Madeira - Walking and relaxing a thousand miles from home

Question - Where will you find a marvelous sub-tropical climate, 1400 kilometres of superb mountain walking, fantastic food and friendly locals all for less than £400 for a fortnight? AnswerMadeira

Once seen as an expensive destination for the Saga generation Madeira is gaining a reputation as an affordable alternative to some of the holiday walking destinations that are more familiar to the British.

Looking South from the path near Boca de Encumeada - 1007 mtrs. African Lillies grow everywhere in both Blue and White.

 

Madeira is famous for it’s Levadas, water channels created all over the island to bring water from the highlands to the fertile lower regions.
The Levada walker has a choice of over 1400 kilometres of walks to tackle. Add in miles of paths and tracks and you have a walking destination that is hard to equal.
All you need is your rucksack some decent boots and a good head for heights as this marvel of an island can take you from the 6000 ft plus peaks to the sea, all on foot if you want to walk it!

Madeira – the island and people
Madeira has long established ties with England and you will still find English names on the streets of the islands capital, Funchal. The famous Madeira wine is still a major business and the English wine company, Blandy’s founded in 1855 still have their vaults in the centre of Funchal. To bring the relationship closer still you will find a bronze of the Scout movement founder Baden Powell in the centre of Funchal.

The capital Funchal offers the visitor the best of food, markets and shopping on the island. The harbour is the islands lifeline – remember that Madeira is over 1200 kilometres south of mainland Europe! All kinds of ships arrive on a regular basis; luxury ocean liners share the harbour with cargo ships, fishing boats and leisure yachts.

Blue Fin Tuna for sale in the Funchal Market.

 

Food on the island is universally good. We had a range of meals from the super ‘Regionalle’ restuarant in Funchal's old town to simple lunches in the smaller villages. Local wine is pretty good and you will also find a supply of Portuguese wines and well-known spirits to help you relax into the gentle pace of life on Madeira.

The natives are unversally friendly and if you cannot speak the Madeiran version of Portuguese don't worry, neither can the Portuguese!

Getting around the island leaves you with a range of choices. Car hire, taxi, and the local bus services all have their uses. We chose not to drive on this visit. The island was in the middle of updating huge stretches of the road network. New dual carriage roads and new tunnels were being dug everywhere adding to the problems encountered on the narrow and twisting older roads. Taxis are a great way of getting around the island. The drivers have set tariffs for many journeys but they can also be hired for longer trips by friendly negotiation. For the walker a driver will drop you at the start point of a walk and he will then arrive at a pre agreed time to collect you at the end. As far as we could discover no one had ever been let down!

The island has an extensive bus network divided out between different operators. The bus service is used widely by the islands inhabitants and the do not queue in the established English manner. None of the buses have disabled access and the island in general would be difficult for a wheelchair user. Fares are cheap and for the most part the buses stick to their published timetables, if anything they tend to be early rather than late – be warned.
The experience of being freed from driving was refreshing and we enjoyed the bus travel and the chance to see the views without the worry of going over the edge of the road at 5960 ft above the sea!

Organised day walks are available from a range of operators. They will collect you from your hotel or apartment and take you with a guide to undertake your chosen walk. The minibus will then collect your group at the conclusion of their walk and return them to their start point. This could be the ideal solution for walkers who want to do the most popular walks without the hassle of route finding or getting there and back independently. The prices all seemed to be between 28 and 36 euros per person, not bad when you consider the travel and guide included.

The start of a Levada on the highland plateau near Estanquinhos

 

Getting there - Staying there
We travelled with Atlantic Holidays flying from Manchester. The holiday was booked through our favourite late availability agent, Miss Ellies in Manchester. The flights to Madeira are limited so book early, we just managed to get the last two seats on our plane. Flights are availble from other UK airports and you will find Madeira as a destination in lots of tour operators brochures. We found Atlantic Holidays to be reliable and professional and obviously a Madeira specialist.

The landing at Funchal is great. The aircraft make a sweeping turn and land on the runway, which has been extended on huge concrete pillars over the sea. Crosswinds make the landing something of a roller coaster, exciting but safe. As soon as you land the realisation is that you are in a different environment. The plants and trees are almost alien if you have been restricted to the Mediterranean.

Our hotel was the Dom Pedro Garajua. The AA guidebook to Madeira states that Garajau is a ‘brash and gaudy strip of shops and cafes’. Wrong! Garajua is a pleasant but sometimes busy road with the hotel facing a small range of restaurants, cafes and shops with a small supermarket for good measure.
The hotel itself is a comfortable place with rooms for both half board guests and those staying on a B&B basis. We chose the B&B option and had a room with a small kitchen area and a fridge. Breakfast at the Dom Pedro is one of the best continental style offerings we have had. Stock up for the day on fruits, cereals and various cooked dishes before heading for your trip.

The hotel has two pools with a huge banana tree growing next to their outdoor pool. A small bar serves drinks and snacks at both pools should the effort of getting into the mountains prove too much for you.
The Garajua village bars and restaurants will provide you with enough choices to last two weeks without getting bored. The bus service to Funchal is right outside the hotel entrance and lets you visit the best eating that the island can offer in the old quarter of Funchal.

Walking on Madeira
There are few destinations where you can get a bus to almost 6000 feet above sea level, jump out for a coffee and then take off to two higher peaks along a fabulous mountain ridge walk.

Not only does Madeira offer the walker a great range of walks it also has a fantastic range of environments as well. From the rugged volcanic sea line to high mountains with sub tropical forest, highland moorland, scorched desert like promontories and steep gorges.Across all these different faces of the island run the Levadas. Linking the precious supplies of water to the terraced hillsides where almost every fruit and vegetable imaginable grows in profusion.

For the independent traveller the best guidebook is without doubt Paddy Dillon’s ‘Walking in Madeira’ published by Cicerone Press, the link is at the foot of this article. Paddy describes the island and its environment and accurately gives the reader step by step guidance for 50 walks. Paddy actually writes and photographs each walk as he undertakes it. Writing the route description to a small hand held computer means that there are rarely any mistakes in his books.

Looking back to 'Eagles Rock' from a high path.

The weather on Madeira can be interesting to say the least. It is always better than the UK with the summer being the hottest part of the year.For the walker spring is the best season with the added bonus of the island coming in to flower, and what flowers too! For the main part the walker should equip themselves for a standard UK day walk of similar distance. Showers can occur so some lightweight waterproof could prove useful. There are no mosquitoes but there are small biting midges from time to time. Most navigation is straightforward and links the walker to tracks, roads and of course the Levadas.

Footwear should be up to the job of walking on rough tracks, which can sometimes be narrow, and muddy, no trainers please. A head for heights can useful as well, some of the Levadas have steep drops.
A head torch is useful for staying out late or going through the tunnels that take some Levadas through the mountains rather than around them. Don’t drink from the Levada, the water is untreated and cannot be considered safe to drink. Bottled water is available all over the island, always take enough so that you can cope with both the heat and the humidity.

As ever take proper steps to ensure your safety. Madeira does not have a dedicated mountain rescue system. Any emergencies that occur are responded to by a variety of Police, medical and fire service personnel.

The Cicerone Press guide to Walking on Madeira is an invaluable book. Paddy Dillon has produced a detailed guide to 50 walks across the whole island. Paddy's book also contains useful information about Madeiras natural history, culture and people.

Maps can be bought online from a variety of sources or purchased on the island on arrival. I prefer to see the maps as soon as possible so that I can browse the landscape before travelling. The 1:40,000 scale Madeira Tour and Trail map published by Discovery Walking Guides is worth getting in addition the Portuguese map service produce series of 1:25,000 scale military maps of Madeira and a 1:50,000 map from Instituto Geographico e Cadastral could be useful too.

If you are tempted to go then you can be assured of a fascinating visit which will have you longing to return for more. Madeira seems to have a magic that never wears off. We’ll be back soon.

Madeira Links –
Atlantic Holidays
Madeira Island Website

Text and images copyright David Lynch and Bluedome