the menu we had. We had to ask the waiter for the smaller menu, who cast a glare at the couple who had given the game away (such cheek!) – deliberately withholding that information because the second menu’s options were cheaper! So we all were determined to choose from that, and it was tuna sandwiches all round. We asked if the chips could be swapped out with salad: “I’ll have to ask the chef if that’s possible.” Of course, “it’s POSSIBLE!” – you just put salad on the plate instead of chips! The meals finally arrived 50 minutes after ordering (after we asked a waitress to investigate where they were – maybe we were being punished for ordering from the snack menu?). The food itself was nice, and the wine we ordered was amazing, but the service (except for the young woman who chased up our order) was ordinary (this seems to be a trend in Madeira).
We walked the 2.5km back to the hotel from the old town centre, pausing to visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, and choosing to pass on Museum CR7 – dedicated to Cristiano Ronaldo’s football trophies!
An afternoon of relaxation led to pre-dinner balcony drinks before heading out for a fine dining experience at Restaurant Goya; a high end place, flashy, yet traditional Portuguese décor and dinnerware with outstanding food and wine. The al fresco evening was complimented by eager and friendly service and finished with a surprise birthday chocolate fondant and a round of song from a chorus of waiters. The evening was completed with another stop at the ‘Hole in One’.
FULL DAY WEST ISLAND TOUR
For our second day with Madeira Island Tours, we had a different driver, Manuel, and we travelled in a big black van with no airconditioning – luckily it wasn’t a hot day, otherwise this would’ve been most unpleasant.
We began our tour of the west island with the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. It had a picturesque tiny harbour and a quaint little chapel, Church Nossa Senhora de Conceiçao. It was certainly a traditional village that has expanded to accommodate tourists, but has retained its essence in its history. The little protected bay would provide a delicious swim on a hot day, and the statue of Churchill sitting outside a café painting the harbour invited a few daggy photo ops!
Cabo Girão was the next stop, and it would’ve been quite impressive if we had not been ensconced in cloud. There is a skywalk where you hover 580m above the ocean, from the world’s second highest, and Europe’s highest, sea cliff. All we could see was the cotton wool, shifting in the breeze, masking the waves we could hear crashing below. Apparently the views of the coastline in clear weather are spectacular.
Without experiencing the full impact of the skywalk, we moved on to the town of Ribeira Brava. The festival from the previous week had left colourful plastic flowers strung overhead in the narrow cobbled streets, which made for a pretty stroll. We didn’t explore the Saint Benedict Church, one of the oldest rural churches in the diocese, as there was a funeral on and we didn’t want to be ‘one of those tourists’. We did take Manuel’s advice, though, and had coffee and cake in Brava Doce Pastelaria & Confeitaria. Good suggestion (it was his home town, and he knew everybody). The Madeira cake was not at all what we know as Madeira cake. Instead it looked like a rock cake, only it was deliciously light and had the texture and taste of a baked ricotta cheesecake – amazing!
We attempted to check out the Paul da Serra, a 24 square kilometre plateau that sits at 1,400m – the largest mountain plain on the island. However, the rain and mist persuaded us to move on, it wasn’t even worthwhile getting out of the van.
Ilheus de Rib was the next stop off the coast of Ribeira da Janela; a dramatic volcanic rock formation reaching towards the sky out of the North Atlantic Ocean. While there is a lookout at easy walking distance from the large carpark, we enjoyed challenging the ankles and descending to the ‘beach’ covered in large stones to get some good pics of the formation.
We stopped for lunch in a town called Porto Moniz, and enjoyed some freshly cooked and cheap fish at Mara Vista. The vista experience, however, was cut short by the breeze and rain, which meant we were bundled indoors and had to forgo lunch on the balcony. On a side note, the prawn cocktail only contained a few frozen prawns and the rest was fruit. Not sure if that’s a Brit thing or a Madeira thing, but we never diddle people out of prawns with a prawn cocktail in Oz.
The natural rock pools in this town were exquisitely and enticingly formed marvels of nature. It would’ve been great if the weather had been conducive to splashing about in them, but it was rainy and cold, so we all gave it a miss.
Our last tourist spot of the day was at Brides Veil. John ignored the ‘dangerous’ warning in big Portuguese letters and slipped through a barrier to take some shots of the waterfall. The rest of us just did the usual selfies from a distance. Rebels!
Dinner at MadMarket
Our companions had some hesitations about my suggestion for dinner, mainly due to the fact that it was located in a shopping centre! I can hardly blame them, the thought of a mall is not what comes to mind when searching for a spot for a memorable meal with friends. But I had read the reviews and I stood by my choice. I said that if they didn’t like it when we arrived, then we would find somewhere else. We didn’t need to find anywhere else!
MadMarket was a wonderful mix of providore, restaurant, wine bar and cooking school. It was just unfortunate that it happened to be in a shopping centre, so it probably missed a lot of passing trade. You would have to be clued in to go in search of it. But we received the best service we had had in Portugal thus far, which in general had been sorely lacking! And the food was excellent!
It was a funky, cool place, where we were literally surrounded by wine which made decision making difficult, so we asked the waitress to choose for us, which she did (at a reasonable price point) and it was perfect! Also, she remembered all of our orders while we were all chatting away with her, without writing anything down. I really hope that this place takes off and that they can move to premises worthy of their talent, service and food!
We ate too much, off course! Started with a small cheese platter; seriously small with thin slices of cheese, just enough for a light appetiser, then had a hearty tomato and onion soup (which was our downfall – it was huge!!) and a shared plate of vegetables, which was not excessively large, but we still couldn’t finish it due to the filling soup! And this soup was some of best we’d ever had (and we are soup connoisseurs). Excellent choice for our last evening on the island.
Next, on to Sintra…
Accommodation: Enotel Quinta do Sol
Tours: Madeira Island Tours