Disappear Into Madeira, A Wild Island Retreat off the Coast of Portugal
A hidden secret off the coast of Europe, Madeira is your next dream vacation destination.
After a long day of wine tasting, our group is watching the movements of the chef at Quinta do Barbusano with great interest. He hoists a skewer of traditionally grilled Portuguese beef, espetada, and affixes it to a wire above our heads that stretches the length of the table. A Madeira delicacy, the dish is essentially just large chunks of meat seasoned with garlic and salt, then roasted on bay laurel branches over hot coals. Our host, who is also the winemaker and owner of the vineyard, prepared it using massive, sword-like branches of bay laurel cooked over his outdoor grill to get the taste right. After letting the meat rest, he carefully slides the sizzling steak down onto a waiting platter. Like most of Madeira’s cuisine it’s simple, unassuming and utterly delicious.
A few days before the espetada revelation, another local guide mentioned “the Madeira effect.” You can’t just visit once, she explained with a laugh; after the first trip, people always come back. This tight-knit island community jokingly calls it “the Madeira effect,” with a hint of pride that their tiny island home is such a magnetic force.
So where in the world is Madeira? Triangulated between the coast of Africa and the European continent, it’s something of an untapped retreat for American travelers. One of four islands in an archipelago also called Madeira — which is the Portuguese word for “wood” — the area initially awed early explorers with its propensity for robust plant life, and fresh produce like potatoes and other vegetables are abundant and extra flavorful. One of the most impressive aspects of Madeiran culture is the food, most of which is grown on the island, or hunted and fished locally, either on Portugal’s mainland or by native fishermen.
Sweeping cliffs dotted with stucco houses and an idyllic coastline offer constant ocean views and make an initial comparison to Mediterranean hotspots like the Amalfi coast and Greece seem right. But that’s just the island at sea level: The steep mountains and rich, volcanic soil add an additional lush, jungle feel, and plant life takes over the island’s temperate climes with such force that plenty of familiar vegetation grows to be ten times the size it would elsewhere. Combine the idyllic coastline with jaw-dropping aerial trams, cliffside viewpoints, and secluded mountain towns, and you have the look and feel of Madeira. It’s a European island that’s still unexplored, making it an excellent choice for anyone eager to get back into adventurous international trips.
Though it’s long been a destination for European and UK travelers, who are about a two-hour flight away, logistics have kept American travelers from visiting the island as easily as their EU counterparts — until now. Most travel from America to Madeira in the past involved flying into Lisbon, a seven-hour journey from New York, for example, and then taking another two-hour flight to finally get to Madeira. A newly-introduced direct flight from JFK to Madeira is set to change all that, though, clocking in at just about seven hours and landing straight in Funchal, at the only airport on this still-remote island. Operated by Azores Airlines, a Portuguese airline named for the nearby Azores islands, the direct flight happens once a week, making a seven-day stint in Madeira suddenly very accessible.
Once the oceanic flight is behind you, the island is small enough to navigate easily for day trips and other adventures, and big enough to handle a week-long stay. Unlike Amalfi, which seems to be a staple for Americans visiting Europe, this island still feels wild, although plenty of luxury hotels dot the coastline. For those who are looking for a classic, but more hands-off hospitality experience, the Pestana Carlton is a central resort with a relaxed atmosphere. With ocean views from most of the rooms, a generous buffet breakfast, and a more affordable price point due to the property’s slightly dated setup, this guesthouse still manages to feel cozy and welcoming despite its fairly large size.
On the other end of the spectrum, the brand new Savoy Palace is a state-of-the-art property that opened its doors just before the pandemic, during the summer of 2019. With lots of marble and velvet, a lobby bar and tea service area, and incredible views from the rooftop deck, this high-end hotel sits well above most of the other coastal properties, literally lording over sister hotels like the more formal Royal Savoy, or the more affordable, tech-savvy Next hotel. On-site lunch and dinner service at Terreiro and a sumptuous breakfast service — either via a la carte menu at the 17th floor’s VIP lounge, or buffet on the ground floor — means guests are well covered for dining at the property. And even if staying at the Palace means access to just about every amenity under the sun, visitors should absolutely explore the island further.
Consider taking a wine tour to learn about the history of Madeira’s namesake fortified wine, and the vineyards that are cropping up to grow and produce table wine as well. Discovering Maderia’s wine tours included a visit up north for a taste of espetada along with several other family-run spots to imbibe local wine. One of the most Instagrammable sights on any island is always the sunrise, so booking a jeep tour to catch that beautiful early morning moment, along with a brief tour of some other historical towns on the island, is a good way to cover a lot of ground in one day. Of course, the Laveda walks are also not to be missed: These guided tours take visitors along the island’s historic irrigation systems that helped distribute water in the earliest days of settling the island.
Finally, a heads up for any travelers looking to make the journey — definitely purchase travel insurance when visiting Madeira. Landing on the island can be a daunting task due to the fact that it’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and there’s a chance that rainy weather or clouds will make it unsafe to land or depart. Covering your bases with insurance is recommended due to that sometimes uncertain logistical piece. While it might be a little off the beaten path, Madeira’s combination of island views, plant life, and unparalleled food and drink make it the kind of destination that travelers who are itching to get back out and see the world have been searching for. And with the Madeira effect in full force, new visitors will likely be plotting a return trip as soon as they’re home.
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