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? Answer Madeira
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.
Madeira is famous for its Levadas, water channels
created all over the island to bring water from the highlands to the
fertile lower regions.
Madeira the island and people
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.
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.
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
Getting there - Staying there
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 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.
Walking on Madeira
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 Dillons 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.
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.
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. Well be back soon.
Text and images copyright David Lynch and Bluedome