Apartment living on the Portuguese island of Madeira

By Rosemary McDaniel
This article appears on page 32 of the November 2015 issue.
Blue-and-white-tile mural in Funchal.

When my planned walking tour of the Portuguese island of Madeira was canceled due to too few participants, I decided to go on my own, Oct. 21-Nov. 4, 2014, because I already had my air travel arranged. Looking for accommodations, I found the website HomeAway.com and, after several unsuccessful tries, was finally referred to the owner of the SeaView Lido Flat (listing No. 1399790), Frederica Marques (fredsmarques@gmail.com)

Located in the São Martinho area, west of the capital city of Funchal, the flat was within easy walking distance of the city (about 1½ miles), with a large mall located in the opposite direction. It was perfect for my needs.

Getting settled

The apartment was on the fifth (top) floor of a modern building in a quiet area and was serviced by an elevator. It had two large bedrooms, two full baths, a huge, fully equipped eat-in kitchen, a comfortable sitting/dining area and a very large balcony with an unobstructed view of the ocean. 

The furnishings were comfortable and appealing and included Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV and a DVD player, and the owner had a telephone connected for me because she wanted me to be able to communicate with the outside, if necessary. The rate was 563 ($636) for the 10 days I was able to rent it. (I then had to move to a hotel because the apartment was rented after the 10 days.) 

I paid a deposit of 50% via PayPal, paying the remainder upon arrival. Transfer from the airport, arranged by Frederica, was with Moises Nunes, a private taxi chauffeur, and cost 35.

Once settled in, I began exploring my surroundings and found a supermarket, a bakery and numerous restaurants and gift shops. There were also many businesses offering day trips to various parts of the island. I signed up with MBtravel (phone +351 291 700 440, mb-travel.pt), located at No. 213 Estrada Monumental, the main road leading into Funchal. They offered one half-day tour and two full-day tours by minibus for a total of 70. They did not take credit cards.

Road trip

My first full-day tour began with a pickup at a nearby hotel at 9 a.m. I joined five French travelers and our driver, Marcelo, for a drive along the coast and across the island to the northern city of Porto Moniz. 

Because Madeira is a volcanic island with many peaks and valleys, there are few flat areas and the roads twist and turn, climbing ever upward. Some of the older roads have been closed due to the danger of their slipping into the sea, and tunnels have been built to replace them. 

The scenery was breathtaking, if one dared to look, but Marcelo was an excellent driver and he safely maneuvered the winding roads.

Our first stop was in Câmara de Lobos, named for the lobos marinhos,
or monk seals, that lived in large numbers in the bay in the early days of the settlement of Madeira. We had an opportunity to visit a small church built in the 1500s, take photos and purchase items at a restaurant/gift shop.

As we continued on the road northward, the landscape changed dramatically, with banana plants at the lowest altitude, then sugarcane and then vineyards of the famous Madeira wine. At the highest elevations, wind turbines and acres of solar panels were evident.

The north shore was windy and wild, with waves crashing into the lava rocks in Porto Moniz. While I found what we saw of the town uninteresting, many people were swimming in the lava-rock pools that were protected from the waves. There was also an old fort that had been turned into a decent aquarium (4 for senior admission). 

From there we headed back toward Funchal through an inland route that took us through parkland that is protected to maintain the island’s water supply. Amaryllis, hibiscus, oleander and other beautiful flowering plants grew wild along the roadside, and cattle could be seen grazing in unfenced areas.

Our final stop before returning to Funchal was Cabo Girão, which is one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The cliff dropped 580 meters to the sea, and there was a transparent viewing platform that allowed visitors to stand out beyond the cliff — very frightening! 

Arriving back at my apartment shortly after 5 p.m., I enjoyed a glass of wine on my balcony while listening to the sound of the waves on the rocks.

Exploring on foot

Since the city of approximately 132,000 people was within easy walking distance, and mostly downhill from the apartment (just remember, you have to walk back up, unless you want to take a bus or taxi), I explored it on almost a daily basis. 

I purchased the Marco Polo Guide for Madeira and Porto Santo and was able to get a feel for what Madeira had to offer, which was a lot! Since cruise ships dock daily, the streets are usually busy with many tourists, and the restaurants are filled to capacity. 

The old section of Funchal was full of small shops and restaurants lining the cobblestone streets. A unique attraction on some of the narrow, traffic-free streets was the artistically painted doors of private residences. There seemed to be a great deal of artistic ability in that part of town, which was especially evident in some of the art and craft shops.

Attached to many of the old buildings in Funchal are tile murals depicting traditional scenes, such as oxen hauling wine casks, women working on embroidery, farmers carrying crops to market and religious scenes in the churches. The tiles are predominantly blue and white, but some are surrounded by elaborate, colorful edging — truly lovely to look at.

A huge attraction in Funchal is the farmers’ market, located in a 3-story building known as the Mercado dos Lavradores on Rua Latino Coelho. It is open every day except Sunday. 

Natural volcanic rock pools in Porto Moniz.

The lowest floor contains the fish market, which bustles with restaurant owners and locals purchasing the best catches of the day. Madeira is known for its scabbardfish, a black, ferocious-looking creature that resembles a sword scabbard with huge, sharp teeth. 

Other floors contain butcher shops and fruit vendors selling dried and fresh local fruit, interesting varieties of vegetables and beautiful flowers. I purchased some figs that were very sweet and delicious. 

This market is open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday (7-8 Friday and 7-2 Saturday) and is always filled with people.

On weekends, the waterfront area is host to vendors selling everything imaginable (as well as a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut). There is a rocky beach area where I saw only a few bathers, even though the weather was hot and the water was a comfortable temperature. 

After spending most of a day in the city, I usually stopped in one of the many parks along my route home to sit and rest for a bit before continuing the climb uphill.

Into the hills

The MBtravel half-day trip I booked took me, along with three French and two British travelers, first to Curral das Freiras, also known as the Valley of the Nuns. According to John, our driver, during the 16th and 17th centuries, pirates attacked the island and the sisters from a convent took refuge in the valley along with their cattle. 

We viewed the small village from its highest point, looking down into the valley surrounded by ragged mountains. It was doubtful that pirates would have attempted to navigate the mountain passages to enter the valley, making the area a safe haven for the nuns. 

The roads getting to our viewpoint were narrow and frightening, but the visit was worth the drive.

Toward the end of this excursion, we stopped in the little village of Monte, high above Funchal and reached by cable car and motor vehicle. 

The main attraction in Monte are the basket sleds that carry up to three people on a hair-raising ride down the mountain, covering about 1.2 miles. They operate seven days a week, and the cost is 30 for two people. 

The sleds are made of wicker and are set on wooden runners. They are steered by two “sledmen,” who belong to a hereditary guild and are each dressed in white shirt and trousers, with a straw hat and a blue jacket (if needed). They wear heavy-soled shoes with which they steer the sleds. 

At the bottom of the hill, the passengers get off and the sleds are loaded onto trucks for the ride back up. In years past, the sledmen had to drag the sleds back to the starting point. 

This is a very popular tourist attraction, and it provides a good income for the sledmen.

It was pleasant to return to my apartment to relax on the balcony with a glass of wine and listen to the sea before deciding on dinner and planning the next day’s adventure.

A waterway walk

The next day featured my reason for choosing Madeira as a destination in the first place: a levada walk! Levadas, or narrow watercourses, were built to carry water from the higher elevations to the sugarcane fields below. 

Though they were begun in the 15th century, most of the building of these channels was undertaken in the 20th century to supply water for consumption, agriculture and hydroelectric power. 

There are over 1,300 miles of levadas on Madeira, and walkers are allowed to follow many of the paths used by maintenance workers. It is a simple system that takes no man-made energy to move the water to its final destination, providing all of the drinking water for the island at a minimal cost to the users.

MBtravel offered four full-day and three half-day levada walks, ranging from 2½ hours to 5 hours and covering from 7 to 12 kilometers, all rated easy to moderate in difficulty. I chose the Rabaçal full-day walk (36), which began at a chilly and windy high elevation but became warmer and more protected as we descended toward the valley floor. 

This walk was to cover a distance of 9 kilometers and was very popular, judging by the number of people we encountered on the paths. Our guide, Paul, was very knowledgeable, and he identified many of the plants and trees along the way in addition to explaining the levada system to our group of 14. 

We stopped for our picnic lunch at an area called 25 Springs, which consisted of many small waterfalls emptying into a pond and traveling down the mountain via the levadas. 

Rather than having to climb countless steps to return to our van, we were supplied with small flashlights for a walk through an 800-meter-long tunnel. The flashlights were weak, the tunnel was wet, and we were instructed to not touch the walls. The sunlight at the end was a welcome sight! This was not a place for anyone who suffered from claustrophobia.

Moving on

My apartment stay was ending, and it was necessary for me to move to a hotel. I had made arrangements to stay at the Dorisol Florasol Hotel (306 Estrada Monumental, www.dorisol.pt), a 3-star property, for five nights. 

Basket sleds are a major attraction in Monte.

I had requested a room with a sea view and was given keys to check out two rooms. The first room was just above the busy street, which was very noisy. The second room was on the eighth floor and quiet. The rate was 40, including breakfast. 

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this hotel. The room was shabby and needed some serious upgrading, and the lounge chair was soiled and smelled of perspiration. I could see the ocean only if I looked around the corner of the building.

I inquired at the 4-star Hotel Raga (www.hotelraga.com), located next door, about availability. The rate was 49, including breakfast, so I booked it for four nights and informed the Florasol that I would check out in the morning. 

Hotel Raga was comfortable and clean and had good security. My room on the ninth floor had an unobstructed view of the ocean and included a small balcony with chairs and a table. The day manager was most pleasant. I highly recommend this hotel for price, location, amenities and service.

While there are many hotels in the area in all price ranges, I highly recommend an apartment stay as an alternative to hotel living. Being able to cook or heat food up when desired was a huge attraction for me. 

The right apartment is truly a home away from home, and the SeaView Lido Flat became my home for 10 days. (A minimum stay of one week is required.) Because this was such an enjoyable adventure, I’m already thinking about returning to explore more of the island. 

To reach Madeira, I flew TAP Portugal from Newark to Lisbon and on to Funchal, after a brief layover. Flying economy was a pleasure because there was more than adequate legroom, the seats were comfortable, the food was decent, and the flights were on time. With the US dollar’s current strength against the euro, travel to Madeira is a good value. Check it out…  but please leave some time for me to book a stay at the SeaView Lido Flat!