Madeira island’s dramatic landscape was created by volcanic eruptions around 890,000 years ago. As you explore its peaks, valleys and craters, you’ll see plenty of evidence of this in the form of striated cliffs, undulating folds formed by lava flows, hardened bubbles in the rocks and black sand beaches. You can even go on a journey to the centre of a volcano at São Vicente Volcanic Centre.
São Vicente is surrounded by lush vegetation so if you want to stay awhile, check out these lovely places to stay.
São Vicente Caves and Volcanic Centre
While there’s plenty to see above ground in Madeira, Mike and I were keen to find out what it’s like inside a real volcano. São Vicente Caves and Volcanic Centre in the north of the island allows you to do just that. Simply join a tour and follow the guide into the darkness of the caves.
Our guide took us along the 1 km main tube formed by lava and geysers all those years ago. Most of the hardened lava flow remains untouched, although some of it has been cleared since the caves were discovered in 1855 to enable pedestrian access. As you walk deeper into the caves, you’ll see different types of lava and the crust that formed on top of slow-moving molten rock.
Occasional drops of water splattered on my head and there were puddles to avoid so you need to watch your step and protect your camera. Thanks to the water, there are even some ferns growing down here, although there are no stalactites or stalagmites. Artificial lakes and levadas (irrigation channels) have been created within the tunnels to control the flow of water and preserve the caves.
Tip: Stay close to the guide if you want to hear the explanations. Although she stopped at places of interest to gather the group, I noticed that the stragglers didn’t catch any of her commentary. I think you’ll have to choose between selfies and information – there’s not enough time for both.
The tunnel leads into a volcano museum and interpretation centre where you’ll find a model of a volcanic eruption with lights, sound and spitting rocks as well as a ton of information about volcanoes. You don’t get much time in this room, however, before being ushered into another room to watch a film about how the Madeira islands were formed. I found the computer animated film of volcanic activity interesting enough to take the edge off my initial irritation at being rushed out of the museum.
Little did I realise that the highlight of the volcano tour was yet to come.
Film over, we were herded into a dark wooden-clad elevator like wary cattle. As the doors closed, flickering red lights and war zone sound effects kicked in and our ‘cage’ started shaking during our short descent into the ‘Centre of the Earth’. I suspected this would be naff until the doors opened onto a giant glowing globe surrounded by mirrors. Seeing us all reflected into infinity around the sphere made me think of Dante’s Inferno and the kids in the group loved it. So did we!
To my surprise, our journey to the Earth’s centre was not over.
Equipped with 3D glasses, we embarked on a virtual endoscopy into the molten core of the Earth, involuntarily ducking to avoid the boulders hurtling past us and blobs of lava.
These Madeira tours show you some of the amazing features of this volcanic island. Click for details:
Practicalities for visiting the volcanic centre
São Vicente Caves and Volcanic Centre is open from 10:00 to 19:00 every day except 25th December. Adult tickets are 8 euros, children over 5 and seniors pay 6 euros.
You’ll find the caves here, just outside the coastal village of São Vicente. If you’re driving, there’s a free car park opposite the complex or you can take a bus from Funchal that stops in São Vicente and ask the driver to let you out at the caves.
There’s a café onsite but the gardens around the complex are beautiful so we ate our sandwiches while watching the chickens roaming around. There are various restaurants between here and the centre of São Vicente, too.
You can visit the caves on this full day tour of north Madeira.
Places to stay in or near São Vicente, Madeira
Having made the effort to get to this side of the island, you might like to stay a while to fully appreciate its lush countryside. See this São Vicente travel guide for more ideas of what to see and do in the area.
Already convinced? Read on to discover some of the best accommodations.
Choose between guest bedrooms or self-contained apartments at Solar da Bica, a country hideaway with a pool, biological produce, a heated indoor pool and stunning views. You’ll want your own transport if you stay here.
Casa da Piedade is another delightful property, this time with an outdoor pool, surrounded by mountains. It’s a bit closer to São Vicente so if you don’t mind a 20 minute walk, you could manage without a car.
Take the opportunity to bond with nature at Granny’s Farm. You can choose from a house, bungalow and lovely tents. It’s a wonderful relaxing environment, has great hiking trails and has everything you’ll need.