Driving Around Madeira

When we told people we were planning on renting a car for the final week of our trip to the island of Madeira, we got a lot of ‘Ooh, be careful’s and even one ‘Are you effing crazy?!’  We shrugged off all those horror stories about terrifying roads and laughed off the warnings about suicidal drivers; we’d made up our minds that we were going to do it – we’d planned it into the trip – and as two fairly confident drivers we were firmly of the opinion that there was nothing the road could throw at us that we couldn’t handle (try driving in South East London for five years…!).

Well, the horror stories weren’t true, but they weren’t that far off either!  The roads in Madeira would test even the most experienced of drivers.  They’re hilariously steep, terrifyingly narrow and have bends like a paper clip.  Oh, and the tunnels that stretch for miles through the mountains are pretty amazing things.  But as well as the roads being challenging they’re also a hell of a lot of fun to drive on, and the scenery is stunning.  We felt we saw more of the real Madeira in one day with the car than we had in a week without it.  Exploring those mountain roads and driving through clouds and tiny villages on clifftops was by far my favourite part of the whole trip.  And Madeiran drivers aren’t crazy or suicidal; they’re just experts at driving those sort of roads and can therefore afford to take those turns a little quicker. 🙂

So my advice is that you should absolutely rent a car in Madeira if you feel confident enough to.  Take the horror stories with a pinch of salt and follow these five tips instead.

1. Fork out for the extra insurance

The truth is you can be as careful and drive as slowly as you want to in Madeira, but you can never rely on everyone else to be.  We’d been super careful driving our little Renault Clio around the island and thought we were returning it in exactly the same shape as it was when we got it, but nope, someone else had scraped the back bumper.  Luckily we’d opted for the full insurance so we were covered.  Remember, the roads are extreme; they’ll put a lot of strain on the car regardless of how carefully you drive, it’s worth paying a little extra for peace of mind.


2. The Sat Nav is both your best friend and worst enemy

Most cars come with a built-in Sat Nav now; but if not, it’s definitely worth having one.  While the island is small and you can drive all the way around it in less than a few hours, you don’t want to mess around with maps and get lost on roads with sheer drops and hairpin bends!  The Sat Nav also really helps whoever’s driving to predict the road up ahead; thanks to the map, you can see when you’re approaching a tunnel or about to drive into a tight bend.

Be warned though, the Sat Nav likes to throw a few curve balls.  Sometimes it took us on roads that turned out to be closed or blocked off by fallen rocks, and more than a handful of times it opted to take us on narrower, older country roads instead of the much faster, much safer highway.  Doing a three-point-turn on roads like that ain’t fun – no matter how good you are at hill starts!

3. Keep your eyes on the road!

Kind of an obvious one, but it’ll make sense in a sec!  Renting a car allows you to see so much more of Madeira than you would do if you simply opted to bus it around, and the scenery that’ll pass by your driver-side window is a little like a siren’s song.  Get lured in by the waves down below, the bananas or the clouds on the mountain for too long and you could get yourself in trouble.  While you’re busy staring out the window the road might zig out of nowhere.  If you like what you see, pull over if you can and take it in – or look out for the brown Miradouro signs that’ll take you to a safe viewpoint.


4. Use your Co-Pilot

Usually I hate back seat drivers, but in Madeira it’s helpful to have another pair of eyes watching the road for you.  Sometimes your co-pilot will be able to see further around a bend than you will, or see a hazard that you’ll have missed.  It’s also helpful to have another pair of hands that can sort the Sat-Nav out when it’s taking you on a terrible route!  While we were out there, our Sat-Nav wanted to take us up a very narrow, very steep path (it definitely wasn’t wide enough to be called a road!) and we had to make a very sketchy ten-point turn to get out of it – avoiding a sheer drop on one side and a garage on the other!  Phew!

5. Use the gears properly

Inexperienced drivers who rely too much on the brakes and aren’t confident making hill starts probably should think twice about renting a car in Madeira.  During the last couple of days on the road, the brakes of our Clio started to make a horrible noise.  A grinding, screeching sound – which was scary when we were whizzing down those steep mountain roads.  When we handed in the car and told the rental guy he explained that too many tourists used the brakes to slow down instead of the gears as you’re supposed to.  Don’t be a lazy driver, use your gears to control the speed of the car!

Where’s the craziest place you’ve driven?

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