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Travel Guide to Porto Santo, Portugal

Glorious beaches and turquoise waters, Madeira’s little sister is a stunner.

by Andy Mossack

“Welcome to the smallest desert in the world”  Nuno my guide to Porto Santo was clearly enjoying his local joke, but, then again, it is a sandy desert, and it is very small.

Smallest dessert

Fonte da Areia, Smallest desert

Fonte Da Areia (sand fountain) is a remarkable geological remnant from the dawn of time. Jagged limestone formations and supersoft sand dunes. Alas, erosion and industry greatly diminished this stunning slice of the natural world, but now safely protected, it offers a glimpse of perhaps why the famed explorer Christopher Columbus was so fond of this tiny island.

About  Porto Santo

Porto Santo is just a short distance from its big sister Madeira. Just 15 minutes by air or 150 minutes by ferry, but the difference is extraordinary.

Porto Santo’s primary appeal is its 9 kilometres of glorious soft golden beaches, a feature you won’t see anywhere in big sister. These super soft grains were originally biogenic coral and the unique minerals they contain are used here in a hot sand spa treatment known as Psamotherapy.

Ponta da Calheta-Praia

Ponta da Calheta-Praia ©Francisco Correia

Then there’s the colour of the seawater; a translucent turquoise that would make any Caribbean tourist board proud.

The uninhabited rugged north, devoid of water, electricity, and urban development, is a geologist’s dream. Dramatic peaks stuffed with examples of seismic activity offer exciting hiking trails through an undisturbed natural landscape.

Since 2020 it is an official UNESCO biosphere reserve; scrupulously protecting its landscapes, ecosystems, and endemic species, but also committing to supporting local culture and traditions. Seawater is desalinated into drinking water, and even the golf complex is irrigated using toilet water.

But perhaps the best example of the island’s appeal is its tranquillity. Aside from August when Madeirans descend to their second homes for the month, it is blissfully quiet for the rest of the year.

Porto Santo was once a thriving producer of dry-farmed cereals through its lack of rainfall and mined limestone from nearby islet lhéu da Cal was also a rich source of income. That all changed when cheaper and more accessible countries got in on the act, so today it is tourism that is Porto Santo’s saviour, and they are waiting with wide open arms. This guide to Porto Santo will show just what you’re missing.

Vila Baleira

Porto Santo’s capital may be small, but it packs a lot in and it’s a perfect base right next to its famous beach. When I was there recently, they were getting ready for the Festas de São João the annual 4-day mid-summer celebration of the island’s patron saint beginning this year on 22 June 2024. Always a very lively event.

The town is centred around the pretty main square Largo do Pelourinho, lined with palm trees and bougainvillea and the nearby cobbled streets are lovely to stroll around. Look out for the small stalls on taxi corner selling freshly baked bolo do caco the famous Madeiran circular bread; delicious toasted and spread with garlic butter. Although the locals will swear a fresh untoasted bolo do caco filled simply with hot steak and garlic is the best lunch ever.

Just off the square, Casa Museu Colombo doubles as Christopher Columbus’s house and the main museum. He is said to have lived here in 1470, following his marriage to the Governor’s daughter, but whether he did or not, the museum has been extended via a small bridge to a neighbouring house and is well worth a visit. It’s collection of historic model Portuguese sailing ships is a highlight. As is a little sit down in the pretty garden shaded by dragon trees.


Travel along the beach road from town, or simply walk along the beach and you’ll end up at the sand dunes of Calheta Beach right at the southern tip of the island. Some wonderful rock formations here, and the crystal-clear seawater is perfect for swimming. Historic lhéu da Cal looms nearby and on clear days you can spot the various cave entrances to those limestone mines.

There’s an important project going on here to protect the sand dunes from wind erosion through planting wild coastal flora and laying down wooded walkways around the dunes.

This is the spot locals come to for glorious sunset views and sipping sundowners at the beach bar as the evening turns to night.

Out in the countryside of Porto Santo

No guide to Porto Santo would be complete without touring the countryside. Once out of town, the wild primitive beauty of the island is the headline act.

Drive past lonely windmills, ancient relics of the once prosperous cereal empire, and around sweeping valleys and soaring peaks. Talking of the cereal industry, a popular stop is at Casa de Serra. Once an original cereal farmer’s house and still owned by the latest generation of the family, it’s a small museum chronicling the islanders’ way of life. They also make their own liqueurs and offer tastings.

Qta das Palmeiras ©Francisco Correia

Quinta das Palmeiras ©Francisco Correia

Make sure you make a stop at Quinta dos Palmeiras, a quite extraordinary place that has been welcoming visitors since 1993. A personal obsession of owner Carlos Manuel, who decided to build this eccentric botanical garden and bird zoo with his own hands in the middle of nowhere. It is a beautiful, serene place to wander around and admire his handiwork.

The water used in the ponds and streams is all recycled and even though some birds are caged, they all seem to be perfectly happy. I fell in love with the two parrots perched up at the café. They love to be stroked, talk in various languages, and will even perch themselves on your wrist if you offer it.

Carlos sits in his little hut at the entrance most days. An absolute steal at €3 and kids are free!

Hike Pico Branco

Pico Branco is Porto Santo’s second highest peak at 450m and at just 2.7 km each way should be accessible for most levels of fitness and take around two and a half hours. Originally a route for mules, the trail zig zags its way past indigenous flora and geology offering up some spectacular views. Make sure you continue at the top around to the little house called Terra Chã perched at the end of a promontory. It can be hired for an overnight stay, but there are tables out on the deck if you want to stop, eat, and admire the view before turning back.

Porto Santo Golf Club

Porto Santo Golf

Porto Santo Golf ©Nuno Andrade

This impressive 18-hole championship course was designed by the late great Seve Ballesteros in 2004 and boasts plenty of water hazards and three stunning signature holes over cliff-top canyons beside crashing waves. Along with the main course there’s a 9-hole pitch and putt and a further 18 holes are planned soon.

Just opposite the club is a sensational example of why the island’s geology gets scientists so excited. The immense array of basalt columns of Pico de Ana Ferreira have stood like giant organ pipes for millions of years.

Take a Zodiac boat trip

The prospect of whale and dolphin watching, or any other form of sea life are normally enough of a magnet to take a trip around the local archipelago. But during this two-hour tour you’ll also get some time to snorkel at a remote spot with plenty of colourful fish for company and get to hear some fascinating local tales along the route.

Hot Sand Therapy

The sand here is filled with minerals, in particular calcium and magnesium. So, the theory is that lying buried in this heated sand will allow the minerals to be absorbed through your sweat into your skin.

I have to say, lying in what I can only describe as a sarcophagus, while someone buries you in hot sand from a giant hose, is a little disconcerting. But once filled, with just my head poking out, I felt gloriously warm and comfortable and left to doze for 30 minutes, I was willing the magnesium to flow through my skin. Afterwards, I honestly felt very rested and relaxed.

As you can see with this guide to Porto Santo the island has so much to offer in so many ways I’m astounded it hasn’t realised its potential as a major holiday destination yet. I suggest you go and enjoy it before it does!

Fact File

This Is Madeira has more information on this guide to Porto Santo and more about the island.

If you don’t drive, guided jeep tours of the island are available.

Quinta dos Palmieras

Porto Santo Golf Club

Hike up Pico de Branco

Zodiac Boat Tours

Fly Porto Santo 

TUI runs direct charter flights once a week from London Gatwick to Porto Santo on Wednesdays. 05th June 2024 until 23rd October 2024 and 07th May 2025 until 22nd October 2025.

Other option is fly to Funchal (BA, easyJet, Ryanair) and take a local flight (15 minutes) to Porto Santo.

Recommended restaurants in Porto Santo

  • Panorama Restaurant: Stupendous views so book a window table. Excellent menu.
  • Pé na Água: Barefoot beach bar and fancier dinner restaurant.
  • Teodorico: Owned by Georgio who used to be at Pé na Água. Rustic place up in the mountains. Famed for its Espetada.
  • Porto Santo Golf Club: Excellent restaurant for lunch.
  • Snack Bar Golfinho: No frills locals bar right on the Vila Baleira beach front.



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