Rediscovering Madeira – Portugal’s misunderstood archipelago calling adventure-seekers

WT Writer
May 30, 2021

When travel rules permit, here’s why misunderstood Portuguese destination, Madeira, should be on your radar for more than just gentle wanders.

In many senses, Delicias da Bia is not the best of adverts for the idea of social distancing. There is a queue of sorts in this Madeira cafe-bakery, but it sprawls and spills, shuffles and shifts; conversations bouncing back and forth around the room while people ‘wait’ to be served.

It takes me 20 minutes to inch all the way to the counter of the Portuguese cafe. It is not that the service is slow, nor that there is any overt favouritism towards locals over random strangers – more that half of Madeira seems to be here in these vague minutes of an ordinary Sunday morning.

Children scurry, groups of young men loiter over coffee, matriarchs stand still and unsmiling, eyeing the loaves of bread on rear shelves that are disappearing with every satisfied customer. At a corner table, a priest is forking at a slab of cake, still in uniform, even though his duties at the church up the lane have been completed. My own order – pasteis de nata with a bica of hot dark caffeine, is – when it arrives – worth the ‘delay’.

In other ways, though, Delicias da Bia is a definition of keeping oneself to oneself. It sits in one of Europe’s most remote locations – high on the north-east shoulder of Madeira in a hamlet, Santana, that is over 20 miles from the island’s only real centre of population, the capital Funchal.

As I step out of the cafe, a chill gust barges in off the Atlantic, grey-blue and sullen, down on my right. In terms of getting away from it all, this is a fine start.

Islet porto santo lime in Madeira, Portugal. Image | Istock

Portugal’s Madeira spent much of the last two years falling on and off the running tally of prohibited destinations. It seems strange, amusing, even, for the island to have been deemed a trouble-spot. Some might say it has the world’s least problematic image problem.

It is often damned with faint praise – soft-soaped as a hub for genteel weekends in pleasingly pretty Funchal; for afternoon tea at Reid’s Palace hotel; for the aroma of orchids at the Quinta da Boa Vista estate. Not that this is an unfair portrait, but it misses a wider point. That this outcrop off the west edge of Africa – 450 miles beyond Morocco and its Saharan sands – is a beast, born of lava and tectonic seabed pressure. It rears and it rises, all serrated shards and raw basalt, braced against the ocean’s anger.

Then again, perhaps a hint of something more daring has always been there. In which other city, for example, can tourists launch themselves seawards on a wicker sledge – as they do on the exhilarating Monte toboggan run down the hill in Funchal?

Sun rising from the ocean viewed from Ribeira de Janela, Island of Madeira. Image | Istock

Certainly, there is an air of the exhilarating about the path in front of me. I have driven up from Santana, along a cobra-coil of curves – and now PR1.2 is sign-posted from the point where the road runs out. It will funnel me towards the island summit – a distant place indeed. True, in the context of the broader Atlantic, Pico Ruivo is no peerless Everest – Mount Teide, the docile monster of Tenerife, raises the stakes to an incomparable 12,198ft (3,718m); Pico, the most visibly volcanic piece of the Azorean jigsaw, jabs the sky at 7,713ft (2,351m). But, at 6,106ft (1,861m), Madeira’s penthouse suite still comes with a height and a gradient that snags the sinews. Jam, scones, Earl Grey? Not up here.

Striding ahead of me, Fabio Castro – a guide for activity specialists Madeira Adventure Kingdom – is confident that we will have crested the final metre within an hour. He is an optimist, and I am not a goat-limbed peak runner. But if he will be disappointed that our hike takes twice as long as he had expected, he does not show it. He is too busy being enamoured with his surroundings. “I was born here; I grew up here,” he says.

“I lived in Lisbon for a while, for four years – I suppose a lot of young people on the island do. But as soon as my company opened an office on Madeira I knew that I wanted to come back.”

Two ways to travel to Pico Ruivo, the famous landmark of Madeira island. Image | Istock

It is not difficult to comprehend this love of home. PR1.2 demands admiration. It ascends through a realm where humanity has struggled to bend rock to its will. Other trails cling to cliffs, barely there in their helter-skelter routes in all directions – the sweat-toil efforts, Fabio says, of labourers who clambered to these reaches in the 19th century to cut heather and broom for charcoal production. Other proof of man’s incursion is less subtle. The fires which ravaged the interior in 2016, the fruit of an errant spark, still cast a spell – trees and bushes turned to clawed hands. But there is a weird beauty to them, these silver ghosts. Fabio smiles. “They look even more dramatic when the mist comes around them.”

When PR1.2 hands over to PR1 for the last gasp upward, the show really starts. The west coast wobbles in the heat; the east holds a line of green against the ocean’s white-flecked vastness; the north revels in remoteness, villages Sao Jorge and Ponta Delgada perched above the abyss. Only the south is a refusenik, Funchal lost to cloud and the obstacle of Pico das Torres, Madeira’s second tallest mountain (6,079ft/1,853m). Fabio takes a breath that seems to go on forever.

Our altitude is apparent, again, as we descend – the wind suddenly mean and persistent, as if attempting to throttle Pico Ruivo in a fit of jealousy, or dislodge us from its side in an act of petty violence. But by the time I am back in Santana, summer has reasserted itself – the terrace at hotel-restaurant Quinta do Furao dozing in warmth. A mushroom risotto and a poncha cocktail (rum, honey and lemon) appear on the table; the property’s vineyard whispers gently beyond. Thirty miles to the north-east, Porto Santo waves hello.

Trekking from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo, Madeira island, Portugal. Image|Istock

This vision in horizon-level haze is a rebuttal of a second popular misconception about Madeira – the belief that it is an island, not an archipelago. By the time I have finished lunch, I am back to the first – its overlooked cragginess. Although it is not just visitors who fail to take note of this essential fact. It seems remarkable that mountain-biking company Free Ride Madeira was only set up in 2011 – and, even then, only after three local riding aficionados realised they had tackled lots of trails in mainland Europe, but neglected the terrain on their doorstep. Riding with them – negotiating a tricky route which unravels below the hamlet of Poiso, 10 miles north of Funchal – is an exercise in bumps, bangs and bruises. When I fall off for the third time, I glance back up the slope, and console myself with the thought that it is easier to go down than it would be to go up.

At least, it looks that way. I will be dissuaded of this notion the following morning. Nuno Freitas reveals little when he picks me up just after breakfast. It quickly becomes evident that the day will present challenges. The clues are there as we approach the north-west coast, where the island becomes almost entirely inhospitable to traffic – the road being forced through tunnels, and veering so close to the Atlantic near Seixal that spray splashes the camber. But then, spray will be a dominant feature of the next five hours. “On Madeira, people will walk many miles in the levadas [man-made irrigation channels] to see the waterfalls,” Nuno says, with a grin. “But today, we will walk in the waterfalls”. 

Mountain views in Madeira. Image | Istock

He isn’t joking – although the key word is less “walk” than “abseil”. The walking comes as we set off, 40 minutes through the laurel forest of Madeira Natural Park (the biological reserve that covers almost two thirds of the island), to a spot where the Ribeira das Voltas begins a crash course down 10 waterfalls of varying sizes but similar degrees of mossy treachery. I have to learn fast; not just how to feed the rope through my harness, or where to put my boots as the river buffets my face and arms – but that peering at my feet for a preview of what is coming is to be avoided. In the case of the seventh drop – a 92ft (28m) giant – ignorance and denial are bliss. Each lurch for the bottom feels like it must be the last, only for flat ground to elude me for another few nervy seconds. By the time I am finally gazing up from the base of this colossal cascade, I am exhausted – but energised.

That, you would think, would be enough spray for one day. But the combination of water and adrenaline is addictive. Having dried off and returned south, I spot the unheated pool – a basic bowl of concrete underneath the cliff – with which the Hotel Albatroz likes to “tempt” its guests. This property is a lonely soul – pitched, by itself, near the airport; planes bugging the heavens above. But even a jet-engine growl cannot compete with the ocean’s roar as I dip into the shallow end – the Atlantic frothing on the other side of the barrier, as if my impudence at swimming just out of its reach has taunted it to fury. Due east, the horizon is empty – and the sense of isolation, again, feels gloriously appropriate.

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