A recent trip to Madeira blew open portals in my mind and reminded me why travel is such an important part of conscious living. This incredible landscape, towering mountains falling straight away to crashing seas and volcanic rock did more than just capture my imagination; it caused me to catch my breath. Dramatic, verdant, sweeping ocean views from every angle, I was smitten from first look at this siren song of the Atlantic. In order to help convey the unique features of this island, I asked William Finnegan for permission to quote from his Pulitzer Prize winning book Barbarian Days for this article in the hopes that Finnegan’s effortless prose on his own nomadic trips to Madeira might express - where I could not - the sheer magnificence of this place. I hope you too can feel its magic.
Part I: Portugal: Introduction to Paradise
I sit here on the balcony of my hotel on the cliffs above Funchal, taking in the temperate climate, smelling the fragrant floral aromas that are specific to Madeira and listening to someone in the nearby neighborhood play Portuguese soul-swelling Fado music, all while enjoying a view that looks straight away out into the endlessly azure blue ocean. I’ve already walked to Lookout Point in Garajau to witness the dizzying heights of this seaside village and its ribbon of switchback roads, where a Christ statue looks out over the sea and volcanic rock beaches, watching over revelers who swim the deep cobalt waters beyond a sign that reads, “Welcome to Paradise”. And I wonder to myself, “What took me so long??”
Madeira is not for the faint of heart. This dramatic volcanic island sits approximately 700 miles or 1,080 kilometers off the coast of Portugal. From another angle, this temperate paradise exists 320 miles or 520 kilometers off the famed city of Casablanca in Morocco. Recently added direct flights from John F. Kennedy airport in New York to Funchal via Azore Airlines, makes this formerly remote area now fully accessible for U.S. visitors. I am here to experience a week on the island from a watersports perspective. Welcome to Session Magazine’s overview of this magnetic, oceanic, Portuguese paradise. Madeira captured our hearts within the first few hours after landing.
When flying into Madeira, whether from Lisbon or New York, travelers won’t want to miss the dramatic entry into this mountainous terrain. The Funchal airport is named after Madeiran native Cristiano Ronaldo (widely believed to be one of the greatest soccer players of all time), and is considered one of the most perilous airports in the world due to its precipice location and creative construction. It is built on pylons or pillars to create a tabletop runway in an otherwise steep terrain. Dropping out of the clouds during the descent and catching a first glimpse of the verdant countryside, terracotta roofs and extreme cliffs falling away to an endless expanse of ocean, you’ll want to hang on to your hats (literally) as the descent is rapid and the braking robust once the wheels touch down on the runway. Pilots undergo additional training to land at this spectacular airport. Once the dust settles, travelers will be craning their necks to take in the volcanic rock cliffs on one side and cobalt blue water on the other. Welcome to the island of Madeira.
Madeira is part of an independent archipelago of Portugal that includes Porto Santo, the Desertas Islands and Savage Islands. It is the largest island of the group with a length of 35 miles (57 kilometers) and a widest point of 14 miles (22 kilometers). However, although diminutive in overall area (286 square miles / 741 square kilometers), the island is known for its vertical mountain ridges rising up out of the sea to heights of 6,109 feet at the highest point. The island itself is the top of a massive shield volcano that sits about 20,000 feet off the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The volcano has been dormant for over 6,500 years and yet, viewing remnants of that last eruption such as giant boulders sticking out of frozen banks of lava is both possible and recommended as part of an overall tour of this beautiful and dramatic place..
The overall population of Madeira is approximately 240,000 people and, according to the 2021 census, nearly 180,000 of those individuals live in the capital city of Funchal. Not a city person myself, I spent minimal time in Funchal but a lot of time exploring the coastline all over the island and traversing the roadways, tunnels and switchbacks with a team of elite watersport riders from NSP, traveling from one end of the island to the other. It is recommended that water lovers, too, explore the coast.
“Madeira was a shock to the senses - sheer green coasts, tiny cliff-hugging roads, Portuguese peasants studying our boards suspiciously, waves surging heavily out of deep ocean. We drove through gorges and forests, over high, vertiginous ridges. We ate prego no pao (a garlic steak sandwich) at roadside cafes and tossed back espressos. We clambered up seawalls and down embankments. There didn’t seem to be any other surfers around.” - excerpted from Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan
A great way to get to know the overall landscape of Madeira is to take part in one of the renowned island Jeep tours which I did on my first day, finding an excellent source of information in our driver Miguel from Green Devil Safari island tours. Miguel’s tour took us from the seaside villages of Seixal and Ribera Brava to the dizzying heights of Fanal, including ‘the enchanted forest” above the clouds. It is he who taught me the term ‘‘fado” to describe the sweet, haunting, operatic music I had heard pouring from my neighbor’s speakers the night before. Miguel also loved his homeland and was patient and proud to answer my seemingly endless questions as we moved from point to point around the island. I owe him much for the intimacy of the article now held in your hands.
Miguel taught me an additional term that captured my attention: saudade. Saudade is the Portuguese word for longing, desire and nostalgia. It describes the melancholy feeling one has for someone or something that is absent. It is a term to describe a sweet sadness that is a popular characteristic of the Portuguese temperament and is found deeply embedded in both the music and literature of the region. Saudade (pronounced: soh-dah-juh) is the perfect description for the elusive sweetness, the ever changing temperament of the ocean, the swirling weather and cordial, friendly existence I discovered in the Portuguese way of life. Saudade, on Madeira, was the glimpse of a colorful spray of flowers cascading over a private wall into the street, the scent of florals in the evening breeze, the light touch of cool air on the skin, and - of course - the haunting melodies of fado echoing from open, old glass windows of homes built upon terraced landscapes or tumbling from well farmed homesteads around the island. I feel it now as I write, wanting to return to the magic and the effusive oceanic energy that is Madeira. Thank you, Miguel. You taught me well.
“The first time we surfed Jardim do Mar, or the first time we surfed it good was probably the next year. Even at six feet, it was a serious wave. Heavy, long-interval lines marched out of the west, bending around the headland into a breathtaking curve. They feathered and bowled and broke at the outermost point of the horseshoe, and then reeled down a rocky shore. We paddled out from a primitive boat ramp - a mossy, concrete slide of a seawall - far down the point. As we got closer to the lineup, the power and beauty of the waves got more drenching. A set rolled through, shining and roaring in the low winter afternoon sun, and my throat clogged with emotion - some nameless mess of joy, fear, love, lust, gratitude.” - Excerpt from Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan
PART II: Exploration - Sao Vincente & Seixal
The exploration of Madeira from the perspective of watersports should be taken with some consideration. The Atlantic Ocean rolls unimpeded across hundreds of miles to crash into the cliff base that makes up this island of the archipelago. There is no continental shelf - similar to the Hawaiian islands – to slow it down, so when the swell is on (which is often), the waves are big and powerful. The island doesn’t lend itself so well to beginner surfers, although there might be a couple of sand bottom breaks to practice on, and surf schools on Madeira are becoming more popular. Regardless, it is quite a different ocean from the one I am familiar with, coming from the East End of Long Island in New York. Swells on Madeira have consequence. Choosing where and how to enter the break, whether surfing, stand up paddling, wing foiling or other, bears doing some research and getting acquainted with the island's nooks and crannies for safe entry. But the payoff will gain you entrance into one of the most mythical seascapes the world has ever known.
On our first day after the introductory Jeep tour of the island, our team traveled to Baia dos Juncos in Sao Vicente, a small town on the northern side of Madeira that doesn’t attract a lot of tourists. In fact, it’s not even easy to find this beach unless you have a local guide - as we did - to take you. A meandering route eventually brought us to Baia dos Juncos. After watching the swell for a while (disorganized and stormy, around 8’-9’), Alex Bicrel from Bordeaux, France and local Madeiran Tomas Lacerda launched themselves into the surf. Bicrel tested a new foil board and Lacerda, a Portuguese big wave surfer, paddled out on his shortboard. The two paddled past a heaving shorebreak and out into the swells. Swirlying stormy, angry surf or not, these two athletes pushed themselves over ledges of cascading whitewater, oblivious to the dangers therein, to catch moments of blissful glides, carving turns and snaps off the lip creating an energy themselves in a primordial dance with the sea that left all parties the better for it. Plus, it was fun to watch.
One of the fascinating aesthetics around Madeira is the plethora of personal vineyards found on this highly terraced, rocky, mountainous terrain. The sub-tropical climate here means the temperature fluctuates between 55-75 degrees Fahrenheit, a perfect temperature for growing grapes. Individual homesteads, even here on the North’s beachside, held eight or more rows of vines for making wine. Madeira is known for its particular sweet wine and many people travel here just to explore different vineyards, and take home a special bottle from their adventures. Seeing these tiny, private vineyards adjacent to the coastline is to really witness something special about Madeira.
"People still fished, actually, and farmed [on Madeira], but the farming was all by hand - grueling work - on little rock-walled terraces. Old men in tween caps and cardigans, red-faced and bandy-legged, solid-bodied, worked the terraces. Wine grapes, bananas, sugarcane, papayas - small plots and fields were cut into all but the steepest slopes. In Jardim, every porch, and wall seemed to overflow with flowers. “ - Excerpted from Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan
Our next stop that afternoon included a trip to the northwest side of the island to a popular beach in Seixal. Porto do Seixal Beach is a wide swath of natural black sand with a stunning backdrop including Madeira’s majestic mountains and ample waterfalls that are accessible from the beach. The ‘Pocas das Lesmas’ there, or volcanic pools, are delicious for a dip as they are protected from the ocean’s waves and feature dramatic arches of the volcanic rock above you as you swim. Definitely a must-see when visiting the island, whether you are surfing, paddling or just plain exploring.
The beach itself at Seixal is unguarded; however, the surf break is more geared towards beginner or intermediate surfers as the swell wraps around a seawall before reaching the shore. There are free showers available to wash off, or you can access one of the waterfalls from the far side of the beach to rinse off your board, feet, or other equipment.
Exploration: Praia de Maiata
The following day, our team headed north again. The northern shores on Madeira are, traditionally, where you will find the most swell and wind. Surf spots are dotted along the north shore from Praia da Maiata to Porto Moniz. This second day we found a sizable swell along the black sand and pebble shores of Praia da Maiata. With a wide stone staircase leading to the beach, and limited parking, we felt elated to have scored on this side of the island. Picturesque, formidable (again, the swell was 8’-10’) and expansive, this beach is everything you are looking for when searching for waves on Maderia.
The SUP racers brought their 14’ raceboards onto the black sands to practice in & outs through the whitewater, while Lacerda and Bicrel discussed the possibilities of wing foiling on the break. Then, unexpectedly but not surprisingly, Christian Anderson a.k.a. “Polar Bear”, the Danish waterman on the team, who is both a passionate surfer and strong SUP racer, busted out through the shorebreak to the outside on his raceboard after two attempts and then began to hunt down a sizable wave. Christian has participated in the APP World Tour’s Red Bull Heavy Water Challenge in previous years and is no stranger to big surf with his raceboard. The athletes on the beach were engaged in their own world while I watched in awe as Christian committed to a large slab, slid down the face - it was easily double overhead+ for this 6’ Dane - and then turned down the line to run it out with style. Impressive watermanship was on full display here.
The wing never made it into the water that day, but you could see how, with less swell, this would be a sweet spot to launch and explore the coast.
“Madeira became my winter retreat. Vacations, these were not. They were submersions, some lasting many weeks. The spots we surfed were all dicey, super-complex reef breaks, demanding the most diligent study and harshly penalizing even small mistakes. For me, with my physical powers dwindling and my work as a journalist in high gear, it was a strange time to take on such a high-stakes, off-the-grid, unforgiving project.” - Excerpted from Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan.
Part III: Infrastructure
One of the great aspects of exploring all over this island was that we often had to traverse through the middle, up and down mountainous roads and through the island’s many tunnels. It gave me a good sense of the infrastructure and community of the Madeirans. What I found out is that, in Madeira, the government subsidizes the paint on the houses to give the landscape a sense of cohesion. This results in the overall beauty of the countryside, but I am happy to report that the house colors are where the uniformity ends. In this land, homesteads are built into the mountainside, and are mostly heavily terraced to create a flat surface on which to build and farm. The carefully laid stonework for the terraced land, the terracotta rooftops, clean sidewalks and plentiful personal vineyards and gardens give Madeira an ‘always ready’ look of community pride and unity.
In addition, individual property owners add their personal touches through flair with flowers and fauna, but always with a look to sharing their colors with the surrounding neighborhood so that passersby might enjoy their gardens as well. Even among the public lands, one sees sprays of roses, jasmine and colorful trees along the highway or creeping up the outside walls of the island's 44 kilometers of tunnels and within its traffic circles. One gets the sense of a well loved community of which its inhabitants are proud, as they should be. One sees cleanliness and a clear effort towards sustainability through recycling cans and solar farms while traveling throughout the lush countryside. No matter where you go, it is well cared for, has an ocean view and Portuguese pride shines through as the bedrock of Madeira's existence.
Part IV: Exploration - Porto da Cruz, Caniçal, Porto de São Lorenço
The following day, in search of a location to launch the wing, the team headed north again to Porto da Cruz. This small seaside village, home to Alagoa beach, a popular tourist destination, holds much to be explored. The fascinating surf break out in front of Alagoa, firing between two natural rock walls, creates a point break that is both powerful and fast. One could see that working the currents was essential to making it past the shorebreak while at the same time, staying clear of the rocks made this an adrenaline pumping surf break. Also, in Porto da Cruz, the boardwalk wraps around one of the cliff faces where viewers can get spectacular vistas of the region with the ever present verdant, steep mountainous backdrop adding drama and beauty to the crashing waves. Strangely, there was a profound peace here. A sense of being so immersed in beauty and in nature, that one just wanted to settle in and absorb it for an extended moment of time. Small, local restaurants served the famous Madeiran lapas or limpets, an oyster-sized shellfish that is doused in garlic butter and is a staple in the region. Also, we explored the rum factory where visitors are able to view the process from stripping of sugarcane to the mixing of rum in barrels. This was a cultural immersion that was fascinating and another example of Portuguese pride for their trade.
That afternoon, led by our local athletes Veronica Silva and Tomas Lacerda, we hiked our way to a remote beach outside of Prainha do Caniçal on the easternmost side of the island. This spectacular entrance into one of the most private beaches we’d visited included hiking down volcanic rock with wing equipment and 14’ raceboards to access a small pebble and rock beach. Once there, we found ourselves in a hidden cove with the church steeple of Caniçal ringing just to the west of us from a jutting peninsula and the huge, undeveloped expanse of Ponta de São Lorenço to the east.
This location was easily one of the most beautiful spots visited. Not so easy to access due to the formidable walk down but manageable if you bring walking shoes and keep your gear light. It is well worth the effort to spend a full day here, which we did.
The SUP racers on the team were eager to get in a workout before the Madeira SUP Challenge which was scheduled for the following Saturday, so Spain’s Duna Gordillo, Denmark’s Christian Anderson, and Madeirans Veronica Silva and Tomas Lacerda jumped into the crystal waters at this location, deeply protected by the wind underneath the cliff faces. Meanwhile, Bordeaux’s Alex Bicrel assembled his foil and launched for the outside to capture some of the wind for a wingfoil session. Everybody found what they needed in Caniçal, including an incredible vista as a backdrop to an amazing day.
It should be noted that Caniçal is on the south side of Madeira and therefore protected from the surf that was pounding the northern shores. In general, if water lovers are seeking to surf, kite, windsurf or wingfoil, go north where the winds are. If you are looking for somewhere to paddle or simply swim, the south side of the island is where you will want to explore first.
The following morning, it was decided that we would drive to the easternmost point of the island at Ponta da Sāo Lorenço to watch the sunrise together. Ponta da Sāo Lorenço is a natural preserve with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and spectacular rock formations, including lava fields where you can see debris and rocks frozen into the lava from thousands of years ago. The landscape itself is a beautiful, sand, dune and cliffscape with a meandering hiking trail that can take a traveler to numerous remote and magical places within the preserve. Hiking at dawn is a common practice on Madeira so you can expect to have others with you on your journey but there is space enough for everybody to enjoy their own private moment. Visiting the history and poignancy of this rock formation is a necessary part of any visitor’s journey to Madeira. It feels like you’re walking on Mars, but with an endless view of the bluest ocean. Peacefulness and tranquility abound here. There are no services, so pack hydration and food as necessary. Enjoy this magical step back in time. Oh, Madeira.
Later that afternoon, our group took a half-day catamaran cruise up the coast of the island and out to sea for whale and dolphin watching. These tours traditionally launch from the marina at Funchal, the capital city, and are easy to find online. We enjoyed the afternoon on the boat, sitting on the tramps, enjoying the sea breeze and our tour was even successful in seeing a pod of pilot whales enjoying their bounty offshore! The cruise includes a close sail by the volcanic walls dropping straight into the sea and a stop at a swimming hole to jump and refresh yourself before heading home to Funchal where dinner awaits. This afternoon was a leisurely pause from our focused exploration all around the island. Food and drinks (poncha included!) are served on board to make the most of your afternoon.
“My third wave had a longer wall than the others. I rode further down the line, out of the warped chamber of the great takeoff barrel section, onto a relatively flat face, where I got slapped off by a whitewater paw, tumbled a bit, and then came up in a calm area, quite near shore, just inside the big rip current. I saw my chance, sprinted for land, and hit the rocks feet first on the back of a shorebreak wave that chose, after seeming to consider the matter imperiously, to spare me. “ - Excerpted from Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan
Exploration: Câmara de Lobos & Ponto do Sol
Our final day on the island was a full-on sprint. Up at dawn again, we drove straight for the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. This historic village is said to be the first settled town on the island and the harbor is full of colorful, small fishing boats where local fishermen haul in their catch for the day. Câmara de Lobos is also settled in a v-shaped formation between two higher cliffs so it is protected from the north winds and is a lovely, picturesque location for stand up paddling. After eating breakfast at a waterside cafe, Silva, Gordillo, and Anderson launched their stand up paddle raceboards into the harbor to explore among the fishing fleet and beyond. This laid-back village is definitely worth visiting for its scenic views, easy paddle access from the boat launch and photo opportunities. You’ll enjoy the scenery and the local fisherman are friendly and forthcoming with answers about their craft and history of this place.
Mid-day found us back at Baia de Juncos on the north side for a final surf session. Although the surf was still large and stormy, the winds had tempered to make the entrance into the surf zone more feasible. I did notice that the local surfers consider their waves, and are cautious in their approach — lessons learned from hard drops off the bottom, no doubt. Then again, this impressive location located at the foot of dramatic, towering cliffs and nestled among seaside vineyards make this an essential drop in for any traveling water lover. It is almost impossible to describe the overwhelming drama of each landscape, the mountains, quaint seaside villages and pounding surf. As said earlier, Madeira is not for the faint of heart, but if you are a lover of the ocean, it is a pilgrimage to Mecca like nothing else.
Our final session of the day brought us to Ponto do Sol Beach on the south facing beaches for a sunset paddle session. Ponto do Sol (perfectly named for catching the sun going down over the ocean) is known for attracting the digital nomad community where travelers can find an apartment along the seaside and work. Beginning in 2012, Portugal launched the successful Golden Visa program to attract more businesses and investors into the country. This plan offered anyone who purchased real estate over €280,000 in Portugal a golden visa residency for a family including dependent children. The Portuguese Golden Visa can be renewed at two-year intervals providing the applicant spends two weeks in the country every year and maintains their investment. As of January 2023, the initial investment has been raised to €500,000 for investors, but the Visa program and residency it provides continues to flourish. An interesting opportunity.
It is easy to see why people visiting Madeira or Ponto do Sol Beach would want to stay on a bit longer. At Ponto do Sol, there is an inside lagoon off the small rock pebble beach for general swimming and snorkeling. Our paddlers launched across the lagoon and then out into the ocean beyond. As the sun descended, throwing golden beams across the gleaming water, Veronica Silva, Duna Gordilla, Tomas Lacerda, Christian Anderson and Alex Bicrel paddled into the sunset to explore a magnificent waterfall just west of the lagoon. Silhouetted by the sun, these international athletes could be seen experiencing the joy and fulfillment that exploring by paddleboard and by water brings. All training, work and photos were forgotten in a simple moment of pleasure and connection that makes living a life linked to the water so special. Madeira offers enough opportunities for adventure for any water lover to consider a visit or even a longer stay to take some time to explore the vast beauty this island has to offer.
For more information, please visit the Madeira Toursim Bureau for information regarding visiting Maderia.