Dubbed the “pearl of the Atlantic”, Madeira — an island located about 670 miles (1078 km) off the Portuguese coast — has plunging green valleys and tranquil ocean bays that help it live up to the name.
Sun-chasing Europeans flock there year-round thanks to the subtropical climate — 70°F (21°C) on average, all year — but this beautiful island may soon be seeing more new visitors. Starting on November 3, travelers from the US will be closer to experiencing island life on the Portuguese archipelago as SATA Azores Airlines launches a 7-hour direct daily flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to the main city of Funchal.
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Walk along the levadas in Madeira © Pack-Shot / Shutterstock
Forget everything you think you know (or might have heard) about Portugal – Madeira is a world apart. It beckons outdoor enthusiasts – hiking alongside the levadas (small irrigation canals) is a unique experience – and experienced athletes.
There’s also plenty to keep visitors busy in November. The trail-running competition ADN Race will take over Ponta do Sol on the southwest coast. Cultural travelers also have many events and festivals to choose from all year long, with the Madeira Fashion kicking off in late November.
Get the inside scoop on the latest cultural happenings all over the world delivered weekly to your inbox with our email newsletter. Grab a glass of Madeira wine and a treat and enjoy the scenery © Ekaterina Pokrovsky / Shutterstock
Fresh fish, tender beef skewers and the thought of homemade melting garlic butter on a warm piece of bolo do caco (a local flatbread made with sweet potatoes) should give foodies enough motivation to book that direct flight. And if you need to dig deeper into the gastronomic history of Madeira, piece together your trip around the Madeira wine (a fortified, sweet wine that has been exported from the island since the 1400s) or the locally produced rum (a byproduct of the Madeiran sugar cane plantations established in the 15th century).
And for those who don’t fit into any travel category and just want to wind down admiring dramatic vistas after a great meal paired with exquisite local wine, keep Madeira in mind as your go-to destination for a relaxing escape.
A trip to Madeira won’t be complete without sampling the unique local flavors. Try Santo António, a family-owned restaurant in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos, known for traditional espetadas (beef kebabs on laurel branch skewers). For an upscale experience, swing by Il Gallo d’Oro, a two-star Michelin restaurant with an 8- to 11-dish menu (Terroir Experience) featuring contemporary approaches to traditional local dishes. Or go to Regional Flavours – a top-notch Madeiran experience where dishes use island-sourced ingredients.
For a taste of the nightlife head to Funchal’s Zona Velha – the historic center, jam-packed with bars and pubs for a busy nightlife. Brave the crowds at Mercearia da Poncha to try the unmissable poncha (a highly alcoholic drink mixing sugar cane aguardente, honey, sugar and fruit juice). For a low-key tipple, try Beerhouse – a microbrewery with a view to the Funchal marina and several beers on tap, including local Coral.
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Head to the countryside to see the traditional houses of Madeira in Santana. Now most houses are uninhabited and tourist attractions © Getty Images
Choose the capital city of Funchal if you’re pressed for time, want to be close to all the action (and the airport) and travel on a budget. If you want to explore outside the city, head to the countryside where you can find relaxing vacations at rural tourism houses, surrounded by mountains and forests or nestled in deep valleys: look for accommodation in places like Curral das Freiras or Santana. For a beach break, Calheta, Ribeira Brava and Ponta do Sol are some of the island’s top destinations for seaside escapes.