A volcanic island off the northwest coast of Africa, Madeira offers plenty of things to do and landscape for fun. It is surrounded by water and renowned for its big game fishing and excellent dolphin and whale-watching, lying as it does along migratory routes.
Madeira is, however, quite rugged, and beaches are fewer in number than you might expect. Water sports can be organized, and there is good surfing off the west coast and tremendous hiking in the interior. A must-do Madeira activity is to take a toboggan ride from Monte to Funchal.
Being of the volcanic, pebbled variety, the beaches of Madeira are not world-renowned, although they are okay for basic sunbathing and swimming as the sun is always shining and the water clear and warm. Machico and Calheta (east and west of Funchal respectively) are popular sandy spots, but for the best golden stretch, take a ferry to Porto Santo, just to the east of Madeira.
The larger hotels all have swimming pools, which will admit non-guests for a fee. Also, the Lido area of Funchal has three excellent pool complexes with facilities for the family. These include Lido and Clube Naval.
Waterskiing, windsurfing, and dinghy boating are all popular Madeira water sports, which can be arranged at the main hotels lining the beach. Madeira has moderate waves in the southwest, such as at Paul do Mar and Jardim do Mar, while scuba diving trips tend to leave from more central locations.
Madeira boasts fantastic hiking in Ponta de São Lourenço to the east. This nature reserve is bursting with striking terrain and rare plants, and offers fine views from well-set footpaths. The circuit can be completed in a few hours, but will require decent boots and plenty of water. Prainha Beach can also be incorporated into a hike, and Madeira’s hundreds of miles of levadas also make for a good day trek.
There are two decent 18-hole golf courses on the island. The Santo de Serra sits to the northeast of Funchal; Palheiro is closer, but the club has steeper hills and pricier green fees. Facilities at both are good, with club and cart rental, caddies, and clubhouses available. There is also a golf course on Porto Santo.
Toboggan rides from Monte to Funchal (at Estrada do Livramento) are popular among tourists. Traditional wooden/wicker sleds — which were originally used to transport produce to the capital — are trained downhill at speed under the supervision of professionals. The ride takes about 20 minutes and offers fine views from almost 3,000 feet at Terreiro da Luta. There are two- and three-person sleds available at Carreiros dos Montes, and prices are reasonable. Be sure to stop at the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte before you set off.
Boat tours are extremely popular in Madeira, and a huge number of operators offer cruises, scuba trips, and fishing expeditions. Way of Cetacea and Prazer do Mar both run regular whale/dolphin trips. The deep sea fishing is excellent year-round. Nautisantos (at the Marina in Funchal) offers visitors the chance to snag huge marlin and tuna.