Porto Santo is the perfect companion to a trip to Madeira. Where Madeira is lush, green and action packed, Porto Santo is eternally laid back and uncrowded with the perfect stretches of golden, sandy beaches that Madeira is missing. If you are looking for a quiet escape from everything then Porto Santo is the perfect quick break for you, and here is everything that you need to know to plan your visit.
Named Sacred Port after sailors took refuge on the island during a storm, Porto Santo us the smallest inhabited island in the Portuguese archipelago and is a glowing, golden jewel next to the lush green island of Madeira. The tiny island is only 11 km long and 6 km wide so is perfect for exploring via bike or jeep, or any number of connected hikes if you feel up to exploring the diverse landscape and the long stretch of beach that seems to run the entire length of one side of the island, and is easy to get to via ferry or plane from Madeira which makes it not just a great destination in its own right but a perfect day trip or short break from the larger island.
The islands capital of 5000 residents, Vila Baleira, feels more like a small seaside town than it is a capital, but has an infinite charm that cannot be understated, with tree lined streets, the Infante Gardens the picturesque main square Largo do Pelourinho and views of the beach never far away making exploring the town a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon. There isn’t a huge amount to do here but it does boast the unique museum home of Christopher Columbus which is worth a visit, and beyond that there are a number of stunning little eateries and restaurants that offer local delicacies like bolo do caco, espada and lapas. You cannot visit an island like this and not take your fill of the seafood delicacies!
Most of the restaurants are located in and around Vila Baleira and along the beach front. There is little difference between most of them price wise and you can get a solid, three course meal with a drink for around £30, give or take, and you would be very hard pressed to find a place that doesn’t serve amazing food!
Porto Santo is a genuine geologists paradise, with teams of scientists keeping the island their own little secret for decades as they studied the unique topography of what is essentially Europe’s only desert island, and the same things that attracted scientific exploration is there on full display for travellers to awe at, and believe me there are so many spectacular, world class natural attractions to awe at!
Given it is such a relatively small island and easy to get around in a day, it isn’t hard to find viewing points to look over the entire spectacular coastline. Porto Santo has some fantastic hiking routes and with rewards like this it is easy to see why they are so rewarding.
Porto Santo boasts perhaps the smallest ‘desert’ in the world at Fonta Da Areia, an alien landscape full of eroded limestone formations and sandy outcrops that in reality are former marine sands pushed up tens of thousands of years ago through glacial movement.
This tiny desert makes a perfect adventure playground for those who want to hire some bikes for the day or bounce around in a 4X drive, but since there is nothing in the way of information on the topography here it is well worth doing your own research beforehand or hiring a guide to appreciate how truly unique the landscape is.
And if a desert isn’t enough for you, perhaps Porto Santo’s very own Giant’s Causeway will be. Pico Ana Ferreira, near the Pedreira viewing point, is a unique geomorphological crest, with volcanoclastic columns pushed up through the earth due to ancient volcanic activity and exposed with differential erosion. This is not only an awesome natural landmark but is still an active study sites by universities all over the world.
Even if science isn’t your thing, these unique geological landmarks are worth a day trip to the island alone simply because of their remarkable beauty, and it is this stunning landscape that marks Porto Santo out as far more than just another holiday island. But if you really want to see the volcanic artistry of Porto Santo then the peak of Morenos is an absolute must see. These coastal cliffs show an intricate network of volcanic fissures, preserved lava flows and hyaloclastites formed undersea eons ago, and there is a nice picnic spot nearby if you want to stop to take the view in.
These unique natural landmarks can all easily be seen in a day if you want to take a 4X drive tour, and form some of the best viewing spots on the island, so whether you are here for the geology, the adventure or simply want stunning, dramatic landscapes to look at on an epic hike, Porto Santo has you covered.
Let’s face it though, most people hop over to Porto Santo from Madeira for one thing. The beach. And to be honest, it is really not hard to understand why. Forget Greece, Turkey and Spain, Porto Santo quite simply has one of the best beaches in Europe!
Covering most of the southern side of the island with various points marked at Calheta, Fontinha, Cabeco da Ponta, Ribeiro Cochinho and Ribeiro Salgado, the beach is one nine kilometre long, golden sanded stretch of absolute paradise, and unlike most of the other so called ‘best beaches of Europe’, there are no crowds! It is popular, especially during the summer months (mostly by local Madeirans rather than European visitors), but nothing compared to the shoulder to shoulder nightmares of Spain or Greece. I visited last in December, and thanks to the islands position in the Atlantic between southern Europe and Africa I still had perfect, warm temperatures and more importantly, had the beach almost all to myself!
Porto Santo’s beach, or beaches if you want to break them up into their little sections for ease of description, is absolutely perfect. There are a few hotels along the beachfront if you want to stay a while but they are very unobtrusive on the relatively flat island and far enough apart you can still find your own secluded part of paradise. The sand is soft and clean and the water is perfect for swimming in pretty much all year round thanks to the temperate weather (although in winter those without the hardy constitution of an northerner from England may want to wait a few months!)
Porto Santo is perfect for those times where you want to escape to somewhere peaceful and quiet and enjoy some seafood and a drink or two at a lazy beachfront restaurant, yet still have enough to do that you can’t entertain yourself for a few days, and of course do all that without hordes of holidaymakers!
Getting To Porto Santo From Madeira.
There are daily flights to Porto Santo from Madeira as well as most major airports in Portugal, and the flight takes around 15 or 20 minutes. Perhaps the easiest and best way to get there however, especially if you just want to visit on a day trip and avoid the airport hassle, is the Porto Santo Line Ferry from Funchal to Porto Santo island. It leaves from Funchal very early in the morning (at around 06.30, but always check up to date times) and takes around 2 and a half hours, and then leaves Porto Santo for Funchal in the evening at around 19.00 (again, always check the times). The ferry is spacious and very comfortable, has food and drink available, movies and arcade games for entertainment and a few small (but expensive) shops. It may take longer than flying, but once you take into account airport times and sheer comfort this is a much better option. And as a bonus, approaching the lights of Funchal at night, especially near Christmas, is really nice too!
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