Three days are the minimum you should budget to explore Funchal and its environs, along with some of the interior or the western coast; five days allows for a less hurried and more complete exploration of the island, including the northeast. If you’re a confident driver, you should use the old scenic roads as much as possible, and allow plenty of time for driving around. If, however, you're on a tight schedule or must travel at night, take advantage of the fast new roads.
If You Have 3 Days
Devote your first day to the flower-bedecked capital city of Funchal. Start Day 2 early, heading for the hills just outside the city. In the morning, visit the nearby Jardim Botânico, and head up the cable car to the village of Monte, home of the unusual snowless sled ride. Next, go west to the coast and have a late lunch in or near the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. Continue to the sea cliffs of Cabo Girão, with its spectacular views across the island. The terrain changes to forests as you continue along the coast to Ribeira Brava, another lovely seaside town. Turn inland through a rugged canyon and into a vivid green forest. You'll soon come to the mystical, cloud-shrouded peaks of the Serra de Água. Plan well ahead to overnight at the charming pousada here. On your last day, wake up very early and walk in the mountains or head back to the coast at Calheta, with its sandy beach and lovely art museum. Drive back to Funchal, where you can spend another night or catch a flight to Lisbon or home.
If You Have 5 Days
Spend your first day getting into the island rhythm by touring Funchal. In the morning of your second day, explore its environs, and visit the Jardim Botânico and the Quinta do Palheiro (Blandy Gardens), a former aristocratic estate. Next, head toward the village of Monte for a quick look around its holy church and exotic gardens. On the third day, using a good road map, follow the road to Poiso. Here, turn left and follow the signs to Pico do Arieiro and head out for an exhilarating hike. If you're up to the challenge, try to reach Pico Ruivo. Later, backtrack to Poiso and head north to Ribeiro Frio. Walk along a levada and take a break at Restaurante Ribeiro Frio, near the town's trout hatchery. Next head for Santana to see the thatch-roof houses for which the village is famous, then west along the stunning coastal road toward São Vicente. You can either overnight in São Vicente or push on to Porto Moniz.
In Porto Moniz pick up picnic fare, then turn inland—past Santa Madalena—toward Rabaçal, full of waterfalls and quiet pools. Follow the road to Paúl da Serra, where you'll see sheep grazing across the moors. Next, follow the signs to the flower-filled town of Canhas and on to the coastal road back into Funchal. Spend your fourth night and the next day enjoying the capital, or perhaps heading east to explore the coastal towns of Machico and Caniçal; if you have time, take a day trip to the neighboring island of Porto Santo for its superb beaches—then bid the island a fond até a próxima (until next time).
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