From landing on its famously tricky runway to hurtling down a polished hill in a wicker basket or venturing onto a glass platform almost 600 metres above sea level, the Atlantic Ocean archipelago of Madeira is genuinely thrill-full. Add in hundreds of kilometres of walks criss-crossing hills and mountains via a centuries-old irrigation system, a stunning coastline that mixes natural volcanic pools with both pebble and sand beaches, magical laurel forests, bountiful nature reserves, a great food scene and a tropical climate that fills the island with banana plants and tropical fruit trees and you have a destination that shouldn’t be missed.
The hotel scene reflects the many facets of the island, from sleek contemporary ocean-facing beauties to old-school old town spots set in, yep, old schools. Add in Art Nouveau villas, a funky collaboration with famous local boy Cristiano Ronaldo and James Bond-style cliff-top eyries and you really do have something for everyone – which nicely sums up Madeira itself.
The 13 best hotels in Madeira
Ignore the shopping-centre setting and focus on the super-funky reception, a 21st-century sculptural space by Ricardo Bofill and João Francisco Caires. Interiors gleam with polished surfaces softened by elegant sofas in soothing colours that run through to the 70 spacious rooms and suites, all of them filled with things to make your stay memorable, from Acqua di Parma toiletries to a complimentary minibar. On the roof, with great views out to the sea and mountains, lies a stunner of a pool and bar; next door to it the fine-dining Uva restaurant serves imaginative gourmet takes on traditional coastal dishes.
The iconic Reid’s is arguably Madeira’s grandest hotel, dating back to 1891 when Scotsman William Reid’s vision of a high-end seafront hotel set amid tropical gardens was realised. A century on it boasts three pools (including a tidal seawater one), three restaurants, a Bridge room, billiards room, cocktail lounge and 158 rooms and suites, but remains the kind of place where you expect to see a dowager dame a la Downton Abbey wafting through the lofty marble lobby to the very popular afternoon tea or weekly dinner dance. Despite the pink façade and old-fashioned decor, rooms are light and spacious.
It’s a toss-up between the Baia and sister hotel the Alta Vista opposite, but the Baia has the seafront, and makes the most of it in the sleek, super-bright reception, where a long glass wall lets the sea take centre stage. The nautical theme (wood and white with splashes of blues) continues into the 215 rooms, all of which have verandas and sea views. A spa, gym, two outdoor pools (one for kids), two restaurants and a 6th-floor bar with live music ensure lots to do on-site, but a shuttle bus regularly runs the 3kms into Funchal.
Perched high up on a cliff-top overlooking the village of Ponta do Sol, the Estalagem really is a gem, from its cliff-face-climbing lifts to its super-friendly staff. The setting ensures incredible views from modern, airy rooms housed in low-slung Modernist blocks, while the heated infinity pool (there’s a heated indoor one too) has lots of loungers, ensuring plenty of chill-out space for everyone. Resident pooches Poncha and Shaka give the place a wonderfully personal feel, and if you tire of eating in the excellent restaurant, you can visit the one at sister hotel Hotel da Vila, down in the village.
Accommodation doesn’t come much more secluded than these nine nautically-themed houses on an organic farm and beach restaurant accessed only via cable car or boat. Options include a converted boat house, sailor’s house, vineyard house and tiny barn, all individually decorated to create a rustic chic aesthetic that’s cosy but super-comfortable. Breakfast is served at the lovely restaurant, accessed via paths winding through tropical fruit orchards and kitchen gardens; in the evening, cook to the sound of the sea, get a pre-prepared BBQ meal delivered or take a boat transfer to Funchal, some 10km away.
There aren’t many stand-out hotels in old-town Funchal, but this boutique hostel is a winner for its lovely staff, a fantastic location on Rua Santa Maria, and warm, rich decor in an old school sensitively converted into a handful of rooms and suites and two 8-bed dorms. All are spotless, as are the shared bathrooms, kitchen and comfy lounge, and everyone gets breakfast plus afternoon fruit and freshly baked cakes. For everything else, the colourful garden restaurant is a laidback retreat, and serves a fine mix of international and local cuisine, from pizza to tasty filete de espada.
This centrally-located hip four-star hotel set across a warren of buildings and courtyards spanning three centuries is a real charmer, thanks to a lovely mix-up of arresting 21st-century decor with period elements reflecting the trades of the buildings it occupies – from type studio to textile atelier. Decor zings up neutral bases with bright colours and bold patterns, and all 81 rooms and suites include individual features; boldly-patterned encaustic tiles here, exposed roof-beams there; some come with full kitchens too. A rooftop pool and terrace, as well as three restaurants and bars, complete this very appealing package.
Central Funchal has plenty of old-fashioned, rather fusty and dark lodgings, but not much in the way of more modern spaces. So a big shout-out to this funky little hotel, whose 16 rooms and apartments (the latter with good kitchens) are all bright and light-filled, thanks to local designer Nini Andrade Silva’s focus on striking monochrome decor zinged up with pops of bright colour in textiles and velvet cushions. On-site restaurant 560 is equally vibrant, and serves modern Mediterranean dishes.
If one of the things you want to do in Madeira is ride a toboggan wicker sledge (and you should), this makes a great spot from which to do just that, as well as watch the skilled men who manipulate the baskets down using nothing but their strength and adapted tyre-soled shoes. The hotel’s a beauty; a 19th-century villa and more modern annexe set high in the hills above Funchal, so all its 24 luxe, contemporary rooms and suites offer wonderful views. Amenities include an outdoor pool, small spa with sauna, gym, billiard room, library and a terrace offering panoramic views.
The seafront to the west of Funchal is lined with hotels, from the Soviet-looking tower of the Pestana Palms to posh Reid’s, but for a funky space within easy walking distance of town it has to be the low-slung four-star Pestana CR7, a collaboration with local hero (and subject of the CR7 museum next door) Cristiano Ronaldo. Contemporary, colourful rooms with glass verandas, classic Danish furniture and bright textiles all face the sea, and outside, a rooftop infinity pool and bar, outdoor gym, restaurant and lounge bar ensure a sociable, amiable space – and there’s free entry to the museum too.
Water babies, roll up. Freed from the constraints of hotels muscling for space on the busy south coast, this diminutive Ponta do Sol hotel sprawls along Madeira’s wild and remote north coast, which means all 25 rooms and suites have stunning views of nothing but the depths of the Atlantic. Their palette of green and blue echoes the natural surroundings, and outside, the amazing complex of volcanic seawater pools, bordered by a solarium area with sauna and Jacuzzi, plus birdwatching, Levada walks and the pretty village of Ponto do Sol, ensure you won’t get bored.
Not many visitors make it to the island of Porto Santo, which is a shame because this little slice of paradise is an amazing spot to just be – doing nothing more strenuous than hiking to a traditional wooden windmill, swimming in the turquoise waters, or exploring the haunts of Christopher Columbus. Such tranquillity begs an equally tranquil hotel, and the Porto Santo is it. With 94 modern, bright rooms set in white buildings around a pretty pool and a beach dotted with thatched umbrellas, it’s an idyllic spot – and given the spa, restaurant and secluded balconies, one you may find hard to leave.
Looking for something a little different? This 1920s heritage building next to the acclaimed Santo da Serra golf course should do the trick. With just 21 rooms, the Art Nouveau villa feels like a very special home, one that’s always clean, filled with interesting objects, textiles and character, and the added benefit of beautiful gardens, plus a pool, spa and gym (in a newer annexe). Book early if you want to be lodged in the main house, which has just two superior rooms and one two-bedroom suite (the remaining rooms are in the annexe), as well as a sitting room where afternoon tea is served.