If you take a look through the guidebooks and tripadvisor you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that Madeira probably isn’t a great place for toddlers, the thing is that conclusion would be very wrong.
The thing about Madeira is that you’ve got to make it work for you and your young family but if you’re keen for something different this is ideal.
For those who don’t know Madeira is a Portuguese island but very much with its own identity crafted by centuries of trade, differing cultures and even invasion and this gives the island something special.
We had decided to go to Madeira because of my desire to try MIUT, an ultra marathon but as an active family Madeira presented opportunity to do lots of hiking, swimming and of course sightseeing.
In terms of flights we chose EasyJet as they were both inexpensive and flying at a time that suited and for accommodation we chose AirBnB over the many excellent hotel options.
If you’re 2 and a bit years old then you need your own space and your own washing machine and preferably a potty. ASK is at an age where she’s noisy, independent, curious and lots of other really good things do being confined by a hotel – however nice might not be suitable.
Since ASK was born we have been using AirBnB as our preferred accommodation simply because it’s like a home from home and almost 100% of the time we’ve had really amazing experiences. The AirBnB experience for us consists of finding places with washing machines, wifi, multiple bedrooms, good location and a reasonable price. It means we can be flexible with our food choices and I feel it gives us a better local experience generally as you’re often living amongst the local populace.
What did we do?
We were in Madeira for about 10 days but with a day or so wiped out for the race. Therefore we had an abundance of time to fill but rest assured we can away from Madeira feeling that we had gotten a flavour of the place rather than experienced everything the island had to offer.
- Pico Ruivo Hike
- Levada do Caldeirao Verde
- 25 Fountains Levada
- Cash de Luz (Electricity Museum)
- Armazem do Mercado (Toy Museum)
- Parque Telematica
- Faja Dos Padres
- Museum da Baleia (Whale Museum)
- Monte Gardens
- Funchal Cable Car
- Porto Moniz Natural Sea Pools
Since ASK came along we’ve been a little more ‘organised’ as travellers, we’ll generally have key points we’d like to hit and then fill up the days with other exciting things from our research but with enough capacity to allow for spontaneity, changes in weather or change of heart.
Our key Madeira points were Levada hikes, the natural lava pool swimming, the cable car and Monte Gardens – everything else was up for negotiation.
What we found was that pretty much everything was tremendous, some obviously better than others. For example the Levada walks were brilliant, beautiful fun – giving a real sense of the nature of the island. We did two Levada walks containing four trails.
The most spectacular was the Green Cauldron which provided magnificence as the heavy rain had provided a furious flow of water that beat back the tourists that had fought their way to find it. The trail here in most days would be considered relatively simple but, creekingly narrow trails, brutally wet conditions and a child in a ruck sack on your back makes any hike a challenge. But magical little tunnels, landscapes to die for (and without due care death is a possibility) and a challenging route made this all the more worthwhile.
But the Levada trails are no hidden treasure and we benefitted from early starts and stout hearts! These trails can be popular with tourists and tour groups and while that’s no problem if you want the kind of privacy we enjoyed you need to pick the right day and the right time – do your research or go find some of the paths less well travelled – they’re worth it, even with a toddler in tow.
For me the hidden gem was the Toy Museum and while it’s true I’m a sucker for toys I felt that this delight had something for everyone. For a mere €5 per adult (ASK was free) we wandered around beautifully presented cases of toys from the last century through to this. There were some true gems including traditional Portuguese toys as well as an awesome Lego collection but it was things such as the Captain Scarlett vehicles and the American toy cars I know only from their full size counterparts that really impressed.
Obviously there was a fantastic Star Wars display filled with lots of nuggets I’d never come across before and I enjoyed the ‘Barbie’ selection – including the Cambodian Princess (i lived in Cambodia for a while some years ago). It’s not massive but when you add in the little market of lovely craft ideas and the toy shop then you have a winning experience. We also used our 10% off in the shop that came with our entrance therefore making a decent portion of our entrance fee back.
Highly recommended and our toddler found more than enough to delight in as we ambled round – I’m sure yours will too.
The thing I most enjoyed though would be the natural swimming pool up at Porto Moniz in the north of the island. €1.50 entrance and all the sea swimming you could manage. But there was a little more to it than that. We arrived in the early afternoon and ambled down to the spacious changing rooms and once changed we headed off the natural rock pools which had been added to by what was effectively a series of complimentary sea walls.
We found a spot easily despite it being quite busy and took in our surroundings.
People of all shapes and sizes were merrily bounding into the cool, slightly salty Atlantic waters m, while others moved slowly attempting not to feel the cold chill of going under. However, the air was warm and the atmosphere relaxed – it was just what I needed after MIUT.
ASK and the GingaNinja dipped their toes and legs into the main rock pool but where otherwise a little less cavalier than I was. Much to my delight I hurled myself into the water and swam freely amongst the rocks and the waves that gently crashed over the sea wall. It was wonderful. We stayed for a couple of hours before departing for ice-cream and food but if I lived in Madeira this would be the kind of place I’d spend a lot of time.
The great thing about everything we did was that it was very child friendly, perhaps not always geared to young toddling children but certainly welcoming of them and that’s half the battle. Lots of the museums are clearly making efforts to be interactive and interesting, the Museum of Electricity and the Whale Museum are two prime examples where thought and effort had gone into producing considered displays and interactive elements (and both highly recommended).
Flowers, Flowers & one Big Basket
Special mention should be for the our tremendous experience at the Tropical Gardens at Monte (Jardin Tropical Monte Palace). I’ll explain why it was so ace and why any adult or child will simply soak up the experience of taking part in three of ‘must do’ highlights of Madeira.
The GingaNinja and ASK had already visited the Gardens while I was racing but had been so impressed by them that they felt a second visit would not be out of order.
The easiest and undoubtedly most exciting way of getting to the gardens is by cable car. However, I’m a gigantic coward when it comes to uncontrolled heights and therefore I used this phrase, ‘I’ll run to the gardens and meet you there’. I clearly had blocked out the trauma of the hills and set out with all the speed I could muster. It turned out it was about 4.5km and a shed load (700metres) of upward elevation. I’d told the GingaNinja I’d be half an hour and with a couple of wrong turns I was more like 40 minutes but they were hard minutes and I arrived at the Gardens puffing and panting.
The journey though was very well worth it and the Gardens at Monte were a tranquil delight filled with some of my favourite flora and fauna. It wasn’t just the natural decor though that impressed it was the layout to the Gardens and the intricate weaving of iconic cultural sculptures, water features, exhibits and structures (especially the Japanese designs) that made this a bountiful visit. One of the key delights for me though was the African sculpture exhibition – hundreds of large and small African sculptures covering all sorts of meanings and tribes. Seeing them all together so perfectly displayed was very different from my experiences at museums around the world. Worth seeing and the whole of the Jardin Tropical Monte Palace is worth the price of admission (around €15).
Our trip though was multi-purposed and the GingaNinja had wanted to try out the ‘Street Toboggan’. We had watched these woven baskets being pushed down the hills from a vantage point in the gardens and it looked both exhilarating and terrifying. Therefore after several delightful hours in the gardens we headed over to the Toboggan.
Prior to going I had been a little concerned that we would get the three of us and the child’s carrying rucksack into the Toboggan but these Toboggans are more than spacious enough.
The system is simple you queue up and are shown swiftly to your ride with two gentleman ready to push you down the streets using nothing but their feet and agility to provide breaking. The steep smooth tarmac streets provide an excellent surface to create a street toboggan and once you’ve paid your cash (€15pp) you’re off.
The route is a little over 2km long and has all the excitement you might expect of riding down the streets of Madeira being pushed by two swarthy gentleman in boaters. The wind whipped through your hair and there was genuine enjoyment as the experience span swiftly round corners and arched away from gutters. ASK yelped and cheered as we bolted ever downward, stopping only for obligatory photograph.
In the second half of our journey it was more of the same except for one small detail – the gentleman providing the horsepower behind me began leaning in and telling me ‘what thirsty work this was’ and breathing heavily into my ear – it was an unsubtle and unpleasant hint that a tip was required. To say this ruined the experience for me would be going too far but it did leave a bitter taste in the mouth – the truth is I would have naturally given a tip and didn’t need a sleazy reminder.
After exiting the toboggan and leaving a tip with our drivers we were pressed to spend more money on a photograph that really didn’t do us any justice and we declined politely. We ambled away from the tourist scene and over to the bus stop where a bevy of taxi drivers leapt over to us to attempt to get us to pay over the odds for a lift back to the city. We politely declined this too.
I’d advise going on the cable car, wandering around the gardens and trying the Toboggan but be a little wary of the tourist trap that the toboggan is. It is a truly unique experience though and we all enjoyed it and although relatively expensive for the 10 minute journey you won’t soon forget it.
Madeira has lots more to do than you might initially think and it’s worth doing a bit of research before you get there because you can have a great time but if you don’t put in the research beforehand than you might be left scratching your head as to what all the fuss is about.
The final word regarding Madeira would be about the food. Our travels have taken us across the world as individuals, as a couple and now as a family and we always try to get involved in the local cuisine is a way of sampling local life. I’m not a Michelin star restaurant seeking type but that doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well.
Madeira is full of fantastic food options across a range of meat and fish. It’s simple, tasty and well cooked and local favourites like Limpets, Scabbard fish and the Cacao Sandwiches fast became my favourites. Tuna, Octopus and tender slow cooked beef made my mouth water and almost every meal we had filled me with joy. We found some Italian gelateria too and had a number of truly delicious ice creams.
We ate magnificently with only one pizza restaurant in the old town being a disappointment (more fool of us for not eating the local cuisine that night). Dining out was very reasonably priced too with the local tapas for all three of us with drinks and cakes, coffee, etc invariably being less than €25. Obviously the most sophisticated options cost more but not do much more than you end thinking your in Central London!
Given our AirBnB facilities we also cooked a little bit and the supermarkets are numerous, well stocked and reasonably priced and we would make picnics to take up mountains as there’s no coffee shops to spoil a beautiful view.
We are lucky with our food options in that ASK has no allergies we know of and she will try almost anything at least once and although she didn’t like limpets she loved Scabbard Fish and Octopus! If your child is a little fussier though there were endless options that revolved around chicken nuggets and chips or equivalent.
Madeira is an amazing place with spectacular views, great adventure options, delightful food, friendly people and a history that is uniquely Madeira. After our time we came away knowing that we will go back at some point such was our delight. However, it’s true that on the face of it that this isn’t the most toddler or perhaps even child friendly place but we found that with a little work there’s lots for children to do and they are most definitely welcomed by the island. ASK (a pretty seasoned traveller already) really enjoyed it and that’s all you can ask.