Episode 210 – Madeira, But (Almost) No Madeira


February 28, 2022. 63°F/17°C

Naturally, being me, my first thought was “Madeira wine!” But then, who knows when we’ll ever be here again, so I signed us up for two tours, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, and neither of them wine-tasting.

Dawn breaking in Funchal’s harbour.

We docked before sunrise. As it turned light, we could see that the port was quite busy. Beside us was the huge AIDAnova (from a German cruise line founded in the 1960’s that sails under the Italian flag, and has been operated since 2003 as a subsidiary of Carnival). Just in front of that was Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. Later in the day we were able to get a photo that showed the relative size of the Viking Star to those other ships. Now you know why they call this “small ship” cruising – and why we feel the motion of the seas more than the big ships.

Don’t we look small?

Our morning tour was the included 3 hour “picturesque Madeira”, which took us by bus into the coastal hills around Funchal. Funchal itself is situated in a kind of amphitheatre-shaped depression surrounded by hills, which creates beautiful green vistas on 3 sides, with the brilliant blue ocean on the fourth.

We began by driving through stunningly gorgeous landscapes, and red-tile-roofed houses, all on steeply terraced hillsides, up to Cabo Girão. Every available space here is planted, either with bananas and sweet potatoes for export, old grape vines, or personal gardens.

Bottom right: the roadside barrier on the winding mountain roads.
Top left: vineyards. Top right: terraced greenhouses.
Bottom: bananas within 1 month of harvesting.

Bananas are the largest export crop. Each plant has a life cycle of 11-12 months, during which it will produce a single bunch of up to 100 bananas. During the final month of ripening, the bunch is protected from insects inside a blue plastic“sleeve”. Once the bananas are harvested, the plant is cut down to allow new shoots to sprout, and the cycle begins again.

Trimming grasses on these terraced would be almost impossible. The mystery was solved when we saw tethered sheep doing the trimming.

Cabo Girão is the world’s second highest sea cliff (Europe’s highest), where we stepped onto the glass-floored skywalk 580 meters (1903 feet) above sea level! Yes, Barbie, I really did! Standing on the glass, and even on the open grid surrounding it, felt almost safer than the bus ride up. There’s something really unsettling about being seated high up in a coach, looking down at what seems like an entirely too short retaining wall (I’m sure it would feel tall enough in a car).

That’s me in the corner bottom right, with NOTHING but the view below.

Speaking of cars, the houses here are so steeply built into the hillside that cars are often parked on the ROOF, which is at road level, with 3 floors of housing all overlooking the hill.

The breathtaking view looking down from Cabo Girão.

The island is irrigated using levadas, dry manmade canals and aqueducts created by hand beginning in the 16th century to bring water from high elevations and the rainier parts of the island to everywhere else, using “gates” that can be opened and closed to regulate the flow. The technology was Moorish, and many Moors were involved in building the levadas. The network has also created a popular tourist activity: hiking along the more than 2,170 km/1,350 miles of levadas.

On the way back down, we drove into the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos (“Seawolves Lair”), which was a favourite holiday spot of Winston Churchill, who regularly painted pictures of the fishing boats on his vacations here. The hotel where he stayed (the arrow below) now bears his name, and houses a restaurant and grill as well.

Since no excursion seems to be complete without food or drink, we stopped at a local bar to sample poncha, a local specialty made of white sugar cane rum, honey, and lemon juice in a 3:1:1 ratio. It must be really strong rum, because the poncha packed quite a punch! It was accompanied by lupin beans marinated in garlic and fennel, served on the table the way peanuts would be in a North America bar.

Having now had our adrenaline rush and the antidote, we had a short stop in Funchal itself to browse and marvel at the architecture, where Portuguese tiles decorate many of the buildings.

Top to bottom: the Bank of Portugal building, statue of the island’s discoverer, stores with Portuguese tiles on their outer walls, a cobblestone side street, and an African tulip tree (one of many on the main street)

The streets themselves are also lovely to look at, many paved in cobblestone and bordered with wide pedestrian walkways patterned in native basalt and imported limestone.

We were warned to stay on the black (basalt) if it rains, since the limestone gets slippery.

We were able to visit the Funchal Cathedral, below, with its ornate ceiling made of indigenous cedar.

We then made a very brief stop back at the ship, grabbed lunch, and headed right back out on our second tour, which took us back into Funchal to visit the market and fish market. Again, beautiful tiles decorated the walls. Some of the most amazing stalls in the market were those selling flowers: orchids, lilies, freesia, birds of paradise, and huge pink protea (South Africa’s national flower) – all of which grow here in Madeira.

Note the beautiful tile work at the market’s entrance (left) and staircase (right)

One of the most common fish here is the Espada, or black scabbard fish. Our tour guide suggested trying it before seeing it, since it is a particularly ugly fish. It lives at depths of 180 to 1700 metres. Madeiran fishermen do not have to go far from shore to catch it, since the island drops off steeply into the ocean.

Nothing about the espada’s appearance makes you want to eat it!

One of the streets in the old town that had been falling into disrepair has been converted into a trendy alley of coffee shops and restaurants, with the ground floor doors given new life with paintings by artists from all over the world.

We walked directly to the cable car station to board one of the city’s cable cars for the 15 minute ride to Monte, at an elevation of 466 metres/1529 ft. A fellow passenger mentioned that the cars were exactly like the ones in Telluride Colorado, except that these in Funchal were made in Austria. Our destination, right beside the cable car stop at the top, was Monte Palace Tropical Garden, a 17 acre botanical garden showcasing exotic plants from all over the world. It seemed only fitting to visit a garden, since Madeira is known as the “Garden Island”.

More red tiled roofs and rooftop patios were visible from the cable car.

The gardens also boast a lake, waterfall, pagoda, and dozens of wonderful sculptures. The walkways are bordered with pieces of 15th and 16th century Hispanic-Moorish tiles and a series of 19th & 20th century Portuguese tile panels depicting Portugal’s history.

Top: my very own Japanese camera warrior.
The first plant of note to which we were introduced was a 2300 year old olive tree. Yes, planted in 300 BC! And yet, it is not the oldest olive tree in the world – those are in Lebanon.

We did NOT take the wicker basket option back down the mountain, although we watched a few hardy souls who did. This method of transport was originally used to get heavy loads, like wood, down the steep mountainside before the advent of cars and trucks, but is now mostly a tourist attraction. Two or three people sit in the basket, which is “steered” by two white clad men perched on either side; those men use their thickly-soled rubber boots as “brakes” if the basket goes too fast. Yikes.

Before returning to our ship, a few of us were dropped off in downtown Funchal again, specifically in order to visit the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which is a single nave church that boasts gorgeous tiles, carvings, and frescoes. We arrived during afternoon mass, so were able to peek in from the open doors, but not enter to take interior photos.

On the short walk from the church to the dock, Ted managed to photograph me in front of the waterfront Madeira sign. It’s amazing that these colourful city signs have caught on all over the world.

Absolutely everyone on both of our tours agreed that Madeira was stunning; we weren’t the only ones to voice a desire to winter here in the future. In the capital city of Funchal, rents are reasonable (certainly by urban Canadian standards), English is fairly widely spoken and included on signs, and the streets are clean and safe.

Although we didn’t walk far (I only just reached my 10,000 step goal), we did a LOT of stairs and hills today, and felt really ready for dinner, which featured a number of Portuguese specialties, and Portuguese wine.

Top L to R: Appetizers. Bacalao fritters (cod, fritters with black olive & tomato relish) & Caldo Verde (traditional Portuguese kale, potato and sausage soup) Bottom L to R: Mains. Camarão com piri-piri (grilled shrimp with Portuguese piri-piri sauce, chorizo and tomato rice, corn & broccoli) & Bife á Portuguesa (flat iron steak)
We ordered all three desserts and shared them: Pastéis de Nata (Portuguese custard tart), Arroz Doce (rice pudding with lemon and cinnamon), & Pudim Classico de Pão (raisin and Madeira wine bread pudding, with banana gelato)

After dinner, we enjoyed Assistant Cruise Director Sarah-Leanne Howe’s one-woman show featuring show tunes.

We go ANOTHER hour forward tonight. Fortunately, tomorrow is a travel day to Spain so we can sleep in.


  1. Rose, I personally think it a shame that you returned to the ship to have lunch. I know Viking food is great but this was a chance to save time & sample the local cuisine – especially the black scabbard fish. I would love to spend a winter here – maybe some year!


  2. This is a private reply for Rose.  My husband and I were in Madeira in 2002.  We were living in England at the time and flew into Funchal.  Did you have a chance to cruise by the airport runway or see it when you were up the hill?  It is directly off the ocean (at least it was back then) and flying in and departing was a lot of fun!  Did the port talk mention the embroidery that is done in Madeira?  When we went, all we had heard about was the wine and the embroidery.  We did to a tasting and I loved looking at all the embroidery, it was so beautiful.  I purchased a small table runner for myself and also for each of my three daughters.  Also, did you see poinsettias?  The small hotel we were at had huge poinsettias outside, and there were many all over.  They were more like bushes than the small plants we have at Christmas.  We hired a car and drove all over the island.  Many times we had to stop and turn the wing mirrors in so that we could get by another car.  The roads look like they are still the same. I am enjoying your blog.  We were on the world wonders cruise that left LA January 4, 2020.  Unfortunately, we had to return home March 21st that year.  We had a great time anyways.  Viking was wonderful and took great care of us.  By the time we left Bali (our last port where we could get off), there were only about 350 passengers still on.   Cathey Reele


  3. What a great pos and amazing pictures!! It brought back wonderful memories for us from 2018, when we also found Madeira absolutely beautiful. I guess I’ve aged a few years since then though. My husband and I did the hair-raising wicker basket ride back then but thinking about it,and seeing the pictures, I’m not sure I’d do it now! Ha!Thank you for sharing your excellent adventure!


  4. What a beautiful place. And your description sounds lovely. Great pictures. I really enjoyed the one showing the contrasting ship sizes…

    But, I absolutely cannot believe you went out on that glass walkway!!!!!!!!

    Another lovely day in Paradise, eh?


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