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6. 3. 2022

Madeira Island: Pearl of the Atlantic

Island empires essentially exude the magic of diversity, but not every island can offer as much density of natural and cultural gems as Madeira. The slopes of this volcanic island, rising almost 2,000 m in elevation, have eroded into bizarre, jagged ridges between the ravines of gorges and valleys, and the tropical climate features a backdrop of laurel and eucalyptus forests and numerous, gorgeous waterfalls. Christopher Columbus already knew the beauty of Madeira. He fell in love not only with its wealth, but also with the daughter of the governor of the neighboring island of Porto Santo. And his successors today have recognized the tourist potential of the place, while wise policies ensured that its nature remained untouched except for inhabited coastal areas. They also created a friendly and comfortable environment for all lovers of extraordinary experiences. You will also find something unique in the world here: the over 1000-km network of “levadas” – aqueducts or water channels, enabling tourists to penetrate the very bosom of an otherwise completely inaccessible jungle. Add to this the Madeiran cuisine, wine, rum and goodness of all kinds. You too are invited.

Text and photo by Robert Bazika, Traveler and guide of the travel agency Kudrna Brno

2 main islands | 4 hours by air from Prague | 150 km2 of laurel forests | 1,000 km of levadas

"Life is about experiences and experiences start beyond comfort.”



A top-notch experience

Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo, found 12 km inland, laurel rainforests to a respectable elevation of 1,862 meters ASL. Fortunately, you can almost reach the top by car or tour bus. Enjoy the 13-km hike (6.5 km each way), and be sure to take a deep breath, as you will be accompanied all the way by breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. Despite the considerable elevation, the entire trek leads along a comfortable path that takes you past ridges of the ancient volcanic caldera, under the torn towers of Pico das Torres, several tunnels, saddles, around the gnarled trunks of walnut trees and up to vistas of the entire island and the all-encompassing ocean. Set off in good weather and early in the morning, because it would be a shame to miss the climax of the day with a late start, greeted instead by a veil of afternoon fog or clouds.


Off to the smell of sugar cane

Porto da Cruz in the island’s northeast is a picturesque resort village adorned by the majestic Eagle Mountain, a small beach with a view of Porto Santo Island 40 km away, and a cluster of surrounding foothill villages, where each settler owns at least one field with tall sugarcane stalks.

In March, the harvest will begin in earnest, and the fragrance from the local sugar cane mill will spread along the sea breeze to the wider area. Much of the sugar is swallowed up by the famous Madeira rum distillery, which is fortunately open all year round. Tourists can sit and taste the distillate, which must be aged for at least a year in oak barrels, or there are archive bottles aged twenty years or more. And believe me, despite the guaranteed "longevity", the bottle you buy will not last long at home.


Espada or espetada

Unique cuisine is characteristic of many oceanic corners of the world, and Madeira is no exception. If you choose accommodation in the center of the capital Funchal, you can explore at the end of each day the formerly run-down fishing district of Zona Velha or “Old Town”. Young local artists recently transformed this neighborhood into a cozy refuge for all experience-loving "locals" and tourists alike. Madeira's number one specialty is the spooky looking largehead hairtail, aka beltfish (locally called espada, or sword). These fish with giant teeth and expressive eyes ride the submarine currents from a depth of one kilometer to the waters surrounding fishing villages. It is most often served with rice with lots of cooked and raw fruits and vegetables. Don't forget to try a fresh roll with excellent salted butter and wild garlic as a starter and wash it down with local wine bearing the laconic name “Madeira”. But beware, it is fortified with brandy, which, together with traditional local technology of maturing in the hot attic of winemakers' homes (originally below deck in merchant ships), makes this drink sweet, strong (up to 20% ABV) and dangerously drinkable. Some visitors to the island confuse espada with espetada, a delicacy brought to us by local herders. These are beef cubes skewered on a thin laurel branch interspersed with garlic and bay leaf and brushed with butter. The skewer is then simply grilled on a spit before the fragrant delicacy makes it to the table.


Yet another Madeira

The discoverer and the first governor of the island, João Gonçalves Zarco, named Madeira the island of wood in 1418 (madeira in Portuguese = wood). Over the centuries, it gained several other nicknames: the island of eternal spring, the island of flowers, the evergreen island, etc. On the easternmost promontory, Ponta de Sao Lorenco, however, you’ll find nothing of the sort. The completely different relief of this arid wasteland plays with literally all the colors of the spectrum. This applies not only to the surrounding slopes of the hilly plain, but also to the precipices and coastal cliffs. An 8-m walk (4 km each way) will easily take you through this unusual place to the vista of the last cape with lighthouse tower and the dreamy view of our homeland somewhere overseas. Along the way, you can refresh yourself by swimming off the black pebble beach or renting a sea kayak to paddle the surrounding bay.


A most magical place to swim

You will find several dozen beaches on the southern, sun-kissed coast. For those most magical (in my experience), it pays to cross over to the opposite northern coast. Along the way, I recommend stopping by the unique lava tunnels near the seaside town of Sao Vicente. An underground walk exceeding 1,000 m will lead you to the stormy origin of the island: you will see the giant 6-km high volcanic mountain, most of which is under water, rising nearly 2 km above the waves of the Atlantic. This will then prepare you for another extraordinary experience near the village of Seixal. The settlement itself, perched on a coastal cliff several tens of meters above sea level, could claim the title of most picturesque village on the island. Below it, the black lava, along with the surf, created a strip of torn cliffs and rocks, between which hides a pair of unique lakes with heated, mildly brackish water mixed from rainfall and the foam of sea waves. Locals from the village come here for a daily bath only in a bathrobe, grateful that the crowds of beach tourists stay at more distant resorts. Even if you aren’t impressed by the beach with its fine, black sand, you are sure to enjoy the lava lakes, even in the rain.