Immediately east of Funchal, the Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro is a beautiful spot for a stroll. The mansion is the private property of the Blandy wine family, former owners of Reid's Palace. The 12-hectare (30-acre) estate, with some 3,000 plant species, is like a pleasure garden. The camellia blooms that burst into full flower from Christmas until early spring are reason enough to visit. You'll also see many rare flowers (often from Africa) and exotic trees.
The estate is open Monday to Friday 9am to 4:30pm. Admission is 10€. Permission must be granted for picnics: Ask at the gate upon your arrival. Bus no. 36 from Funchal runs here. By car, drive 5km (3 miles) northeast of Funchal, following N101 toward the airport. Fork left onto N102 and follow signposts toward Camacha until you see the turnoff to the quinta.
The grandest miradouro (or belvedere) in Madeira is Eira do Serrado, at 1,175m (3,854 ft.). This belvedere looks out over the Grande Curral, which is the deep crater (nicknamed "the belly button" of the island) of a long extinct volcano in the center of Madeira. You can look down into this awesome crater, viewing farms built on terraces inside the crater itself. The panorama takes in all the craggy mountain summits of Madeira if the day is clear. You can drive all the way to the lookout point, where you can park your car and get out to take in the view. The location is 16km (10 miles) northwest of Funchal. To reach the lookout point, head west out of Funchal on Rua Dr. João Brito Câmara, which leads to a little road signposted to Pico Dos Barcelos. Follow the sign to Eira do Serrado until you reach the parking lot for the belvedere.
After taking in the view at the belvedere, head north along N107, which is signposted, to the stunningly situated village of Curral das Freiras, 6.5km (4 miles) north of Eira do Serrado. Meaning "Corral of the Nuns," the village used to be the center of the Convento de Santa Clara, where the sisters retreated for safety whenever Moorish pirates attacked Funchal. On the way to the village, the road goes through two tunnels cut through the mountains. Curral das Freiras sits in almost the exact geographic center of Madeira, lying in a valley of former volcanoes (all now extinct). The volcanoes surrounding Curral das Freiras were said to have been responsible for pushing up the landmass that is now Madeira from the sea. The village of whitewashed houses is centered on a small main square with a church of only passing interest. Most visitors stroll around the village, take in views of the enveloping mountains, have a cup of coffee at one of the cafes, and then head back to Funchal. Allow about 2 hours to make the 36km (22-mile) circuit of Eira do Serrado and Curral das Freiras.
If time is limited, head for the western part of Madeira, where you'll find panoramic views along the coastlines, dramatic waterfalls, and cliffs towering over the ocean. Leave Funchal on the coastal road, N101, heading west for 19km (12 miles) to the village of Câmara de Lobos, beloved by Sir Winston Churchill.
Câmara de Lobos
You approach the Room of the Wolves after passing terraces planted with bananas. The little fishing village of whitewashed red-tile-roofed cottages surrounds a cliff-sheltered harbor and rocky beach. If you come here around 7 or 8am, you can see fishers unloading their boats after a night at sea. There is nothing finer to do here than walk along the harbor taking in the view and perhaps deciding to follow Churchill's example and become a Sunday painter.
The village also makes a good spot for lunch. The best place to eat is Santo Antonio (tel. 29/191-03-60), some 5km (3 miles) from Câmara de Lobos, in the tiny village of Estreito de Câmara de Lobos (popularly known as Estreito). Near the little village church, owner Manuel Silvestro offers mostly grills, including golden chicken, cooked over an open hearth. A specialty is espetada, Madeira's most famous dish -- delicately flavored skewered beef on a spit. Don't expect elegance -- you dine at simple paper-covered tables and mop up juices with crusty bread. Santo Antonio is open daily from noon to midnight; main courses cost 6€ to 14€. Major credit cards are accepted, and no reservations are needed.
The cliffs you might have seen from Câmara de Lobos lie 16km (10 miles) west of the village. To get to Cabo Girão, take R214 up a hill studded with pine and eucalyptus. From the 570m (1,870-ft.) belvedere, the panorama down the almost-sheer drop to the pounding ocean is thrilling. The terraced farms you'll see clinging to the cliff edges are cultivated entirely by hand because the plots are too small for either animal or machine.
Continuing on the coast road west, you'll come to Ribeira Brava, which lies 15km (9 1/3 miles) west of Cabo Girão and 48km (30 miles) west of Funchal. Meaning "Wide River," Ribeira Brava is a lovely little Madeiran village (founded in 1440) and the sunniest spot on the island. It even has what locals refer to as a "beach," although you might view it as a strip of pebbles along the water.
We like to visit the village for its bustling seafront fruit market, which is active every morning except Sunday. Even if you don't buy anything, it's worth a stroll through the market to take in the amazing bounty grown in the mountains of Madeira. It also provides a great photo opportunity. As you stroll through the village, you'll encounter locals selling island handicrafts, and you can visit a little 16th-century church in the center of the village. It has absolutely no artistic treasures, but locals are fond of pointing it out to visitors anyway. There is one more sight, the ruins of the 17th-century Forte de São Bento. This towered fort once protected the fishing village against pirates from the African coast to the east. From Ribeira Brava, head north along N104 to the center of the island, toward Serra de Água.
Serra de Água
Serra de Água, a little village 6.5km (4 miles) north of Ribeira Brava, is reached by traversing a sheer canyon. One of the best centers for exploring Madeira's lush interior, it's also the site of one of the island's best pousadas (government-sponsored inns). Surrounded by abundant crops, jade-green fields, ferns, bamboo, weeping willows, and plenty of waterfalls, the village enjoys one of the loveliest settings in Madeira. Come here not for attractions, but for pure scenic beauty, though you should be warned that mist and clouds often shroud the town.
For dining and lodging, seek out the Dorisol Pousada dos Vinháticos, Estrada de São Vicente Serra de Água, 9350 Ribeira Brava (tel. 29/195-23-44; fax 29/195-25-40; www.pousadadosvinhaticos.com), near the top of a pass on the winding road to São Vicente. You can visit for a meal or spend the night. The solid stone pousada, a tavern-style building with a brick terrace, opened in 1940. The tasty food is hearty and unpretentious, often depending on the catch of the day. Specialties include espetada (a swordfish version), ox tongue with Madeira sauce, and local beef flavored with regional wines. Main courses cost 10€ to 22€; hours are daily from noon to 6pm and 7 to 9pm. Reservations are recommended.
Most of the immaculate guest rooms are done in Portuguese modern style; a few contain antiques. All have good views. The price of a double is 48€ to 80€, including breakfast. Major credit cards are accepted, and parking is free.
From Serra de Água, the route climbs to the 990m (3,247-ft.) Boca da Encumeada ★, or Encumeada Pass, 6.5km (4 miles) north of Serra de Água. It's one of the island's best centers for hiking (information about hiking is available from the tourist office in Funchal), and a belvedere affords great panoramas over both sides of Madeira.
Following the route northwest of Boca da Encumeada, you reach the village of São Vicente, 14km (8 2/3 miles) northwest of Boca da Encumeada and 56km (35 miles) northwest of Funchal.
One of the best-known towns on the north coast lies where the São Vicente River meets the ocean. Again, you come here for the sweeping views, some of the most dramatic on the island. Part of the fun of going to São Vicente is taking the one-lane north-coast route. In a miraculous and costly feat of engineering, it was chiseled out of pure cliff face. It's a nightmare if you encounter one of the bloated tour buses taking this highway. You'll often have to back up because the drivers rarely give way. Constructed in 1950 and nicknamed the "gold road," the drive offers views of water cascading down the slopes. Many locals have planted vineyards in this seemingly inhospitable terrain.
In such a remote outpost, an inn comes as a welcome relief. You'll find good food and lodging at Estalagem do Mar, Juncos, Fajã da Areia, 9240 São Vicente (tel. 29/184-00-10; fax 29/184-00-19; www.estalagemdomar.com). Most visitors pass through here only to dine on the excellent regional and international cuisine. Specialties include swordfish prepared in almost any style. Many versions of sea bass are served, and the meat dishes -- especially perfectly grilled veal chop and beef filet in mushroom cream sauce -- are also good. Main courses cost 10€ to 25€, with a set menu for 20€; it's open daily noon to 3pm and 7 to 10pm. Reservations are recommended.
If you decide to spend the night, the 91-room inn offers rather simply furnished accommodations opening onto views of the ocean. The inn has a provincial look, with flowery curtains and spreads, but rooms are modern, with tiled bathrooms, TVs, and phones. On the premises are an indoor and outdoor pool, a tennis court, a Jacuzzi, a sauna, a gym, and a game room. Limited room service is available. The three-floor hotel was built in the early 1990s. A double costs 60€ and a suite costs 80€, including breakfast. Parking is free. Major credit cards are accepted, and reservations are recommended.
From São Vicente, you can continue west along N101 to the town of Porto Moniz, 16km (10 miles) away in one of the remotest parts of Madeira.
This portion of the "gold road" is one of the most difficult but dramatic drives in Portugal, requiring nerves of steel. The road is boldly cut into the side of a towering cliff that plunges vertically into the ocean below. Eventually you arrive at Porto Moniz, a fishing village of great charm built at the site of a sheltered anchorage shaped by a slender peninsula jutting out toward an islet, Ilhéu Mole. This is the only sheltered harbor on the north coast of Madeira. Porto Moniz boasts no major sights other than the old village itself, with its fishermen's cottages and cobbled lanes. The adventure is surviving the trip.
For the best food in the area, head for Restaurante Orca, Vila do Porto Moniz, Porto Moniz 9270 (tel. 29/185-00-00; fax 29/185-00-19). Tasty options include swordfish in mushroom and cream sauce, filet of beef served with dates, and fresh tuna steak breaded in corn flour and then sautéed and served with country cabbage and potatoes. Main courses cost 12€ to 33€. Food is served daily from noon to 4pm and 6:30 to 9pm. Major credit cards are accepted, and reservations are recommended.
Aquário is a real discovery, serving some of the freshest and finest fish dishes on the island, all at very affordable prices. This waterfront restaurant (Seixal, Porto Moniz; tel. 29/185-43-96) is too often ignored by visitors who flock to the other dining spots in Porto Muniz. Your meal begins here when the waiter comes around and serves you a heaping basket of homemade bread and a carafe of the local wine. The soups -- especially the wonderfully spicy fish soup -- are hearty and the portions are generous. The best main courses are the grilled fish of the day. The filet of swordfish, with rice studded with morsels of seafood, is our favorite. The cooks also prepare a nightly selection of fresh vegetables. Main courses are 8€ to 16€. Major credit cards are accepted. It's open daily from noon to 10pm.
After leaving Porto Moniz, you can continue southwest along N101, going back along a winding road via Ribeira Brava and Câmara de Lobos until you finally make the full circuit back into Funchal.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.