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The western stretches of Madeira see the island at its greenest and lushest, but also its most dramatic: on the high central plateau, you can see a dozen waterfalls spilling into a cool pine forest, while on the coast sea cliffs fall sheer to the Atlantic and banana plantations cling to steep, sunny slopes. On the dramatic north coast, a narrow highway clings to the cliff face between little fishing villages that seem a world away from the bustle of Funchal (though there’s also a speedy, relatively new highway that gets you around faster, but without the views).
Câmara de Lobos
On coastal route N101, you'll pass many banana plantations on the way to Câmara de Lobos—a former fishing village made famous by Winston Churchill, who came here (in a borrowed Rolls-Royce equipped with a bar) to paint pictures of the multicolor boats and the fishermen's tiny homes. A plaque marks the spot where he set up his easel. Although the coast here is changing as Câmara de Lobos becomes more suburban in character, with many people commuting to Funchal, the boats are still pulled up onto the rocky beach during the day, while children run and play in the narrow streets and grizzled old fishermen stand around chatting.
Although Calheta is a historic village with a 17th-century church, it has only really developed over the past decade or so thanks to having the island’s only white-sand beach—artificially created with sand imported from the Sahara and mainland Portugal. In summer, the sheltered beach gets packed, and it’s a great place to relax for a day or two.
This pleasant village, with a pebbly beach and bustling seafront fruit market, was founded in 1440 at the mouth of the Ribeira Brava (meaning "wide river"), hence the name. It's one of the island's sunniest spots and makes a popular destination for boat trips from Funchal. Head up the main Rua Visconde da Ribeira Brava for some quirky local shops—it also passes the back of the town’s handsome church.
Serra de Água
North from Ribeira Brava the N104 snakes through a sheer-sided canyon. In every direction you can see high waterfalls tumbling down canyon walls and into a pine forest. Avoid the new road tunnel and keep to the old road that heads up via the village of Serra de Água, an ideal starting point for a trek into Madeira's interior. Even if you don't plan to hike, consider spending the night here at the stone pousada, surrounded by moss-green rocks, ferns, and more waterfalls.
The little town of São Vicente is very pleasant, nestled in a narrow gully just inland from the dramatic north coast. Most of the central streets are pedestrianized and it is delightful to walk the cobbled alleys around the town’s 17th-century church.
The island's northernmost village, Porto Moniz, was a whaling station in the 19th century, but these days, its natural sea pools, formed by ancient lava, make it one of the island’s best day trips. There's not much to do here except splash around the pools (there are changing facilities), eat, and sunbathe, though its position below towering mountains is part of its appeal. The old houses and twisting cobblestone streets can be found uphill—most of the seafront is made up of a new town of little hotels, cafés, and restaurants.
Western Madeira at a Glance
- Aquário da Madeira
- Casa das Mudas
- Centro de Ciência Viva (Centre for Live Science)
- Engenhos da Calheta
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