Things about Portugal
1. Don't go for the beaches.
Simply put, Madeira island isn't a beach destination. The island might well be 35 miles long and 13 miles wide and boast 99 miles of coastline, but the shore is all rock and cliffs. It's a mountainous island; the highest peak is 1862 meters/6, 100 feet high.
Madeira is all mountains, no beaches. Photo by Katja Presnal.
2. It's perfect for adventurous road trips.
Madeira is a great island to rent a car for a day of exploring - or surfing! Head to the north of the island to São Vicente, and visit the 17th century church downtown before heading to the pebble beach, where I hear you can experience some of the best waves of Europe. If surfing isn't for you, just enjoy the scenic cliff views, and visit the São Vicente Caves "Grutas de São Vicente, " created by an underground channel of lava from an eruption that occurred about 400, 000 years ago.
3. Ride a cable car up - and a toboggan down.
One of the best ways to see the views of Funchal in Madeira is to hop on the cable car that takes you up to the Botanical Garden or the Monte Palace. Even if you don't want to visit the gardens, the trip is worth it for the views, and you can enjoy the most unique way to come down the hill - the toboggan.
Take the iconic Monte sledge, a wicker toboggan, down. It has been a popular form of transportation in Monte since 1850. Each toboggan has two sledge drivers called "Carreiros, " dressed in a straw hat, white pants, and special shoes that help them keep traction. Their leg muscles, reminiscent of those on soccer players, allow them to run, kick, and steer the large wicker sleighs down the curvy road. Yes, I said curvy. And a little scary. But so much fun!
Climb the mountain top Pico do Arieiro or just take the (tourist) bus up, and soak in the magnificent views of Pico do Arieiro mountain top. You can spend an entire day hiking and get from Pico Arieiro to the highest peak of Madeira to Pico Ruivo. Or you can just go for a day visit to walk among the clouds and enjoy drinks at the mountain top restaurant.
5. Don't just drink Madeira wine, sip Poncha.
I knew of Madeira wine, but what I had never heard of before my trip was Poncha. It's an alcoholic drink made with Aguardente de cana (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice), honey, sugar, lemon rind, and lemon juice. It is all mixed together in a pitcher with a special Madeiran muddler called a mexelote. The taste is sweet, it doesn't have a strong alcoholic taste, but you might want to sip carefully anyway, packs quite a punch! Where to get it? Almost anywhere, but for the authentic experience, head to Taberna da Poncha, a small pub about a 20-minute-drive from the capital Funchal. The floors are covered with peanut shells, and the walls with business cards left by visitors from around Europe and the rest of the world.
6. Taste the exotic fruits of Madeira.
Madeira was a big European banana exporter until the EU regulations on the size of bananas changed. Many of the bananas that grow on the island of Madeira don't grow to EU standards, and so cannot be exported out of Portugal anymore. What is remarkable is that the new regulations from the 1990's didn't kill the banana business of a few hundred years, nor are the islanders all that upset about it (at least not anymore). The islanders believe that "smaller is better" and ooze with pride for their bananas. You can't go on a vacation on the island without hearing about their "small bananas", which are much sweeter and taste better than the larger ones.
Madeira is not just famous for their small bananas. The farmer's market is full of exotic fruits. One of them is the English tomato, or tamarilho, that typically only grows in high altitudes. It's red and looks like a cross between a plum and a tomato. Another one is a custard apple, an apple-looking fruit that really tastes like a peachy custard. Make sure also to taste the philodendron fruit, a pineapple-looking fruit that tastes like a banana.
7. Madeira is an excellent culinary destination.
The exotic fruits and the availability of amazing seafood makes Madeira an excellent culinary destination. See the local food selection yourself at the Workers' Market, Mercado dos Lavradores. In addition to local produce and fish market, we also saw a shop where a lady was drying Madeira bay leaves, another great Madeiran specialty and an all around great spice to take home. One of the signature dishes on the island is "espetada" - meat, bay leaves, and garlic impaled on a stick and grilled to perfection on an open fire. For great espetada, head to Vila da Carne in the village of Camera do Lobos.