12 hours (or longer) in Madeira


Gay novelist & world traveler Hans Hirschi found Madeira beautiful — and gay-friendly — when he visited there with his husband and their young son.

Madeira, the word itself lends itself to so many connotations, and I couldn’t come up with a single one I didn’t like.

Travel dreams build upon places which ignite our imaginations, often at a young age. I first encountered Madeira on the big screen, in the third installment of costume dramas from the 1950s Germany about Austrian Empress Elizabeth who spent time on Madeira battling her tuberculosis. The green and lush island, the comic relief scenes surrounding her adjutant, so many fond childhood memories.

Later, Madeira, located seemingly far away, in the “middle” of the Atlantic ocean, always beckoned, the “Garden Isle”, green and with loads of flowers on every photo I ever saw, not to mention the steep slopes of its capital, Funchal.

Last Christmas, we finally made it. We spent two weeks on the island, renting a small cabin in the mountains just outside Funchal. This was not a cruise vacation. However, we ventured down to Funchal every night for dinner, and we’d watch the many, many cruise ships come and go. TUI, AIDA, NCL, Cunard and many other cruise lines have Funchal on their itinerary for Atlantic crossings but also for Spanish/Portuguese sailings, from either Lisbon, Alicante or Málaga. Chances are, you could very well spend a day or two on this amazing island.

Funchal by day as seen from the harbor.

 

Twelve hours in Funchal

Your ship is about to dock and you wonder what’s the best way to spend your time here?  I’ve got you covered. There are two “must-sees” when you get to Funchal, one is the old town, the other is the Tropical Gardens.

Take a casual stroll (about a half-hour) along the harbor promenade and get acquainted with Funchal, take in the breathtaking views, until you reach the cable car. You can also take a taxi straight to the Gardens. The cable car takes you to Monte in about fifteen minutes and you get to enjoy the amazing views over the city and back down toward your ship and the harbor. From the cable car exit you can either go visit the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens or walk for five minutes and take another cable car across a deep gorge (not for the faint hearted) back down to Madeira’s Botanical Garden. The Tropical Gardens are larger and more spectacular, but both provide amazing views of the city and yeah, plenty of stuff to photograph. Even if you’re not a flower buff, the views, I’m telling you, the views! 

Back in the city, walk into the old town (it’s right where you exit the cable car) and then turn left, back toward your ship. There are plenty of old buildings from the island’s history to visit, tons of restaurants and bars and – since you’re here – why not visit a store to try some local Madeira wine (to take home?) I’d also go visit the workers’ market (Mercado dos Lavradores) which is the traditional market in Funchal. It’s right in the old town, about a five minutes walk from the cable car. The old town of Funchal is not big, and you can do it all on foot. 

If you have some extra time, take a bus or cab to the small nearby town of Camara dos Lobos and enjoy that little harbor town. It’s about a twenty minute ride but you get to see a very different aspect of Madeira. Plenty of cafés and restaurants with great views.

Funchal by night. Note the bright light garlands drawn along the electric grid of the city.

Climate

We spent Christmas and New Years on Madeira and while it was often cool in the mornings when we got up, the sun quickly warmed the air to a good 15 degrees C (~60F) Down by the ocean and Funchal, day temperatures in December reach 18-20 C (64-68F.) While not hot, you get by in a t-shirt and a light jacket, at least when you’re from a cooler climate like our Swedish family.

Summer brings higher temperatures. However, the relatively cool waters of the Atlantic ensure it never gets as scorchingly hot like the nearby Canary Islands, much closer to the African mainland and thus more susceptible to hot Saharan winds. Madeira enjoys a perfect climate with average temperatures not usually exceeding 23C/75F.

The landscape

I have rarely visited such a beautiful place. We rented a car to get around (the streets are very well-developed and there are loads of tunnels to make the journey to remote places easier on motorists.) Madeira really is as beautiful as its reputation suggests. I could post dozen of pictures to go with this post, and I was hard-pressed to limit myself to just a few, trying desperately to find a representative selection. Sadly, photos from a cell phone still don’t do reality justice.

From the sub-tropical climate by the beaches and shores, you can climb to an almost alpine climate in an hour or two, as there is a road to take you all the way up to the highest summit of Pico de Arieiro, where there is an observatory (and a restaurant) with unparalleled views all around. The trip itself is amazing, as you go from lush gardens with evergreens, palm trees and flowers in every color to climate zones that reminded me of home complete with spruces and pines before you enter the mountainous zone with shrubs until you finally reach the rocky—sometimes snow clad—summit.

View from the Botanical garden down toward the city of Funchal and the cruise harbor.

Driving around the island is not something you do in one day. It took us three days to reach all the ‘corners’, and we still haven’t seen it all. And each stretch of coast is different. A volcanic island, the south side (near Funchal) and it’s slopes are more eroded and there are beaches, while the south-west sports some amazing cliffs. The northern coast-line reminded me vaguely of the Napali coast of Kauai or Northern Maui (the famous road to Hana.)

The center of the island is mountainous, rugged, with almost desert like plateaus that are breathtakingly beautiful in a very different way. Back in Funchal, you can enjoy botanical and tropical gardens with every imaginable sort of flower blooming, and palm trees on every street corner. Madeira truly deserves its nickname of “Garden Isle”. If you like hiking, this is a   magnificent destination with hikes for beginners as well as advanced trekkers.

Christmas on the island

Cruise ships dock in Funchal every day, but the Holidays attract ships for different reasons: the lights. Madeirans are crazy about Christmas lights and they decorate the bridges crossing ravines around Funchal and the electric grid around town is lit up with white lights. The harbor and the streets of the old town are also flooded with lights.

While most European cities put up lights in their cities, Madeirans go above and beyond. It’s truly spectacular to behold, and on New Year’s Eve we counted almost a dozen cruise ships that took position just outside the harbor to give their passengers best access to one of the world’s largest annual fireworks, spanning across the entire Bay of Funchal. If you ever have the chance, don’t miss it. Since we flew in, we had dinner in a nice restaurant and watched the fireworks from ashore. I have a hunch that seeing them from the bay must’ve been even more spectacular.

Madeira and children

It’s been almost five months since we returned home, and our five-year old son still speaks of Madeira almost every day. He truly enjoyed the trip. Madeirans are very friendly and they love kids. There is – during the Holidays – a huge carnival down by the harbor, with rides for younger kids and a cute local circus. Many of the light installations are kid friendly, particularly the large Christmas Tree, which is “walk-in” and inspires people to linger.

We’ve also been horseback riding with him, and on the North-West coast, in Porto Moniz, there are some really cool water filled lava pools, right by the ocean that are perfect for kids to play around in. It was a bit chilly when we were there, but during the summer, I bet this place will be packed. Sascha also particularly enjoyed the Volcanic caves in São Vicente on the North Coast.

What say you about these pools to take a bath in? I’m sure they’re perfect during the summer. And even thought the water was cold and the air cool, some people still swam.

Food and drink

Oh my… You could easily gain ten pounds or more on this island. And it’s not just the famous Madeira wine which comes in four varieties, from sweet to dry. You eat really well and the local cuisine, which is based on the Portuguese,, with lots of fish and seafood, potatoes and vegetables, is really tasty. I still fondly remember their garlic flat bread, bola de caco, which you can also have with other condiments, and I can never get enough octopus. Properly done it’s just irresistible. If you’re not big on fish, try lamb or chicken. One of our favorite places to eat was in the old town, Mula Restaurant, serving clams and fries in a dozen different ways, in a modern decor setting with friendly service.

Gay Madeira

Madeira isn’t Ibiza or Mykonos. There are no gay clubs or bars. Portugal is a Catholic country, so this Portugese island is relatively conservative.  If you’re looking for a gay party-scene, look elsewhere. However, our little family never encountered a single stare while on the island. I guess that is one reason why we liked it so much.

Marriage equality was achieved here in 2010, and same-sex couples have been able to adopt since 2016. I’m not a big fan of PDAs and we don’t really walk hand-in-hand through town, so I can’t say if people would react to that. On the other hand, nobody seemed to care when I kissed my husband at midnight on New Year’s Eve. I have felt perfectly at ease with myself those two weeks, not once feeling the need to “straight-act” 

If you fly in…

The island is a big destination for tourists from Germany and the U.K., and there are regular flights from all over Europe. The Funchal airport is a tourist destination in its own right. It’s named after Portugal’s most famous soccer player and local son, Cristiano Ronaldo (whose good looks, combined with his talent, have earned him an avid following of gay fans.) Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport is located on the on the slopes of the island, with a runway built almost completely on pillars. Wind conditions on the island make landing at the airport ‘interesting’ and special training is required for pilots who fly to Funchal. Our trip home was quite an adventure, but that’s a story for another day…

Staying in Madeira

If you choose to visit Madeira for a longer stay, rather than merely visit when your cruise ship docks at Funchal, there are several good options for accommodations. There are really good hotels on the island, tucked away on the slopes around the island, in lush gardens and parks. The hotel district of Funchal, to the west of the old city isn’t really ‘pretty’ but offers all the services, amenities and great shopping opportunities you’d expect from a large destination.

Our Quinta, one bedroom and living room with kitchen and bath. Small, but oh so beautiful. And the views over the ocean were spectacular.

We highly recommend you follow our lead and stay in a bungalow, far away from it all, in the middle of this amazing landscape. We had found this beautiful Quinta (the Portuguese name for farm or homestead), and were welcomed by the smell of freshly baked bread and the sight of fresh vegetables and farm eggs. We found this to a blissful retreat. It was self-catering, which was perfect for us. We shopped for breakfast groceries and would eat lunch and dinner wherever we’d be anyway. Perfect when you travel with kids.

We’ve been to a great many places around the world, and Madeira is definitely on a “must return soon” list.

Practical Tips
  • Madeira is part of the Schengen zone. Europeans travel with their local ID. If you have a Schengen visa to visit Europe, Madeira is within your grasp.
  • Phones: Free roaming for EU citizens on your smartphone, just use your phone as you would back home. Madeira, part of Portugal, uses the Euro as currency. Credit cards are very widely accepted. ATMs readily available in Funchal.
  • Getting around: Rent a car if you can. They’re not expensive and it’s the best way to discover the island on your own.
  • When to go: Madeira is an year-round destination, and cruise ships (sometimes three or more at a time) reach the port of Funchal pretty much daily. There are regular flights from Europe and if you fly from Lisbon or Porto, several times daily. Flight times from Central Europe are around four hours.
  • LGBT tips and hints: Reach out to Toby, a Brit who’s moved to Funchal to live with his partner. His website (https://www.madeiragay.com) is a treasure trove, particularly if you want updated tips on what bars to go to. For a small donation to his PayPal, he’ll send you an extensive list with over fifty suggestions of things to do. We covered less than a quarter in our two weeks on the island. Toby is personable and friendly and will help you with any questions you might have.

    Calheta on the very South-West corner of Madeira. My favorite place on the island. The views were truly spectacular, and the restaurant a must-visit.

 

About the author

Author Hans M. Hirschi in Central Park, NYC. May 1, 2017.

Hans M Hirschi still considers himself a fairly recent “cruise convert” with six cruises under his belt, all with his husband and their son Sascha on Norwegian Cruise Line ships. Hirschi is the author of contemporary LGBT fiction and a Stonewall Awards nominee. His most recent novel, Return to the Land of the Morning Calm, is a feel-good story about a Korean War Veteran. His travel and cruise experiences tend to find their way into his writing. He lives with his family on a small island off the Swedish West coast in Gothenburg. Their next cruises will take them back to Hawai’i aboard the Pride of America and later this year down to the Caribbean from New York on the Norwegian Gem

 

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All photos private and taken by the author of the post.