Madeira has so much more to offer than your typical bucket and spade beach holiday destination. It is traditionally popular with couples, but families and groups of all levels and ages will love the range of outdoor activities and stunning scenery on offer, too.
For those wanting to take advantage of the dramatic and varied volcanic terrain on foot, there are plenty of walking and hiking trails available to suit all ages and abilities. Choose to hire a guide or roam freely and at your own pace through forests, mountains, caves and waterfalls.
Trek the seemingly endless levandas, over 3,000 km of well-marked ancient irrigation channels dotted across the island, and take in panoramic views of impressive mountains and the azure sea. One of the most enchanting walking expeditions is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Laurissilva Forest, a ~20 million year old national treasure that’s home to the most magical flora and fauna.
Other options include mountain biking, canyoning, paragliding and birdwatching.
The most convenient way to take in the wonderful sights of Madeira, and visit exclusive spots such as Nuns Valley and Ponta do Sol, is by 4×4 safari. While you sit back and enjoy the picturesque views of the otherwise inaccessible parts of the island, your driver will share interesting snippets about each location and prove that getting there really is half the fun. Think of this activity as a two in one – adventure and education.
For a more relaxed afternoon, why not explore one of Madeira’s beaches made up of grey pebbles and volcanic sands? Most beaches on the island seem almost untouched by humans and have an impressive mountainous backdrop. Cool off in the crystal clear waters to experience nature to its fullest. Our favourites are Seixal beach, a natural black sand beach located in the North of the island and Prainha, a beautiful beach close to the scenic point in Ponta de São Lourenço.
There are also a number of hidden beaches, just waiting to be explored. Some of them are only accessible by cable car as they are set against dramatic clifftops. Such beaches include Faja dos Padres (with a restaurant featured in Conde Nast Traveller) and Garajau Beach, near Funchal.
Be sure to fly or hop on a short ferry over to Porto Santo, if a 9 km unspoilt stretch of golden sand and a calm sea is more your thing. Also commonly referred to as Little Paradise, this is the best sand dune beach in Portugal and makes for the perfect family day out.
Natural Lava Pools
For a more gentle and safe alternative to swimming in the sea, why not try floating in a natural salt pool in Porto Moniz, Seixal or Funchal? Formed by volcanic lava flowing out to sea before cooling and hardening, these walled areas are naturally filled with crystal-clear sea water and offer a tranquil bathing experience for those who prefer to take an ocean dip without battling the waves.
Dolphins regularly make an appearance near Madeira due to the mid-Atlantic position and deep waters surrounding this volcanic archipelago, but if you’re lucky, you may also spot a turtle, a monk seal or even a whale. There are various boat trips dedicated to showing you the marine life that lives in the Atlantic Ocean, along with others that take you to places like Cabo Girão and Fajã dos Padres and let you stop off for a swim or simply enjoy the view.
If you’re brave enough, take to the seas to catch a wave, stand up paddle, or try your hand at diving and snorkelling to discover a shipwreck turned coral reef and more exciting treasures.
Cable Car to Monte and a Toboggan down to Livramento
The city of Funchal is the perfect starting point for what possibly could be the most memorable activity of your holiday. From here, you’ll be able to take the 15-minute journey from the Old Town to Monte via The Madeira Cable Car. En route, you can expect to see incredible panoramic views of the city below, as well as the approaching mountains.
What goes up, must come down so once you’ve explored what Monte has to offer, why not try one of Madeira’s most famous attractions on the way down? The Monte Toboggan Run also known as carros de cesto, is an exhilarating two-kilometre downhill ride in sledges weaved from wicker and wood. The toboggans are led and controlled by two experienced drivers dedicated to giving you the adventure of a lifetime. The fun lasts approximately 10 minutes, but is something you won’t forget in a hurry.
Pico de Arieiro
Situated a mere 30 minute drive from Funchal is Pico de Arieiro, Maderia’s second highest peak. Take in incredible views of the mountain and sea as you climb the 1818 m to the top. If the weather is especially good, you may even be able to catch a glimpse of the neighbouring island of Porto Santo despite it being 30 nautical miles away.
Cabo Girão Skywalk
The Skywalk is one of the island’s best known viewpoints, offering 360° views of the sea, Cabo Girão, Rancho and Funchal. With a staggering 580 m drop below the glass floor, the clifftop viewing platform is Europe’s highest, and second only to the Grand Canyon’s, worldwide. Better yet, it’s completely free to enter so the only thing you need to remember is your camera.