Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ten reasons you really should hike in Madeira

Sao Vincente on Madeira's north coast
We’ve been home from our holiday nearly three weeks and already I’ve been checking out summer flights to Madeira. Sad really, but that’s how much we love this small volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Quite how Madeira acquired its popular image as a holiday destination for retirees, I don’t know, because, unless you stick to strolling along Funchal’s promenade, this island is seriously steep and demands enormous amounts of energetic effort to walk anywhere.

You're never far from an ocean view
Fortunately, steep is good as far as hiking is concerned; the higher you climb, the better those views!

There are plenty of hikers in Madeira, although the majority do seem to hail from northern Europe. In our experience, it’s relatively rare to bump into a fellow Brit away from the coastline and the most popular levadas.

Anyway, I’ve listed here, in no particular order, the reasons we’ll carry on visiting and hiking in Madeira as long as our legs can cope with the terrain.

The levadas

First publicised to an English-speaking audience by Sunflower Books, the extent and accessibility of these watercourses never fails to astound us. They were originally constructed for irrigation purposes, but now Madeira’s 2150 km of levadas are the island’s USP.

Levada walks often demand a head for heights
Unfortunately, some levadas do demand a serious head for heights, but most walkers gradually get used to the sheer drops and flimsy rails – the secret is, don’t look down! If you really are terrified of heights and prone to the occasional wobble, it’s probably better to stick to less vertiginous routes, like Levada Nova to the west and Levada da Serra above Funchal.

Levada walking is a seriously sociable pastime and the frequent brief stops to chat to other hikers is all part of the fun.  As well as being really popular with tourists and guided tours, they remain a busy thoroughfare for local people who use them to reach neighbouring settlements or, frequently, their terraced vegetable gardens.


Refreshing or just freezing? 
It’s fair to say that Madeira’s waterfalls are not individually impressive. What is remarkable is the sheer number of them. You don’t need to venture far from the urban sprawl of Funchal to spot a waterfall. 

After rainfall, waterfalls cascade into the ocean from cliff-tops and no levada walk would be complete without the odd waterfall. Best of all, many have easy access pools at their base, perfect for a quick, albeit icy cold dip.

Paul de Serra

Where do I start? This starkly beautiful and unspoilt high plateau of Madeira lies at over 1500 metres above sea level so is prone to low-lying cloud and mist.

We first discovered this amazing place (which is not dissimilar to the Brecon Beacons) back in February 2009 when we hired a car for the first time.

Clouds rising over the Paul de Serra
We returned the following March when the weather was warmer and spent many a happy day wandering across this enchanting landscape, enjoying picnics in secluded spots adjacent to a gurgling stream. I'll never forget my terror at having to cross a rickety wooden bridge over a small waterfall to Harri’s unnerving cries of ‘Solid wood!’.

Elsewhere on the plateau, the rows of wind turbines create an eerie, alien landscape when the mists descend.


The path between the high peaks is carved into the rock
It’s when scaling Madeira’s mountainous interior that the island’s volcanic origins become most obvious. 

Pico Ruivo is the highest peak, towering above sea level at 1,861 metres. The summit is accessible only by foot but don’t be fooled into thinking that it will be quiet up there on top of the world. 

Mountain music on Pico de Areeiro
When we arrived on nearby Pico de Areeiro in July to walk the tough 6km path which links the two summits, we were delighted to find South American musicians were entertaining the crowds.


Sometimes I think of Madeira as one massive advertisement for a career in engineering. Gravity-defying bridges scaling deep gorges, levadas hugging sheer cliffs… and then there are the tunnels.  Long gone are the days when it took half a day's driving on torturous roads to get from one end of the island to the other. Thanks to EU funding, a lot of dynamite and a decade of tunnel building, the time taken to travel between villages on the opposite sides of a mountain can now be measured in minutes and not hours.

Wikipedia cites the Cortado Tunnel, on Madeira’s north coast, as the longest motorway tunnel in Portugal. Built in 2004, it is 3,168 metres in length (excitingly, all the new tunnels in Madeira display their length as you enter).  The Ponta do Sol tunnel is within a whisker of this at 3,167 metres and the Encumeada Tunnel is 2,700 metres.

Ready for a long, damp, dripping levada tunnel
You can’t travel far, on wheels or feet, without encountering a stretch of tunnel – and some of the older structures aren’t particularly well maintained. When we stayed at Paul do Mar in 2009, we were shocked to discover one morning that there had been an overnight rock fall inside the only tunnel out of town. It was passable – just – but it was a timely reminder of the mountainous, and therefore dangerous, nature of Madeira's roads.

Ocean views

It’s almost impossible to avoid having a sea view on Madeira, unless you’re unfortunate enough to stay in a ground floor room in Funchal. Every road, stone flight of steps and pebbled path takes you closer to the sky, until eventually the villages and terraces spread out below look unreal.

Once, staring at the ocean from one of the highest miradouros, I fancied I could just make out the earth’s curvature on the horizon. It might have been cloud but I still like to think that I was witnessing something pretty amazing that day.

Looking down is the norm when hiking in Madeira's mountains

The weather

The fact that the majority of pavements in Madeiran towns are tiled speaks volumes for the climate. It rains, of course, and when it does those tiles make walking in anything other than flat shoes absolutely treacherous. Fortunately, torrential rain doesn't happen too often. Madeira has a mild sub-tropical climate with warm temperatures all the year round.

A heat haze settles over the Atlantic Ocean
The weather varies depending where you are on the island. The high central mountains help to keep Funchal on the south coast drier and sunnier than the northern parts of the island. Porto Moniz, for example, on the north-western point of the island seems to be permanently windy with a rough sea. Paul do Mar, on the south-western coast, is much hotter, although there are sea winds.

Food and drink

Many people associate the island with Madeira wine (which tastes like dry sherry), but for us, the only drink is Coral, the island’s own refreshing lager. 
Enjoying Coral in Funchal's old town area

For a long while, we thought it was the only lager sold on Madeira, but then we stumbled upon Super Bock, a similar-tasting Portuguese lager.  This discovery left us with a dilemma: remain loyal to our first love (Coral) or admit that, as with Coca Cola and Pepsi, there was little difference in taste and alternate. We like the idea that Coral is made locally so we’ve remained true to it.

We eat out far less now that it’s just Harri and me (the escalating cost of dining out aside, we’re usually far too exhausted at the end of a day’s hiking to get into our glad rags and go out hunting food!) but when we do, I tend to choose espada with bananas (Madeira’s unique black scabbard fish is deliciously fleshy and boneless) and if Harri isn’t joining me, he more often than not satisfies his carnivore's palate with espetada (beef kebabs).

Other local delicacies worth seeking out are honey cake (even more delicious served warm), banana liquour and garlic stonebread (actually stonebread without garlic is pretty yummy too).


Madeira's architecture is generally pretty impressive with beautiful old churches and quintas (grand mansions) dotted around the island. Houses are built in the most inaccessible of spots and at far higher altitudes than we would consider in the UK.  

If there’s a road, or even a track, plus sufficient land (no worries if none of it’s flat), it seems there’s always someone  willing to build on it. Madeira's imaginative architects often make the most of the steep landscape and design multiple-storey houses that look deceptively small  from the front.

This house looks tiny from the front...

... but considerably bigger from another angle

On our recent trip, I couldn’t believe my eyes when we spotted a large JCB-type excavator sitting on a river-bed near Porto da Cruz. There was no obvious explanation for how it got there – the river sides were impossibly steep (and deep) and there was a low-lying bridge just few metres downstream.  There seemed no explanation, other than it had been air-lifted into place!

Insects – or lack of

I'm well-used to being a walking snack for our six-legged friends. Unfortunately, this apparent tastiness to an entire animal class has ruined many a holiday. I once returned from one week’s holiday on the Greek island of Cefalonia covered from head to toe in insect bite. On another occasion, I suffered a severe allergic reaction after every midge in the Elan Valley decided to nibble on my eyelids.

I love everything about summer except the annual onslaught of insects, all of whom seem intent on sampling my blood.

Vivid flowers but no problems with insects
I don’t know if it’s because it’s an island or because the temperature is never unbearably hot or humid, but I just don’t have the same problem in Madeira. 

It’s wonderful to be able to sit outdoors after dark and know that you’re not going to provide the evening’s blood fest for the insect population. 

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