We stayed in the island's capital which is called Funchal. The airport is about 20-30 minutes from the city centre by airport bus (called SAM which was 8 euros for a return ticket), and although we didn't make it to any other part of the island, here's my top tips for enjoying Funchal and the island.
Madeira has some wonderful and exotic plants all over the island, and in Funchal there is a real effort to break up the urban environment with gardens and parks. My favourite park was 'Parque Santa Catarina' which overlooks the marina of Funchal. This park had plenty of exotic plants and flowers, as well as a pond, swans, a fountain, some stray cats, plenty of lizzards, amazing views and most importantly some shady and cool benches to escape the Madeira heat. There are plenty of other parks around the city and all of them are really well cared for and maintained.
Visit the Botanic Gardens
Jardim Botanico Da Madeira was listed in all of my guidebooks as a 'must see' for any holiday to the island. They cost 5.50 euros to get in to and the best and cheapest way to get there is to take the 29, 31 or 31A bus from the waterfront in the city centre. The journey will cost you 1.85 euros each way and will take about 15 minutes up some extremely steep and small roads up the mountain. Madeira has placed their botanic gardens at the top of a very steep mountain and walking is nearly impossible (unless you are very fit, know exactly where you are going and don't mind sharing your path with speedy bus drivers who hurtle up and down the road with alarming disregard for any potential pedestrians that may also be on the road- there's not footpath on this track!). When you get to the Botanics, there are signs showing you where to go and what to see, as well as a small cafe with great views. While this is a nice thing to spend time doing, if you are on a budget or pressed for time then most of the exotic plants in bloom can actually be found in the free parks and gardens in the city centre.
All of my guidebooks said that the cable car up the mountain to Monte was a 'must' but I found the whole experience to be seriously over-priced (16 euros return each) and majorly underwhelming. The ride takes you over a lot of the residential streets of Funchal and so it was just a lot of same-same terracotta roofs. It takes about 20 minutes on the cable car to get to Monte, which is a cute little village with a church and a garden walk, but I think that taking the bus to Monte is a much cheaper and better way to see everything. You can admire the views for free from many vantage points in Monte.
So little and cute- there's not a lot here (so don't go when your hungry or thirsty), but its worth the trip to walk in the free gardens to the village centre and to visit the church. There is the main church which is a large cathedral with beautiful icons inside, and there is also a smaller chapel that is a shrine to the saint of conception or something like that. One tip for the cathedral is that there are steep stairs and walkways leading up to it and if you want to go onto the roof to see the view then the stairs are pretty narrow and dodgy. I consider myself pretty fit but even I got a cramp in my leg from how awkward all the stairs were.
The 'beach' is pretty non-existent in Madeira, and the main swimming area downtown is full of harsh concrete blocks and broken glass. If you want to go swimming then you need to get away from the city centre and head towards the tourist zone and the Lido Promenade. We were lucky that our hotel had direct access to a little jetty that you could jump off in to the sea, but I also highly recommend the Lido Promenade. Here, you can jump off rocky outcrops into the sea which was crystal clear. The Lido has areas with showers and change facilities- some paid and some free- as well as water sports and activities, cafes and restaurants.
Book day trips in advance
We thought we would just book some day trips to other parts of the island when we were there, but in hindsight we should have booked in advance after doing our research online. ALL of the tourist information points on the island advertised in their windows amazing day trips to other parts of the island BUT these trips and their amazing prices were for people who were signed up to 'Timeshare' agreements. Google timeshare, because I'm still too angry about the whole thing to explain this 'deal'. For example, a trip on the cable car cost us 32 euros for 2 people return, but on timeshare you can get tickets for 5 euros return. A day trip to the east of the island to visit Santana and see traditional Madeira houses (tip: you can see one at the Botanic gardens instead), with lunch included in an air-conditioned mini-coach costs timeshare people 25 euros for two people OR if you aren't timeshare then the prices goes up to 55 euros per person with no lunch. U.N.B.E.L.I.E.V.E.A.B.L.E. As you can probably tell I'm still so angry about this price hike that I can barely spit it out coherently. Top tip- do your research online first and book with someone like viator.com
Try the fruit and vegetables
I'm not even kidding with you when I say the nectarines in Madeira were cricket-ball sized and the most amazing nectarines that I have tasted in my whole life. All of the fruit and vegetables in Madeira were pretty darn good so I highly recommend visiting the supermarket (called Pingo Dolce) or the famous market Mercado dos Lavradores to try some of the delights on offer.
I'm sure this is a no-brainer for experienced travellers, but when you get hungry, get away from the main tourist areas and suddenly prices become a lot cheaper. We found Madeira particularly bad for high tourist prices at restaurants and cafes, and then if you go one or two streets away you can get the same thing for half the price. We worked on the principle that if someone stood out the front and called at us or tried to shove a menu in our hands as we walked past (yes they are really bad for this in Madeira) then we wouldn't eat there- anywhere that had no one out the front touting for business got our business. Simple.
No one needs to tell me twice to eat cake and Madeira has some interesting cakes worth sampling. Portugal is known for their custards tarts and I can safely say that I tried more than my fair share on the island....all in the name of research you understand....
I also tried 'Bolo de Mel' mostly because my name is Mel and I wanted to try a cake with my name in it. It was like a Christmas fruit cake that would have been so much better with some custard or something. There are lots of cafes on the island selling pastries and cakes so you'll have no bother finding something sweet to your liking.
Here's some more snaps of the scenery to end on a happy note :)