One of the things that will strike you on arrival in Madeira Island is how hilly it is. The landscape is nothing short of spectacular with all the deep valleys, high mountains, steep sea cliffs and winding roads. So wherever you go on this jewel of an island, you will surely find amazing views at every bend. Some have been set up so you can stop and marvel in a leisurely way, with benches and tables and flowers all around. These are the iconic miradouros, or belvederes in English. Here is a list of two handfuls of the ones that you absolutely cannot miss, knowing you will pass dozens more on the way!
Leaving town towards the East on the old airport road you will come to a corner nestled against the red lava rock decorated with colorful aloes and bougainvilleas. Here you can see the whole of the bay of Funchal sprawling up the hills to your right and the blue ocean so many ships have crossed to get to our bustling port. On the surrounding rocks you will see plants hanging onto the cliff for dear life, like the opuntia cactus which gives us tabaibos (prickly pears) and the endemic golden beauty, Muschia aurea (which colors the rocks with its yellow bells in the Spring and Summer).
Just a few minutes further East by car you will find the Miradouro do Garajau. It was called Garajau because that is the common name of a seabird very common in the area (Sterna hirundo – common tern). Here you will find ample parking, a café with a view, a garden with lots of succulents and a cable car to take you down to the pebble beach. The area is one of the most important marine reserves on the island and was created in 1986 to protect the sealife. The waters are incredibly clear and if you scuba dive to about twenty meters deep you will be met by friendly giant meros (Epinephelus marginatus, dusky grouper) who are more than accustomed to the many divers that flock here from all over the world.
Towards the sea you will see a feature that will remind you of a very famous sculpture on the other side of the pond, more specifically, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Yes, it is a replica, albeit of smaller size (42 feet tall), of Christ the Redeemer on the Corcovado (125 feet tall). You would think the madeiran one was built after the one in Brazil but actually it is considered the oldest Cristo Rei to be built, having been inaugurated in 1927, while the south american one was inaugurated 4 years later.
If you go beyond the statue you will find a narrow path that takes you even further towards the edge of the cliff where you will feel you are flying towards the horizon. To your right sits the bay of Funchal and to your left the south east coast of the island all the way to Ponta de São Lourenço.
That’s the direction we take next: past the airport, and the valley of Machico, through the fishing village of Caniçal, keep going east. Just after you pass the sign that says Prainha, one of Madeira Islands black sandy beaches, you will get to a roundabout where you can get off the main road and go up a narrow tarmac road that leads to a landscape that is quite lunar in character. After the lush vegetation of the rest of the island, this area will surprise you as it is so arid. It is a paradise for geologists and paleobiologists. Take a stroll along the paths at the top and have your mind blown by the incredible rock formations, the wild dance of the northern waves against the coast and the amazing views along both sides of the island. If you have the energy, take the car to the end of the main road and do the hike to Casa do Sardinha, you will not regret it!
So far we have stayed quite close to the sea, so now it is time to brave the mountains. The signs you should look for are for Ribeiro Frio, a place nestled in a valley at about 2800 feet altitude where you will find a trout farm and a delightful levada (narrow man made water canal used to take water from the mountains in Madeira to the agricultural fields further down and mostly on the south coast. The levada could take you to Portela (which has another great belvedere) or to Balcões. Take the latter. It is a short walk to get to an eagles nest of a belvedere with astounding views of the mountains and the whole valley down to the sea to the Penha d’Águia in Porto da Cruz. On the flat pathe that can be done in under half an hour you will be graced with the lushness of the flora of Madeira Island as you pass beneath laurel trees (Laurus novocanariensis), Madeira blueberry (Vaccinium padifolium), Madeira mahogany (Persea indica), and maybe even wild Madeira orchids (Dactylorhiza foliosa) in flower. The fauna is no less exclusive as you will have your attention tested to catch sight of the tiny Bisbis, the madeira firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus maderensis) which is the smallest bird in the Madeira laurissilva forest, fearless cheeky crumb seeking chaffinches (Frigilla coelebs maderensis), majestic buzzards (Buteo buteo harteti), hovering kestrels (Falco tinnunculus canariensis) or the Madeira long-toed pigeon (Columba trocaz).
Ninho da Manta
Continuing our climb we get to the third highest peak on Madeira Island and the fifth highest in the whole of Portugal, Pico do Arieiro, at an altitude of 5964 feet. As you can imagine, the views from up here are phenomenal and very often with the bonus of the clouds being below you, so you can dream of diving into cotton candy! For those with strong knees, powerful calves and good lungs, it is worth hiking along the path to the Ninho da Manta (Buzzard’s Nest) look out. It is mostly downhill on the way there, but the return climb is to be done at a photographer’s rhythm: with lots of pause to take in the magnificence of the views! On the way you have different perspectives of two beautiful valleys: to the south, Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley) and to the north, Fajã da Nogueira, a pristine forest of green that will make you feel you are in a scene from Jurassic Park!
Bica da Cana
If we could fly it would be a short trip to our next belvedere at Bica da Cana. This is at the top of a hill on the only plateau we have in Madeira Island, the Paúl da Serra. It is a surprising place, in contrast with the rest of the island and at a certain point the government even considered building the airport here. They changed their mind rapidly as it is possibly one of the windiest areas on Madeira because it lacks the protective mountains that save us from the oceanic winds. Thus, you will pass an expanse with a wind farm that harnesses the power of nature to make renewable energy. Take a picnic to Bica da Cana to recover from the climb and to fully enjoy the view at leisure. You will want to linger as you look up to the central mountain range and maybe see the clouds below dance at the foot of the peaks. On a clear day, you can see all the way down the valley of São Vicente, with the Laurissilva forest merging into vines that yield the grapes that make the wine you will want to be toasting with in the evening.
Miradouro do Fio (Casa de Chá da Ponta do Pargo)
As we visited the eastern tip of the island it is obvious we will also visit the westernmost tip as well. At Ponta do Pargo you will find the lighthouse that has been keeping ships safe from the rocks below since 1922. It is 42 feet tall and sits at almost 900 feet altitude. From below the lighthouse you can see all along the north and south side of the island. Walk the path that goes along the southern face of the tip and you will have the belvedere next to a tea house where you can marvel at the vertigo resistant farmers who built the containing wall for their agricultural fields at the bottom of the cliff. If you go along the north face of the tip, search for signs saying Garganta Funda (literally, Deep Throat!), an impressive waterfall in a deep gorge.
Jardim do Mar
Hopping back into the car, make your way along the south coast, where you will want to stop several times along the way to bask in the lovely sunshine. One of our favourite spots is Jardim do Mar, a little village that lives true to its name: Garden of the Sea.
From the miradouro at the entrance you will see the turquoise blue sea and the coastline towards the east. Any time of year you come here you will find flowers of bright colours, either overflowing from private gardens or in the public gardens and pathways. This spot has been favoured by surfers for many years and the vibe of the whole place is really laid back. Have a cool beer right next to the fishing boat ramp and gasp at the antics of the youngsters who use the ramp as a slide, slipping down the slippery algae covered surface and then splashing into the sea. It is a lovely spot for a swim, with crystal clear waters, ladder or steps to get in and out, a solarium and even a fresh water shower.
On the return trip to Funchal you will see many signs for this very famous viewpoint. It is the highest sea cliff in Europe (1903 feet above sea level) and even has a glass floor so as to make the experience thrillingly unforgettable. People watching is also a fun pastime here, as the reactions to the sheer verticality and distance from up here down to the fields and beaches down below are sometimes quite hilarious to watch. There is a story related to the name of this place: Girão comes from girar, which means to turn, because early discoverers thought the island ended at this cape, so they would turn round and go back!
If you time it right we have the perfect suggestion for sunset: the Miradouro ar Nazaré has a gorgeous view of the whole of the bay of Funchal, with the busy harbour and the trees aglow. At golden hour you can watch the light gradually moving across the amphitheater shaped city, making the terracotta roofs even warmer and the green shuttered windows sparkle as they reflect the setting sun.
Another lovely day in the pearl of the Atlantic. Enjoy the views!