Porto Santo, Madeira


Porto Santo History and Culture


Porto Santo was the first island in the Madeiran archipelago to be settled. Probably the first humans to set foot on Porto Santo did so some 600 years ago, after being washed ashore by a storm while exploring the Barbary Coast. These hapless sailors – led by João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz – had been sent on a voyage of discovery by Prince Henry the Navigator, and made a beeline back to Portugal to report what they had found. The prince dispatched a ship under Bartolomeu Perestrelo to colonise the island, also sending Zarco and Vaz back in their own vessels to explore further. The flotilla arrived some time in the 1420s, and by 1446 Perestrelo and been created ‘Captain’ of Porto Santo, a position that was hereditary. Perestrelo planted vines and sugar cane, and tapped the local Dragon Trees for ‘Dragon’s Blood’, a hugely valuable resin used for medicines and dyes. He also introduced rabbits, which was not such a good move as they ate everything else up, and Porto Santo has never fully recovered.

Much of the story is lost in legend, but we do know that Columbus was based on Madeira around 1478, and it would appear that his in-laws gave him land on Porto Santo after he married Filipa in 1479, but she died in childbirth a year or two later. The story goes that while on Porto Santo Columbus began studying ocean currents, intrigued by ‘Sea Hearts’ (seeds of  Entada gigas) washed on to the beach by the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean. Or (some say) got a tip-off about a land across the ocean from sailors washed up after a wreck. What we do know is that in 1480, Columbus laid out his plan for a voyage across the Atlantic before the king of Portugal, and later to Isabella of Spain, and in 1485 set off on his expedition. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Porto Santo Today

With its unspoiled beach, intriguing historical associations, and laid-back ‘detached from the flow of time’ atmosphere, Porto Santo is an ideal spot for a relaxing break. The island got its first telephone in 1947 and its first electric light in 1954, and long seemed reluctant to take on the 20th century, let alone the 21st. But today a burgeoning infrastructure of leisure facilities, accommodation and restaurants helps meet your every need.



Porto Santo’s local government is extremely environmentally conscious. For some years now, the island (nibbled bare by rabbits in times of yore) has been undergoing a massive reforestation program. Tens of thousands of trees have been planted, turning once dusty slopes into swathes of green. Local residents are even offered free plants for their gardens at municipal nurseries. And people realise that the island’s main asset is that long, unspoiled beach. Development is strictly controlled, with a height limit on new buildings, and a stipulation that they must be set back from the beach, behind the dunes.


Porto Santo Beaches

Porto Santo’s greatest attraction is without doubt its long sandy beach, stretching over nine kilometres from Vila Baleira to Ponta de Calheta – one of the island’s favourite swimming spots, and also a great place for a meal or sunset cocktail. The beach is popular with people from Madeira, as their own island has no sandy strands to speak of. The water, warmed by Gulf Stream currents, and the mild weather is increasingly attracting foreign visitors too. But the ample space means you won’t find shoulder-to-shoulder sunbathers as in so many other European resorts.

The soft sands are said to have healing properties for ailments as diverse as rheumatism, rickets and varicose veins, and from time to time you’ll see people buried up to their necks. Reports have it that the sands do indeed effect cures, though whether that is because of their inherent properties, or simply because on Porto Santo beach you can totally relax – free from vendors and the usual seaside hassle – is open to debate.

Porto Santo Golf Club and Course

Porto Santo’s brand-new golf course, designed by champion Severiano Ballesteros, stretches all the way across the island from dune-rolling beach to dramatic basalt cliffs. It offers that ideal combination – natural beauty and a challenging game. The layout was designed to blend in with the natural landscape, and immense care was taken to minimize impact on the environment. The course comprises 18 holes over 6,434 metres, with a par of 72. It features two distinct zones – a South Course in the American tradition, dotted with lakes and demanding a long, precise game; and a North Course played along spectacular cliff tops. There is also a nine-hole ‘pitch-and-putt’ course of par-three holes (ideal for training precision shots), and a driving range. The clubhouse is a triumph of modern design, but blends harmoniously into the landscape, with its dry-stone walling, natural wood and hip wicker furniture. Facilities include a sauna and Jacuzzi, and there’s a good pro shop. The Golf Club bar and restaurant command a splendid view over the island and out to sea.


Information provided from www.porto-santo.com










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