We reached Madeira shortly before midnight on the first day at sea. The next day was a wonderful sunny day. And not only that, it was even carnival in Funchal. We had the whole day to explore Madeira, because the Mein Schiff 2 was anchored in the port until the next day.
Madeira offers a diverse flora and is therefore also known as the flower island. But what is there to do on the flower island? I can tell you: there is so much to see and discover! Therefore, I will share with you my 5 tips to explore Madeira. And I will give you an impressions of what carnival is like on Madeira. Let’s start with my tips:
Dolphin and whale watching
Around the island Madeira there are many different whales, dolphins, monk seals, turtles and other sea creatures. Everywhere in the harbor of Funchal you will find offers for trips to the sea for whale and dolphin watching. I had decided to book an excursion with TUI Cruises. The trip “Discover whales and dolphins aboard a RIB boat” took 3 hours and cost 69 euros per person. The trip started in the morning at 8:15 am. We went by bus for a short drive to the other end of the port of Funchal. Then we got a short briefing in the office of the boat agency for safety instructions and some information about the animals that live around the island.
Then we got on a RIB boat and drove out to sea. RIB boats are small rigid inflatable boats that can speed over the water. In the boat we all sat in rows on jockey seats. The seats had handles and backrests. We all had to wear a life jacket as we drove rapidly out to the sea.
We were accompanied by the operator and a female employee who showed the animals at sight and gave brief explanations. She also told us that there were two other “spotters” sitting in the mountains and contacted the boatman by cell phone as soon as they see nearby whales or dolphins. Fortunately, I wore a cap and a scarf, because it was very windy and cold aboard the boat. But unfortunately I had not thought of a raincoat and jacket. Because of the speed and the waves, a lot of water spattered up and depending on your seat you were drenched to your skin.
Even though it was wet and cold, we were compensated by the wonderful dolphins that we saw during the boat trip. We even saw a mother with a baby dolphin very close to the boat. That was very sweet. Also the drive along the steep coast back to the harbor was a dream and offered an unusual and great perspective on the coast.
A special experience was the sight of a monk seal on the way back. We met this very rare animal at a rather unusual place. The seal was probably just as surprised as we were. She looked at the abrupt brake maneuver of the boat and the enthusiasm of our guide, but then quickly disappeared. There are only a few monk seals who live in the nature reserve of the Ilhas Desertas Islands next to Madeira. So you only see this seal on rare occasions. Unfortunately the seal was too quick for us to take a photo. But it was definitely unique to see it. Sadly we did not see any whales. For me, the boat trip was a great experience and my absolute highlight of the day.
Take the cable car to Monte
A highlight in Funchal is the ride with the cable car to Monte. The cable car station is located at the other end of the port of Funchal and a one way ticket costs 10 euros. Including the return ticket it costs 15 euros. Monte is a small town with a pilgrimage church and a botanical garden. From here you can also enjoy a wonderful view of Funchal.
Downhill ead several paths: either you take the cable car or you take a basket sled. What, a basket sled, some of you will be asking now. Already in the 19th century basket sleds were used to go down into the valley. One sits in the basket sled with wooden runners and is driven by two men traditionally dressed in linen. They stand on the runners and brake the sledge in the winding streets with their rubber soles.
Ernest Hemingway once described the basket sled ride as one of the most exciting experiences of his life. So if you are a Hemingway fan or just want to experience something special, then you should not miss this ride from Monte to the valley. A few years ago I had been to Madeira and saw some of the basket sleds. Hemingway does not seem to have exaggerated in his exciting description of the ride.
Discover the old town of Funchal and visit the market hall
Really nice is also a walk along the main street of Funchal and to stop and try a port wine in a café. You should also visit the market hall. The market hall (Mercado dos Lavradores) is my personal “must-see” in Funchal and I always visit this market when I visit Madeira. I just love market halls. There are not only beautiful flowers to see, but also plenty of fruits and vegetables to discover and taste. I can recommend to try a fresh Cherimoya. There are also sweet-sour tomatoes, orange passion fruits, small bananas and many other fruits. The merchants always offer samples of freshly cut fruit. Just go ahead and try everything. The food is incredibly fresh and delicious.
Discover the city with a city sightseeing bus
You will see various city sightseeing buses directly at the harbor. You can go on of these hop-on-hop-off buses to discover Funchal and, depending on the route, a part of the coast. A quick and easy way to get an overview. On an earlier trip I tried the ride on the hop-on hop-off bus. For about 12 euros I got a good first impression of the island.
Visit the museum of Christiano Ronaldo besuchen
This is a must for soccer fans. Directly at the port you will find the museum of Christiano Ronaldo, who was born in Madeira. I have already seen the CR7 museum from the ship. The red, flat building is easy to spot and in 10 minutes walk you can reach the museum from the harbor. Already before the entrance stands a larger than life statue of Christiano Ronaldo. If you want to find out more, you can visit the museum for 5 euros.
A side note to carnival on Madeira
On Madeira they celebrate carnival like on the other canary islands. Similar to Rio, the most splendid parades take place here. Unfortunately I was there after the weekend celebration. But I had the opportunity to see the “trapalhão” (everyone can take part in this parade). The parade took place in the afternoon from about 4 pm directly on the harbor promenade in Funchal. There were several wagons and various costumed groups celebrating with music and colorful colors the end of carnival. Of course, this parade is not as festive as the great parades at the weekend, but still it was worth watching.
These were my 5 tips to discover Madeira. But there is much more to discover. You can stroll through the beautiful botanical garden, make a wine tasting, discover the back country and go on hikes, visit a beach or just go shopping and eat. In any case, we will come back and I am looking forward to the next Madeira adventure.