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


Venice, Our break-out from the UK!

Ah, the City of Love! What better place to escape to after 20 months of pandemic isolation stuck in the UK?!? Especially as post-lockdown crowds are a tiny fraction of what they used to be. Now, there are no big cruise ships (there used to be sometimes tens every day!), and minimal day-trippers. Come evening, the city seems almost deserted – And we loved it!

We arrived at the airport around 5:30pm – our flight was late, we were tired, etc. Luckily, we had arranged for private water taxi to transfer us to our hotel in Venice. The airport is on the mainland and it is usually quite a trek to get actually IN to Venice from it – you can wait for the crowded and long waterbus – that would have eventually got us in to Venice around 8pm for around €20 each (such a headache!). Or we could have taken a bus over land to the main entrance/bridge to the city for about €8 each. We did neither of these options and went full comfort and speed and pre-booked ourselves a private water taxi to take us right to the entrance of our hotel. They run at about €130. But I didn’t have to do any walking, we didn’t have to lug our bags, and we didn’t have to search a foreign city as the sun was going down (and we were told Google maps doesn’t work great in the city!) to find our hotel. It was perfect and so worth it.

Our first views as we approached Venice at sunset

As it happened, the day we travelled to Venice was also my birthday! So luckily, we got to our beautiful hotel (Splendid Venice), checked-in, and then were able to get out for a lovely dinner at a decent hour. We knew there’d be a thousand restaurants and we’d be overwhelmed by choice our first time out, so we asked our hotel concierge for a recommendation for good pasta and ambience and we were not disappointed. (Incidentally, concierge also noticed it was my birthday on check-in and left a card and gift of biscotti in my room for me while we were out at dinner! Wonderful service!)

It was a wonderful birthday evening!

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When we awoke on our first morning, we had to go to a pharmacy and get Sophie a Covid test, as she needed a ‘Green Pass’ for Italy (even though she is double-vaccinated, the UK doesn’t provide QR code passes for kids under 16, and Italy requires them for kids over 12, so she needed to have a negative test every 48 hours instead- UGH). It was €22 and a pain to go get, but only really 30 minutes out of our day once we figured it all out. Once we had her Green Pass, we decided to head to Piazza San Marco to see the biggest/main tourist sites that we wanted to see in Venice – the Basilica and the Doge’s palace.

Basilica San Marco


Before we left home, Eric almost bought ‘Skip the Line’ passes for these attractions. Once we saw the line-ups in St. Mark’s square, he regretted not buying them. But both when he was contemplating buying them and regretting not buying them, I just shook my cane in his face and reminded him that I’m handicapped and this is Europe! Here in Europe (I do NOT find the same thing in North America, which is actually awful), they respect the fact that I use a walking cane and can’t stand in a line for a long time. So we just walk to the front of the line and wave down a security guard/gate agent and ask for the handicapped entrance. Sometimes there is a different entrance, sometimes they just open the barrier and let us through ahead of any huge line there may be. We still had to go through all the Covid/temperature/Green Pass checks – I just didn’t have to wait in the long line. Maybe it makes the people at the back of the line bitter and mad but hey, I’d rather wait in line and not have MS. Anyway – point being, if you’re reading this because you, like me, have any accessibility issues, make sure you know that you do NOT have to wait in lines in Europe and just be bold, walk up to the front of the line and ask to go through! Sometimes it feels awkward, but we’ve done it everywhere and literally never been told no! (Always have your handicapped parking pass available for proof, as sometimes they require it, like most places in Spain did, but then were happy to help).

Inside the ostentatious Doge’s palace
Sophie inside the prison walls, which is attached to the palace, which we also toured.




Outside the palace and basilica in San Marco’s square, because I had to have a nice sit and rest, we decided to take the moment and splurge on a ‘snack’ at Caffè Florian, the oldest and- just about- most well-known cafe in Venice. And when I say splurge… I mean, the most expensive coffee, macarons, and gelato that we’ve ever had and ever will have. But the ambience of sitting there in that beautiful setting, being serenaded by a live piano band, and people-watching in the square, was all worth it. We really loved it!

The view of the lagoon-front in Venice from the Doge’s Palace. And where we later went to lunch.

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Our next day in Venice, we had a private tour booked to head to the islands of Murano and Burano. Venice Lagoon is full of many, many islands. Some of them derelict, some of them for cemeteries, some for agriculture, etc. They once even had sick (leper) islands. Hundreds of years ago, when the craft of glassmaking was being honed, the Venetians were afraid of the risk of fire in their close and cramped city, so they ‘banished’ all glassmakers to the island of Murano to keep their fires in one spot there. Really, this just made good sense! However, hundreds of years later, the glassmaking and blowing have passed down in the same families, each family still has their own recipe, techniques, Masters, and secrets. It’s an amazing tradition. We bought a beautiful set of hand-blown drinking tumblers to forever remember our holiday.

A Master making a drinking glass
Our new glass tumblers

We also went to Burano, which was a traditional fishing village where the men all left every morning to go fish and the women stayed behind to cook, clean, etc. The women behind started to take up a form of hand-crafting beautiful lace. This was another traditional craft passed down through generations, from mother to daughter. However, this part of the tour ended up getting somewhat pushy of a salespitch trying to sell us €1500 tablecloths (absolutely beautiful and worth no less, but totally out of my price range and just not my style). So we moved on and enjoyed the stunning colour and beauty that is the tiny island of Burano. The official websites say that all the houses of Burano are so brightly coloured so that the fishermen could find the right house in the foggy, dark mornings to steer their boat to. Our private, sassy, tour guide says local lore was that housewives were more inclined to paint their house a bright colour very different than the neighbours so that her drunk husband would stumble into the right house –and more importantly the right bed– at night. She said all the local islanders look a little too related for a reason, haha!

Here, you can really see the very crooked bell tower! It has more of a lean than the tower of Pisa!

The benefit of us taking a private tour is that the guide went at my pace. She was great and recognised when I’d been standing too long and couldn’t walk any farther, so rather than one section of the tour that she usually walks, she got the water taxi and we did it by canal so we could still see the whole area, but I could sit. Also as we came to Burano, after a couple hours at Murano, I knew that Sophie’s blood sugar would be starting to go lower as noon (normal lunchtime) was upon us. The Italians eat on a different schedule and our tour wasn’t set to end for a few more hours, and I was guessing lunch wasn’t scheduled in. However, I just mentioned to our guide that we needed to find somewhere to eat (I didn’t want to just feed Sophie Skittles the whole time) and why and she was fantastic. She recommended a great little restaurant, found out the fresh special of the day was lasagna, so both Sophie and I ordered that and it turned out to be the best meal of our whole week in Venice. Best lasagna of my life! Once lunch was done, we were back on our way and our guide just accommodated us into the tour. It was perfect.

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Our last day in Venice, we just wanted to be. I had so far enjoyed getting around and seeing Venice so much, the alleys, the views, the window shopping, the food! So we said let’s just take off and get lost, eat when and where we want, amble where we want, and let Venice be our guide.

The only thing that changed this plan slightly was our guide from the day before gave us a booking for the rooftop terrace at the T Fondaco, the posh mall right next to the Rialto Bridge and the grand canal. The terrace has to be booked weeks in advance for only 15-minute intervals, which we didn’t want to commit ourselves to weeks before we came. But to accept the booking only the day before, we thought that was great! The guide had an extra booking and gave it to us (it’s free, just very limited and hard to get) and we got to go have a fabulous view of Venice and the Grand Canal.

We decided to take yet another sit and stop in the sun at the foot of the Rialto Bridge here and have some snacks (bruschetta) and a spritz -famous in Venice, the spritz is a traditional cocktail of prosecco, digestive bitters (Aperol or Campari), and soda water, garnished with a slice of orange and an olive. We drank a lot of spritzes!



Then as we started to walk deep into the lanes of Venice to get ourselves lost, we took the opportunity of being away from the crowds to take a few great Insta-worthy shots.

I mean, we couldn’t pass up these amazing opportunities!

We also walked by and stopped in at the famous Acqua Alta Liberia (bookshop) that regularly floods when the tide is very high, so all their books are stored in gondolas and tubs, along with the higher shelves! It supposedly also usually has many cats all over, but we didn’t see a single one.




Lastly we decided to go all-tourist and do the necessary gondola ride. What’s a visit to Venice without one? Our beautiful hotel room was right over a quiet canal and there’d been gondolas going down it all week, now it was our turn. We were nowhere near our hotel – in fact we had no idea where we were – but I was ready for a sit and we saw a gondola stand so we grabbed a boat and went for a ride. It was wonderful.

It was really the perfect way to finish our time in Venice.


Overall, I loved Venice just so much. I think it’s my favourite European city yet. Maybe I say that every time but I was just in love. I was amazed that the city even existed, that it was just built on top of a lagoon and that it still exists 1600 years later! It seems like it should fall down any moment, like in a constant state of beautiful decay, but it is still a thriving city and still holds up to tens of thousands living there and tens of thousands more visiting every day.
As far as accessibility goes (albeit we had the extreme privilege of being able to afford the easiest accessible options), Venice has been one of the most accessible cities for my disability that I’ve visited in a long time. Its extremely small and compact size helped, along with how flat it was. All the bridges (many stairs up and then down) weren’t exactly easy and they wouldn’t be easy for someone dependent on a walker or wheelchair, but the roadways were all so flat. No climbing hills like here in Bristol! And no walking miles and miles just to take a metro 3 stops like in Paris or London. I personally found getting around Venice tiring at times, but perfect because I could go directly to where we wanted and be there in 5-10 minutes of walking, which is just within my limit.

We ate some amazing food, had some amazing company, and saw some amazing things. Our 3 days were just the perfect little citybreak.

Cin Cin!! Eric drinking the delicious limoncello that every nice restaurant would bring us a shot of after our meal (after dessert and everything, we wouldn’t even ask nor would they ask us, it was expected we enjoy an after-dinner digestivo.)