Funchal, Madeira – Christmas in Paradise

Christmas 2021 loomed and was certain to be like no other. I knew I wouldn’t have the time to get back to Canada to be with family, but this would be the first Christmas since my mom had passed. As anyone who has lost a close loved-one can attest to, big holidays like this can be so hard. I really wanted to be with my dad and sister but since that couldn’t happen, I told Eric to get me out of our house and somewhere warm!

We settled on the tropical island of Madeira, part of an archipelago 700km off the coast of Africa and controlled by Portugal (~1000km from the coast of Lisbon). Here, we knew that Sophie and I could sit by the pool and relax, but Eric could also hike mountaintops and explore, as he gets antsy being still too long. First, we looked at renting beautiful whole-house airBnBs with heated pools and ocean views, but while looking, I came across the holiday packages at Jet2.com and was astounded at how comparable the prices were to a self-catering holiday. We could stay at a 5-star resort with 5 pools, 6 restaurants, spas, and wonderful service without having to grocery shop, cook, or drive ourselves! (This last point became increasingly more important as our trip went on). There was also entertainment, concierge service, and room service during the holiday!

(The view from our balcony)

There are many, many, times in our week’s vacation where we were thankful to have booked with a holiday provider and not be self-catered. The very first was during our flight to Madeira. We knew that weather on the island wasn’t supposed to be very good that day, but what can you do, eh? Unfortunately, the Funchal airport is actually one of the ten worst airport runways to land on in the world, especially during poor (windy) weather. We took off on time, but upon approaching destination, our pilot informed us that the airport was currently closed due to wind gusts in excess of 90mph and that we would circle in a hold pattern and hope it may open soon and we could land. Well, after an hour of circling, we had to abandon that plan and the pilot informed us we were being diverted to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, about an hour away.
Jet2 did a wonderful job of finding us accommodation for the night at a nice hotel – not just a crummy airport hotel but a resort hotel with pools and restaurants. They transported us and took care of us. More importantly, because we were with the holiday provider, we didn’t ever have to worry about contacting our hotel or other reservations in Madeira. If we had gone the self-catering route, we would have spent hours dealing with the airBnB host, the car rental company, any tour companies we booked, etc (and trying to do it all in Portuguese!).

Poolside in Tenerife. It was no where near as nice as the resort we had booked in Madeira, but it wasn’t an airport hotel and it was warmer than Madeira! We could relax by the pool and try to make the best of it.

After yet another day of travel and airports and planes (at least this flight was only an hour long), we finally made it to Madeira and realised how absolutely amazing our resort was. We had pre-booked a taxi to pick us up at the airport and take us to the hotel (another thing that we didn’t have to worry about rescheduling!) and with the 20-minute or so drive to the hotel I noted two main things. 1-The highways on Madeira are amazing; what a feat of infrastructure- weaving around, through, above, and below mountains. Cliffs on one side and ocean on the other, everywhere was scenic! And 2- As soon as you left the highway, the roads became about 45 degrees incline everywhere! I was immediately thankful that we (Eric) didn’t rent a car and have to get ourselves around this island. It was terrifying!

Example: In this photo taken from the cable car, you can see beautiful highway on the left, and then on the right, steep normal road that is NOT highway

I do not suggest to ANYONE to drive themselves around Madeira unless you are very, very well versed in driving manual transmission on steep hills on narrow European roads. Automatic transmissions are near unheard-of on the island because you need the manual transmission to gear-down while going down hills rather than braking or you would wear out your brakes every month. Sure, a lot of us say we know how to drive stick but if it’s been more than a few years and you weren’t doing it on steep roads, don’t bother. And throw in the tight European roads which is something else to get used to (I’ve lived here for 2.5 years and I still hate it and am not used to it, I can’t wait to get home to Canada and wide roads). Anyway, don’t be cocky about driving on this island unless it’s something you actually do daily.

Back to our resort- we stayed at the Porto Mare Hotel and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone or go back there myself. We had a small suite for the 3 of us, 2 bathrooms, comfortable beds (Eric and I essentially had 2 double beds beside each other, it was huge!), and a beautiful balcony with view. There were 5 pools at the resort but only 2 were indoors and heated. (The ones outside were pretty frigid in the December weather.) There were 4 restaurants, a buffet, and 2 bars to chose from. The food was awesome, we loved it. Service was fantastic everywhere we went, whenever we wanted anything. The resort grounds were what felt like a giant botanical garden, we could walk through these stunning gardens every day – even a special orchid garden the size of my house! Sophie particularly liked the little aviary with a few cockatiels and budgies. They were adorable and sweet to listen to (we could hear them sing from our balcony).



On our first day, we wanted to get our bearings in the town of Funchal. We took a cab into the old town and first visited the fruit market. They take their fruit and flowers very seriously, being a tropical island. It was stunning.

Then we did a touristy thing and bought tickets to go up the Funchal mountainside in a cable car. I’ve been in the Rocky Mountains and taken cable cars up mountains there as well as Sicily before but holy heck this was steep!!!! And it just kept going and going higher and higher! Apparently the cable car distance is 3200m and the mountain is 550m up.

Taken in the first 1/4 of our trip, so not that high up yet!

Then how to get back DOWN the mountain??? On the cable car again (which Sophie was afraid of)? Take a cab down the narrow switchback roads? (We watched them going up the mountain from the cable car and it did not look nice). Or should we take the traditional way down the mountain? Traditional wicker basket sledges (toboggans) have been used since the early 19th century to help people get down the mountain into town. Now, the baskets are each driven by 2 men in traditional white dress to get tourists down the mountain for fun. It looks crazy, going downhill so fast in a wicker basket, but those 2 drivers have lot of control and are frequently even pulling us along.


The next day, Eric was looking forward to the hiking he had planned while Sophie and I were looking forward to a day relaxing by the pool. He got a company to pick him up at the hotel at 0630 to take him to the top of one of the tallest mountains on the island. It is common to watch the sunrise here, as it is above the cloudline and can make for spectacular views; however, not so much in December. He didn’t get to see the sunrise, unfortunately, as they were all in the cloud, but then he had an enjoyable and beautiful 8km hike from one mountain peak to the next.

Ah, hell no!
Good for him! Not my idea of a fun morning.

Eric took a day of rest the day after his hike with lots of hot-tub time and in the evening we went into old town Funchal as there was supposed to be an annual Christmas market. We were picturing Christmas markets like other places in Europe, with booths full of homemade goodies and handicrafts, along with lots to eat and drink. Alas, this was only a single block lined with booths selling various forms of alcohol, mostly Poncha, the traditional liqueur from Madeira. It was essentially a giant block-long street party. (We needed to show both proof of vaccination AND negative tests to get in!).

We ended up walking through the streets of old Funchal and weren’t expecting it, but it turns out that we didn’t know it or expect it, but Funchal is known for and amazing at Christmas lights displays! All over the city, we were absolutely amazed. Lights were everywhere and not just tossed like usual, but meticulously placed and complete art. Every street and lane was a different theme and set-up, looking like it had been done by designers. Our breath was continuously taken away.

It wasn’t the evening of a Christmas market that we were expecting, but it was still a very Christmas-ey evening viewing all the lights and we had a lovely time.

Next morning, we woke early (not as early as Eric did for his hike!) as we were being picked up for a private day-tour of the island by Hit The Road Madeira. Choosing a private day-tour like this isn’t necessarily the cheapest option, but it is the best way to get the most for our money due to my accessibility needs. Our tour guide, Jeff, may have been used to clients who want a wild 4×4 drive to the most remote areas of the island, but he was happy to quickly adapt to our needs and wants and took us to areas I wouldn’t have to walk too far, but could still see some great lookouts and sights. He was so knowledgeable about the history and ecology of the island and we learned a lot along the way.

First up, we went to Cabo Girao, a glass-bottom platform on the edge of one of the highest cliffs in Europe. (580 metres!) Gulp.

There was no getting Sophie and me on that glass floor. Nope.

Throughout the day, our guide ended up taking us pretty much clockwise right around the island. It was absolutely stunning. He learned quickly that Sophie and I couldn’t stand the very (very, very) steep and narrow roads and to stick to the bigger roads and he was happy to oblige. He stopped at all the great lookouts along the way (the kind of little ones that had we been driving ourselves, we would have driven right past without noticing).

Taking a private tour meant I didn’t have to stress my body to keep up with a group, or go places that were inaccessible or difficult for me. Yes, this is another example of how a disabled person ends up having to pay more in life to do essentially the same things (pay more money for a private guide vs the much-cheaper group tour) but I was definitely comfortable all day- great job Hit The Road Madeira 5 stars!

Being away for Christmas in a Catholic country meant planning ahead. Well before we left, we booked dinner reservations for not only Christmas day but also Christmas Eve (as we realised it would be a bigger holiday than Christmas night). It’s lucky we did this because from what we heard, everywhere was packed and no one could find a reservation Christmas Eve! We had a fabulous dinner at the Italian restaurant at our resort where they put out Christmas crackers and poured sparkling wine.

Cheers!

On Christmas Day, we opened the few, small gifts that we had packed and went to the fab hotel breakfast buffet, and then spent the day in the pool. It was perfect!


On the day after Christmas, we headed to the mall down the road in the morning, which was beautiful, half open-air. Sophie had received some euros as a gift early in the week but hadn’t spent them and I’m pretty sure they were burning a hole in her pocket. She found a few articles of clothing and fashion to buy and we went back to the hotel for an afternoon swim.

Overall, this was the perfect Christmas adventure getaway. It was exactly what we wanted, a combination of a warm and relaxing seaside holiday while still being able to explore a beautiful new location, an old European city, and a new culture.


One of the many awesome decorations in the hotel