Madeira, voted The best island destination in Europe at the World Travel Awards in 2020, is the most sought after location this summer. Flight bookings jumped 625% last Friday, according to Skyscanner, while lastminute.com also noted a 1.131% increase in searches for this “pearl of the Atlantic” in the days following the announcement of the Green List for trips to England.
In large part, this is because the island is one of the few traditional British beach vacation destinations on the list (mainland Portugal and Gibraltar being the others). It also allows visitors to get a free PCR test on arrival or departure. However, that is not all the rocky archipelago off the west coast of Africa has to offer, as I discovered during my five week visit in November of last year.
Although warned by various friends in their thirties, who claimed that Madeira was for “old people”, I immediately fell for the island. The fact that I had been living at home in Middlesbrough since the start of the pandemic, spending long days drinking tea and watching game shows that I wish I had never seen existed with my grandmother, probably helped me . But I was surprised and enchanted by the drama and beauty of the island – rugged valleys covered in lush green punctuated with pink houses that cling tightly to the hillsides.
I spent most of my time in Arco da Calheta in the southwest of the island, which, thanks to the subtropical climate of this south-facing coast and the abundance of mango and avocado trees, looked more like the Costa Rica. My apartment was next to a banana plantation watched over by unruly dogs and leather-skinned men wearing sunburnt caps and dusty jeans, often wearing sickles and scowling in the sun. I had funny looks as I spent my mornings doing yoga on the patio facing a calm sea that sparkled silver in the morning sun.
A few times a week I walked up the hill to a favorite spot, Corujeira Bar, for 5.50 â¬ prato del dia (dish of the day) – usually rice, salad, avocado and fish. In the afternoon, instead of watching Tipping Point rehearsals, I ran along the winding coastal road, past LA-style villas and decaying farmhouses with rusty tin roofs, to swim at the beach in Calheta. When I returned there was often a bag of bananas, mangoes or annonas (a local fruit also known as custard apples) and a box of freshly baked cookies – left by my owner and his wife.
I also visited the nearby beaches of Madalena do Mar and Ponta do Sol, the picturesque pebble cove of the latter reminiscent of something of The Talented Mr Ripley. I would bathe in the sea at the beach bar while drinking poncha (sugar cane alcohol with honey, sugar and orange or lemon juice). Most of Madeira’s beaches are pebble, although there are a handful that are not. Seixal, in the northwest of the island, is known for its photogenic black sand, and is a few kilometers from the natural lava pools of Porto Moniz (a must visit).
I usually cooked at home after doing groceries for Alan – an energetic Venezuelan who ran the corner store / restaurant / bar / taxi service / travel agency / rental agent / language school. I ate on my terrace facing the sea as dolphins surfaced in the distance and the sun retreated behind a golden mountain surrounded by paragliders.
I also walked in Madeira levadas – old irrigation canals now used as hiking trails. My favorite was the PR17 Caminho do PinÃ¡culo – an 18km hike that crosses mountains, past waterfalls, and leads to spectacular views.
Despite what you may have heard, Madeira has a lot to its bow – from adventure sports and boat trips to a burgeoning art scene and quality cuisine. I went surfing in Porto da Cruz – a cool and laid back place in the northeast – staying at the boho hostel Jaca (bed in a dormitory â¬ 14.60) and dinner on a tasty tuna (â¬ 11.50) at the bar A Pipa the next door. The best surfers often head to Paul Do Mar for bigger waves, then watch the sunset from Maktub, a popular surf bar.
I spent my last days in Madeira in Funchal, the capital of the island, where I sat next to the police officers resting at the snack bar Pao De Lo, having lunch on sandwiches or stews for a few euros a pop. I bypassed the Ronaldo museum naff in favor of the Caravelle Art Center, a gallery, a boutique and workshops showcasing local and international artists. Overlooking the water at Barreirinha Bar Cafe, saw a young crowd, drinking craft beers and eating burgers, socializing freely like it’s 2019.