Porto Santo: Madeira's sandy little sister

Porto Santo has one thing its bigger neighbour lacks – a large, empty beach, says Sarah Baxter.

It almost seems a shame that you can land on Porto Santo. The runway-laid middle of this tiny Portuguese isle, which floats 50km north-east of motherland Madeira, formerly nurtured a vineyard. It would have been nice to see: that such ranks of fruitful green have ever thrived here seems implausible today. Swept by Atlantic winds, Porto Santo is barren indeed: 12km by 6km of largely brown.

It wasn't always this way. After the island was discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1418, Porto Santo's early settlers (largely farmers and fishermen) found native dragon trees. However, these were soon felled for their dye-producing sap. Without their wind protection – and with imported rabbits decimating crops – farming here has since been a challenge.

The island has had several admirers, though. Christopher Columbus lived here for a while; his former casa now houses the island's Columbus museum. French and Moorish pirates followed, unwelcome guests who raided the land and sent residents running into the hills.

Recent fans are the neighbouring Madeirans, who sail over for weekends, drawn by the uninterrupted 9km-long beach that fringes Porto Santo's south side – something their own rocky-shored island lacks. Madeira-born footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has reportedly invested in a soon-to-open luxury hotel here.

To most British tourists, though, Porto Santo remains a map enigma. But with Thomson soon to begin its second season of weekly direct flights from Gatwick – depositing you out in the Atlantic in under four hours – things are slowly changing.

I started my exploration on the main island of Madeira. This is part of the same volcanic chain as Porto Santo, and certainly feels topographically adventurous. Its vertical cliffs and gullies were immediately evident on the short drive from the airport into capital Funchal. There was barely enough flat space for a bowling alley, the land erupting from the sea with dramatic fervour and scant regard for coastal niceties such as promenades and beaches.

That evening, as I sat on a terrace sipping rum-and-honey ponchas, I gazed at the city lights pitching down the hillside. I rather fancied a few days of hiking in the wild interior, but my date with Madeira's sandier little sister couldn't wait.

Sailing out of Funchal at first light, I stood on the deck as the ship curled east, around the rugged Ponta de Sao Lourenco peninsula as it trailed off Madeira like a dinosaur's tail. It's not uncommon to see species such as sperm whales or bottlenose dolphins on this two-and-a-half-hour inter-island journey, but I wasn't in luck. Instead I watched as squadrons of red-blue flying fish burst out of the waves.

Approaching Porto Santo by boat, you get a good sense of the place: the way it's bookended by knobbled peaks, the highest looming in the north, and descending to a central saddle and the lovely long south-coast beach. The main "town", Vila Baleira, is the biggest hub behind the sand; otherwise there's an appealing lack of development, especially at the island's southern tip.

Soon (nothing's far in Porto Santo) I'd left the docks, passed through Vila Baleira, and was ensconced in my comfortable hotel, planning the first adventure. This came courtesy of Andre, who relished in off-roading a 4x4 around the island's highlights. First he drove up to Miradouro das Flores, a lookout conspicuously lacking in namesake flowers, but with fine views over to the islet of Ilheu de Baixo ou da Cal (Lime Island), where locals once excavated the dangerous cliffsides. We carried on, past the Seve Ballesteros golf course – an incongruously vibrant green – to the basalt columns of Ana Ferreira peak and the sea stack that looks like King Kong.

"Look right," Andre instructed at a turn in the road. "There's nothing there, but it's better than what's on the left!" The desalination plant is not a must-see.

There are, in truth, few major sights on Porto Santo – though the hillier north-east, bevelled into conical peaks reaching up to 516m, is wilder. But Andre's commentary added charm, and in just a few hours I'd had an excellent overview.

Next, I was going to investigate at a gentler pace. I hired a bicycle and pedalled down to Ponta da Calheta, the south-west tip of the island. Here, a weathered cliff and boulders smooth as bones put an abrupt end to the seemingly endless stretch of beach. Terns paddled in the rock pools, alongside a Portuguese Adonis, tensing his abs to impress his girlfriend. They were the only others around. The whole of Porto Santo's sand strip (reputedly rich in minerals that are good for rheumatism) was uncrowdedDown at Calheta, where there are no resorts, just a beach bar and a ripple of dunes, it felt positively deserted.

"We used to swim from Calheta to Lime Island, to collect crabs," my guide Idalino told me the next day as we drove up to Pico Castelo. The slopes of this 437m peak once boasted 12 cannons, mounted in the 17th century to defend against marauding Spaniards. Now, just one heavy gun remains; fortifications have been replaced by flora. We hiked up through pine trees, tentacled aloe vera and prickly pear cacti to a hut, where a caretaker was weeding and sweeping. As we walked, Idalino talked. "We need to be more self-sustaining," he lamented. "People used to grow crops, keep chickens; now everything is imported."

As we continued up Castelo and on around Pico do Facho (Beacon Peak, the island's highest), we saw the remains of what used to be agricultural terraces; a few cherry tomato plants poked through the soil. "The rabbits don't like them," he explained.

No one else was out walking – most people come to Porto Santo for the beach. From our vantage we could look across that lovely strand, over the terracotta rooftops of Vila Baleira, and also into the rugged valleys and geological folds of the north, where streams sneaked down to tiny pebbled coves, where a little tavern offered wine-tasting.

Off the distant west coast sat Ilheu de Ferro – Iron Island. "There's a blowhole in the rock," Idalino explained, "but my mother used to tell me the sea spray was smoke from the fire of an old lady, baking bread for her many children."

The talk of freshly baked bread was making me hungry, so we headed for Pe na Agua ("Feet on the Water"), a chic shack-cum-restaurant on the sandy southern beach, and favoured spot of Ronaldo when he's in town. Happily, its delicious caldeira de peixe (fish soup) doesn't require a footballer's wage.

On my final evening I wandered down to the sea. Porto Santo looks prettiest at night, a twinkle of lights adrift in the Atlantic. I dug my feet into the therapeutic sand and smiled. Columbus and Cristiano might just be on to something here.

Travel essentials: Porto Santo

Getting there

* Thomson Airways flies from Gatwick to Porto Santo every Monday from 7 May to 29 October. To Madeira, Jet2 flies from Leeds/Bradford and Manchester; easyJet from Gatwick, Stansted and Bristol; and TAP Portugal from Heathrow. Ferries from Funchal to Porto Santo take two-and-a-half hours. The service runs daily, except Tuesdays; high-season single, €33 (portosantoline.pt).

Staying there

* Thomson (0871 231 3235; thomson.co.uk) offers all-inclusive stays at the Pestana Porto Santo hotel from May to October. A week including flights costs from £649 per adult (£310 for the first child, from £415 for the second), based on two adults and two children sharing.

More information

* visitmadeira.pt

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Polly Borgen at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012
peopleThe Emmy award-winner starred in Cape Fear, the Sopranos and Desperate House Wives
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam