Madeira - an island you can't escape from

Madeira - an island you can't escape from

Last winter Grete and I did something I have been dreaming about since my teenage years. We spent our entire winter as remote workers in a warm climate, on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean – Madeira.

Madeira is one of the southernmost points of Europe. Little did we know that we will feel there colder than we have ever felt before. Or that it has magnetic fields keeping people living there longer than planned.

How’s the weather?

It’s the question we were asked every other meeting or call by colleagues and friends. An elementary question with a surprisingly long answer.

We spent most of December on top of a valley, around 400m above sea level. We sunbathed at 21-22 °C on the beach but had a max of 17 °C in our home garden. If we drove further up to the mountains (the highest peak Pico Ruivo is 1862m), temperatures were close to 0 °C. Our paragliding instructor explained that Maidera has macroclimate, microclimate, and “nanoclimate”. Therefore, the weather in every valley is different, clouds form and leave unpredictably, and weather apps can’t be trusted.

On the highest peak on Madeira - Pico Ruivo with snow

The winter weather was tricky, unpredictable, but overall mild and warm. We witnessed some Atlantic storms that brought strong wind, rain showers, snow to mountains and ruined hiking trails for months with the landslides they caused. At the same time, I also managed to sunburn my nose and neck.

From March, days went lighter and overall weather got better. Flowers started blooming, and vines started to grow leaves. Still, I don’t remember any day when I felt it was too hot to be outside.

Feeling of cold

Before our departure, my friend warned us about cold Portuguese houses, but we didn’t take it seriously. The first house we rented for a month was a traditional Madeiran 3-bedroom stone house built sometime in the 60s. A “Babushka” house as our Polish friends named it. It looked cosy and friendly at first but turned out to be the coldest place we had ever lived.

It was always colder inside than outside. Thick stone walls and no isolation made it feel like a proper basement, and there was only 1 small electric stove downstairs and a small air blower heater upstairs. These managed to heat the direct area where they blew. We slept under 5 blankets. There were days where we went inside our rental car only to warm ourselves up.

Babushka house kitchen

Another problem was the moisture inside the house. Everything inside was cold and moist. Every morning after waking up, Grete warmed her clothes with the heater fan. On sunny days we brought out all our clothes under sunshine to fight against moulding.

We should have listened to our friend about Portuguese houses. From then on, we always kept the warmness of the house as a top priority before choosing where to live.

Drinking culture

Madeiran people have found another way to fight with a feeling of cold. They have invented a unique drink called “Poncha”, which they originally drank when they felt cold-like symptoms. But now, it’s consumed any other time, probably for prophylactic reasons.

Poncha is a mix of “aguardente de cana” (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice), honey, sugar and fresh juice like lemon or orange. The sugar cane alcohol is around 50% alcohol and smells like nail polish remover. But the mix with sweet and sour components makes it the best-tasting cocktail I have ever had.

You know the crooked face when you taste unexpectedly strong alcohol? This is the reaction that “ponchamakers” are aiming to see after serving their first drinks. Despite its strongness, it’s lucratively easy to drink. It is served in small “Old fashioned type” classes and costs around 2.5-3€ per class. One can get decently drunk with 12-15€.

I got so enthusiastic about poncha that I decided to learn how to make it. After numerous testings and degustations with our new friends, I was denominated as “the poncha master” in our Nomad street. (More about Nomad street below.) Dedication really is the key.

Another well-known drink made on Madeira is Madeira wine. It’s a fortified wine, very similar to port wine but produced a bit differently. Locals don’t consume it often, but British people love it. (British people generally love Portugal.)

The first time we tried it accidentally and thought it to be normal wine that had just gone bad. But slowly we learned to enjoy the Madeira wine. Our highlight was a degustation of wine made in 1984, which was a proper flavour bomb.

Food culture

Local Madeiran cuisine is very similar to Portuguese cuisine – a lot of seafood, meat, and pastry.

The definite highlight is a local bread called “bolo de caco”. It should be a nomination for the best bread in the world competition. Best served with garlic butter. It was the best starter for hungry Mart before dinner. And it’s also delicious as a sandwich. I really miss you.

Of course, I can’t forget other local cakes and pastries, which I made sure to taste as much as possible. “Bolo de mel”, “bolo de laranja”, “bolo de… They are all delicious. But… the best “pastéis de natas” are still in Lisbon.

Madeira is a tropical island and is an ideal place for fruit and vegetable lovers. There are villages fully surrounded by banana trees. We had every other day fresh juice from local oranges and grapes. And potatoes can be harvested 5 times a year. Local farmers markets had a great and cheap selection, including exotic fruits like passion fruit, monstera deliciosa (ananas-banana), and other weird stuff.

Seafood was popular on Madeira island. The local speciality was a scabbard fish filet served with a banana. Generally, seafood dishes like tuna, limpets, prawns, octopus etc. were delicious. During the first month, we ate so much seafood that Grete got physically sick from it.

Madeira has food for all the preferences. Some of the best food memories we have are from non-Portuguese restaurants, like an Italian pizzeria, a Mozambique restaurant, and a Cuban bar.

Local people

There has to be a correlation between the warmness of people and the average yearly outside temperature. People on Madeira are super friendly, easygoing, and not very loud. They are a perfect match for Estonians who want to escape from our reservedness but don’t want to take a too big leap.

Peoples’ behavioural characteristics are often brought to light in traffic. On Maderia, we could drive on a highway at the speed we felt like (on the hills with 2nd gear at the car speed limit), with no pressure to be on max speed limits. For locals, it was okay to stop a car in the middle of the road for some chat with people outside or with a car driver from the opposite side. And other drivers didn’t mind waiting behind if something like that happened. Of course, everyone waved to each other to thank them later.

Similarly, we had to wait every other time we visited the grocery store. The cashier and customer talked sometimes for minutes, even though there was a long queue behind. Carpe diem.

Although the Portuguese bureaucracy and love for physical paper documents can be annoying for E-stonians. Once we spent 45 minutes on the phone opening the hospital’s mobile app account to get a PCR test. Another time, we had a complimentary 1-hour-long coffee meeting with our real estate broker, who complained that she was soooo busy with hundreds of emails to answers. Not to mention our friends’ adventures with local banks, which were just hilariously painful.

Would higher efficiency help Madeiran people accomplish more things? Definitely. But these small spontaneous human interactions seemed to be so important for their everyday life and happiness.


Madeira is a hikers’ paradise. There are dozens of official and unofficial trails that bring you over mountains, through tunnels, under waterfalls, and offer more magical viewpoints you could wish for. The greatest walks are either in the high mountains, on seaside cliffs or on levadas – water channels that were built in old times to bring water from mountains to villages and fields.

Hiking trip with extraordinary view

It’s wise to start with official tracks. Most official walks are in good condition and levadas are wide enough to walk securely. But paths tend to be steep and missteps can be fatal. Our scariest experience happened after following one blogger’s self-made alternative route, which brought us through very dangerous situations. Another time, we had to form a human chain to help a local man bring his child up from a cliff, who had accidentally fallen.

We tried to go hiking every weekend when there was good weather. It’s incredibly easy to do, as the island is small and has good highways. It takes around 1 hour to drive from one side to another. Now being back in flat Estonia, we miss the mountains and easy access to hikes like on Madeira.

Paragliding and whale/dolphin watching were our two other highlight activities. Our friends also did canyoning, jeep tours, mountain biking, trail running, surfing, diving and definitely something else. The list of outdoor activities is long and there is something to do for everyone.

Nomad village and new friends

One lesson learned from our South-East Asia trip was to make an effort to find friends in a new place. We enjoy spending time together with Grete, but after some time we start to miss some company and outside energy.

Right after we landed, we joined all possible Facebook and Whatsapp groups to make new connections. It needed a little bit of courage in the beginning. But soon we were invited for drinks to poncha bar and met our Polish friends. Soon we took part in some other networking activities. Then my colleague followed me to Madeira.

And then we heard that an experimental coworking space will be opened to a small picturesque village called Ponta do Sol. The coworking place itself was simple, but it attracted digital nomads all around the world. Organizers created many activities and invited people to teach their skills to others. There were daily activities like creative workshops, yoga, beach workouts, ecstatic dancing, and hiking trips on the weekends.

Ponta do Sol

Our “eesti-lembene” German friend invited us to rent a house together in Ponta do Sol. Our new home – Benoni house – won a jackpot with its location, as the neighbouring houses were also rented by digital nomads. One evening girls by the pool of neighbouring house waved to our housemate and invited him to their house party. Soon we were friends with all our neighbours and had activities every week. We had family dinners, pancake mornings, hiking trips, dancing parties (with me as a ponchamaker), and many unplanned get-togethers. That was the life of our Nomad street.

We managed to create a real community around us on Madeira and I lived a more active social life than ever before. All of us being in a foreign country, we didn’t have any other obligation besides our jobs, which allowed us to be spontaneous and free to new activities and experiences.

Looking back, I probably spent on Madeira the happiest days of my life so far.

Our Nomad street friends

Hard to escape

We extended our stay from initial 2-3 months to 5 months. And we could have easily stayed longer, but we made a hard decision to also explore the Azores and South Portugal before returning home.

Our Polish friends decided after the first 2 weeks on Madeira, that they will live there next 5 years. My colleague already flew back there for the second winter season. We organized 2 farewell parties for a Czech couple who kept on postponing their flight, just like many others around us.

It is super difficult to leave Madeira.

Now, we are looking for a new destination to spend part of our upcoming winter season. And it’s very difficult to pick anything, as it looks like nothing beats what Madeira has to offer. I feel the urge to go back there. But, there are still so many places unexplored…

More pictures of Madeira in our Instagram account:

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