All too often beach holidays amount to our least favorite things: overpriced ice cream, the all-pervading stench of sun lotion, and beach walks obscured by heaving throngs of tourists, skin cooked to differing degrees of hockey puck.
Unappealing, we know. But what if we were to tell you there’s a way to enjoy the delights of a seaside getaway, sans tourists and in its lieu, adventure? Madeira, the isle of eternal spring, with its volcanic beaches, graphite-colored sands, and tropical climate, is a nugget of local culture and, as of yet, unfettered by tourism.
So here you have it, ten hidden gems in Madeira that are sure to cure your beach bug (and which only locals can show you).
10 Experience The Madeiran Coast By Boat
The best (and only) way to experience the true nature of the Atlantic is by taking to the open sea. Book a boat tour in Funchal, the isle’s capital, and make sure you don a wetsuit. Madeira is a hotspot for young marine life: on any given day you might glimpse common dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles, Portuguese man-o-war, bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales and sperm whales.
The coastal waters are a ‘no-risk nursery’ where mothers can feed their young without fear of predators, and marine biologists don’t tag the cetaceans with trackers. How do guides guarantee sightings? Watchers sit up on high cliffs along the coast with binoculars, and radio down to the boats when they see signs of movement in the water.
9 Take A Soak In Seixal’s Hidden Lava Pools
These aren’t the public water pools that have made a big splash among tourists. You won’t find them signposted on Google, or sitting neck to neck with bars, snack huts and steep entry fees - these lava pools are hidden from view by a series of dramatic cliffs on the northern hemisphere of the island.
While you’ll need a local’s tip off to find their exact location, anyone with a little grit can climb down the steep trails to indulge in waters famously known for their replenishing properties. We can guarantee you the best swimming experience on the island, even if we can’t promise you eternal youth.
8 Discover Christopher Colombus’s Digs By Ferry Or Flight
There are only two ways to get to Porto Santo, affectionately known as Madeira’s sandy little sister. Like its namesake implies, you’d come here for the 9km long white beaches fringing the isle’s southern side.
There’s only one ferry on the island, which poses as a mini cruise ship - but it can get pretty helter-skelter on stormy waters, so if you’re not a roller coaster fan, consider the short but thrilling plane ride over.
7 Ride The Waves With Local Surfers On Seixal Beach
This hidden gem is objectively one of the prettiest beaches on the island. Characterized by the island’s volcanic black sands, it’s brinked by mossy-covered hills and two stunning waterfalls.
Because Madeira does what it does best - combining natural wonders with modern life, the surf club next door flanks a rockpool (where visitors are free to swim) and offers handy paddle board and surfing lessons on the cheap.
6 Drop In On Sharks While You Scuba Dive
For best visibility, we recommend you go diving between April and November. There are reefs to explore, underwater caves to roam and plenty of marine life to get up close and personal with (including toothy brutes like hammerheads and mako sharks, if you’ve the nerve).
5 Visit Pico Ruivo, Madeira’s Highest Peak
What we’re referring to is known as the stairway to heaven, and isn’t for the weak-hearted. It involves a hike of just over 8km at an elevation of 1376 m, but once you’re up your head will be in the clouds - literally. This is the best spot to stargaze, and on a clear night you’ll see anything from meteor showers to the Milky Way.
Go with a guide though, the island’s curved roads and milky mists are tricky to maneuver.
4 Get Your Need For Speed In A Moving Basket
If Madeira’s anything, it’s hilly, perfect for traditional tobogganing (sans snow of course).
For the uninitiated, this activity involves pushing people down mountain roads in baskets by locals who have years of avoiding cars under their belts. Hundreds in fact, as this was the local means of transport back before 1900s to get from one top of a mountain town to another.
Still unconvinced? These pros wear dapper straw hats in lieu of helmets, and have brakes for shoes. For you know, just in case.
3 Get A Good Wine-Tasting With The Pros
Madeira is famous for its wines, and while you can order their typical ‘Poncha’, a wine made with honey and passion-fruit from any watering hole, Madeira’s wine tasting tours provide an in-depth glimpse into the local culture.
You’ll taste your way through some of Madeira’s most prominent vineyards, delight your palate with the local gastronomy and explore the isle’s vineries, guided by local experts.
2 Take A Guided Hike To The Rabaçal Valley In 4x4s
Built for rough terrain, these 4x4 guided tours are ideal for nature lovers. You’re taken into the Rabaçal Valley and through the largest laurel forest in the world. Tucked away in dense vegetation, the real treat lies at the end of the tour when you reach a beautiful lagoon and waterfall - where, if you dare, you can take a dip.
The guides will also point out vantage points as you walk, so you’re able to snap photos of gob-smacking views to make everyone at home jealous.
1 Walk With Madeira’s Stunning Skywalk
The skywalk on the cliffs of Cabo Girão is something no one should miss, even if you do suffer from vertigo. Jutting out from the side of some of the highest cliffs in Madeira, the glass walk offers spectacular views of Madeira’s skyline. Like the above tours, there are guides who will drive you there in 4X4s - offering tidbits of information that only locals know (we won’t spoil the surprise).
Plus, it’s completely free and once you’re done soaking up the views, you can ditch the 4x4s and take the Rancho cable car down to Fajas de Cabo - originally used by farmers to transport produce.