Exploring the island of Madeira

One of the best ways to explore Madeira is with a drive along its dramatic cliffs, through the mountains in the centre and the small towns along the way.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Driving around Madeira

The small island of Madeira has, at its heart, a passionate Portuguese community. Forget the fact that more Madeirans actually live in other parts of the world than on the island itself – that’s to do with economics rather than desire. The people from here love their home.

It’s easy to see why.

Physically, it is further south than the Portuguese mainland – off the coast of Morocco. The waters of the Atlantic Ocean surround it and they help keep a consistent and pleasant temperature across the seasons. Over the longer term – thousands and thousands of years – those same waters have cut away at the cliffs to produce dramatic shorelines.

Mountains become valleys which become other mountains as the land undulates constantly with barely a flat surface in sight. One moment you can be by the crashing waves of the ocean and the next climbing through the mountains, through fog, to views where those waves seem insignificant in context.

The main city of Funchal on the south coast is where the majority of the 280,000 residents live. It is spread out and never feels crowded, stretching up into the hills as much as along the coast. It’s a beautiful place and a wonderful introduction to the island – however, a trip away from the urban area opens up the beauty of the island.

My good friends Kash Bhattacharya and Sofia Vasconcelos live in Madeira and have offered to show me some of the local sights – the places which become much more accessible with a car-owning redsident.

We start by driving away from the coast, through one of the many valleys that make their way down to the water. Steep inclines on either side dictate the path of the road which follows a riverbed for much of the way.

Madeira Photography, Portugal

We make our first stop at a small bar which serves the traditional refreshment ‘poncha’. It’s a rum-based drink that’s mixed with honey, sugar, lemon rind and fruit juice. The sweetness masks the potency and after more than one or two you start to feel the effects. We stop after the first one and make the most of the free peanuts on offer. The floor is apparently the best place to put the shells from the nuts and we do as the locals do.

Madeira Photography, Portugal
Madeira Photography, Portugal

To get anywhere in Madeira you need to drive through tunnels…

Madeira Photography, Portugal

…and across bridges. Rather than driving over mountains or around valleys, the local authorities decided long ago it would be better just to let people go through them or across them.

Madeira Photography, Portugal

We arrive at St Vincent on the north coast of Madeira. It’s home to just 6,000 people and feels even more laidback than the already-relaxed Funchal. Old men sit at cafes in the square, couples stroll through the church’s garden, a shop sells cassette tapes and toys in boxes faded from years of sunlight.

Madeira Photography, Portugal
Madeira Photography, Portugal
Madeira Photography, Portugal

Buildings are constructed in harmony with the natural structures here and some seem to be a part of the rocky outcrops near the shore. The beachfront resembles the harshness of the landscapes you see across the whole island, which large rocks taking the place where you might expect sand.

Madeira Photography, Portugal
Madeira Photography, Portugal

As we drive further along the coast, heading west, the vivid cliffs provide the setting for the journey. The road again cuts through tunnels and the sheer drop on one side contrasts with the high mountains on the other.

There isn’t much settlement here and small houses dot the land. We stop a couple of time to look at the views and I see towns huddled together near the water.

Madeira Photography, Portugal
Madeira Photography, Portugal

We drive down to stop at one of the towns. A few fishermen stand on the rocks as the waves crash around them.

It’s a quiet community and most of the noise comes from the ocean. It rumbles across the small square and over to the houses and bars nearby.

There are no other tourists here and, although it’s not far from the centre of Funchal, it feels much further.

Madeira Photography, Portugal
Madeira Photography, Portugal

Finally, as the sun begins to dip behind the mountains, we decide to chase it and not let the mountains hide those final rays.

We drive back to the south of the island and then again head towards the west. At the end of the road is a place called Jardim do Mar and it’s here we settle into a table at the bar of a guesthouse called Maktub.

The Portuguese cocktails seem fitting as we watch the sunset over the water. Other people have gathered here for the daily ritual of drinks and orange sky. Limpets are being cooked in one corner and offered around to the guests.

Madeira Photography, Portugal
Madeira Photography, Portugal

The day has gone quickly and as it gets darker I wish there was even more time to explore. There is so much to see here on the island.

I think it would be unfair to say I’ve fallen in love with the place already – other than being a bit of a cliché, it’s also probably just more of a crush right at the moment. But I can certainly see why there is such passion from those who call it home.


Although there are a few areas you could stay in Madeira, I think it makes sense to base yourself in the capital Funchal and do trips from here.


For a backpacker option, I recommend Santa Maria Hostel, which is in an old renovated school.


If you would like something affordable, Vitorina Corte Guesthouse has lovely rooms right by the water.


With an amazing pool, Castanheiro Boutique Hotel is a great choice for something with style.


And when it comes to luxury, Les Suites at Cliff Bay is an incredible property!

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Porto Bay Hotels and Resorts and Madeira Promotion Bureau but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

11 thoughts on “Exploring the island of Madeira”

  1. Great post Michael. I have a very good friend who is from Madeira and she can’t speak more highly of it. For that fact I really would love to visit myself someday. Especially for those stunning sunsets!

    • I’m sure you would love it there. It really surprised me for how beautiful it was. Not because I didn’t think it would be nice… but because I didn’t realise how stunning it is when you actually see it all in person!

    • Oh, they love their wine in Maderia, that’s for sure!! I actually find it a bit too sweet and can’t drink lots of it. But it’s a good little pick-me-up when you’re busy exploring the island! 🙂


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