Madeira: The Best Island in Europe?

I know I know… Some may say my title for this post is a bit biased based on the fact that Madeira is the island where my dad is from and one of my personal favorite vacation spots. My first international flight ever (and first trip in general) was to Madeira when I was about 4 years old and the island has served as a temporary home for me several summers throughout my life.  Madeira has, and will always have, a special place in my heart, but it is no longer one of Europe’s best kept secrets. Madeira has been voted as the best island in Europe by the World Travel Awards for the past two years (2013 and 2014).

All photography done by Sean Hodrick (unless otherwise noted)

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Ponta So Sol- town where my dad is from

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Looking back at the lifespan of my blog, I realized that I’ve never once dedicated a post to the beauty of this island and why Americans should consider visiting. Being a location that is very near and dear to my heart, it’s important for me to share pictures and experiences from various trips to this island. Visiting has become a cherished experience for me – the ability to go back and explore my roots is a blessing that I am continually grateful for (especially as I get older).  ❤

Below are several reasons why, I believe Madeira was given this travel award, and characteristics of the destination that I love the most.

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The view from my aunt’s house in Ponta do sol

The Natural Geography

A tiny Portuguese island located 350 miles off the coast of Morocco, with a population of about 267,785 (2011), this tropical oasis boasts an incredible geography filled with natural lava pools, mountainous terrain, exotic gardens, stunning cliffs overlooking the Atlantic ocean, and levadas: a system of stone irrigation channels that criss-cross the island and transport water. These levadas serve as great hiking trails for tourists and international backpackers.The waterfalls you’ll either hike under or find at the end of your trail are breathtaking to experience up close and personal.

Pict taken from tripadvisor.com
Porto Moniz- Natural lava pools. Picture taken from tripadvisor.com
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Porto Moniz
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Jardim Tropical Monte Palace in  Funchal, Madeira (the next four pictures are all of this garden)

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Waterfall at the end of our levada hike
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The view from one of our levada hikes
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with my cousins and aunts after our hike

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The Weather and Beaches

The climate is almost always favorable in Madeira. The average temperature ranges from about 72 degrees F in the summer to 61 degrees F in the winter. I personally prefer visiting in the summer because it’s easier to enjoy the beautiful beaches and hiking trails during this season. The weather makes the ocean water clear and warm which is perfect for swimming, surfing, wind-surfing or snorkeling. Most of the beaches are rock beaches (substituting for sand). I love the rock beaches becuase the water is much clearer and you’re able to leave without sand all over your body and clothes. If you absolutely despise rock beaches though, the island has a few sand beaches in the towns of Calheta ( the government had sand flown in from Morocco for this particular beach) and Machico.

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Faja dos Padres Beach

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Ponta Do Sol- the town where my dad is from
Ponta Do Sol

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The Traditional Homes

On the island, you’ll find that most of the homes are white,  built with orange tiled roofs and green shutter blinds, adding a great sense of charm to its towns.

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The Food

Madeirense food is delicious! Seafood is always fresh and readily available when dining out, but there are also a few meat dishes that are very tasty. Popular seafood dishes include lapas ( a mix between a mussel and clam, grilled and topped with lemon and garlic), bacalhau (codfish, prepared several different ways) or espada (black scabbed fish).  Some meat dishes that are popular in Madeira (and that I personally love ) are traditional espetada (large pieces of beef seasoned with garlic and sea salt, skewered onto a branch of bay leaves and left to grill over an open fire),  vinho e alhos (small pieces of pork meat marinaded in a mixture of garlic, wine vinegar and bay leaves) and the popular picado dish. Picado consists of small pieces of beef fried with garlic in a pan, sometimes with  red peppers, served on one big plate surrounded by french fries.  It’s a fun plate to get when your out eating with friends or family because everyone eats out of the same dish.

The Portuguese also love bread. Whenever I leave for the island, I’m always expectant of gaining at least 5 lbs on my trip. If not, it’s almost as if I didn’t really go haha. One of my favorite’s is the bolo do caco, often served as an appetizer or as a side dish for lapas or espatada. Bakeries in Madeira allow for customers to stop by at 2 or 3 AM to pick up fresh made bread, right as it’s coming out of the oven. Often times, my cousins and I would stop at a bakery on the way home from a night out and enjoy a piece or two.

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Banana trees are known to grow all over the island
Lapas
Lapas
Malasadas- traditional Portuguese donuts
Malasadas- traditional Portuguese donuts
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Espatada
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Picado
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Picado and Bolo de Caco
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Espada
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Poncha- a local and popular drink in Madeira
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Queijadas- My favorite Portuguese pastry
Enjoying a dinner meal of espatada with my family
Enjoying a dinner meal of espatada with my family

The Views

The views in Madeira are absolutely amazing. What I love about this island, is that you can go almost anywhere (to any city, any town, the post office, the bank, the mall, etc.) and you’ll almost always still have a view of the ocean. You are constantly surrounded by the beauty and sounds of the sea.

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The Festas

Visiting Madeira during the summer is also ideal for experiencing all the summer festivals and street parties (called “festas” in Portuguese). These festas vary in celebration and range from celebrating catholic saints (like the “Nossa Senhora da Saúde” festival, in the parish of Lameiros, São Vicente- one of the biggest on the island) to popular dishes like the black scabbed fish festival. Food and drink stands align the streets and popular DJS and bands fill the air with an eclectic variety of music. Locals and tourists of all ages are welcome to participate in and enjoy these festivals. Another popular street party is the Madeira flower festival where locals line the streets with fresh flower carpets in addition to hosting a parade with floats and dancers.

pic taken from http://www.visitmadeira.pt/admin/public/getimage.ashx?Image=/Files/Images/VisitMadeira/Newsletter/2015/abril/Festa_Flor_FC_127.jpg&altFmImage_path=&&&Compression=80
pic taken from http://www.visitmadeira.pt
pic taken from http://www.gazetadorossio.pt/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/festa-da-flor-funchal.jpg
pic taken from http://www.gazetadorossio.pt
pic taken from http://www.jornaldamadeira.pt/sites/default/files/imagecache/400xY/festas_de_sao_vicente.jpg
pic taken from http://www.jornaldamadeira.pt

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My brother enjoying a Poncha at the festa
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the guys hanging out at the festa da Sao Vicente

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The Holiday Celebrations

Although I’ve never personally gone to Madeira during the holiday season , around Christmas and New Year’s, my dad and several family members and friends tell me its a beautiful time to visit because of all of the gorgeous decorations and traditional celebrations. The capital city, Funchal, is illuminated with all kinds of colored lights that go up December 1st and last until January 6th.The famous Funchal market (Mercado dos Lavradores) also occurs during this time of year. The streets are crowded with tons of people creating a real festive spirit, singing Christmas carols, dancing, eating and having fun. The most impressive celebration 
 during the month of December is the New Years Eve firework display in Funchal. In fact, in 2006, the Guinness World Records inspected all 37 launch stations in the Madeira region to officially deem it the largest fireworks show in the world.

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pic taken from findingportugal.com
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pic taken from citycentreretreat.com
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pic taken from momondo.com

These are the reasons I love visiting Madeira. In addition to those mentioned above, the locals are super friendly and hospitable, there’s virtually no crime making it an incredibly safe destination and visiting is cheaper than traveling to most other countries in Western Europe (like Spain, France and Italy).  Every time I’ve gone, I always find lots to do, whether it be going to a festa or concert at night with my cousins or playing cards on the beach until 2 AM with new friends, there is never a dull moment. =)

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Huge shout out to Sean Hodrick for joining us in Madeira 3 years ago and capturing all of this beautiful photography. Check out his travel memoir http://issuu.com/seanhodrick/docs/thetravelersmemoir_1_/1 to see more pictures of his adventures abroad.

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