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Madeira’s Family-Friendly Capital

by Barbara Rogers

May 21, 2018

Rechitan Sorin | Dreamstime.com

Destinations / Europe

The Portuguese island of Madeira offers so many things for families to do that a week there is barely enough time. The experiences range from riding high above the treetops in a cable car to swimming in the sea with dolphins.


Most adventures begin in Funchal, the island’s capital city. It’s an easy city to love, with tree-lined streets climbing up from its busy harbor, the center for several sea-going excursions. At one end is the Teleferico, an exciting cable car ride to the village of Monte. But before your family steps aboard, stroll through the Old Town to see the surprising painted doorways along Rua de Santa Maria. Once a run-down neighborhood, it has been revitalized without losing its character, by painters and sculptors who used the street-level doorways as canvases for their art. Houses in this oldest part of Funchal are quite small, so the colorful doorways are close together, creating a bright landscape that’s become a magnet for cafés and restaurants.


The Teleferico carries you at a vertigo-inducing height above a deep ravine before depositing you in the village of Monte, but the ride down is even more exciting. Before the cable car and buses, people had to climb the long hill to the upper town, but they devised a unique way to shorten the trip back down to Funchal. Using the local expertise in basket weaving (baskets are still made here — small ones make good souvenirs), they constructed big wicker sleds with thick wooden runners. These skate down the steep street, held in check by two men wearing thick-treaded shoes. Today these sleds are filled with tourists — it is one of those irresistible “only-in-Madeira” experiences, and certainly an unusual thrill ride.

Portugal; Madeira; Funchal; harbor; replica of the Columbus ship Santa Maria under sail

Photo: Stillman Rogers

While in Monte, stop at the beautiful Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, a magical world of soaring trees and lush exotic plants and flowers that cascade down through a deep ravine. Kids will love its bright tiled walls, arched bridges, swans, peacocks, grottos and surprising sculptures hidden among its winding paths. And they will be blown away by the museum, where a fantastic collection of 700 gems, crystals and giant geodes from all over the world glow and sparkle in a cave-like setting. It’s the closest thing to stepping into Aladdin’s cave.


Back at the harbor there are several sea adventures to choose from. Recalling the years Christopher Columbus lived in Madeira, a faithful replica of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, takes passengers on an exciting sailing voyage into the 1400s. It’s not all history, though, with a stop for swimming in the summer and dolphins to spot.


The waters of the Atlantic Ocean that surround Madeira are some of the best for spotting both dolphins and whales, and one of the island’s most exciting experiences is taking a zodiac excursion with Rota dos Cetaceos. Five species of whale and five more of dolphin are found around Madeira, and a marine biologist accompanies each trip to identify them. You’re guaranteed to see some of these cetaceans or you get another cruise free. It is also possible to swim with dolphins on these trips — a real thrill, especially for kids. Children under age 5 cruise free.


Portugal, Maderia, Funchal, Savoy Royal Hotel, room, pool, waterfront,

Savoy Royal Hotel. Photo: Stillman Rogers


Right on the sea at one end of the harbor, and a short walk from the center of Funchal, the Royal Savoy is a good hotel choice for families. It is handy to everything, but feels like an island of its own, with beautiful swimming pools surrounded by palm trees and lounge chairs overlooking the sea. You can swim in the ocean or one of three heated seawater pools (little kids have their own splash pool). There is a spa with Turkish bath and sauna; the large games area will keep kids amused. Rooms are spacious and overlook the ocean; suites have their own kitchenettes, especially handy if you’re traveling with small children.


SATA and TAP Air Portugal both fly to Madeira, connecting through the Azores or Lisbon.


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