On Madeira’s east coast, Machico was where the island’s discoverers first landed in 1419. The beach they arrived at looks very different now as the stones were replaced with Moroccan sand in 2008. You can divide your time between the ocean and land in Machico. On the water you’ll embark on a motorboat to spot the same whales that were once hunted from this town.
You can also trek to the easternmost point on the island or scale any number of viewpoints for photogenic scenery of dark cliffs and precipitous hillsides, all with a lush green mantle. Machico’s earliest history is revealed at the 15th-century church and a museum set up in a mansion from the 1600s.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Machico:
1. Praia de Machico
The beach in Machico has something you can’t find anywhere else in Madeira, namely golden sand.
This is impeccably clean and has been shipped from Morocco.
There are long groynes extending into the bay to keep the surf out and stop the sand from being washed away.
Children and non-swimmers can wade into the calm sea with little danger, and if you get here early you can hire a sun lounger and parasol.
When the beach gets busy in summer there are bars, restaurants and ice cream stands a few metres from the sand if you’re in need of refreshment.
And for a bit of historical interest, it was at this location that Madeira’s discoverers, Tristão Vaz Teixeira and João Gonçalves Zarco first landed on Madeira in 1419 to claim it for Portugal.
2. Museu da Baleia
In Caniçal Madeira’s whaling history is laid bare at this first-rate museum.
The attraction moved to a modern new home in 2011 and has artefacts and accounts from the industry that supported the east coast’s economy up to the 20th century.
There are whale bones, and life-sized models of various whale and dolphin species hanging from the ceiling.
Among the exhibits are tools such as harpoons, recorded conversations with whalers and 3D movies showing whales in their habitat.
To illustrate how Madeira’s relationship with whales has changed you can find out about the work now being done to research and protect the marine life around Madeira.
3. Ponta de São Lourenço
The peninsula on Madeira’s easternmost tip can be hiked until you arrive at the Ponta do Furado.
At this elevated viewpoint you’ll turn back at and see the whole of the peninsula and Madeira in silhouette.
Off the end of the peninsula there’s also a small archipelago, with a lighthouse at the most distant point.
The trip is something you won’t soon forget, as although the plateau is quite flat and easy-going, there are sheer bluffs on both side of the peninsula, dropping 100 metres or more to the boiling ocean.
Ponta do Furado is at the top of a stairway, and most days the Ilhas Desertas and Porto Santo hover on the horizon.
4. Solar do Ribeirinho
In 1998 the vestiges of a 17th-century estate in Machico were excavated and archaeologists unearthed a hoard of artefacts from the town’s past.
The buildings were restored and turned into a museum, with stables, and a cistern built to irrigate the surrounding sugarcane plantation.
The finds made here give a clear picture of colonial life on Madeira, and feature glazed pottery, preserved sugar from 400 years ago, tiles, coins, horseshoes and a lot more besides.
The museum holds many of these objects, including an exquisite 16th-century seal with an elaborate ivory handle.
5. Miradouro da Portela
Something that never gets old on Madeira is driving or walking to a viewpoint and basking in the island’s amazing landscapes.
One that you can drive to near Machico is the Miradouro da Portela on the road to Porto da Cruz.
The scenery up here is sublime, as you’ll notice how the lush vegetation and dark basalt contrast with the ocean.
You can see all of Porto da Cruz from up here, which is bulwarked by the titanic drum-like mass of the Penha d’Águia.
Try to come on a clear day, but if does get foggy there’s a good chance the sky will clear again after a while.
6. Igreja Matriz de Machico
One of the oldest monuments in all of Madeira, this church was founded by the daughter of Tristão Vaz Teixeira.
Although the church has come through a few updates in its time, there’s still enough 15th-century Gothic architecture to feast your eyes on.
The ogival portal, hewn from Basalt, is the showpiece, with foliate capitals holding up five archivolts.
Also be sure to nose around the side chapels like Santíssimo Sacramento, which has a ribbed vault, and São João Batista, which has Gothic masonry and a coat of arms.
This chapel was created to honour the first Portuguese donators to the colony in Machico.
7. Pico do Facho
On a summit to the northeast Machico there’s another lookout that you cannot pass up.
Pico do Facho gives you a complete perspective of Madeira’s stirring central peaks, as well as all of Machico and the Ponta de São Lourenço to the east.
And as an easily visible eminence in the mountainscape of the east coast, this peak also had a role in defending Madeira during attacks.
Bonfires used to be lit here to warn the island of enemy ships approaching from the east.
8. Levada do Castelejo
One of the surprising things about Madeira is the way the most inhospitable looking terrain has been adapted for farming.
Something that made this possible was the levada, a water channel carved into vertiginous hillsides to irrigate crops in remote places.
There are dozens of these on the island, and a levada walk conveys you through cinematic landscapes and shows how a little ingenuity has allowed plantations to flourish.
The nine-kilometre Levada do Castelejo is an easy walk through laurel, ferns and holly, and with stirring views of the Penha d’Águia behind Porta da Cruz.
9. Praia da Ribeira de Natal
If you want the real deal you can also pass on a soothing afternoon at this beach in Caniçal.
As Praia da Ribeira de Natal has rocks instead of sand it gets fewer bathers than the sand in Machico.
But that takes nothing away from the marvellous scenery, at the base of basalt cliffs and with far-off vistas of the Ponta de São Lourenço.
In 2003 a pool complex was set up close to this beach, with two saltwater pools, one for kids and the other for grown-ups.
10. Sights around Town
Machico has a batch of diverting sights to look out for as you potter around the town.
One is the Capela de São Roque, which is rooted in the 1400s, but was restored in the middle of the 18th century when tile panels recalling the life of its patron saint were installed.
You can meet Tristão Vaz Teixeira, the man who discovered Machico.
Well, there’s a statue of him cast in bronze in 1972 and it stands the beautiful plane-fringed square in front of the Igreja Matriz.
The Solar de São Cristóvão is a genteel estate from the 1600s with a chapel and belfry attached.
It’s couched in lush gardens, and is now a residence and atelier for local artists.
11. Santo da Serra Golf Course
This golf club has three nine-hole courses designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1991 and hosted the Madeira Open, a European Tour event up to 2015. Even if you only dabble in golf you have to keep this Santo da Serra in mind because the scenery is out of this world.
The courses are posted 500 metres above sea level.
and the sharp changes in elevation and unpredictable winds pose a different challenge on each hole.
Few are as tricky or downright spectacular as the fourth hole of the “Machico” course, a par-3 that requires you to hit the green from the other side of a ravine or forget about retrieving your ball!
Madeira has a quite a low latitude, which is music to the ears of divers as underwater temperatures are more comfortable.
These are at their warmest around late summer when they’ll rise above 20°C. Visibility is also good, at up to 30 metres, and there’s wildlife like barracuda, moray eels, turtles, dolphins and occasionally monk seals to join you under the waves.
If you have you certificates then there are 20 sites around the island, from corals to artificial wrecks.
And for those just starting out Madeira has some of the best conditions in Europe.
Hook up with Anthia Dive Centre, which is based in Machico.
13. Horseback Riding
There may be no better place in Europe to go on a horse-riding adventure than Madeira.
You have the benefit of going off-road with less of the strain of hiking, and more opportunity to soak up the scenery.
One centre Quinta do Riacho is in Santo da Serra and has a menu of six different trail rides, most of which are available to all, but with a couple of more demanding treks that are only open to advanced riders.
All the horses and ponies are accustomed to the terrain and are unflappable, even with new riders.
One of the handy services offered by the ranch is pick-up and drop-off from Machico.
14. Whale Watching
Madeira’s temperate conditions bring another type of creature to these seas.
While whales used to be hunted off Machico, they now make people’s holidays.
Scorpio Madeira Wild Life, a whale-spotting firm is run by a marine biologist.
So you’ll have a high chance of spotting a whale or dolphin, but you’ll also be sure to avoid stressing the animals you want to see.
You can sight pilot whales, sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins at any time of year, but the period from May to September is when minke, fin, Bryde’s, sei, humpback and false killer whales are also in the area.
15. Food and Drink
Madeira wine is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the island’s epicurean delights.
This fortified wine goes back to the early days of colonisation, and more than 30 grape varieties are grown to make it.
Madeira goes best as an aperitif or digestif.
The diet in Machico is all about the ocean where it’s tuna or swordfish fillets with crispy corn fritters or a cornucopia of seafood and shellfish like limpets, clams, octopus, squid, snails and many more.
You have to taste beef kebabs grilled on laurel wood skewers, or bolo do caco, the flat circular bread that normally comes slathered with garlic butter and is a dream match for steak or lobster.