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
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little