Thursday, February 4, 2016

Diving with Scuba Madeira -- Madeira Island, Portugal

If you read the blog often enough, you already know I love to be on in and around the water.  And I especially love to go scuba diving wherever my travels take me.  Back in 2013 I went diving in the Azores, the other portuguese owned island in the Atlantic, and I was excited to see what Madeira was like beneath the coastline
 (You can read about diving in the Azores here ).  

Before heading to Madeira, I did a little research on where to go and which shop was the best, as I would be diving without my lovely friends and in a foreign country.  And then after a few weeks of research, I just ended up walking over to the closest place next door at the hotel.  Being able to walk to a place near the hotel district made it so much easier.  No car needed.  I had read some TripAdvisor reviews, checked out their website, and emailed with the dive guides. 

Scuba Madeira is located inside the Hotel Pastana Palms. When I emailed them about a dive they were quick and courteous to respond. I was told that: "Daily dives except Sundays we have Dives from shore and Boat, We meet at 10:00AM or 14:00PM. One Dive full Equipped is 42 Euros , boat fees are to pay extra depending on Distance from 8 to 18 Euros. Dive package is 3 Dives 110 Euros, with 2 Dives we don’t have a Pack. Just come by to meet us, or just tell me when you like to Dive".  We decided on 10am one tank dive off the house reef.

Scuba Madeira - Hotel Pestana Palms - Rua do Gorgulho 17 - 9000-107 Funchal - Portugal
Phone: Dive-center : (00351) 291 709 227 - Mobil:(00351) 910 864 147 - e-mail:

The shop has free nitrox, and had a few options for a single dive on a Thursday morning. I could head out on the boat to the nearby nature reserve, or do a dive on the house reef right here at the center. Because I had family waiting for me to go on another adventure, I decided to dive on the house reef right off the hotel to save some time. 

42 Euros ($47) got me a guided dive, just me and two of the guides, and included all the gear needed (I just brought along my computer and mask). 

We dove about 50 minutes, to about 60 feet and the water temperature was about 66 degrees.  I wore a 7 mil with a hood. The staff were all very very friendly and while the dive center was small and basic, it had everything needed including rinse tanks and locker areas to hold your stuff. The gear was all in great condition, although I was initially shocked by the front zipping wet suit and lack of gloves (gloves are allowed but my guide convinced me I wouldn't need them).

We took a giant stride off the deck and descended down to 10', where we followed the rocks and slope down to about 60' where the rocks met the sand. Along the way we saw nudibranchs, octopus, sea horse, cuttle fish, sea urchins and various other fish. At one point, my guide put a sea urchin on my palm and felt it crawl around before releasing it back to the sea floor. My guide was kind enough to point out all the various critters living in the waters off the island of Madeira.  The visibility was great, the water a little chilly, and there was plenty of sea life around us.  


Check out my video including some diving clips on YouTube Here or Below!


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Grutas de Sao Vicente- Lava Tubes and the town of Sao Vicente

I know I said I was wrapping up Madeira posts, but then I realized I forgot to talk about this amazing spot.  If you have been reading along, then you know that Madeira is a volcanic island. It is basically a few large volcanic rocks sitting in the Atlantic Ocean.  The island has its dramatic volcanic peaks and cliffs, with some of the most fertile soil for raising crops.  

To learn more about the history of how the island was formed, and about volcanism in general, we headed to the north cost of the island to Sao Vicente and the Grutas de Sao Vicente, the caves/lava tubes open to the public on the island. 

Price:  Adults 8 euros Children 6 euros 
Hours:  10am to 7pm

About:  A two part exhibit, 30 minutes through the tubes
 and another 30 minutes in exhibits and movies after 

Bridge leading to the caves/lava tubes 

Water flowing under the suspension bridge 
Views around Sao Vicente 
Views around Sao Vicente 
One of the many stray cats that lives at the welcome center
Views from the welcome center lot 
"The Archipelago of Madeira was created through a "Hot Spot".  Volcanoes formed the islands when the Eurasian Plate moved over a hotspot in the same way the islands of Hawaii formed. The lava that formed Madeira reached above the ocean’s surface about 5.2 million years ago.  The island is only the top quarter of the entire volcanic system. The first phase of volcanic activity began about 18 million years ago.  Two other phases formed the volcanic cliffs of the northern and southern shores. "--Madeira Geology
Exit leaving the caves/lava tubes 
Exit leaving the caves/lava tubes 
Inside the lava tubes 

The São Vicente Caves were formed during this last phase of volcanic activity. The caves were the result of an outbreak of lava that cooled and solidified on the surface creating a tubular cavity while lava continued to flow in high temperatures and speeds through these newly created underground “pipes” until the volcano no longer had lava to flow."--Madeira Geology

The caves were first reported in 1885 by locals, and opened to the public on October 1st, 1996. They were among the first volcanic caves to be opened to the public in Portugal and may be visited by following an underground route running for over 1,000 m. The height of the caves varies between 5 and 6 metres.  Visit Madeira

short lava tube 
We had to wait about 10 minutes for the next tour to start through the lava tubes.  An English speaking tour guide lead about 20 people through a 30 minute tour of the lava tubes.  The tour was very informational, pointing out the various forms of lava, the construction of the tubes, and other information on how the tubes and the island were formed.  

lava dripping from the ceiling of the tubes 

water in the lava tubes, dripping through the ceiling due to irrigation and rain above us. 
walking path through the lava tubes 
"At the end of the tour, visitors may access the Volcano Centre, a pavilion offering a range of educational and entertaining audiovisual displays that recreate the geological evolution of the caves, the eruption of a volcano and even a simulation of the birth of the Madeira Islands". Visit Madeira

Views of the river again, leaving the tubes 
Arriving on the north coast- Sao Vicente 
After leaving the Lava Tubes, we followed the road north until we reached the North Coast of Madeira.  The water was rough but the landscape was gorgeous.  This part of the island was very quiet, and we settled into a small cafe.  On our way out of the restaurant, we asked our server about a waterfall we had seen in a picture on my guide book.  She told us it was just around the bend, and we made one last stop at the Sao Vicente waterfall before heading back to Funchal.  We took a few pictures and enjoyed the views.  If you stop at the waterfall to take pictures, beware of the cars speeding out of the tunnel (one of about 150 on the island). 

Bridge and tiny chapel in Sao Vicente 
Waterfall in Sao Vicente 
Waterfall in Sao Vicente 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Eating and Drinking on Madeira Island

Its my last post before my final recap/travel guide itinerary for the island of Madeira.  So lets go out with a bang and talk about all the amazing traditional food you will see on Madeira Island.

Because Madeira is a big tourist destination, they have many options for food ranging from pizza to Indian food.  Unlike the Azores, there is a larger variety of restaurants to chose from, especially where all the hotels are.  However... if you are 100 percent Portuguese and with your Portuguese family, you will avoid the tourists traps and spend your week eating authentic Portuguese food, which is exactly what we did. We fully immersed ourselves in the traditional dishes of Madeira Island

Lets start with drinks.  
Madeira has a few traditional drinks on the island, and of course we will start with the most famous, Madeira Wine. 

Sipping Madeira Wine after dinner 

Madeira Wine isn't your average bottle of table wine, but instead, a fortified wine (addition of brandy, think dessert or cooking wine) that comes in variations from dry to sweet.  Madeira Wine is unique to the Island of Madeira, and its distinctive taste is due to the heating process of the wine.  The heating process is key in bringing out flavors like nuts, fruit, caramel and toffee.  Madeira wine can be sipped cold, or how we had it, after dinner warm as a dessert wine.  It is also popular for cooking when de-glazing pans or creating sauces and dressings.  A few of the restaurants (like Frango da Guiia above) brought out samples of Madeira wine for the table on the house after a large meal.  You can find it at virtually every restaurant and shop around the island.  The prices range from affordable to very very expensive depending on the year and type. 

Bottles of Madeira Wine to purchase
"During the 1600 and 1700s, wine often spoiled and needed to be fortified (by adding a little brandy) to survive the voyage at sea. At the time, the island of Madeira was an important provisioning point for journeys to the Americas and the East Indies and shippers would load up on Madeira wine on their way to England and the Americas. The casks of Madeira wine would be heated and cooled as the ships passed though the tropics. Shippers noticed how the wine’s flavor deepened and became better and called this sea-aging “Vinho da Roda.”" Wine Folly

The different types of Madeira wine


Poncha is the most famous drink on the island of Madiera.  While the world knows about Madeira Wine, few know about the poncha, unless you actually on the island.  
While the drink started in the fishing town of Camara de Lobos, drank by the espada fishermen before a night at sea, it can be found throughout the entire island. Be warned, it is delicious and very strong. 

Poncha from Madeira 
The drink is traditionally made only from brandy cane sugar while adding equal amounts of sugar and lemon peel. Honey is now added to the mixture instead of sugar and you can find variations that include orange as well.   If you are on the island of Madeira, you have to try a poncha, but maybe just one.  The drink is very very strong and it is said that after a few ponchas, anyone can speak Portuguese. 

Beers on Madeira 
Beer and wine are also common on the island, and can be found on every table at lunch and dinner.  It is very common to see a table of women sharing a bottle of red wine over a long lunch.  You will basically only find Coral on tap (light beer) and a Super Bock and Corral in the bottle.  The variety isn't spectacular but it is all very cheap (1-3 euros) and easy to drink.  

Spread of food and drink at Gaviao Novo- one of the best seafood restaurants in Funchal
View from lunch
Breakfast at Melia Madeira Mare
Breakfast was included with our hotel stay at Melia Madeira Mare and was always a gorgeous spread of exotic and local fruits, meats and cheeses along with your more traditional eggs and omelets.  I have to say it was quite lovely starting every day with a mimosa with local champagne and a splash of pineapple juice. 

Chestnuts at Vale das Freiras in Curral das Freiras 
One of the appetizers we ordered was the traditional roasted chestnuts in the Valley of the nuns.  They were peeled, roasted, and heavily salted.  A delicious way to start a meal and order more drinks like poncha. 

Fresh Fish display at Gaviao Novo- one of the best seafood restaurants in Funchal
The seafood on the island was probably (no, it was definitely) the highlight for me.  Restaurants had displays of their fresh catch of the day out in front to lure you in.  The popular fish on the island was the eel like fish called espada, the parrot fish, limpets (one shelled mussel if you will), squid, shrimp, and other white fish. You could also find traditional salted cod, swordfish, tuna, and your more typical fish. Everything was local and fresh.  The espada was definitely the group favorite.  There are many traditional dishes including Espada with banana (too sweet for me) and bacalhau (salted cod with potatoes, delicious).  Every fish we had melted in your mouth especially the espada.  

Be warned a lot of the fish comes whole, and even the filets tend to have bones.  If this is not your cup of tea, the chef can probably filet it for you.  But if you order fish, it is more than likely coming chock full of tiny tiny pin bones. 

Grilled Squid entree 
Grilled squid with side salad 
Steak eggs and fries 
You can also find the classic steak and eggs, or your seafood and rice dishes around the island and at nearly every restaurant.  The combo of the steak, eggs and fries is always amazing but your steak will most likely be served well done.  And if you order shrimp, its also likely it will come with its head still attached. 

Seafood and rice plate 
Espada (scabbard fish) fried 
Espada with banana and passion fruit 

Whole grilled parrot fish

Bacalhau - salted cod with bones 
Bacalhau - salted cod with bones 
Three fish filet sampler at Gaviao Novo

Salad at Gaviao Novo
Less cooked (and better prepared) veggies at Gaviao Novo

overcooked veggies at one of the restaurants
The sides were always your standard salad, and a display of vegetables that were cooked to death and beyond.  The Portuguese cook everything well well well done to the point that the vegetables were often a brown pile of mush in a platter.  It was also very traditional to have fries or boiled potatoes, served with olive oil as a side. 

typical side salad that came with meals 
Large table of food at Frango da Guiia
As you can see, whatever you ordered came with about 3 different plates (each!).  This is what our table constantly looked like, just ordering one meal per person.  When we needed a break from the fish, my hiking guide recommended we tried the chicken at Frango de Guiia and it did not disappoint. 

Amazing spice rub chicken at Frango da Guiia

 Whole grilled sardines 

The food on Madeira, all in all was great.  The fresh fish was always the best option.  The sides were very hit or miss as the Portuguese overcook their veggies.  Chicken was a nice break from the fish as well as steak.  Pork was not an option on most menus.  It may be a difficult island for vegetarians unless you stick to the more touristy restaurants.  The food was always much more affordable than our entrees here in America.  A nice dish at a nicer restaurant was usually in the 10-15 euro range, with generous portions and sides.

 Sticking to the more authentic restaurants, the food was great.  Our only complaint was that each restaurant seemed to have the same type of food, same entrees, and it was a little monotonous after a while.  Make sure you try all the local fish and put lots of olive oil on those boiled potatoes.  And you cannot leave the island without trying the Madeira Wine or the Poncha.