When I was told that I was going to Madeira, I must admit that I was slightly dismayed. Instantly the classic image of this island sprung to mind; a sleepy much of a muchness retirement destination, populated primarily by Brits looking for a bit of winter sunshine and, oh, go on then, a nice piece of cake...
Oh How Wrong I Was!
The Madeira that we were greeted by was one of dramatic scenery, abundant flora and flauna and, above all, diversity. From volcanic mountains to rainforest like valleys, crashing waves to lush levadas, Madeira proved that it really does have so much more to offer than sticky cake and sweet wine (although that was pretty good too!)
Our walking week began at the Bocca da Corrida bevedere with views across to Madeira's highest peak, Pico Ruivo (1862m), and rock formations that would make a geologist go weak at the knees. The morning was spent out in the open on dry, rocky trails which wound their way up and around the mountain-side amongst heather and shrub, a perfect view gallery from which to watch the cloud drifting atmospherically in and out over the surrounding peaks and valleys.
The afternoon heralded the first indication of the diversity Madeira offers and provided a clear example of how varied the surrounds can be from one hour to the next on the island. We descended from the barren mountain-side into lush green forest; following a stream before reaching dry eucalyptus and laurel woodland leading us back up onto high open trails where we were rewarded with stunning views back across the valley onto the tracks we had walked earlier in the day.
Challenges and Rewards
Our third day of walking proved to be the most challenging; setting off on the steep Camino Real (the old cobbled trail) we wound our way up a prickly pear clad gorge to the characterful town of Prazares.
The steep pull up was undoubtedly worthwhile, both for the stunning views from the Assomadouro (‘point from which something interesting can be seen’) and for the glass of local Poncha (a traditional Maderian drink made with Aguardente de cana (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice), honey, sugar, lemon rind and lemon juice) which awaited us, a fitting reward for our efforts.
We then joined our first levada of the trip. It is surprising perhaps, that we got to day 3 before being acquainted with these waterways for which Madeira is so renowned, especially given the fact that there is an impressive 2150 km (1350 miles) of them on the island, transporting water from the north of the island to the drier south.
The high point of the trip was, without doubt, the culmination of this day. Descending a steep zig-zag track, flanked by prickly pears and overlooking the town of Porto Moniz, we watched as the sun melted, pink, into the sea below. Truly beautiful.
Now You’re Just Showing Off
The levadas of the following days took us over narrow step stone bridges set in verdant Laurel forest, past dramatic waterfalls shrouded in mist and, of course, through the dark basalt tunnels, bored into the mountain by the first settlers in the 16th century to allow the levadas to pass through.
And, unceasingly, Madeira was exemplifying its diversity.
A jagged coastline and powerful waves crashing onto the rocky beach where João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira the first settlers to Madeira landed, agricultural terraces built like giant's staircases into the cliff-sides where locals still farm with hoes, dramatic bracken clad gorge walls…
The list goes on….
So What Are You Waiting For?
I hope that what I have illustrated here is that Madeira is truly underestimated, held back perhaps by it’s stereotypical image as a sleepy hideout reserved for the over 60’s.
However, this image is definitely past it’s sell by date and, thanks to passionate guides, plentiful flights and trips like this one, Madeira is getting a chance to show it’s true colours….