Exploring Madeira, the Atlantic island known as 'the Hawaii of Europe'

Madeira was dubbed ‘God’s waiting room’ due to its elderly tourists… now a younger crowd is discovering the glories of ‘the Hawaii of Europe’

  • Harriet Sime travels to the Portuguese island for a long weekend 
  • She stays in an apartment in the capital, Funchal, for under £150 a night 
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Madeira has long attracted a certain type of British tourist. Its kindly climate, tropical gardens, sweet wine and old-school charm combine to make it popular with an older crowd on package deals.

The Portuguese island was, for a time, even referred to as ‘God’s waiting room’.

But Madeira is shaking off its sleepy status. Love them or loathe them, influencers are creating social media videos with titles such as ‘the Hawaii of Europe’ which showcase the island’s dramatic scenery and black-sand beaches – and young, trendy couples are now arriving in their droves.

I’m here for a long weekend with my husband, Dan. We’re staying in the red-roofed capital, Funchal, in an apartment at the centre of Old Town. It’s part of a collection of chic, self-catering properties called Funchal Cottages which overlook the shimmering, deep-blue ocean.

Ours, Pool Cottage, does indeed have a pool which is surrounded by swaying banana palms. Inside it’s all creamy lemon walls, wicker, rattan and linen. And, at under £150 a night, it’s an absolute steal.

During a long weekend in Madeira, Harriet Sime explores the village of Camara de Lobos (pictured), which sits by the Atlantic

Harriet notes that influencers are creating social media videos that brand Madeira as ‘the Hawaii of Europe’. Above is the island’s stunning coast 

Situated 550 miles west of Morocco, this tiny volcanic speck in the Atlantic was occupied by the Portuguese in 1420 and has remained at peace for more than 600 years. Thanks to its diminutive size (roughly 30 miles by 14), you can drive to any point in an hour. These rides are astonishingly beautiful, taking us under thundering waterfalls, up cloud-capped mountains which stand 6,000ft tall, and whizzing us past immense ravines which drop into the crashing sea.

We head from the airport to Camara de Lobos, a village where old men sit around playing cards, tanned children dive fearlessly off the harbour walls, and fishermen unload their catch.

It’s a joy to be in the ocean just an hour after the wheels of our plane have touched down, swimming between the brightly coloured bobbing boats and using the ladders built into the rocks to climb out before diving back in a few seconds later.

Harriet stays in Funchal, Madeira’s capital, in a self-catering apartment called Pool Cottage (pictured) 

Harriet (not pictured) says that at under £150 a night, Pool Cottage (above) is an ‘absolute steal’

Fulfilling your five-a-day directive is easy here. We taste the tangiest tomatoes, the creamiest sweet potato and the freshest mango that leaves juice running down our wrists and off our chins.

The local produce is best experienced at Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers’ Market) in the centre of Funchal, where vibrant fruit of every colour is displayed in wicker baskets and flowers overflow from buckets. Beware of the prices though, as six bananas cost us £6.50. But, frankly, I would have paid double – my stumpy, rounded banana was incredibly sweet and probably the best piece of fruit I’ve ever tasted.

We follow our noses to a fish market and watch as huge chunks of tuna are sliced, limpets are stuffed into bags and scabbard fish – an almost alarmingly ugly creature that’s caught at a depth of about 4,000ft – are scrubbed. Legend has it no one has seen this deep-sea delicacy alive as, when they’re brought to the surface, the decompression finishes them off, turning their scales black and forcing their eyes out of the sockets.

The best local produce is found at the Mercado dos Lavradores, pictured above, in the centre of Funchal, discovers Harriet 

Harriet dines at Kampo restaurant where she watches ‘young chefs prepare oxtail ravioli and black rice with octopus’. Above is one of the restaurant’s dishes

Not put off by this, later that day at Quinta do Furao, a restaurant and hotel set among vineyards on a cliff-edge, Dan orders scabbard with fried banana – a local delicacy.

‘We’re seeing a much younger, more adventurous crowd visiting,’ the sales manager tells me as we walk between the hotel’s vines. ‘Madeira is becoming incredibly popular on social media and that has transferred into bookings. We get lots of requests for rooms overlooking the pool, rather than the ocean, so people can take pictures for their Instagram accounts.’

To cater to this demand, the island has seen an influx of hip new bars and hotels. At Kampo restaurant, we sit at its marble bar and watch the young chefs prepare oxtail ravioli and black rice with octopus while soft electro-funk music plays.

At Avista Restaurant the following evening, we sip on cocktails and watch the sun dip into the ocean through the floor-to-ceiling windows as the sky scorches orange and pink. Sedate and stuffy? Not a bit. I feel as if I could be in Santorini or Ibiza.

But there are lots of old favourites to admire on the island too – especially its superb gardens. Don’t miss the Madeira Botanical Garden, with its orchids and exotic trees, or the tropical foliage at Monte Palace and the roses and camellias of the Palheiro Gardens.

‘Don’t miss the Madeira Botanical Garden (above), with its orchids and exotic trees,’ writes Harriet  

My final morning is spent swimming at Toco beach. En route I pass colourful homes with ornate balconies and gardens crammed with sunflowers, blazing birds of paradise and wonderfully scented mimosas.

I’m the only one here, apart from two farmers who live in wooden huts with corrugated roofs which cling to the cliff.

An hour later, my hair still wet and salty from my swim, we’re at the airport. ‘Three days?’ the policeman at passport control asks. ‘You need to come back for longer.’

‘Oh, we will,’ Dan replies, while he looks with a dreamy eye at houses for sale in Madeira on his phone.


Self-catering accommodation at Funchal Cottages from £147 a night (funchalcottages.co.uk). Gatwick to Funchal returns from £65.98 (easyjet.com). More information on visitmadeira.com.

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