One of the ports of our Norwigian Spirit cruise in December 2018 was Funchal, Madeira. Madeira is located only about 800 kilometres from African continent, whereas the capital of Portugal is 1200 km away. For both of us this was the first time on the island and in Portugal, for that matter.
We booked a tour for this day in advance because we wanted to include several experiences within the hours we’d have on the island. Here is a list of five things Madeira that found their way into our notebook.
1. Madeira’s Serpentine Roads
The common part of the opening speech from tour guides around the world is some kind of a joke about the driver’s driving skills. Madeira was no exception. As our bus headed off from the port in Funchal our guide Mario, a tiny man with great hair and huge moustache, told us our driver Paolo is the best one on the island and the brakes of the bus are in an excellent condition.
It didn’t take us long to understand why the driving skills and the condition of the brakes are especially important.
Most of the island of Madeira is very mountainous, the serpentine roads take you up and down on the super steep hills. Most of the roads outside the city of Funchal were extremely narrow and as the bus rose higher and higher, the views to valleys directly below us were pretty but also, breathtaking in a different sense. The roadside railings would not help a lot if the bus slid off the road.
2. Camara de Lobos
Only about 7 kilometres from Funchal we stopped at the picturesque, traditional fishing village of Camara de Lobos. This small Madeiran village is famous for several things.
Firstly, a surprising famous name can be linked to this village. Our tour guide explained Winston Churchill escaped the pressure of public life to Madeira and fell in love with the views here.
Winston Churchill loved the views so much that he painted several, celebrated works of art here and let the pleasant, warm air chase away the tension and stress.
We noticed Churchill is not forgotten, quite the opposite. There are local souvenir shops in Camara de Lobos selling postcards and memorabilia with Winston Churchill and his paintings printed on them. And then there is a a restaurant called Churchill’s Place that has a terrace overlooking the ocean – unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit there.
Secondly, the fishermen of Camara de Lobos are famous as they were the first ones to start fishing for the devilish, black scabbardfish that live 800 to 1300 meters below surface.
These deep-sea creatures have nail sharp teeth and they look anything but nice, but have good flesh quality and play a huge economic role on Madeira.
We didn’t taste the fish, but you can find it at most restaurants. In the menu, look for espada (don’t confuse it with espetada, then you’ll be served meat skewers).
Third thing that Camara de Lobos is famous for is the drink called Nikita. The milkshake cocktail was created in this village 1985 and got it’s name from Elton John’s song Nikita from the same year. The original drink is a mix of white wine, beer, pineapple, sugar & vanilla ice cream and we noticed many bars advertising it.
3. Eternal Spring
Madeira is called the Island of Eternal Spring for a good reason. The weather is pleasant and mild all year round. The humidity keeps the island green and beautiful and we were exited that even in December there were flowers everywhere. The actual blossoming season is in spring, we were told. That must be worth experiencing!
As we drove the hills Mario named the fruits and vegetables that are farmed here, everywhere we saw cultivated land that to our surprise can be harvested several times in a year.
We asked about some structures we noticed below us. Mario explained the farmed hill terraces have a special watering system that collects water from the mountains.
These aqueducts are called levadas and have maintenance trails running next to the water ways. The trails are popular among outdoorsy people, both local and visitors, all year round. The first levadas were built in 1416.
4. Cabo Girao
As we told earlier, Madeira is mountainous. There are high cliffs and then there are even higher cliffs. To really understand that our tour took us to Cabo Girao.
Want to get your vertigo expectations hightened? The Cabo Girao sea cliff is highest is Europe, the cape 580 metres above sea level can be visited walking on a suspended glass platform.
Even that we don’t suffer from acrophobia, looking down here on the skywalk was a bit dizzying experience as we could see the beach somewhere far away below us and at the same time admired the panoramic ocean views.
5. Madeira, The Wine
For a taste of Madeira Mario took us to a local winery in Funchal. At D’Oliveiras we experienced some sweet, dark Madeira wine we both remember from our childhood days. As tourism became more accessible for people in Finland our family friends would bring Madeira wine home as a souvenir and as something to serve at special occasions.
The people here on the island are proud of their local produce for a reason and are happy to share their knowledge. Learning about the Madeira wine and it’s production was our moment to experience the laid-back and generous nature of the Portugese, something they are famous for as a nation.
Tip: When you visit Madeira, look for local wineries. They are often open to visitors and offer free tasting samples of their wine varieties.