Escape to Madeira, a wild island retreat off the coast of Portugal

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After a long day of wine tasting, our group watches with great interest the movements of Quinta do Barbusano’s chef. He lifts a skewer of traditionally grilled Portuguese beef, espetada, and attaches it to a wire above our heads that runs the length of the table. A Madeiran delicacy, the dish consists essentially of just large chunks of meat seasoned with garlic and salt, then roasted on sprigs of laurel over hot coals. Our host, who is also a winemaker and owner of the vineyard, prepared it using massive, sword-like sprigs of laurel, cooked over his outdoor grill to get just the right flavor. After letting the meat rest, he carefully slides the sizzling steak onto a platter. Like most Madeiran dishes, it is simple, humble and utterly delicious.

Few days before espetada Revelation, another local guide mentioned “the Madeira Effect”. You can’t just come by once, she explained, laughing; after the first trip, people keep coming back. This tight-knit island community jokingly dubs the ‘Madeira Effect’, with a touch of pride that their tiny island exerts such a magnetic force.

Where on earth is Madeira? Triangulated between the coast of Africa and the European continent, it’s something of an undeveloped retreat for American travelers. One of four islands in an archipelago also known as Madeira – which is Portuguese for ‘forest’ – the area first impressed early explorers with its propensity for hardy plant life, and fresh produce such as potatoes and other vegetables are plentiful present and particularly aromatic. One of the most impressive aspects of Madeiran culture is the food, most of which is grown on the island or hunted and fished locally, either in mainland Portugal or by local fishermen.

Swimming in Madeira

Andre Carvalho

Wide cliffs with stucco houses and an idyllic coastline offer a constant sea view and make a first comparison with Mediterranean hotspots like the Amalfi Coast and Greece seem correct. But that’s just the island at sea level: the steep mountains and rich, volcanic soil add an extra lush jungle feel, and plant life is taking over the island’s temperate climates with such vigor that many of the familiar plants grow to be ten times their size would somewhere else. Combine the idyllic coastline with breathtaking cable cars, clifftop viewpoints and secluded hilltop towns and you have the look and feel of Madeira. It’s a European island that’s still unexplored, making it an excellent choice for anyone keen to get back to adventurous international travel.

Though it’s long been a destination for European and British travelers, about a two-hour flight away, logistics have kept American travelers from visiting the island as easily as their EU counterparts – until now. Most journeys from America to Madeira in the past have consisted of flying to Lisbon, a seven hour journey from New York for example, and then taking another two hour flight to finally get to Madeira. A newly launched direct flight from JFK to Madeira is set to change that, however, as it takes just around seven hours to land and lands direct at Funchal, the only airport on this still-remote island. Operated by Azores Airlines, a Portuguese airline named after the nearby Azores, the direct flight operates once a week, suddenly making a seven-day stay in Madeira very accessible.

Once you’ve done the ocean flight, the island is small enough to easily handle day trips and other adventures, and big enough to handle a week-long stay. Unlike Amalfi, which seems to be a staple for Americans visiting Europe, this island still feels wild, although many luxury hotels dot the coast. The Pestana Carlton is a central resort with a laid-back vibe for those looking for a classy but more uncomplicated hotel experience. With sea views from most rooms, a generous breakfast buffet, and a more affordable rate due to the property’s slightly dated decor, this guest house manages to still feel homey and inviting despite its rather large size.

At the other end of the spectrum, the brand new Savoy Palace is a state-of-the-art property that opened just before the pandemic in the summer of 2019. With lots of marble and velvet, a lobby bar and tea service area, and incredible views from the rooftop terrace, this high-end hotel sits well above most other coastal hotels and literally reigns supreme over sister properties like the more formal Royal Savoy or the more affordable, tech-savvy Next Hotel. On-site lunch and dinner at the Terreiro and sumptuous breakfast service — either via an a la carte menu in the VIP lounge on the 17th floor or as a buffet on the ground floor — ensure guests are well covered at the property . And while staying at the Palace means access to almost every amenity under the sun, visitors should definitely keep exploring the island.

Sunset at the sea in Madeira

Sunset at the sea in Madeira

Andre Carvalho

Consider a wine tour to learn about the history of Madeira’s eponymous fortified wine and the vineyards that surface for the cultivation and production of table wine. Discovering Madeira’s wine tours included a visit to the north for a tasting espetada along with several other family run places to sip local wine. One of the most Instagrammable sights on any island is always sunrise, so booking a jeep tour to capture that beautiful early morning moment, along with a short tour of some other historic towns on the island, is a great way to get plenty of it cover ground in one day. Of course, the Laveda Walks are not to be missed either: these guided tours take visitors along the island’s historic irrigation systems, which helped distribute water in the earliest days of settlement on the island.

Finally, a word of advice for all travelers who want to make the trip – be sure to get travel insurance when visiting Madeira. Landing on the island can be a daunting task as it lies in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and there is a chance that rainy weather or clouds will make landing or departure unsafe. Because of this sometimes uncertain piece of logistics, it is recommended that you cover your bases with insurance. Although slightly off the beaten track, Madeira’s combination of island views, plant life and unparalleled food and drink makes it a destination that travelers itching to get back out and see the world have been searching for. And with the Madeira Effect in full force, new visitors will likely be planning a return trip once they get home.

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