19 Days in Madeira: Exploring Portugal’s Atlantic Island 1,000km Off the Mainland!

By the time we left Madeira after nearly three weeks, there wasn’t much we left “undone” on this surprisingly large island—and Madeira was only meant to be a quick stopover for us!


Well, Matt and I originally planned for our family to be living in the Azores to start off our winter, then I wanted to move on to experience living in the Canary Islands for awhile (off the coast of Africa).

My reasoning was simple:

“Winter is cold in Europe.

So let’s go to the warmest, most remote spots we’ve not explored yet!”

Problem was, there is no direct flight from the Azores to anywhere in the Canary Islands. (You’d have to fly back to mainland Portugal or Spain and then pop back out.)

And Mama likes direct flights!😄 (For a host of reasons, both obvious and not-so-obvious, which I could easily write a strategic blog post on sometime!)

So, as I played around with ideas, I discovered that we could fly on one small airline from Sao Miguel to Funchal (Madeira), and then on a different small airline from Funchal to the Canary Islands.


mother and daughter on Madeira coastline

(Can you see us waving?)

If you look on a map, it’s much more efficient time (and cost) wise to get to las Islas Canarias that way, and you know I’m all about efficiency!😉

I figured we could spend 5-7 days in Madeira then move on to the Canary Islands…

…however, the more I looked into what we’d be interested in exploring on Madeira, the more I realized there was a lot to do there!

Our home rental dates and best flight dates/costs determined the exact timing, and we landed on 19 days in what some like to call “the Hawaii of Europe.” (I am not in agreement with that description, so that’s the last time I’m going to use that reference.😂)

We ended up staying in almost-literally all 4 corners of Madeira, which is quite a large island driving-wise (I’ll share why later).

Have I explained yet why we chose certain areas of Europe for starters? If not, here it is in a nutshell: Matt’s client project is all on U.S. East coast time, so the furthest east we can go before his meeting times start going past 11pm is eastern Europe. So for now, we need to stick to staying between certain longitudes on the globe. If you missed it, we started in the Azores Islands, where we lived in a converted volcanic-rock barn from the 1800s…

Now, even though Madeira has plenty of volcanic rock, it’s not quite as prevalent as it was in the Azores. Here are the traditional houses of Santana…

traditional Santana houses in Madeira

Learning all that Portuguese was not done in vain! Here’s our confident eight-year-old haggling over fruit at the local market with the oldest Portuguese woman we encountered on our trip (no teeth):

girl with old Portuguese woman in Madeira market

Language Nerd Notes:

  • I love love love hearing my daughters speak in Portuguese. The delight these Azorean and Madeiran locals show in response to an “Obrigada!” or “Com licensa…” (excuse me!) from a little American girl who’s been practicing her Portuguese pronunciation never fails to make us proud. (I learn myself + teach my children to learn as much of the local language as possible out of respect, among other reasons. Knowing Spanish does help with the Portuguese, but not as much as you’d think…maybe more the pronunciation, but I digress…)
  • I’m often called “My lady” by the Portuguese, which just tickles me to no end. It’s done so sweetly and yet respectfully, especially by other adult women. I suspect my grey hairs have something to do with it, but not sure…may be in denial…TBD…
  • I’ll talk about food a little later but just for my own records, I don’t want to forget poncha (the traditional Madeiran alcoholic drink made with aguardente de cana), espada (black scabbard fish), and milho frito (think fried cornmeal squares).

We spent an afternoon on this hillside, Matt and I talking and enjoying the views while our daughters played on the terraced hillsides, all listening to the sound of the ocean and literally not another human being in sight…

Madeira coastline

Because Madeira is so mountainous, over 150 tunnels exist to help get people around! (You can read more about these amazing tunnels here. Our girls seemed to never get tired of going through another tunnel!)

Madeira tunnel

You may not believe this, but guess what’s above this massive structure? (Most of it couldn’t fit in the picture.) THE FUNCHAL AIRPORT LANDING STRIPS! Crazy. Every time we drove under it, we marveled. Absolutely unique…

Yes, this was still a “remote working” trip but who can blame us for selling our house to come live and work with the below view for awhile? 😍

laptop on table overlooking Madeiran coastline

PS: My daughters made a new friend here as well…these girls have been finding friends everywhere we go in these remote Portuguese islands.

And interesting Portuguese laundry situations continue to present themselves. I thought this outdoor sink/scrubber was fantastic!

Madeiran washing basin

The first home we stayed in had sheep and goats the girls could feed every day. Anytime I can find a place to stay with animals on the property is a hit for them.

girl feeding sheep in pen

The town we stayed in for longest had a long local festival begin and end while we were there. If you look closely in the photo below, you’ll see that there are small trees and branches tied up to the poles. One day we were going through the town and saw dozens and dozens of local men with trucks, putting them up. We wondered what the hey-ho was going on, until it was followed by the paper decorations above and multiple nights of the local priest’s voice over the loudspeaker over the town waking us up and keeping us up late at night in Portuguese. Definitely another unique cultural experience! 🤣

Madeiran festival with church and flags

But who cares if the Catholic priest keeps you and your kids up late if you can wake up to this view? (Can you see the waterfall in the distance?)

view through window of Madeiran coast and ocean

In another area of the island, I discovered I could take the girls for a walk down along the beach and end up where there was a playground for them and good espresso for mama!

espresso on cafe table next to beach playground by ocean

Bananas everywhere around us…most of them wrapped like this.

banana plantation on Madeira Island, Portugal

Thankfully we were given a tip from a local woman to get our water at this amazing (free) spot just off the road. You see these all over certain areas of Europe but never know if they’re decent or not…but with a true local’s assurance, we felt confident to fill up here and loved the natural, volcanically-filtered water and never drank anything else the rest of our time there!

Plus, not a bad view while you’re filling up your agua…

woman filling up water in Madalena do Mar, Portugal

Lest you think our children are going uneducated on this trip😉…here’s proof of how you can administer a spelling test to your 5-year-old while sipping wine with your spouse in Portugal.

Bada-bing, bada boom! Jess and Matt at the helm for more life hacks. 🤗😂

girl writing on dinner table in Funchal, Portugal

One day, we decided to take our 8-year-old and 5-year-old to climb the highest mountain on Madeira. Here we are at the summit, soaking up the views on a beautiful day above the clouds. (To be fair, we found a way to drive halfway up then hike for a couple hours to reach the top. We’re not new here.)

mother and daughter hiking in Madeira, Portugal

Please applaud me on my self-control not showing you my 1,800 photos of Madeira…you’re welcome.

mountains from hiking hut in Madeira, Portugal

Just a peek at one of our local grocery store trips. This Portuguese woman didn’t speak a word of English but my oldest daughter and I managed with her and got educated on all kinds of the local seafood they had. (Anyone want to buy the guy in the middle?) And also, the pull-shopping-baskets I love…handle-able by your children.


Levadas are water channels, like aqueducts, that are all over Madeira, carrying the water where they want it. (You can read more about them here!)

This day, we spent 5 hours doing this levada walk, which was more amazing than pictures can show you…

mother and daughters hiking levada in Madeira, Portugal

Sometimes you’d go through tunnels—and those tunnels could be short, or they could be so long you literally can’t see a speck of light. (Headlamps are recommended.)

girl walking levada in Madeira, Portugal
child hiking in Madeira Island, Portugal

Several hours into the levada walk, we detoured to come to THIS waterfall that was taller than pictures can even give you a sense of. We enjoyed a long lunch, climbing all around, and soaking this remote spot up for hours…

waterfall in Madeira, Portugal

I could write an entire post on unique Madeiran food. Below is espetada, a traditional dish of beef cooked on laurel skewers. (And not to be confused with the Madeiran espada, which is the local scabbard fish.) The espatada is served in a unique way as well, hot and sizzling on the vertical stick hanging on a hook.

espatada beef stick on laurel stick in Madeira

In my Madeiran food post, I could write so much about the traditional bolo do caco bread that we’ve only seen on this island. (Pronounced in Portuguese more like “BOE-loo doo CAH-coh.” Our girls are pros at saying it and still talk about it.) I have a plethora of pictures of the bolo do caco being served plain, with butter, garlic, used for sandwiches, etc.), but even better is this picture we took out of a local Madeiran cookbook with the recipe!

(Yes, it uses sweet potato!)

bolo do caco recipe

My eight-year-old daughter and I taking a morning walk through the village together…

girl walking down narrow village street in Madeira Island, Portugal

I scored this pic on another levada walk we did, looking towards the northwest coast of Madeira.

two girls hugging while hiking looking at view in Madeira, Portugal

Our most “traditional” Madeiran home, from the side…

traditional thatch roof house in Madeira, Portugal

…and from the front. This one was built in 1966 by the owner’s father, with the traditional thatched roof (pretty cool to see above us as we slept in our beds!).

house in Madeira with stairs

I loved, loved, loved the double window/shutter action this home had going on…

traditional wood shutters with window looking out on Madeiran landscape

Working in the garden…

laptop on table in garden in Madeira

If I have time, I’d love to write a post about all the things to do on Madeira but for now I’ll just include a few favorites, such as Monte Palace. (My family knows if there’s any gardens to visit, Mama will want to go there!)

Monte Palace pond with waterfall and plants

…and they always end up enjoying it!😊 Here’s one of them frolicking through a section of the gardens…

girl running down pathway with plants around

One of our best days also involved this impromptu cable car ride, which the nicest old Portuguese operator man gave us at a discount and a smile!

girl looking out window of cable car going down cliff overlooking the ocean

I also have 700 photos from this trip, which I could develop into a whole other post. It takes you down to a tiny cluster of homes and farms which I’m not even sure qualifies as a full village…it was so tiny but SO BEAUTIFUL! We came back up around the time the sun was setting and it was unbelievable.

cable car going down steep hillside in Madeira, Portugal

However, looking at these two brings more joy to Matt and I than even a sunset…true, oh so true.

(Have I written about our infertility journey here on the blog yet? No? Well, maybe one day…)

two girls looking out cable car window in Madeira, Portugal

Yet another levada walk we did…another long one! We’re the meanest parents ever!

girl walking alongside levada in valley of Madeira

I chose this one because of this waterfall section…totally unique and memorable.

girl walking in levada tunnel looking towards a waterfall

Encouraging our 5-year-old go on all these hikes and long walks with us, she still finds energy to dance on the way back…

girl dancing while hiking with ocean in distance

Look at these views coming out of the valley again!

girl hiking along levada in Madeira with ocean in distance

The most “touristy” thing we did was check out Cabo Girão (because every single “what to do” list had it on there, so we stopped one day as we were driving by)…but not even our kids were impressed. We’d seen a lot of cliffs at that point so maybe it’s one of the highest but it didn’t blip on anyone’s radar. Good thing it was free the day we went…I’d recommend skipping it if you’re there on a paying ticket day!

One day we spent exploring the Valley of the Nuns.

I, however, as a Language Nerd and Entertain-Myself-Comic, spent most of the day amusing myself by giggling at the “proper” name I gave it, which is “The Nun Corral.” (Curral das Freiras in Portuguese, which I decided to literally translate for myself as “Corral of the Nuns”—then put it into the most efficient English version which is

“The Nun Corral!”

Sounds like a great Western, right? Yes yes, I’m still making myself chuckle. Laughter is what keeps me alive, people!

mountains and valley of the Nuns in Madeira, Portugal

We also went to the famous Fanal Forest (part of the ancient Laurisilva forest), which was gloriously foggy and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

girl looking up at giant laurasilva tree in Fanal Forest, Madeira

Let’s end with one of the many glorious Madeiran sunsets we enjoyed (this one off the balcony of our last home there, on the south coast of the island)…

sunset from Madeira, Portugal

So where are we off to next? I guess I already gave that away at the start of this post.

¡Allá vamos, España! Here we come, Spain!

Update: Click here to see our time living in the Canary Islands! (Las Islas Canarias)

girl climbing up stairs to airplane

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