Madeira (Funchal) (Photo:saiko3p/Shutterstock)
5.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Jana Jones
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Madeira (Funchal)

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.

About Madeira (Funchal)


Pro

Madeira is a picturesque locale with excellent food, plentiful activities and friendly locals

Con

It can get hot in Madeira, and facilities offering refreshments along popular hiking trails are sometimes sparse

Bottom Line

Though nature is the top draw, Madeira is a well-rounded port offering something for everyone


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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.

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).

Good to Know

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.

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.

Language

The official language is Portuguese, but both English and Spanish are widely spoken.

Shopping

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.