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Why Madeira Is a Fantastic Long Getaway for Nature (and Food) Lovers

You don’t have to travel far to slow down and savor the scenic beauty and delicious cuisine of this lush Portuguese archipelago.

Why Madeira Is a Fantastic Long Getaway for Nature (and Food) Lovers

Madeira’s lush coastline

Photo by Henrique Seruca

Filled with thrilling outdoor experiences, including canyoning (which can involve sliding and jumping down waterfalls) and dolphin-spotting tours, Madeira sets itself apart as one of the ultimate places to connect with nature on a slow travel adventure. It’s easy to get there from the U.S. and once you do, you can take your time wandering this dreamy, mountainous paradise. On sea and land, the islands offer a wide array of activities and experiences for all sorts of travelers, whether you’re seeking a soul-stirring wildlife encounter, an adrenaline-pumping hike, or a relaxing day sailing on the water.

With all that activity, you’re bound to get hungry. Madeira’s vibrant food and wine scene thrives thanks to the islands’ subtropical climate, volcanic soils, and seafood-rich waters. After a day of exploring rock formations on the São Lourenço’s peninsula or a morning scuba diving along the coast, travelers can relax and fill up on fresh local dishes, such as limpets (a marine mollusk), bolo do caco (homemade garlic bread), and passion fruit pudding, before checking into hotels that celebrate the outdoors. Here, the best ways to discover Madeira’s rare beauty, as well as the restaurants and hotels that you can’t miss along the way.

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Ribeira da Janela

Photo by Jackson Groves

See Madeira from the inside out

For an adrenaline-fueled way to explore Madeira’s abundant streams and mountainous terrain, try your hand at canyoning. The island’s rugged interior is ideal for climbing, jumping, rappelling, and swimming.

During the summer, the streams on the north side of the island tend to be more appealing, since their currents are stronger, while the reverse is true in the winter. No matter your skill level, you’re sure to uncover a trail for you: Ribeiro Frio, one of the easier routes within the Laurisilva Forest, offers a rewarding chain of waterfalls at the end, while Ribeira da Hortelã involves 300 meters of steep climbing and jumping over large lagoons to reach one of the most stunning spots on the island. (Pro tip: the view is worth it.)

Where to fuel up? Specializing in a blend of hearty Madeira gastronomy and international cuisine, Quinta do Furãouses organic products to make traditional dishes, including their famous sweet potato bread, which people from all over the island come to buy.

Discover an underwater world

Home to the oldest Marine Reserves in Portugal, Madeira boasts some of the best diving and snorkeling sites in all of Europe with clear waters, excellent visibility, and diverse sea life a short distance from the coast or even just off the beach in places like Galo, Reis Magos, and Caniçal. At Madeira’s popular Garajau Natural Reserve, be on the lookout for manta rays, barracudas, giant anemones, moray eels, and the area’s famous giant groupers. “Domesticated” by divers since the 1980s, these friendly fish often approach for a quick hello.

Wrap up with a visit to Fajã dos Padres, a casual but beautiful restaurant situated on the water that’s only accessible via cable car or boat. Here, you can try the limpets, a type of aquatic snail that’s only found on volcanic islands and a regional delicacy in Madeira.

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Madeira’s interior forest

Photo by Henrique Seruca

Explore an ancient forest

In Madeira, a hike isn’t just a hike—follow the island’s 1,200-plus miles of trails, from sea level to more than 6,000 feet, and you can better understand the region’s wild heart. For an immersive look, wander along Madeira’s historic irrigation canals known as levadas that were built to bring water from the north slopes to the south side of the island.

Many of these paths take you directly through the Laurisilva forest, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site that dates to the Tertiary Period, packed with natural treasures like the Madeira Orchid and the very rare Madeira laurel pigeon. Take your pick of the area’s most wondrous routes, including Vereda dos Balcões, a short walk with superb views over the island’s highest peaks, Vereda das 25 Fontes and Levada do Risco, both of which end at a dramatic waterfall, and of course, Pico do Arieiro, a must-see spot for watching the sunrise.

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Pico do Arieiro

Photo by Jackson Groves

Later, it’s worth stopping by Quinta do Barbusano for its wines alone. But the vineyard also cooks up savory traditional dishes, including Espetada, a local specialty of beef which is slowly cooked on large skewers made of bay laurel wood.

Set sail

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Dolphin-watching by catamaran along Madeira’s coast

Photo by VIP Dolphins

Surrounded by a plethora of pelagic marine life, a boat ride along Madeira’s coast on a catamaran yacht provides the rare opportunity to get up close to the archipelago’s sea turtles and 28 species of dolphins and whales. Venture a bit further on a trip to the Desertas islands, and you’ll encounter the last Atlantic refuge of the Mediterranean monk seal. While on the water, enjoy some swimming or paddle boarding and soak up the magical views of Madeira’s gems, including rock formations and Cabo Girão, the second-highest sea cliff in the world. For an intimate experience, book a sunrise or sunset private sailing charter and see the shoreline like a local.

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A private sailing charter like this one offered by Happy Hour Madeira among the most dreamy ways to experience the rugged coast

Photo by Happy Hour Madeira

After a luxurious day out on the ocean, return to the Funchal Marina and head over to Belmond Reid’s Palace for dinner at William Restaurant, where a Michelin-starred menu celebrates the islands’ finest produce and seafood. Admire panoramic views of the Funchal coastline while eating your way through a seasonal set menu of specialties like local fish stew with saffron and cider emulsion and cauliflower cream soup with smoked eel and almonds.

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Michelin-starred dining with a view is one of many pleasures at the hotel Belmond Reid Palace.

Properties where you can savor Madeira’s beauty

Can’t decide where to stay? At these three properties, Madeira’s natural wonders are on full display.

Les Suites at The Cliff Bay

Travelers looking to spend as much time on the water as possible can’t do much better than these 23 modern, stylish suites adjoining The Cliff Bay, a hotel located high on a bluff with direct access to the sea. Wander gardens decorated with ancient palm trees, admire your room’s magnificent view over the Bay of Funchal, and dig into Iberian cooking at the sustainable Il Gallo d’Oro restaurant that has two Michelin stars.

Quinta Do Furão

Geared toward nature fans, Quinta Do Furão provides a cozy, traditional retreat surrounded by vineyards, a variety of the island’s endemic plants, and the natural reserve of Rocha do Navio. Visit the little town of Santana, known for its colorful thatched-roof houses, indulge in famous Madeira wine, and find peace in the rural part of the island’s northeast coast.

Casas da Levada

Get up close and personal with Madeira’s wild side at this B&B farmstead in sunny Ponta do Pargo that lies on the western side of the island and at the edge of the Laurissilva forest. Made up of six individual country houses that have been beautifully renovated, guests can fully immerse themselves in the outdoors without losing everyday comforts. Take a dip in the infinity pool, stroll the grounds including an organic garden and farm, and enjoy a drink at the underground (literally) Hobbit Bar.

Explore more of Madeira’s delightful accommodations here.

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