Madeira - Macaronesian natural history

Our visit to the ’floating garden’ of Madeira has been designed to give us an opportunity to explore the diversity of the island’s habitats and look for a range of endemic wildlife along the way, all at a relaxed pace: a much-needed autumn break!
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The mountainous centre of the island is cloaked in lush Laurisilva rainforests, the remnants of an ancient habitat that once spread across Europe. Now designated as a World Heritage Site, these moist, shady forests are home to a great diversity of endemic plants, notably several species of Laurel, as well as two endemic birds, the tiny Madeiran Firecrest and the shy Trocaz Pigeon.

Around the rugged coast we will find evidence of the volcanic nature of the islands and look for endemic house leeks and Pride of Madeira echiums. Higher up, the misty mountain tops support interesting heath communities, as well as offering stunning vistas down across the island.

The seas surrounding the island are rich in marine life, with Sperm Whale, Short-finned Pilot Whale and several species of dolphin amongst the resident species likely to be seen from our whale-watching boat trip. There will be the opportunity to take a day trip across to the arid Desertas Islands, with the chance to see the endemic Desertas Petrel alongside other seabirds, and perhaps even the critically endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal.

Madeira is renowned for its gardens, and we will visit a selection of the finest, where startling Monarch butterflies and Madeiran Wall Lizard can be found alongside the sub-tropical plants from around the world. We will also learn about the fascinating and dramatic geology of this scenic island. We will be accompanied by local guides, who will ensure we get the most out of our time on the island.

Please note that holidays change, although sometimes only slightly, from year to year and previous trip reports may not reflect the planned itinerary, or other holiday details, for the current trip. Please ask us if you would like to know of any significant differences.

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Day 1 After our morning flight to Madeira, we will pay our first visit to some of Funchal’s impressive public gardens and become acquainted with the city.

Day 2 We explore the centre of the island and the various native plant communities where we will find our first Madeiran endemics: giant buttercups, disk houseleeks, oversized dandelions and many other interesting species. Where ever we find forest, we will keep our ears open for the high-pitched calls of the delightful Madeiran Firecrest, while Madeiran Wall Lizard skitters amongst the undergrowth.

Day 3 A free day with the option of a day trip by boat to the uninhabited Desertas Islands to look out for whales and dolphins, as well as the endangered Desertas Petrel. The islands are also home to one of Europe’s rarest mammals, the Mediterranean Monk Seal, and we will keep our fingers crossed for a sighting. 

Day 4 We head to the highest peaks of the island, Pico Ruivo and Pico do Arieiro, up above the clouds at 1800m. The low heathland vegetation here is very different, home to birds including Berthelot’s Pipit and Spectacled Warbler. We will learn about the endangered Zino’s Petrel, which breed here and nowhere else on the planet, returning to their burrows after dark during the summer months.

Day 5 Our attention turns out to sea, and we head to the harbour in Funchal for a whale-watching boat trip. Short-finned Pilot Whales are resident around the coast and we will be looking out for these, along with several species of dolphins and whales, Loggerhead Turtle and various seabirds, including Cory’s Shearwater and Bulwer’s Petrel. We will spend the afternoon in the famous Funchal Botanical Garden with its many sub-tropical plants from around the world.

Day 6 The São Lourenço peninsula at the eastern end of the island is a rocky, semi-arid landscape, with its own unique flora and fauna, including (surprisingly, for such an arid area) no fewer than 24 endemic snails! We take the trail out to the end of the island, looking out for the impressive Dragon Tree, endemic Mandon’s Marguerite and Madeiran Sea Stock, and learning more about the archipelago’s geological past (and those snails!) along the way. The trip back will be by zodiac, giving us a different perspective on the geology of the peninsula. We have set this afternoon aside for taking our Covid tests, in preparation for returning to the UK. If time allows, we will visit the Piedade volcano and the amazing landscapes of the north eastern coast.

Day 7 We are heading west, visiting the Laurissilva forests, the volcanic pools at Porto Moniz, and the volcanic caves at São Vicente.

Day 8 Our time on Madeira has come to an end, and after breakfast we bid farewell to Funchal and head back to the airport and our flights home.

Please note that the itinerary may be changed to suit the weather or other practicalities at the discretion of the leaders.

We will be based at the Hotel Cais da Oliveira, a four-star hotel on the coast at Caniço, with views out to sea. All rooms are en-suite.

Dinners will be taken at the hotel. Lunches will be a mixture of picnic and tavern lunches. Lunches are not included on arrival/departure days or on the free day.

We will travel by small coach or minibus.

Group flights

Group flights are with Easyjet from London Gatwick to Funchal.

It is also possible to fly from Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, London Stansted or Birmingham: contact us for details.

Overland travel

It is not currently possible to reach Madeira flight-free.

Time zone

Madeira is in the same time zone as the UK.

Entry requirements

If you hold a British passport you can travel to countries in the Schengen area (including Portugal) for up to 90 days in any 180-day period without a visa. You must have at least six months left on your passport to travel to most countries in Europe. 

At this time of year, the weather is usually very pleasant. In the lowlands, the weather is normally good, with average temperatures around 15-20ºC. It will feel colder on the boat trips, and on the higher slopes, where it can be misty and there may be some rain.

We will be on our feet for much of the day each day, albeit at a slow pace and never covering any great distance. Our longest walk will be around three miles. This will include areas of rougher ground. On mountainous Madeira, slopes are impossible to avoid. None of the walks are strenuous, but (light) walking boots are essential. In some locations ‘facilities’ are scarce! We will be taking two boat trips on zodiac/RIB vessels. You therefore need to have a reasonably good level of fitness.

During the holiday, it is likely that you will need to wear face coverings in enclosed places, including on the flight, in communal areas of the hotel, on the bus and in any other indoor spaces we may visit during the day. These rules are correct as of 14 August for travel between England and Madeira. If you are not travelling from England, please check the appropriate government sources for your location.

Madeira is currently on England’s ‘Green’ list, while mainland Portugal is on the ‘Amber’ list.
Passengers travelling between the UK and Madeira must either show a negative PCR test result for COVID-19 (the test must have been taken within 72 hours of departure) or evidence that you have been vaccinated, with a double dose of an EU-approved vaccine at least 14 days prior to travel.
For the return to England, you must take a COVID-19 test in the 3 days prior to travel, and also book a test that takes place on or before day 2 after you get back to the UK. These rules may change without notice, at any point.