Christmas vacations can become a tourist trap if you don’t know where to go. Crowded, touristy spots such as Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam and Berlin are overrated and uninspiring. So, for discerning travellers looking for something more refined, magical and totally unexpected, the island of Madeira, off the southern coast of Portugal, is the perfect holiday destination.
No wonder it’s dubbed as Europe’s best-kept secret. With serene coastlines, gourmet food and quaint historic towns towered over by majestic sylvan mountains, visitors to this island would love to keep this enchanting place close to their hearts.
Exotic, one-of-a-kind Madeira
Although an island, Madeira is not for those in search of a beach holiday. In fact, it’s nothing quite like what you would expect from a small European getaway. A volcanic island, this “pearl of the Atlantic” has rocky coastlines that give it an interesting vista from the sea. This also allows visitors a spectacular view of the sea from the dramatic mountains and sylvan cliffs.
In fact, Madeira offers a delightfully surprising mix of contrasts: from the towering mountains that serve as a backdrop for modern and historic buildings to the exotic, local produce that are served in world-class, sophisticated restaurants. Holiday travellers are especially in for several treats, as the island presents so many breathtaking places and experiences to keep itineraries full.
For example, the island’s capital city of Funchal is a modern city that still manages to maintain its island charm. Head a little to the south, and there’s Canico, an old village centered around an 18th-century church, but that has a distinctly vibrant, bustling side in its modern residential and hotel district in Baixo.
Meanwhile, the Laurisilva, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the largest laurel forest, is just one of the many natural wonders of the island. Madeira has a rich natural ecosystem, and you can even sample a beautiful and colorful plethora of exotic produce, such as avocados, passion fruits, custard apples, philodendron and, of course, the sweet and juicy small bananas loved by locals and visitors alike.
Aside from stunning coastline vistas, you can still enjoy the island’s perennially warm and crystal-clear beaches. São Vicente, located at the north of the island, offers Europe’s best waves for surfing. Another not-to-be-missed spectacle in this area is the Grutas de São Vicente, a cave system formed by the same volcanic activity that created the whole island.
Experience all the best of Madeira in Canico.
While Madeira as a whole has a lot to offer, everything seems to culminate in Canico, which has many of the whole island’s best qualities. From its striking sheer cliffs to immaculate pebbled beaches, this old village at the southern coast of Madeira has all the makings of a luxury Christmas vacation.
Just off Canico’s waterfront is Hotel Riu Palace Madeira, a gem majestically spread out across the Atlantic. The award-winning hotel has an air of modern Victorian chic, which blends beautifully against the towering palm trees and the blues of its two gigantic pools and the ocean beyond.
However, for the best Christmas in Canico, go for villa rentals, which offer magnificent views of the Atlantic in expansive, well-appointed accommodations. One peaceful location is Villa Aquarela, which offers three bedrooms and a heated pool that overlooks the bay. This villa has 627 meters of beautifully furnished living space with 180-degree oceanfront views.
Another luxury property is Casa do Cristo Rei in Garajau, featuring three spacious bedrooms and a modern, open-space living room. The house is built for the views, as every room opens to sea views. It’s also within walking distance of Garajau’s beautiful protected beach.
There are many other rental villas strategically located along the coasts. These are popular choices for groups and families, or even for individuals looking for a more private, homelike place to stay in the heart of Madeira. They are also close to many stores, restaurants and activity areas that tourists enjoy.
For example, Aquaparque provides numerous water activities and sports to keep families with kids occupied. As for a more laid-back experience, Praia dos Reis Magos is great for warm dips and sunbathing. Another beach gem is Praia de Garajau, which is a more private beach at the base of the island’s famous cliffs.
For those interested in Madeira’s exotic flora, a Canico must-see is the Quinta da Boa Vista, a country estate that was once a fruit-and-vegetable farm. Today, exotic plants from various parts of the world are also cultured here for visitors to marvel at.
Canico also boasts of its own version of Christ the Redeemer, the famous monument in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The town’s Miradouro do Cristo Rei do Garajau, erected in 1927, is actually even older than the Brazilian sculpture. The monument, sculpted by the two French artists Georges Serraz and Pierre Charles Lenoir, is located on a platform overlooking the Garajau Marine Reserve and provides the perfect spot for sightseeing.
Everything for every holidaymaker
What’s also great about a holiday vacation in Madeira is that it has everything for every holidaymaker. From families to solo travellers, there’s a wide array of activities to be enjoyed by everyone.
For one, you can go straight to Funchal’s Old Town, a picturesque historic settlement, and enjoy a leisurely walk along streets lined with centuries-old cobblestones. A tourist hotspot, it has attracted many who are interested in the island’s architectural and gastronomical delights.
You can then cap off the day with a glass of the infamous Madeira wine or, for the adventurous, Poncha, an alcoholic drink made from Aguardente de cana, or sugar-cane wine. Afterwards, a magical night in Funchal can be spent lounging on charming antique furniture over at Estalagem Quinta da Casa Branca. Another option is the prestigious Belmond Reid’s Palace, which offers well-appointed accommodations on the cliffs that overlook the Atlantic Ocean.
Teeing enthusiasts can also take advantage of the challenging Madeiran landscape with a few rounds of golf. Just off Canico are two fairways, Palheiro Golf and Santo da Serra Golf. Both courses are hundreds of meters above sea level and provide some of the most amazing views of the whole of Madeira.
Meanwhile, those looking for outdoor adventures can get their hands dirty with activities such as mountain biking, canyoning, river rafting, climbing and hiking, especially along the manmade irrigation system locally known as Levadas.
Once the day of adventure is done, you can then sit down in one of Madeira’s many best dining spots. Aside from traditional fare, places such as Funchal and Canico offer international cuisine in many of their buzz-worthy restaurants.
Still, it’s best to sample the island’s cuisine cornerstone: seafood. From octopus and shellfish starters to grilled tuna entrees, the island’s seafood dishes are most delectable. And if you have a more discriminating palate or an appetite for finer dining, you can sample more of Madeira’s local produce through a rich and sophisticated dining experience at Cliff Bay Hotel’s Il Gallo d’Oro. The renowned restaurant offers sumptuous dishes that even earned it one Michelin star. The hotel even hosts Rota das Estrelas, or Stars Route, a renowned gourmet food festival held in March and attended by local and international Michelin-starred chefs.
So, make the most of your Christmas holiday, and splurge on an unforgettable and experience-filled luxury vacation in Madeira.