The Ultimate Weekend: Celebrating Carnaval in Madeira, Portugal

by Elizabeth Orient

Partying on a remote island off the coast of Morocco? No problem for those who aren't a walking contradiction like me: I love traveling, but I'm not keen on flying. Once you accept that you'll be landing on the third most dangerous runway in Europe, the turbulent 1.5-hour flight from Lisbon to Madeira seems like a cakewalk. If you need further convincing, the island's rich history and colonial architecture are winning highlights. Who wouldn't want to feel like they were on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean? The 15-minute taxi ride from the airport to the capital city of Funchal gives travelers a chance to witness the subtropical paradise that surrounds them.

I recommend booking one of the high-quality Airbnb properties that dot the city. Then, once settled, hit the streets for plenty of sightseeing and souvenir opportunities. Professional tip: Madeiran wine and cork products are unique to the island. If you arrived in the morning, coffee may be the first thing on your mind. The Golden Gate Grand Cafe serves a delicious galao (the Portuguese version of a latte) and an impressive array of pastries. Nabbing a table on the sidewalk is perfect for people watching.

Carnaval weekend brings droves of tourists and vendors to Funchal. It's impossible to be bored amongst the preparatory buzz.

Navigating Funchal's steep hills is a workout, and exploring all day will work up your appetite. Since the Portuguese eat dinner quite late in the evening, tide yourself over with traditional tapas. 1811 Bistro & Wine Bar offers casual or formal dining options. The bistro's bread and cheese boards don't disappoint, and it goes without saying to try a glass or two of their Madeiran wine.

However, mind the time; caffeinate and leave the bar before sundown to claim a spot for viewing the parade.

Before you know it, samba music is proudly blaring in every direction. The dancers shimmy and twirl in their colorful feathered and bedazzled costumes. Onlookers crane their necks to watch the endless train of floats pass by. Children bounce with glee on their parents' shoulders as entertainers perform tricks for the crowd. Friends gather in the streets to eat, drink, and be merry.

This is Madeira. This is Carnaval. This is an ode to living in the moment and feeling alive. I'm grateful to have been part of something bigger than myself, and celebrating Carnaval in Madeira was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Note: Although this adventure occurred prior to the coronavirus pandemic, consider Madeira for your future travel plans.

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Elizabeth (Liz) Orient is a San Diego-based travel journalist and editor. Both pursuits allow her to express her passion for wanderlust, erasable pens, and the Oxford comma. Liz's work has been featured in a variety of publications and on her blog (The Traveling Editor).

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