Madeira’s rugged north coast often feels a world away from the sun-splashed south, with high cliffs rising vertically from the seething Atlantic that pounds the island with full force. Three villages (Santana, São Vicente and Porto Moniz) have sufficient attractions for a day excursion from Funchal, but remember – while the south coast bathes in sunshine, the chilly north’s damp air might mean it’s time to fish the sweaters out.
Grutas e Centro do Vulcanismo
Caves in São Vicente
Top billing on Madeira’s north coast goes to this two-for-one attraction just south of São Vicente. The first part of the experience is a guided tour of the local caves – 900,000-year-old lava tubes studied by English geologist James Johnson in the 1850s. The second part is the Centro do Vulcanismo – a 3D, interactive look at Madeira’s volcanic birth and volcanoes in general. It’s a real hit with the kids and a great wet-weather activity.
Igreja do Bom Jesus
Church in North Coast
The fishing village of Ponta Delgada, 30km west of Santana, is worth a brief halt for its authentic remoteness and to visit the baroque Igreja do Bom Jesus. The church houses an 18th-century crucifix that was mysteriously washed ashore in 1740. It’s the focus of the local Festa de Senhor Jesus, a few days in September when Ponta Delgada awakens from its slumber.
Aquário da Madeira
Aquarium in Porto Moniz
Madeira’s top aquarium hides away like a hermit crab in a renovated stone fortress. Inside, 12 tanks represent various ocean habitats around Madeira, the largest contains 500,000L of water and is big enough to accommodate divers. The whole colourful underwater world is here, though most visitors’ attention is taken by the sharks in the big tank.
Porto da Cruz
Village in North Coast
The furthest point heading eastwards you can reach on the north coast before mammoth cliffs persuade the road to head inland, Porto da Cruz is a picturesque spot nestling at the base of some seriously steep terraced slopes. One of Madeira’s last working sugar mills fills the village with a sweet scent.
Beach in North Coast
Seixal’s black-sand beach can be accessed through an arch in the rock. It receives fewer visitors than beaches on the south coast, but check the weather forecast before heading here.
Centro Ciência Viva
Museum in Porto Moniz
This now-ageing centre covers a wide range of scientific topics in a hands-on way. The focus is on Madeira’s Unesco-listed laurisilva forests, their climate, biodiversity and the human relationship with it. Interactive exhibits include a barefoot forest-floor walk, a virtual levada and heaps of touchscreens, puzzles and films. Sadly the project has withered on the vine in recent years.
North Coast Road
Landmark in North Coast
Road number 101 once struck fear into the heart of every Madeiran driver until it was retired to Room 101 by the modern VE2. The old route was the island’s most dramatic and scenic road, the barely car-wide strip of tarmac clinging to the side of cliffs and splashed by waterfalls and waves. Some sections (one-way towards Porto Moniz) are still open.
Parque Temático da Madeira
Amusement Park in Santana
An engaging place to take the kids, this Madeira-themed park has a boating lake, a maze, a Monte train, mock-ups of Santana A-Frame houses, a large kiddies playground, some Madeira-specific exhibitions and a cafe. It’s all quite informative but probably not worth a special trip from Funchal.
Thatched A-Frame Cottages
Architecture in Santana
This group of A-framed cottages stands in the centre of Santana and houses the tourist office, among other things. More authentic examples in various states of disrepair can be found in gardens dotted around Santana.