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Madeira might look like a tiny Portuguese island perched on the fringes of Europe and Africa in the vast expanse of Atlantic waters. But there is a lot to explore on this little gem filled with emerald peaks piercing the sky and a rugged coastline with a subtropical climate.
This verdant island is a paradise for any traveler and will leave you stunned by its breathtaking beauty. The best way to explore this island is to stay as long as possible and enjoy everything the island offers. However, we may not have all the time to explore a place on the island (say, east Madeira) at a slower pace. What if all we have is a couple of days, and we have to try and squeeze as much as possible? It’s not something wrong or impossible, but it requires a little more planning to get the best experience.
The best way to explore some of the island’s highlights is to divide the entire island into different zones and explore as much of each part in a day. Obviously, to do this, it would be best if you could rent a car. But the island has very steep roads and high bends, and it might not be suitable for everyone as it is different from driving in a city. And if you are just a couple or a solo traveler, renting a car wouldn’t be an economical option either. Going on a group tour could be a pleasant experience in these cases.
What are Guided Tours?
Guided tours are where you get the opportunity to explore a part of your destination without you having to plan your day. Everything is usually taken care of, including where to stop for lunch. Although in most cases, you must pay separately for what you eat or any activities not mentioned as included in the package.
This could be the worst or best option depending on the destination, the season of your visit, and what type of tour you are opting for. It is most common for these tours to offer pickup directly from your hotel or at a nearby location, so it is very convenient to start your day. In Madeira, Funchal is the place most tours start from. So if you are looking for a base location for your trip, Funchal is the perfect choice.
My Opinion of Guided Tours
Usually, I am not one to go for guided tours mainly because it covers the main attractions during peak times, and every other tour bus will be there visiting simultaneously, making it overwhelmingly crowded. Another reason why I prefer to avoid going on these tours is that they try to cover a lot of places just to make their tour sound more attractive, leaving us with little or no time to enjoy the place we are in.
You may ask me why you went on a guided tour this time? And why in Madeira? When planning our first trip to Madeira, I found that getting the best experience on the island is impossible by relying entirely on public transportation, even though the island has pretty good public transport considering it is in a hilly region with rough terrain. The next option is obviously to drive, but at least it wasn’t an option for us (LOL).
So, I was checking other alternate options, and I found these guided tours. To be honest, I was a bit hesitant. But after a lot of research and hours spent reading endless reviews, I found the different possibilities of guided tours. I narrowed it down to two options that we wanted to try.
The Van Tours
In these types of tours, you travel in a nice comfortable van that accommodates up to 15 people, including you per tour, along with a driver and a guide. In most cases, they both are the same person except for the hiking tours where you have a separate guide and a driver who waits for you at a different location at the end of the trail. These van tours are available for different durations and routes, so you could pick the one that works for you.
The 4×4 or 4WD Tours
These are almost similar to van tours except that you are on a smaller vehicle, mostly with an open roof. They are usually used for off-road trips for a more adventurous experience and accommodate only up to 8 people. Still, one or two other 4x4s from the same tour company will travel with you. This is slightly more expensive than the van tours but worth it for people who love a bit of adventure.
Why are Guided Tours Better for Madeira?
Since you are now going with a smaller crowd, and especially the places around Madeira are mostly remote, you won’t be stuck in a sea of people at your destination. Sometimes they even modify the itinerary on the fly to avoid overcrowding due to lack of parking space.
I wanted to share our honest experience of these tours, so we tried them out. We did the van tour to explore east Madeira. But if you are curious about the adventurous 4×4 tour, check out our blog post on the Northwest Island tour.
My Guided Van Tour Experience When Exploring East Madeira
We booked this tour through GetYourGuide. The tour is provided by a popular tour company in Madeira called Lido Tours. They had the best reviews, and keep reading to know more about our experience.
We stayed close to the Funchal Cable Car station, and the pickup point was just a few hundred meters from our B&B. The pickup location and time were sent over by WhatsApp to my number, and it was easy to clarify any doubts or questions about the trip.
Psst! You might get notifications from GetYourGuide on the timing and pickup location, but usually, they aren’t exactly correct. The actual tour providers will get in touch with you a day before your trip, or you could directly contact them.
We started the day not so early, around 9 am. Usually, I try to be out by 8 am. We boarded the van along with most of the others. There were also other vans waiting for different tours, so check before you get in. (They also check, but I always fear boarding the wrong train, bus, flight, or anything.)
Pico de Arieiro
Our first stop was approximately 1818 meters above sea level, Pico do Arieiro, the third highest peak in Madeira. It is also the starting point for the famous PR1 peak-to-peak hike. The hike starts here at Pico de Arieiro and goes all the way up to Pico Ruivo. The hike is a little challenging, but you could get heavenly views on a clear day.
If you are not hiking, visiting the Pico do Arieiro is the best way to get some captivating views. The van stopped at the parking lot from where you could walk up to the viewpoint, which is only a few hundred meters away. You could also see a lot of hikers there. They also have a little cafe for your breakfast. We spent most of our time at the viewpoint and quickly rushed to grab a cup of coffee at the last minute before leaving for our next stop. The view was breathtaking. I would definitely want to try the hike the next time I visit Madeira (maybe after a little more practice). We spent around half an hour here.
Levada dos Balcões (PR11)
If you are in Madeira, then going for a Levada walk must definitely be on your list. PR11 is one of the shortest and easiest Levada walks. The entire walk is only around 2 km, and you will be rewarded with a nice view at the end. If possible, you could also carry some bird feed with you, as you can feed Madeiran Chaffinchs from your hands near the viewpoint. Please do not feed your food to the birds as they don’t do well with human food. We didn’t have any bird feed with us, so we watched the other people feed those lovely little birds.
The van dropped us off at the beginning of the trail and picked us up at a different location which the driver pointed at when dropping us off. This way, we got to walk down different paths and got to see more views. This was a pleasant experience.
Psst! If you are looking to get a complete Levada walk experience, then you should definitely try the 25 Fontes and Risco Waterfall levada walk (PR6).
After the Levada walk, we headed straight to the small town of Santana via the village of Faial. We didn’t stop at Faial but slowed down a bit to enjoy the views. If you have time, you could stop by for a quick visit.
The village of Santana is known for its traditional triangular houses. But these traditional houses are not used anymore, but the municipality has some model houses for tourists to see. So, it tends to be very crowded, and there aren’t many of these model houses. You will be disappointed if you want to see an entire village filled with these traditional houses.
Nevertheless, this shouldn’t discourage you from visiting Santana. These houses look very cute, and Santana is a charming village. The current homes look beautiful as well. You could enjoy some fantastic sea views from the cliffs. Do not roam only around the center where the model Santana houses are located. Go further and explore the little streets. We stumbled upon the church Igreja de Santana with a pergola of beautiful wisterias hanging in the foreground. The place looks absolutely picture-perfect. We stopped at Santana for a long time as we also had our lunch there.
We had lunch at Restaurante O Colmo, very close to the center of Santana, where the model houses are located. This restaurant also had a model Santana traditional house, which only had the crowd from the restaurant visiting it. The lunch was pretty good, even if not extraordinary. There aren’t many other options around this area, and this was worth the money.
The outside sitting area was perfect for soaking in the sun and the views around. The restaurant in itself looks like a big house and is quite charming. We, in fact, had our lunch first and went to explore the village. Despite the crowds, we managed to get some pictures of the Santana houses when we got a chance. (There was a queue to take pictures, but luckily, we got the place free for a quick 5 minutes without waiting in line.)
We spent almost 2 hours here (our longest stop) before we left for our next stop.
The next main activity for the day was rum tasting at one of the sugarcane distilleries. But, we quickly stopped at a viewpoint on our way to the rum tasting.
Miradouro do Cortado
This viewpoint offers spectacular views and is not super crowded. Also, this is just on a road turning, so parking here could be tricky. So, we didn’t have much time, but the views were terrific for the time we spent here.
Rum Tasting at North Mills Rum Distillery
Rum is what adds punch to the local’s favorite drink of Poncha. The sugarcane that is harvested every year in Madeira mostly goes to distilleries for the production of rum. Yes, it is one of the earliest industries contributing to Madeira’s economy. North Mills Distillery produces rum from the sugarcane feed. You could take a tour of the distillery and learn all about how rum is manufactured. And finally, after the tour, you could also taste the rum produced at the distillery. It was something different and a nice experience.
Alagoa Beach (Praia da Alagoa)
This beach with beautiful black sand is located right outside the distillery. It is mostly a surfer’s beach where you could also get surfing lessons if that interests you. There wasn’t enough time to jump in the water. However, we played in the waves for a while and enjoyed the views before heading to the next place.
We are almost at the end of the tour with only one more stop to go. It is also my favorite place that we visited on the day.
Miradouro da Ponta do Rosto
This viewpoint is closer to the easternmost tip of the island. It is also very close to the Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço (PR8), the hike’s starting point to the island’s easternmost tip. The view from Ponta do Rosto is mind-blowing. You could enjoy the rocks and the patterns formed on them due to volcanic eruptions that occurred thousands of years ago.
You could see the contrasting colors streaks formed on the rocks, surrounded by bright blue waters crashing against the cliffs. If I could, I would just sit there for a while, watching the waves crash. It is also very windy here, so do carry a light jacket with you, as you will need it even on warmer days.
Tip! Do not miss to look at the Chapel of Our Lady of Mercy, perched atop a hill. It looks picture-perfect. The chapel was once of great importance to the fishermen of the area. It is only accessible by going on foot to the top of the hill.
Miradouro do Pico do Facho
We had a small stopover at Miradouro do Pico do Facho, a viewpoint that offers stunning views over Machico. There was a snack truck where we had a coffee break. This viewpoint is perfect for you if you want to watch the planes land and take off. You can also see this part of the island from your window on the flight.
Tip! If you are driving on your own, make sure to drive slowly on the roads leading to this viewpoint which is hillier and has quite a sharp turn that you must watch out for.
Yes, that was it! This was our last stop for the day. From here, we headed back straight to Funchal, the ride which took around 30 to 40 minutes. The tour lasts about 8 hours and covers some of the important sights of east Madeira.
If you are visiting Madeira for less than a week. I would suggest going for a west and an east island tour and doing some of the hikes on the island. Dolphin and whale watching is also a popular activity you can do in Madeira. This way, you can experience a bit of everything the island has to offer. We didn’t spend too much time at a single place, so we were able to cover quite a lot of viewpoints. In the same way, we also didn’t feel rushed running from one spot to another. It was a nice and relaxed day trip exploring the island.
Also, if you love nature, you should check out our post about dolphin and whale watching in Madeira.