Like many visitors to Madeira, we stayed in Funchal and toured the island from there. The island is 57 km long and 22 km wide, you can go around it all in one day and you will definitely be surprised by the concentration of diversity – steep mountains and cliffs, terraced fields and vineyards, exotic gardens, dark blue Atlantic… The roads are good, but sometimes very narrow. 🙂
And you have to be prepared for the fact that by the time you get around the island, all seasons can take a turn – except for snow. While the south is warmer and drier, Atlantic rain clouds cling to the central mountain range and pour down almost every day. Therefore, the island’s north is colder and wetter, but also much greener.
Several companies offer cars for rent at the airport in Funchal. We also took several trips in a rented car. However, one day, we decided to go on an organized day trip. We took a jeep tour from Funchal to the north coast with our guide Victor. You can find the contacts of both companies in the final part of the article.
First, the road, from the open part often lined with battlements, led through picturesque villages on the south coast, which is more densely populated. In the past, transport between them was possible only by sea, today the houses are built high on the green slopes and there are roads between the houses – albeit narrow ones.
Up to 300 meters above sea level, bananas are grown everywhere around here. Everything is done by hand, old leaves are used as fertilizer. Madeirans have fresh bananas all year round.
Câmara de Lobos
The first stop on our trip was the town of Câmara de Lobos, about 7 km from Funchal, one of the oldest settlements on Madeira. João Gonçalvesa Zarco, considered to be the rediscoverer of Madeira, chose it in 1420 for his residence and supply port.
At that time, entire colonies of seals lived here in the caves = lobos marinos in Portuguese, so the place was named Câmara de Lobos (Chamber of Seals). Today, however, you can only find them in the protected area of Ilhas Desertas.
White houses with red roofs and banana plantations dominate the hillside above the semi-circular bay, framed by lava rocks that stick out into the dark blue sea like black tongues.
Already in the 20th century, noble guests from luxury hotels in Funchal came here on trips. Today, a pedestrian promenade along the coast leads here from the capital. The idyllic scenery had enchanted even Winston Churchill in 1950, so much that he even painted it on canvas! We found Churchill in the position of a painter, of course also with his favourite cigar, on the waterfront, but otherwise you will meet his name on every corner, because many objects here today are named after him.
Câmara de Lobos was originally a fishing village. Even today, many fishermen live here, who go out at night to fish a remarkable fish – the black scabbardfish, Espada in Portuguese. It is a fish that you must try in Madeira! Just as they say – taste first and only then go to the market to see how it looks. Espada lives at a great depth of up to 1500 meters and has a long body – 1.5 m, sharp teeth and big eyes. While it truly looks repulsive, it tastes great on the plate. And to satisfy the appetites of local people and foreign tourists, fishermen from Câmara de Lobos stretch a rope several hundred meters long at night, on which up to 150 hooks are attached! The demand for this fish is enormous, which is proven by the fact that 2-3.5 thousand tons are caught every year!
Câmara de Lobos also hosts the Festa do Peixe Espada Preto festival every year. There were still interesting, cheerful, brightly coloured decorations hanging everywhere – made from old fishing nets, plastic fish boxes, bottle caps, cans and other recyclable materials.
The streets were decorated with various funny portraits of the famous fish. The interesting thing is that it is not even known what colour the Espada really has in those depths. Because only when it is caught, its skin without scales turns black.
Otherwise, there was a calm and lazy atmosphere in the streets here. We arrived early in the morning, the fishermen had already finished their work, so they were sitting in small bars, playing cards or dominoes. Empty boats swayed on the sea. At one of the bars, a large wooden mixing tool hung on the facade, which is used to prepare the special drink poncha. It is said that local fishermen were also responsible for its discovery. When it was cold at sea at night, they warmed up with this warm drink, made from Madeira white rum, honey and lemon juice.
We peeked into the Nossa Senhora de Conceicao (Immaculate Conception) chapel. The original building was probably from the period of the first settlement, but it was completely rebuilt in the 18th century. Fishermen always came here to pray before going out to sea as well as after returning to land. The altar is decorated with gilded wood carvings, but the 17 paintings are just as interesting, depicting not only biblical scenes but also life at sea and scenes from the life of Father Pedro Goncalves Telmo, the patron saint of fishermen.
The next stop was the highest cliff on Madeira, one of the highest in Europe – Cabo Girão – 580 meters above sea level. In 2012, a large viewing terrace was opened which offers not only a fantastic view into the distance but also a steep view down thanks to the glass floor.
The strong sun scorched the view to the left, where the skyline of the capital was looming.
On the other hand, the view on the right side was truly impressive – the dark blue colour of the ocean sharply contrasted with the green of the exotic vegetation and the brown colour of the fields on the very bottom below us. It is hard to imagine how in past, the farmers climbed down to their patch of fertile soil every day and then climbed back up again after work.
Since 2003, the cable car (west of Cabo Girão) Teleférico do Rancho has facilitated access for farmers, although today it serves tourists more.
There is a small fee for entry to the viewing terrace (€2 in 2023), children under 12 are free. Cabo Girão is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Madeira. There are also souvenir shops and a parking lot in the area. It is open every day from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Our jeep tour continued further inland. Several tunnels have been built here which significantly shortened the journey. The longest tunnel (3.1 km) is under the Encumeada Pass. When you leave it, you are already at the north of the island. You will recognize it by the fact that you have arrived in the greenest zone of Madeira. There are forested hills all around, mainly pine and laurel trees. Small estates and horizontal vineyards are scattered on the hillsides.
The São Vicente Valley was one of the most picturesque parts of Madeira for me. It is dominated by a white tower on one of the hills, visible from all sides. It is the Chapel of Our Lady of Fatima (Capelinha de Nossa Senhora de Fatima).
You can read more about visiting this place in a separate article: Wine tasting in São Vicente
When you leave São Vicente you have two options. If you head left, switchbacks and beautiful views of the blue ocean and black rocks will take you to Porto Moniz. Along the way, you have several options for swimming.
It is an amazing place with natural pools formed by volcanic rocks. Seawater rolls into them through rock barriers. The pools offer a bar, changing rooms, a children’s playground, a first aid station and lifeguards and umbrellas and sunbeds are also available for a fee.
The pools are open all year round, in winter from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and in summer from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. There is an entrance fee of €3 (in 2023), children under 3 are free.
However, we had a different programme on our jeep tour, so we turned right. First, we stopped at Calhau de São Jorge, where the river flows into the sea. We breathed in the salty sea air and for a while watched a few people who chose this place for sunbathing and swimming. Then we continued to Santana.
I have to admit that Santana was (thankfully the only) disappointment for me. On all leaflets about Madeira, you will see typical houses with straw roofs reaching down to the ground. I thought that there would be half a village or at least one whole street with such neat houses, perfectly painted in white, red and blue.
Indeed, there used to be almost a hundred such houses (Casas do Colmo) around Santana. In the 16th century, immigrants from northern Portugal found accommodation in them when they were hired here as labourers. The small A-shaped wooden house, built of wood and with a straw roof, was an effective protection against bad weather, but there was not much comfort inside. The space on the ground floor was small, with an external staircase to the upper floor and cooking was done outside… In addition, the roof had to be replaced every few years, which is not a cheap matter these days. People are building more comfortable homes, traditional houses are decreasing. Some have been turned into sheds, straw roofs have been replaced by tin…
The tourist attraction from the leaflets turned out to be just a few houses with nice gardens around the town hall. There is a weaving workshop in one house, a shop in the second, a flower shop in the third and a tourist center (closed on Sundays) in the fourth house. If you want to take a picture near the house, you have to wait until other visitors, who also take selfies here, make room for you…
And so it was better to quickly get into the jeep and continue to our last stop.
Porto da Cruz
When the first sailors landed here, they built a large cross for easier orientation. During the first settlement, a protective harbour was created, named after the cross – Porto da Cruz. Several streams flow into the sea here, sugar cane has been grown on their banks for centuries. It was Henry the Navigator, a great supporter of Portuguese discovery expeditions, who decided to cultivate sugar cane in Madeira. The island had very good conditions for that. In 1500, Madeira was the largest sugar exporter in the world! This sugar, considered to be of high quality and therefore called “white gold”, was even exchanged by Flemish merchants for the works of art of their masters.
In the second half of the 16th century, however, production began to decline, the cane was affected by diseases and at the same time, competition from new production areas intensified. Local sugar factories gradually disappeared. Today, the cane is still grown on 172 hectares (of the island’s total area of 741 km²), but it is used to make first-class rum (Aguardente) and honey.
One of the oldest distilleries is Engenhos do Norte from 1927 in the village of Porto da Cruz. You can recognize it from a distance thanks to the tall chimney.
It is the last factory in Europe where steam engines are still used. However, they only work 3-5 months a year, so unfortunately we could not hear their rhythmic melody during our visit, nor did a sweet smell come out of the chimney. For the rest of the year, the rooms serve as a museum.
We looked at a steam boiler which is fed with wood and the waste of the grinding. The boiler produces steam to power the grinding machines. 1 liter of 50% rum requires 12 kg of cane. Four varieties of cane are used: canica, purple, pinkish-green and yellow.
You can find old scales, copper vessels, oak barrels and other historical objects furthermore.
Additionally, the area has a shop and a special room for tasting various rums and poncha drinks, but also another Madeiran speciality – bolo de mel – a dark brown honey cake made of cane honey.
They provide Masterclass training for Madeira Agricole Rum as well.
Among the award-winning products, they highlight the following brands of Agricultural Rum of Madeira: “BURANCE”, “970 6-year reserve”, “980” and “NORTH”.
More information: Engenhos do Norte
We took a jeep tour to the north coast with the company Discovery Island which offers all types of outdoor activities. The company has trained drivers and vehicles ideal for such tours to the island’s most beautiful and attractive places. Our driver Victor was very polite and not only a good driver but also a guide with excellent knowledge of Madeira.
If you prefer to rent a car, I recommend MadeiraRent. The car was very good and drove reliably. The company has an office at the airport in Funchal. We picked up the car and returned it without any problems directly at the airport.
More information about Madeira: Visit Madeira
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri