Paul do Mar

Paul do Mar
Waiting patiently for the swell at Paul do Mar / Image: Getty Images

On the southwest coast, the tiny village of Paul do Mar is sheltered by imposing sea cliffs pushing up against the shore. With reliable barrels reaching up to six feet (this is one for experienced surfers only), the breaks are widely considered the best on Madeira. Sunset is the best time to come, and locals sit on the sea wall sipping caipirinhas while the blood-orange sun sinks below the horizon. Stick around after dark for live bands, freshly muddled mojitos and salt-baked red snapper at surfer’s favourite Maktub – the restaurant even puts on a beachside reggae festival every May.

Porto da Cruz

Porto da Cruz
Boarding break at Porto da Cruz / Adobe Stock

Dominated by the epic sheer face of Eagle Rock mountain, the village of Porto da Cruz is as dramatic as it gets and its breaks, accessed by a small pebble beach, are suitable for all levels, dependant on weather. The speck of a village is home to Madeira Surf Camp, where you can stay, rent a board or get lessons. The post-surf spot of choice is Bar a Pipa, a typical rustic Madeiran restaurant that serves the best poncha – an alcoholic honey drink all islanders devour – in town. Combine your stay with a thigh-burning trail run reaching heights of 4,000ft – it’s also what this place is famous for.

Jardim do Mar

Jardim do Mar
Jardim do Mar sees its fair share of swells / Adobe Stock

If you’ve seen any clips of Madeira’s big-wave surfing competitions, chances are they were shot at Jardim do Mar, the next break along from Paul do Mar and the place that put Madeira on the international surf map. The swells are powerful so it's definitely not a spot for the inexperienced. These days, though, a new sea wall has quelled many of the big waves (a controversial topic with locals and surfers), but the site is seeing a resurgence with daredevils eager to tame the break.

Contreias

Contreias
Surf's up – way up – at Contreias / Adobe Stock

Feel like Keanu Reeves in Point Break at this popular northwesterly swell – one of the original spots that kicked off the surfing scene on the island in the 1970s and led to the sport becoming popular in that former Portuguese colony across the pond, Brazil. It’s right along from Ribeira da Janela and has a shallow reef so this is one for the pros. If the waves are right, wax down your board; otherwise, take time out on the beach (there are also vineyards to visit nearby) and watch surfers slicing through the smooth barrels like butter.

Achadas de Cruz

Achadas de Cruz
The cable car down to the beach at Achadas de Cruz / Adobe Images

There’s an extra thrill before you even get in the water at this spot on the far northwest of the island – the beach is only accessed by a near-vertical cable car down to the crescent-shaped, black-pebble beach with a 500m drop off the cliff edge. You’ll get consistent waves here about 150 days of the year, and it’s suitable for all levels. Oh, and make sure to bring a picnic – there’s not much in the way of food or drink; otherwise the busy town of Porto Moniz is just a five-minute drive away. Aqua Natura's restaurant overlooks the sea pools and is cheap and cheerful.

Lugar de Baixo

Lugar de Baixo
Everything's swell at Lugar de Baixo

Another surfing location that’s been the victim of a new sea wall is Lugar de Baixo, but there’s still fun to be had here immediately before and after high tide. The main draw is its proximity to Funchal – the main city – and the fact that it's on the south of the island means the beach is mainly sheltered from the winds that sweep in across the Atlantic. When the conditions are right, you’ll spot riders gliding on frothy swells that are calmer than places on the north of the island.

Madalena do Mar

Madalena do Mar
From one thrill to another – paragliding at Madalena do Mar / Image: Courtesy of Madeira paragliding

Don’t like to take yourself too seriously in the water? This spot on the southwest coast is the place for you. Very low and slow waves caused by a bommie – an underwater offshore reef in surfspeak – make Madalena do Mar great for bodyboarding too. More good news: the water temperature here averages out at about 20°C. Make sure to stop in at Restaurante Cantinho da Madalena on the seafront for some Portuguese-style grilled beef skewers, best enjoyed with a Coral lager – brewed on the island. Fancy switching up the adventure? There’s a paragliding centre nearby for true thrillseekers.

Ribeira da Janela

Ribeira da Janela
Ribeira da Janela is making waves / Getty Images

Madeira is often described as the go-to holiday destination for 'newlyweds and nearly deads',  but you won’t find any honeymooners or grandmas at this gnarly break. Only advanced surfers can tame these beasts, which often have steep descents into a barrel. You’ll find pretty Ribeira de Janela on the northwest of the island, which is easily accessed from Funchal through a mountain tunnel with parking to the right of the cliffs. Make sure you bring your GoPro with you – the sawtoothed islet protruding out from the town makes for a killer backdrop.

Machico

Machico
Machico's calm waters are ideal for beginners / Image: Getty Images

At Machico, you’re only a few minutes’ drive from the airport on the southeast of the island, which is ideal if you just can’t wait after landing to grab a board and get in the ocean. While almost the whole of the Madeira has volcanic black pebble shores, Machico is just one of a handful of sandy beaches – with sand imported from Morocco. This means you’ll find more of a buzzy family vibe here with locals eating garlic prawns on the terrace at Baia Beach Club. The waves are small, reaching just a few feet at their tallest – great for complete beginners and bodyboarders.

Faja da Areia

Faja da Areia
Shhh – Faja da Areia is a local secret / Adobe Stock

You have to be in the know to find this elusive surf hangout, just outside of the town of Sao Vicente on the north coast. One tip: head east of the town and look out for other boards bobbing in the water waiting for a break – this is one of the most popular spots on Madeira for wave-chasers – and also one of the safest. You’ll find fizzing waves as soft as champagne that are suitable for all levels with heights of up to five feet high on good days. End the day with a poncha in town at Porto de Abrigo bar.