Our Portugal travel guide will point you in the right direction when it comes to what we rate and what we don't as well as offering a fair bit of insider info regarding the best beaches, walking and cycling trails, and a brief history of Portugal, warts and all.
Family holidays in Madeira
Tourists have been heading to Madeira for hundreds of years to convalesce in the mountains, drink fortified wine and sit by the sea. But the islandís image has always been sedate Ė the kind of place where youíll find older types on gentle hikes rather than children tearing about the terrain. So much so that the tourism board has made a concerted effort to shake off this reputation and appeal to a broader range of visitors, including families keen to take a dive into the countryís wild side.
What Madeira lacks in beaches it makes up for with jagged volcanic terrain thatís perfect for adventurous kids to climb up and bike through.
Madeira may be an island, but itís not the place to come for toddler-friendly sandy beaches. Topographically, it screams out adventure, thanks to vertigo-inducing cliffs, rocky seashores and gorges clad in ancient laurel forest. The lack of beaches isnít an issue, though. The island has plenty of natural pool complexes that hug the sea, and kids can get their kicks canyoning, mountain biking, exploring volcanic caves and swimming with dolphins in the wild Atlantic swells offshore.
What to do on a family holiday in Madeira
Canyoning is a fantastic way to experience the islandís landscape from a different perspective and, luckily, itís not off-limits to children. As long as theyíre able to swim and are over 140cm tall, kids can skid, slide, jump and float with the rest of them. The island has plenty of challenging canyons, but youíll take it easy at a spot thatís perfect for beginners, with accessible hiking, scrambling and climbing to reach the streams and rivers below. Youíll be kitted out with a wetsuit and canyoning shoes and be guided by expert locals who have been working in these canyons for years and know every little handhold there is.
Explore the islandís volcanic side
Madeiraís volcanic origins are obvious wherever you are on the island, from saltwater pools on rocky shores to an interior thatís blessed with a landscape that looks like it should be surveyed by pterodactyls rather than sparrowhawks. Jumping into a Jeep to explore is a must on a family holiday. After whizzing along winding roads and bumpy tracks youíll stop off to check out volcanic caves and tunnels, as well as visit the islandís Volcanism Centre where you can learn more about the islandís origins. The day is best topped off with a visit to the volcanic beach at Seixal, home to pools created naturally by volcanic eruptions and now filled with seawater Ė perfect for a post-adventure dip.
Get acquainted with whales & dolphins
Family holidays in Madeira give you a chance to get salt in your hair and marine wildlife in your sights. You can go whale and dolphin watching with responsible skippers and marine biologists who let the wildlife lead the way. You wonít crowd them in and although swimming with dolphins is allowed, youíll only join them in the water on their terms. The deep waters around Madeira are plankton-rich and safe Ė the perfect environment for whales and dolphins all year round, but at its very best between June and October, when the waters teem with up to 20 different species.
A day out on the water usually starts with some sea kayaking around the islandís coves and bays before heading out on a RIB boat for a bouncy ride through the Atlantic waves in search of whales, guided by a marine biologist. Pods of dolphins will sometimes follow the boats out, and if the conditions are right, youíll be given a snorkel and the chance to be with these friendly, curious creatures in their natural habitat Ė pure magic!
Race through the streets
For well over 100 years, the locals of Monte, a village outside Funchal, have used an unusual form of transport to get to the big smoke Ė careering down steep streets in wicker sledges at speeds of up to 50kph, with the help of people known as carreiros who wear special tyre-bottomed shoes for braking. While this isnít strictly necessary these days, thanks to a cable car, the 10-minute ride down the hill is great fun for kids.
Walk the levadas
Madeira is crisscrossed with levadas, aqueducts that provide water and hydroelectricity to mountain communities and farms, and double up as scenic walking paths. Often carved into steep rock faces, and sometimes incorporating narrow bridges or long sections of head-height tunnel, the levadas can be hair-raising despite the protective railing youíll find on many of their lower edges. Tours will stick to the more family-friendly trails, which can be tackled without fear of tumbling off the edge. Walks and cycles will be tailored to your groupís abilities, with plenty of rest stops built in, while bike trails will follow a wide, gentle levada through the forest on an easy route, where towering trees and brilliant flowers provide distraction from the trails.
For older kids the levadas provide a sombre history lesson, too. Their origins are woven into the islandís history of sugar and slavery and date back to the first settlements of Madeira island, in the first quarter of the 15th century, when water became necessary to water farm lands, particularly sugar cane fields.
Our top Madeira Holiday
Snorkel with dolphins in the crystal clear waters of Madeira
From £995 8 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2021: 30 Jul, 6 Aug, 13 Aug, 20 Aug, 23 Oct
2021: 30 Jul, 6 Aug, 13 Aug, 20 Aug, 23 Oct
If you'd like to chat about Madeira or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
More about Madeira
Our Madeira travel guide takes a closer look at this stunning volcanic island, an autonomous region of Portugal thatís famed for its walking terrain, rich marine life and fantastic weather.
Madeira may just be a speck in the ocean, but it has a super-sized reputation for walking, wine and beauty.
Madeira is a fabulous destination for a walking holiday, wonderfully verdant with a real Ďparadise islandí vibe to it.