Following the disappointment of our failed attempt to leave Porto Santo, we were both feeling very fed up with the sailing life. What we needed was a break from the boat and some distraction while we waited for a place in the boatyard. So, to cheer ourselves up, we went on a search for some festive fun in Funchal.
Waiting for a Boatyard Space
There was nothing we could do to fix the propeller shaft bearings problem until a space became available in the yard. Once lifted, we’ll be able to pull the propeller shaft out and inspect it and the two bearings. They were only replaced two years ago, but we’ll replace them both just to be sure. We already have one spare bearing onboard, but how to get the second?
Once we’d decided on a trip to Funchal, we came up with a plan to get the second bearing. It would be arriving with my aunt on a cruise ship. Firstly, we ordered it online with next day delivery to her home. The next part was that she’d take it with her on her holiday and after a few days at sea, arrive in Funchal, where we would meet her. It’s crazy, but it was quicker to do it this way than to have it delivered to us by the island postal system. Plus, as a bonus, we got to spend the day with my aunt.
What to Do in Funchal
There are always jobs to do on a boat, so, as usual, Emerald’s needs took priority over ours! So our first task was to visit the chandleries and DIY stores to stock up on tools and parts for future boat jobs. The closest chandlery was the Loja do Mar store in Funchal town. The owner didn’t have what we needed to hand, but within an hour it had been sent from another store. Nautica Madeira is a larger store, a short bus ride away to the east of the city. There we found not just boat products but also a wide range of items for fishing and scuba diving. In both stores the staff were very helpful.
Finding our Festive Spirit Amongst the Christmas Lights
I’d read that Funchal has a fantastic Christmas light display and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact I was in twinkly, fairy light heaven as we wandered through the streets. We started up by the casino, then strolled down the hill past trees wrapped in multi-coloured lights. Heading down to the harbour front we came across a long wave structure that pulsed to give the illusion of movement. Behind it stood a huge Christmas tree and beyond that a fair.
Walking up the short rise to Avenida Arriaga, we found a market, a large nativity and even more lights, including huge glowing structures. At the market, wooden stalls tempted us with local food and drink and a live band entertained the crowds. A passionfruit IPA caught my eye; I declared it delicious, but Colin was a definite no!
Later we kept on strolling, on down towards the old town, where we found more light displays. Outside the town hall a toy train did laps with excited children aboard. And it seemed like every single shop had joined in the fun with eye catching window displays.
Amazingly, the lights weren’t only confined to the town centre. Looking up, we could see a beautiful pattern zigzagging back and forth across the steep hillsides, the result of miles of road that had been strung with white lights. In addition, an enormous Madeiran flag hung from one of the bridges, made from thousands of coloured lights.
It didn’t take long at all for our woes to be forgotten amongst all that sparkle.
Taking a Tour to the West of the Island
We first visited Madeira on our honeymoon in 2008. The next time we visited was in January 2023 when we explored the north east side of the island. But we’d never been to the very western end of the island or up onto the plateau.
Rather than hire a car, we took the easy option of being driven around all day in a comfy minibus. That way we could also both enjoy the views. It was a beautiful day with barely a cloud in the sky and as we wound our way up the twisty island roads, the scenery just got better and better.
Our first stop was at Cabo Girao, a viewpoint sited on top of a 589m high cliff. It has a glass floor so that you can really appreciate how high up you are! After that we stopped for coffee at Ribiera Brava, before driving up the winding roads and through the old tunnels to bring us out onto the plateau of Paul da Serra. This is largest, flattest area of Madeira. It’s often cloaked in cloud and fog, but we were lucky to have blue sky and views for miles.
The Rugged North West Coast
We wound our way back down off of the plateau to our furthest point west at Porto Moniz and lunch next to its natural rock pools. The return leg took us along the north west coast where new roads and tunnels have been dug through the vertiginous rock. Along the way we could see glimpses of the narrow old coast road made dangerous from collapse and too many rock falls.
We paused to admire the sliver of water that is Veu da Novia (Bride’s Veil), a waterfall that tumbles straight into the sea. Our final stop was at Sao Vincente before taking the faster route back to Funchal through the newer tunnels.
Lagoa do Fanal
My favourite stopping place was Lagoa do Fanal on the plateau. Here a lake nestles in an old crater amongst some lovely old laurel trees. I could have spent the whole day there, but unfortunately we had to share the time amongst the many other places we visited. I waited until everyone else had returned to the bus to soak up some peace from this fairy grotto like place.
As we drove around the various stop off points, our guide Hugo provided with a detailed history of Madeira, including how poncha came to be, the island’s nature, and its culture. He had an obvious passion for the island and really made the tour.
Discovering Craft Ale Bars
While sampling the passionfruit IPA, I remembered that we’d found a craft ale bar in Camera de Lobos when we’d visited last January. That set me off on a search for other craft bars and from that we found FugaCidade, which we’d unknowingly walked past every time we went into town. From that find, we discovered Vilhoa Craft Beer Warehouse. We got a little excited when we saw that they delivered to Porto Santo. An email quickly confirmed that they could have a box with us before Christmas, so we finally had our gift for each other. It would be a merry beery Christmas!
Christmas on Emerald
Our festive fun in Funchal was exactly what we needed to restore our spirits. So, on our return to Emerald I quickly turned her into a cosy, twinkly grotto and created the Christ-mast tree. We ate Christmas dinner on board, an excuse to go full roast dinner with as many trimmings as we could find. Turkey is available all year in the supermarket and we found frozen sprouts. But unfortunately the parsnips didn’t arrive in the shop until the 28th December and the fresh sprouts a few days later. Aw well, we now have an excuse for another roast dinner.
Bang into the New Year
The weather in Porto Santo had been fine, warm and dry right through the festive period, that is until New Year’s Eve. Rain arrived in the afternoon whilst we were enjoying homemade oliebollen with the Dutch sailors. Oliebollen are like doughnuts with raisins in, and they are delicious, especially warm straight out of the pan. You can see a YouTube video of them being made and enjoyed by us here, courtesy of Sailing Make My Day.
The rain continued on and off into the evening. It was still falling at 11pm, but the forecast was for it to be dry by midnight. So, we reluctantly set out with umbrellas into the soggy night. Twenty minutes later we’d arrived in the town centre and the rain had turned to a barely there drizzle and bang on cue, by midnight it was dry.
Madeira is famed for its huge New Year fireworks display, with pyrotechnics being fired from over 50 stations. The small sister island of Porto Santo isn’t forgotten, with 2 stations there. We gathered with a growing crowd by the pier and joined in the countdown to midnight. Bang on 12 the sky lit up above us in a multitude of colours as well as over on the Portela viewpoint above the marina.
Afterwards, we joined the revellers in the town square for live music, followed by a DJ, and danced ourselves into 2024.
New Year’s Day Swim
Our first festive swim together was on Christmas Day during our first year living on Emerald in Brighton marina. On a crisp, sunny winter’s day we thought it would be a good idea to jump off the side of the boat. But the water was so cold that my muscles gave up and all my arms could manage was a doggy paddle. I splashed inelegantly as quickly as I could around to the back and the exit ladder.
Since then, the other festive swims that we’ve joined in with have been in warmer water. Although if my memory is right, the Algarve swim was only slightly warmer than the UK and much wavier. Marina di Ragusa, Agios Nikolaos and Cartagena are the others that stand out.
For this season’s swim the mid Atlantic waters were a balmy 21 degrees centigrade. A group of mixed nationalities plus dogs plunged in to splash and swim around for a few minutes. It really is a good way to see off any lingering hangovers.
Lastly, the festive calendar was completed with Three Kings day. The event is celebrated with an enormous cake which is given out for free. The eating was accompanied by local choirs and of course, poncha.
Despite not being able to celebrate Christmas where we’d planned, it turned out to be a very good festive season.
Getting to Funchal from Porto Santo
Our journey began with the ferry between Porto Santo and Funchal, with a travel time of 2.5 hour. The ferry departs Porto Santo in the evening, and departs Funchal in the morning. It’s not the best of timings for travelling for Portosantoese, but the ferry is set up to bring tourists from the bigger island to its smaller sister.
Staying in Funchal
We stayed in an apartment which we found on booking.com. The week before Christmas turned out to be a good time to visit. The prices were favourable and there was a good amount of choice. I guess most people would have been waiting until the Christmas week to visit.
Travelling Around Madeira
We chose to use public transport for our journeys in and around Funchal. There is a regular bus service to many of the surrounding towns. Single journey tickets can be bought onboard for E1.95 or better value tickets can be bought from kiosks in the bus depot. These include a day ticket for E5 and extend to inclusive tickets that last for several days.
The Weather in Madeira in December
The topography of Madeira means than weather on the south coast and particularly in Funchal is generally better than the rest of the island. Initially, we had two days of sunshine with temperatures in the low 20s centigrade, followed by a cloudy day and a mixed weather day. On the mixed day there was rain on the north side and in the mountainous areas. We could see tendrils of cloud reaching down from the hills, but the rain mostly fizzled out before it reached Funchal. Even so, the less sunny weather led to some beautiful views of rainbows arcing across the higher ground.
Our Favourite Places in and Around Funchal
Here is a list of our favourite places to eat, drink and be merry in Funchal. If you have any suggestions for our next visit, please let us know in the comments below.
Curry: Basmati Indian and Nepali Restaurant. Flavourful food made to your choice of spiciness. Hot really does mean hot.
Drinks and entertainment:
- MadCuba for happy hour cocktails and good food.
- FugaCidade for craft ales and a wonderfully warm welcome and atmosphere. It felt like being in a pub from home.
- Tapas do Anibal a cosy, welcoming, non-touristy bar in the old town. They serve great ponchas and small snacks.
- Cervejaria Pesquita brewpub in Camera de Lobos. They have a wide range of craft ales. There was live music when we visited in December and January.
- Arsenal bar and restaurant in the old town for live music.
- Vilhoa Craft Beer Warehouse stocks a range of different types of craft ales, ranging in strength from session to make you go blind. Order in multiples of 12 for delivery within Madeira and Porto Santo.
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Thank you from Nichola & Colin