An Island In A Great Ocean: Two Digital Nomads In Madeira

An Island In A Great Ocean: Two Digital Nomads In Madeira

Location: Madeira (Staying in Calheta, Ponta do sol, São Vicente)
Duration: 8 weeks 
Season: Summer

Madeira launches you into a sense of adventure the moment you see it. With one of the shortest and toughest runways in the world, your landing strip on this tiny island is cut short by high mountains and a raging sea.

How can I summarise Madeira in 3 words?

Levadas. Hikes. Fast-Wifi.

Last year I didn’t know Madeira existed, I’d never heard of this island. But after discovering the notorious Digital Nomad community in Madeira we both knew instantly it would be our home for the summer. 

Quite honestly, we were raring to meet others who also choose this nomadic lifestyle. The opportunities to meet others nomads whilst travelling across Wales and Scotland (for the past 6 months) had been non-existent.

​​The digital nomad village here is nestled between the cliffs in the cute seaside town of Ponta do Sol. A place with fast internet, community events, and FREE office space for web developers, coders, remote workers, freelancers and everything in between. 

With views out to the Atlantic, plenty of cute bars and sunsets that draw you in no matter how many times you’ve seen them, it’s a place where it’s easy to dwell and watch time pass you by.

After a hard day’s work, we’d often stroll to the beach (2 minutes away) with our newfound friends and wash our stresses and cares in the crystal clear ocean. Each Friday we were welcomed to join the Friday party hosted on a cliff edge. Drink in hand we’d watch in awe as the bright orange sun disappeared.

3 lessons from being on the road this summer

1 – Never get so busy making a living that you forget to live

I’ve one regret on this island, working too hard. 

The first lesson from being on the road in Madeira was to never get so busy making a living, reaching for those ever-pressing goals that you forget to live between the deadlines. 

Like many islands around the world, the pace of life is slower. People are more laid back and Madeira is no different. 

So, when us ‘non-island’ folk land in a place like Madeira, it takes a while to step out of the unconscious overdrive and realise there’s another way than spending too many hours on a laptop or stressing about that deadline (which in a week you’ll forget all about). Happiness, wellbeing and nourishment can be found in reconnecting with what matters most, not working harder, or creating new life goals. 

Find your joy, whether that be in nature, good friends, good wine, or just watching sunsets. As the wise Tony Riddle naturalist says, “More sky time, less screen time.” 

Don’t get me wrong, we had our fair share of adventures in those 8 weeks, and we were even lucky enough to take a week off, but like my husband says: 

“When you’re on your deathbed, you won’t be saying: Dammit, I wish I’d spent more time working.”

2 – Enjoy the digital nomad bubble but don’t dwell 

As far as bubbles go, being in a digital nomad bubble is not a bad thing. 

You’re surrounded by people with a zest for life, who (mostly) are on the same wavelength, who get your lifestyle, have interesting, colourful lives and who make you think differently about the world around you. 

We made friends with some amazing people, that we hope to see again and continue to stay in touch with long after leaving Madeira. 

Equally important as stepping in the bubble is knowing when to step outside it. 

Some digital nomads we met had never really left Ponta do Sol, the small seaside village which is the beating heart of the nomad community. Their experience had been solely inside the bubble and there seemed to be no motivation or interest to know what laid beyond. 

When we visited the island we stayed in Calheta which was a 15-minute drive from the main village in which we got to meet locals (we even tasted the freshly picked potatoes from Celina’s garden). 

We also lived in the mountains of São Vicente, surrounded by a community that still used the old irrigation network to divert water to their farms and vineyards. 

So, why am I telling you this? 

Because I think it’s a shame to dwell on an island, only meet other digital nomads, and not get to meet nor understand better how the locals live, to experience more of the culture, to at least try to understand some of the challenges they face, and most importantly show that we are not 2 separate communities on the same island. 

Instead, blurring the lines between the host and nomad communities can change hearts and minds. 

3 – Rethink everything you think you know about the world 

Living a nomadic life not only frees you up to travel, it also gives you a more global mindset. 

It forces you to rethink stereotypes and prejudices, it forces you to question inherited political and cultural beliefs (which we all have). 

I will never forget one night at the Pukiki bar (see below) being sat with a German guy, a French guy, 2 people from Czechia, 1 lady from from Russia, another guy from Kazakhstan, others from Greece, USA, UK. There were between 9-11 countries of origin at that table sipping cocktails. 

Moments like this, I thought as I sat there, are why we travel. It was both memorable and beautiful. 

Meeting with people from all around the world, you’ll be inspired by the uniqueness of everyone’s story whilst being sobered by the struggles they also endure. From the young woman who lives in San Francisco whose crazy rental prices means she barely has enough to live on despite working all the hours of the day, to how the healthcare system in some countries favour the wealthy and fail the working-class, to the shocking reality of the corruption in places like Belarus… The stories you hear up close and not on a television will help you to rethink everything you think you know. 

In an age of increasing polarisation, this is as important as ever. 

5 top recommendations for Madeira

1. Try a cocktail at Pukiki, a Hawaii themed bar

The Pukiki bar celebrates Madeira’s historic connection with Hawaii. The sad truth is most tourists (and maybe even locals) don’t even know about it. 

A tourist visiting is more likely to visit the Ronaldo museum about football than learn about how the Portuguese emigrants from Madeira and Azores went to Hawaii in large numbers starting in the late 1800s to work the sugarcane plantations. 

Why? Because there is no museum on the island acknowledging this incredible heritage. That’s why Carla and Martin created a bar which celebrates this, and inside the bar is a mini museum. 

Not only is this often untold history cool, but the cocktails here are the best we’ve ever tasted – and we’ve been to a lot of cocktail bars! You’ll have to try them to believe me. There are no words that can describe or do justice to their cocktails. 

Did you know? Portuguese culture remains alive in Hawaii today, most notably the ukulele, an instrument brought to Hawaii from Madeira. “Pukiki” is what these settlers were called by the native Hawaiians.

2. Get out of Funchal, the soul of Madeira lies outside it 

After spending just 2 days in the capital Funchal, it saddens me to think that many people dock off a fuel-guzzling cruise ship, or get a taxi straight to the all-inclusive resort where they’ll spend a week or two lying in the beating sun, taking a walk on what can only be described as a concrete marina, and think they’ve ‘seen’ Madeira. 

After travelling east to west and north to south of this incredible island, I can tell you that the soul, the essence, the “va va voom” of Madeira lies outside of Funchal. 

If you’ve not walked alongside a levada you haven’t experienced Madeira. 

For nature and adventure lovers, walking alongside a levada is one of the most unique experiences to have whilst on this island. Don’t let the heights put you off, many of them have rails and with a little common sense they are perfectly safe. 

“What are levadas?” you may ask. These are man-made channels created to carry water for irrigation of agricultural fields around the island. Although not unique to Madeira, what is unique is their accessibility and extent. 

These water channels meander through breathtaking landscapes of mountains and abysses. The island’s irrigation system now comprises more than 200 levadas with an impressive 3000 m (1864 miles) of channels, including 40 km (25 miles) of tunnels – and the work started centuries ago.

Water is plentiful in Madeira, and is ever-flowing from rainfall captured in the mountains. The levadas cleverly divert this water to vineyards, banana plantations, orchards and vegetable plots around the island. There’s nothing quite like it. 

Our favourite levada walks were: 

  • Lagoa do Vento (PR 6.2 in Calheta)
  • Levada do Moinho – Levada Nova (Ponta do Sol)
  • Levada Fajã do Rodrigues (PR 16 in São Vicente)

A word of warning: I’d recommend avoiding the top thing to do in Funchal aka The Monte Palace gardens. It is a tourist trap, overpriced, and the fish were invested in lice. The animal care was embarrassing and sad to see. 

3. Call on the best taxi guy on the island

Paulo was a wonderful local and taxi driver we had the pleasure of meeting. He was incredibly reliable, personable and knew his way around the island better than anyone. 

A sweet man who we called upon for day trips, late nights out, changing hotels, we didn’t go anywhere else. Paulo made us feel welcome to his home island. You can find him on Facebook ‘Paulopita5.taxi’ or visit his website here.

Did you know? Just 5 dollars of every 100 dollars spent goes to the host country or local communities. We all have a responsibility to ensure more money goes to the locals, rather than lining the pockets of the already wealthy.

4. Visit a less beaten track, don’t follow the crowds

As the book Sustainable Travel: The Essential Guide says, “get off the beaten track” and don’t rush straight to the top 10 recommendations.

“Ditch the bucket lists, the top 10 listicles, and the Instagram hotspots, and start thinking imaginatively about where to go. If one of the key motivations to travel is to find new perspectives and ignite curiosity, you’re far more likely to do that in a place that’s less well-known… Who wants to queue for a view, hike with hundreds of others or be booed at by locals anyway?”Holly Tuppen, Author of Sustainable Travel

I too wonder if we have lost our sense of imagination, adventure and common sense by all searching the same ‘to-do’ list, following each other like sheep in queues. 

The 25 fountains walk (Levada das 25 Fontes) is the top-rated hike in Madeira, which plays hosts to coaches full of tourists who’ve paid to see this natural artform in the heart of the mountains. 

Holly’s advice couldn’t have rung truer than the experience at 25 fountains, which is a stunning site but pulls far too many tourists in (along with a few Instagram posers). 

Cut to a waterfall and hike which starts in the exact same car park as the 25 fountains and you’ll find a paradise which delivers on all fronts. This hike, despite having the same starting point, although a little longer to get to, was much less visited, magical, and was awe-inspiring. Interestingly the Instagram posers were not here. 

Sometimes the places not on the TripAdvisor list are just as fantastic, if not better. 

5. Slow down. Watch a sunset or have lunch with a local lizard

Even as a digital nomad it’s easy to have a to-do list and rush around ticking off the top 10 things to do.

My advice is to spend a couple of days (at least) letting go of the feeling of accomplishment and slow down. Lose the phone (Instagram will go on without you) and forget the perfect camera shot. Disconnect to reconnect. 

After all is said and done, the moments you slow down are the ones that stay with you once the island life seems like a distant memory.

Whether it was watching a sunrise in Seixal on a deserted beach or having a picnic by the large rocks lining the coast, sitting with the local lizards, these are the memories that stick – not when looking for the perfect shots

This way you’ll actually have the opportunity to connect with the island’s heart and soul. These moments of doing absolutely nothing are more powerful than any activity.

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