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Madeira (Funchal) Overview
In the early 1400's, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal sent his best sailors and cartographers to examine the coast of Africa. The party got blown off course and ended up 310 miles to the west, stranded on the beach of what is now Porto Santos, one of the Madeiran islands. When they returned to Lisbon and told the prince what had happened, he immediately sent them back to colonize the island, which led to the discovery of Madeira, just 25 or so miles away to the southwest.
Much richer in natural resources and natural beauty, the island of Madeira was colonized first, primarily by agrarians from the Algarve district in Portugal; the drier, smaller, sparser Porto Santos wasn't exactly ignored, but did play second fiddle to Madeira. There are two other (uninhabited) islands in the Madeiran archipelago: Ilhas Desertas and Selvagen. But it's Madeira, and the capital city of Funchal, that have flourished in the six centuries since its discovery.
The city of Funchal, named for the huge amounts of fennel (funcho) that grew wild, rises straight up from the sea. The full effect of this extraordinary geography is most evident when sailing out of the city after dark; funneling up from the harbor area to nearly 5,000 feet of mountainous terrain, the lights of the homes and businesses rise straight up as if suspended in air, twinkling aloft in the middle of nowhere. It's a stunning experience -- but that's not to say that the island isn't equally beautiful during the day. Its location on the Gulf Stream gives it ideal year-round weather; flowers, roses and bougainvillea cascade down the mountains in riotous color.
As Madeira is an "autonomous region" of Portugal (self-governing, but established under the Portuguese constitution), its inhabitants are, for all intents and purposes, Portuguese. They speak Portuguese, vote in Portuguese elections and celebrate Portuguese holidays.
Lucky trans-Atlantic voyagers who have Funchal as one of their stops will find cuisine that celebrates the freshest ingredients, a population that is joyous and gracious, activities that run the gamut from vigorous hiking to placid contemplation of nature, and great shopping opportunities for locally made crafts and embroidery.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Positano (Amalfi) • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Messina) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
The official language is Portuguese, but both English and Spanish are widely spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency in Madeira is the euro. ATM's are located throughout the city. Monetary exchange centers (kiosks) are open from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. and from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m., except on Saturday, when they are open from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. Note: You can exchange currency at banks, but there is a minimum 8 euro charge; there is no charge at the kiosks, but the rate is slightly lower.
Most shops, stores and restaurants take credit cards.
Watch Out For
Thirst! Walking the levadas (irrigation ditches-turned-hiking trails) is a time-honored tradition in Madeira, but it can get really hot even in the shoulder seasons of trans-Atlantic itineraries. Take a bottle of water with you; it could be over an hour before you reach a place that has something to drink if you don't.
Embroidery: Madeira is famous for its embroidery; you can get tea towels, bed sheets, bath towels or blouses with the delicate handiwork at almost any tourist shop in town.
Madeira Dessert Wine: This sweet, fortified after-dinner wine is made right here. You can choose from several brands and varieties. It may not be duty-free, but -- for the most part -- it's less expensive than it is at home.
Folk Hats: Our favorite souvenir is the hat that's worn in folkloric displays and dances. It's a round knit or woven toque in bright colors with a flat top and embroidery around the edges. On the top is a tail with a pom-pom. They're cheap and easy to carry, very Madeiran, colorful and fun.
Where You're Docked
The cruise port is right near the center of the city, but the dock is still some distance from the main oceanfront drive. Most cruise lines have shuttles to the center of town. It's walkable at around half a mile away. Cabs are also readily available and are quite reasonably priced ($5 each way, more or less).
There isn't much to do right at the cruise dock, although there are some tourist huts that are open most of the day when a ship is in port. The prices are reasonable for last-minute purchases of the Madeiran hats, embroidered goods, nuts and candy.
Taxis are plentiful in Funchal and rates are government regulated. You will see yellow taxis with two blue stripes at the pier and in town. Drop rates start between 1.30 and 2 euros (depending on the day and time) with an approximate rate of .50 euros per mile. This rate is good for up to four people.
Buses are also plentiful, reasonably priced and easy to take in both the city itself and to the nearby communities outside of Funchal. A one-way ticket costs between 1.30 and 6 euros, depending on the length of the journey (the bus conductor will tell you what you owe when you tell him your destination). For 15 euros you can purchase a week-long pass (at the tourist office); although you won't be staying a week, you can use the bus for the day as your personally chauffeured vehicle to go on any route you choose. Schedules and routes can be found at the tourist information kiosk in the city.
Car rentals are available through most major rental firms, but there's a caveat: Funchal now has a population of nearly 110,000 people on streets that are largely unchanged from the city's medieval beginnings. Unless you want a car to visit other parts of the island, don't frustrate yourself by trying to drive in Funchal.
Levada Walking: When the slaves were imported into Madeira in the 15th and 16th centuries, they set to work developing the unique and enormous network of irrigation ditches all over the island, built to bring water from the highest points to the lowest. Modern technology has changed the face of irrigation so these ditches are no longer used for their original purpose, but they have been preserved as hiking trails. Levada maps are available at the tourist office kiosk in town. You can take the cable car up the mountain and hike the levadas back town if you prefer a less vigorous workout.
Cable Car to the Monte: This modern cable car brings you up to Monte; it is a 15-minute ride with an approximate 1,800-foot incline. The trip takes you up and over the old town of Funchal and the Ribeira de Joao Gomes valley, and deposits you in the charming town of Monte, featuring gorgeous views over the south coast of Madeira. Open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily; cost is approximately 9 euros one way (at Almirante Reis Park in Old Town).
Toboggan the Monte: In 1850, some enterprising folks decided to create toboggans made out of wicker to bring people down to Funchal from Monte, high in the mountains. The tradition holds today; the two-person wicker "sledges" are "driven" down the streets of the mountain by two men in traditional white garb. The rubber soles of their boots act as breaks, and it's a good thing, too: The sledges achieve speeds of nearly 20 miles per hour as they twist along the pavement from the top to the bottom. Cost is approximately 10 euros per person (bottom of stairs at Nossa Senhora do Monte Church; 291-783-919).
Tea at Reid's Palace: Reid's Palace (291-717-171), a 115-year-old sprawling pink marvel located at the edge of town, is one of the great historic hotels of the world. Situated on 10 acres of lush cliffside, the hotel offers a very British high tea in the afternoons. Settle onto the terrace in one of the wicker armchairs and gaze down upon your cruise ship as you sip proper English tea, delicately bite into crustless sandwiches, and take little bites of Madeira cake. Actually, it's not at all stuffy; in fact, this is a great outing for the entire family.
Mercado dos Lavradores: The Old Town "Worker's Market" in Funchal is open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. during weekdays and on Saturday until 2 p.m.; it is a real bird's-eye view into the life of the typical Madeiran. Comprising a fish market (make sure to get a look at the local fish, espada: long, black and really ugly), a craft market and a flower market, you'll find plenty to take with you.
Been There, Done That
Ferry to Porto Santos: Since the volcanic island of Madeira has no beaches and the smaller island of Porto Santo has golden sands and warm water, a ride on the new ferry (Madeiran Pride) is an option for a nice day trip.
Note: The ferry leaves Funchal at 8 a.m. and returns at around 2:30 p.m. so you need to verify that it suits your ship's arrival and departure schedule. Cost per adult is about 60 euros roundtrip.
Madeira Wine Lodge: Choose from among several producers of Madeira wine, sister to Port, which is produced in mainland Portugal. Madeira, a dessert wine fortified with brandy, is grown from six varieties of grape that flourish on the island. Some of the lodges that offer tastings are H.M. Borges (Rua 31 de Janeiro 83, 291-223-247), Pereira D'Oliveira (Rua dos Ferreiros 107, 291-220-784), and Vinhos Barbeito (Estrada Monumental 145 -- right next to Reid's Palace, 291-762-434).
Gallion Santa Maria: Set sail around the island on this contemporary reproduction of Columbus' famous ship, complete with crew. Leaving from the Funchal Marina twice daily, the 100-passenger boat has covered areas and lavatories, and serves Madeira wine and honey cake; its crew will spot and point out any whales and dolphins that take the same route that day (291-220-327 or 291-225-695).
The first thing you need to know about dining in Funchal -- or all of Madeira, actually -- is that everything is made with garlic. Garlic is as ubiquitous as salt and is used with as much abandon. Okay, desserts are garlic-free but that's about it.
There are three "typical" dishes in Madeira that are fabulous; if you can try at least one of them during your visit, you'll be grateful: Tomato and onion soup is hearty, delicious, garlicky and to be eaten with hunks of artisan bread; espada, a long, black, really ugly, but unbelievably delicious fish native to the deep waters off the islands; and espetada, (definitely not to be confused with espada), which is hunks of marinated beef (with, yes, lots of garlic) grilled on a bay twig skewer. Other local specialties include rabbit, kid (young goat) stew and fish stew.
At the harbor: There are many boats around the harbor that have been turned into floating restaurants, but the Vagrant (Harbor, Funchal, 291-223-572) is the most well-known because at one time it belonged to the Beatles. It doesn't play on that connection very much, but the seafood is good and hearty. Open from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day.
Local eats: Jaquet (Rua de Santa Maria 5, 291-225-344), located near the open market, is a simple restaurant serving simple (and garlic-laden) fare. Prices are reasonable and the food is all fresh -- grilled tuna, steaks, fish stews, shrimp in garlic sauce. It's a perfect place to stop during your walk around the market. Open for lunch and dinner.
Luxe lunch: As authentic as Jaquet but more upscale, O Ceilero (Rua dos Aranhas 22, 291-230-0622) serves large portions of local specialties, including swordfish cooked with banana and peppercorn steak. Try the daily fish stew, made with fresh catches delivered that morning. Open Monday - Saturday, 12 a.m. until 3 p.m., and 6 until 11 p.m.
Scenic Madeira: This trip includes stops at scenic points in the mountains and at the seaside town of Machico. It also includes a stop for some wine-tasting at one of the wine lodges on the island. Approximately four hours.
Funchal Adventure: Climb the mountains on rough roads, visiting places that are inaccessible to others. Lunch is a barbecue picnic, featuring espetada (grilled meat on a skewer) which you can help cook. The trip includes a visit to the trout hatchery on the Ribeira Frio and a stop in Santana, a charming village with thatch-roof houses. Approximately seven hours.
Spirit of Madeira: A full day of sightseeing throughout the island, including lunch at a local restaurant. Visit Camacha, a town known for its wickerworks; the town of Monte; and the toboggan ride down to Funchal. About 7.5 hours.
Staying in Touch
Global Net Cafe (Rua do Hospital Velho 25, Funchal, 291-280-671) is open Monday through Saturdays, and closed Sundays.
For More Information
On the Web: Madeira Tourism Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
Independent Traveler: Europe
--by San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.
--Photos are courtesy of Madeira Tourism Board.