Porto Santo, Portugal’s Island of Beaches

Six straight miles of uninterrupted, white-sand beach is reason enough to choose the Portuguese island of Porto Santo for a family vacation. Never heard of Porto Santo? You’re not alone; it’s one of Europe’s last few secret beach destinations.

You may have heard of Porto Santo’s big sister, the island of Madeira. Actually, Porto Santo is part of that same archipelago, which consists of it, the larger island of Madeira and a couple of uninhabited islands part of a marine nature reserve. They lie in the Atlantic about 600 miles from the Portuguese mainland.

Porto Santo couldn’t be more different from its sister island, a two-hour boat ride away, although they were formed by the same volcanic action. While Madeira juts suddenly from the Atlantic in dramatic vertical cliffs and has virtually no beaches or even flat coastline at all, Porto Santo is low (its highest peak is only 1,700 feet, compared to Madeira’s mountains which soar to 6,100), with its southern shore almost entirely beach.

Porto Santo has its share of dramatic coastline, though, on the northern side of the island. We had a chance to see it during a 3.5-hour Jeep tour around the island with Lazermar (the Lazermar website is in Portuguese, but the guide/owner speaks excellent English and will respond to emails in English). The kids (half price for ages 6–12) loved bouncing along in the 4X4 vehicle as it navigated back roads, and they learned a bit about geology and history as we explored with our guide.

Portugal, Madeira, Porto Santo Island, Pico Ana Ferreira, volcanic, basalt, volcanoclastic, columnar structure, prisms,

Basalt formations of Pico Ferreira, Porto Santo, Maderia, Portugal © Stillman Rogers

A highlight was the astonishing mountainside of basalt columns at Pico Ana Ferreira. Columnar basalt is formed by volcanic action, creating a series of tightly packed columns so perfectly shaped they seem to have been painstakingly carved by hand. The kids could climb on some of the lower columns which form giant stairs.

Portugal, Madeira, Island of Porto Santo, Casa da Serra, old farm, restoration, honey, museum,

Casa de Serra Farm Museum, Porto Santo Island, Madeira, Portugal © Stillman Rogers

Another hit with the kids was a visit to Casa da Serra, a traditional island farmhouse where they could see how people used to live (the tiny kitchen seemed the right size for a playhouse) and meet some of the farm animals. The adults sampled the island’s wine (Madeira is famous for its rich-flavored dessert wines) and we all sampled traditional cookies and cakes. The tiny souvenir stand sold local handicrafts.

Of course, the miles of wide beaches were what drew us to Porto Santo, but there are other attractions to visit. A small botanical garden, Quinta das Palmeiras, is home to a number of brilliant tropical birds, as well as the tropical plants. For a bit of history, we visited the house where Christopher Columbus lived during the two years he spent on Porto Santo. Columbus was married to Filipa Moniz, daughter of a local dignitary.

Portugal, Madeira, Island of Porto Santo, Vila Baleira, Museo do Porto Santo, Casa Colombo,

Christopher Columbus House, Vila Baleira, Porto Santo Island, Madeira, Portugal © Stillman Rogers

The only real town on the island is Vila Baleira, which stretches behind a long section of the beach. Most of the hotels are here, and it’s just outside of town that the daily ferry from Madeira lands. There’s a handy shuttle bus into the center, and from there you can choose your own bit of sand.

Ours was at Ponta Calheta, at the southwestern tip of the island where the long beach ends in a flourish of sea-worn rocks. These low ledges and outcrops, carved into intriguing caves and shapes, fascinate kids, who spend as much time in their tidal pools as they do on the soft white sand. No resorts or hotels mar the landscape.

This is the best place on the island to watch the sunset, which we did from a table on the terrace of the beach-bar restaurant, O Calhetas. It’s the only sign of civilization on this otherwise empty point, and a welcome one for thirsty beach-goers. The food was excellent and the servings enormous. Fortunately, our waiter warned us of this, so the kids split an order of seafood spaghetti (the restaurant’s specialty) while we ate ceviche and grilled local fish. The waiter also told us not to hurry to finish before dark, as they would give us a ride back to our hotel after dinner.

The hospitality on Porto Santo is as good as its beaches.