Trip Notes / 9th Aug 2013


When I think of the variety of Mediterranean and near-Atlantic islands that comprise the bottom edge of Europe, two things usually come to mind: hot, sandy beaches, and a large number of my fellow Europeans getting far too drunk (Ibiza being the pinnacle of this).

As some of you know me may remember, I'm not a fan of beaches, hot weather or excessive drinking, and so it's no surprise that I almost never go to these islands of my own volition. This visit was prompted by one of my oldest friends (we essentially grew up together) getting married.

I won't go into the wedding itself too much - I don't think weddings need reviewing, and it was a lovely ceremony. The reception was at the groom's family home in the Madeiran mountains, and it was a lovely chance to see a slightly more "normal" side to the island.

Getting there

ZB746 (LGW » FNC)

ZB747 (FNC » LGW)

There's a decent selection of flights to Madeira, especially from London. I opted for Monarch Airlines, but easyJet and TAP Portugal both fly there as well. Flight costs are pretty low, and unlike the past three United flights I've taken, took off pretty much on time and with no mechanical issues.

The island is dominated by one large city - Funchal - and the airport is a reasonable distance away from it. There's a slightly irregular bus service that will take you to the city, but we opted for a cab instead. The taxi drivers are certainly on the faster side, which will please some passengers but scare others.

The approach path to the runway. Notice that it's helpfully labelled "Fun".

The approach into the airport is particularly fun; because of the island's topography, planes have to do almost a 180° turn at low altitude right before landing, getting only about 10 seconds to line themselves up on the runway centreline before touching down. Make sure you're sitting on the right hand side of the airplane, as you'll get a great view of the island as you turn.

Even as a "dangerous" airport it only had 3 accidents in over 30 years of operation - aborted landings are the more common outcome.

The airport used to be one of the more dangerous in the world due to its incredibly short runway, but they doubled the runway's length a while ago (by extending it into the sea, resting it on 180 columns) and now planes stop in plenty of time. Still, it's probably not for nervous fliers.

Some of the many columns that hold up the runway. Photo © Jarle Vines

I didn't have a large amount of time on the island - only four days overall - and so I didn't get to see much of the rural areas of the island. Funchal, the main city, stretches several miles along the coastline, with hotels almost the entire way.

Tourism is a major sector of the island's economy, and it shows. A large number of signs are bilingual, and most staff speak very decent English, as well as the tell-tale shops selling souvenirs.

That said, however, the island doesn't feel drowned by its tourism like some other places I've visited - a lot of the local culture still shines through, especially in the food and the architecture. The island is even clamping down on large hotels - they don't want their island to become a mound of concrete blocks like Tenerife, a few hundred miles south.

The lack of sandy beaches certainly changes the demographic, as well. Madeira has a reputation for attracting the less youthful traveller, and that certainly reflected in the makeup of my fellow tourists. There are only a handful of sandy beaches on the island, and most are fine, black volcanic sand, leaving only a single manufactured beach to have more regular sand.

I personally think this is for the better - I'm not a fan of beaches and a big fan of mountains, and Madeira is biased well in that regard. There's two cable cars you can take to go up and down the mountains near Funchal, a large number of bus tours of the island and its rugged landscape, and a pleasant cool breeze at the higher altitudes.

The coastline is pretty, but hotels still dominate in Funchal

I was only there for a scant four days, two of which included flights, so I didn't get to see quite as much of the island as I would have liked, let alone go on the catamaran trips to see dolphins or buzz around in a light airplane.

However, there seems to be a decent amount of activities to get up to, museums to visit, and gardens to walk around, which is what I look for in a potential holiday destination - I'm not the sort of person who sits around all day relaxing.

Even with the short stay, I liked what I saw, and while you'll still find me choosing the polar latitudes over the equatorial ones, it's probably the best 'warm' island I've been to. The title of best 'cold' island is possibly a bit more contentious.