Magical Madeira is delighted to report that Navjot Singh, a well-known British author, journalist and photographer, has joined our guest blogger team as an Asia expert. Navjot has contributed to various magazines and international newspapers over the years, writing extensively about travel in Asia. He has also developed a specialization in aviation photography. We hope you enjoy this first post about Madeira. Be sure to check back in with us for some more insightful reviews from his travel exploits.

Initially discovered by Portuguese sailors around 1420, and located 500 miles south west of Portugal’s coastline is the country’s most beautiful island, Madeira. Although physically the Madeira Islands, which consist of the Island of Madeira and Porto Santo Island, are located close to the African continent (around 300 miles), they are nevertheless culturally, economically, geographically and politically a strong part of Portugal.

The Madeira Islands are blessed with spectacular natural landscapes that have earned them the nickname ‘pearl of the Atlantic’. Very trendy with hikers and surfers alike, Madeira is also home to the annual Madeira Walking Festival.

Described as a ‘floating garden’, the archipelago has naturally rich volcanic soil, a mild climate, and plentiful rainfall – ideal ingredients for its many fabulous river valleys, dense primitive forest, and terraced hillsides planted with vines and bananas.

There is plenty of terracotta too, and the vast majority of hillside homes have a distinctive terracotta roof. From a distance this provides a wonderful view of the whole Island; and if you arrive by boat or ferry at Funchal, you are greeted by the sight of a lush green hillside that is dotted with bright terracotta roofed homes.

Madeira's hills present a sea of terracotta roofed homes

Madeira’s hills present a sea of terracotta roofed homes (Navjot Singh)

Interestingly enough Madeira is the largest of a group of five islands formed by a volcanic eruption and Madeira itself is the summit of a mountain range rising 6.5km (4 miles) from the seabed. For this reason swimmers are usually advised to not swim off into the far distance because the water can get ridiculously deep very quickly. However the deep waters are perfect for cruise liners, who find it very comfortable to dock on the shores of the island.

Madeira does have a few good beaches with torquise waters

Madeira does have a few good beaches with torquise waters (Navjot Singh)

A Unique Culture

The natural beauty and the friendly culture of the people of Madeira is a draw for many tourists throughout the year. Madeira has also had a strong influence in parts of the world where Portugal was a colonial power. Examples include Goa in India where the first spices were shipped to India from Madeira. In fact India has spices because of Portugal and Madeira.

One thing I did notice is that the local people are very proud and attached to the influence of the Catholic Church. There are plenty of local festivals that celebrate the local culture, and people openly attend to share the fun and excitement. Normally these parties are known as good ‘festa’ (party) where lots of traditional folk music, dancing and food is on offer. They are joyful family affairs where people celebrate their nation’s treasures to the full, and the fun goes on late into the night. In the month of June alone, there are three parties to celebrate the popular saints São João, São Pedro and Santo Antonio.

Traditional festas are very popular in Madeira

Traditional festas are very popular in Madeira (Navjot Singh)

Madeira is also famous for toboggan rides. A toboggan looks somewhat like a large two-seater sofa made out of wooden straw material. Essentially it is a wicker basket mounted on wooden runners (known locally as a carro). The toboggan is used to carry tourists with two men using ropes to control the wide carro. A typical run is around fifteen to twenty minutes long, and takes place from Monte and Terreiro da Luta. However it can be quite risky. Toboggans run down the slopes at speed, being very careful not to hit on-coming traffic and homes! Tourists usually take a taxi back to the top, costing around 10 euros.

It's worth taking the traditional toboggan ride down the hills

It’s worth taking the traditional toboggan ride down the hills (Navjot Singh)

and then take the taxi back to the top of the hills again

…and then take the taxi back to the top of the hills again (Navjot Singh)

Many native Madeirans are descended from the people of the Algarve region of Portugal and are farmers actively involved in the local agricultural trade of the island. As such, the vast majority of the ‘festas’ that are fêted around the island have a special connection to a particular type of produce, like cherries, bananas, sugar cane and the vine (wine is, of course, available in abundance).

Indeed the Madeirans love of food and wine is what sets this beautiful island apart from the rest. Seafood and fruits are locally grown. However, most meats (beef, pork, and lamb) are imported from mainland Portugal or from the nearby Azores. During major festivals, beef and lamb kebabs are highly popular, with some fine Madeira wine or local beer to wash them down.

Some regional specialties include:

  • Caldeirada (fish soup)
  • Bife de atum e milho frito (tuna steak and fried maize)
  • Carne em vinha d’alho (pickled pork and garlic)
  • Espada (fresh black scabbard fish)
  • Bolo de mel (Madeira honey cake – heavy and goes well with some cream or strawberries)

Getting to (and around) Madeira

The main airport on Madeira Island is located about ten miles from the centre of Funchal and is easily accessible by taxi or public buses. TAP Air Portugal has regular scheduled flights from most European cities such as London, and Paris.

Madeira International Airport (Known as “Funchal Airport”) is served by at least 20 international airline companies flying to around 50 non-stop chartered and scheduled routes within Europe and South America. An interesting aspect of the airport is the 30-degree right hand turn that planes have to make in order to make the final approach for landing. It almost resembles the hair-raising landings that planes made at the old Kai Tak International Airport in Hong Kong prior to 1997.

Taxis are available 24 hours a day, although in the evenings and late at night one may need to book them in advance.

Best place to stay?

The beautiful sea front of Funchal

The beautiful sea front of Funchal (Navjot Singh)

Located in the tranquil hills of Monte, the Quinta do Monte is a nostalgic yet chic residence that showcases the best of Madeira’s rich culture and history. With stunning views across to the sea and the town of Funchal in the horizon, the hotel provides all the essential creature comforts that one would expect from a top hotel.

Quinta do Monte

Quinta do Monte is a nostalgic yet chic residence located in the tranquil hills of Monte (Navjot Singh)

To learn more about Navjot and his travels, be sure to check out his website:

Featured Image: Madeira Skyline (Navjot Singh)

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