Madeira is stunning. Ancient vulcanicity has left a verdant landmass gouged with deep valleys and vegetation which grows as though it has been fed on steroids. The topography makes for exposed walking on balcony paths along the coast, and on contouring levadas inland. Views can be compromised by dense vegetation in places, but when there is a view it's magnificent.
The levadas at higher elevations open up access to the otherwise impregnable central mountains, and those at lower levels bring you closer to the people of Madeira, many of whom continue to farm their terraced fields in the traditional way.
The climate is fairly constant through the year, a little wetter in the north during the shoulder seasons, but it really is a year round destination. Some walking routes can get busy, but the trick is start early, assuring that you not only have them to yourself, but you'll also avoid the heat as it builds to a crescendo later in the day.
Under four hours flying time to a different world.
A cloud bank precluded views of the east Atlantic, but on our final approach a rugged volcanic island appeared above the cloud, rather like the 'Lost World' featuring in so many movies. I quite expected to alight into a world of dinosaurs and dragons, but the reality is that this land is just home to millions of tiny, cute lizards, so perhaps my imagination had gone a little too far on this occasion!
Arriving in Madeira, a Portuguese territory north of the Canaries, it's an interesting landing, our Airbus 319 taking a late northerly turn to position itself for a shortish runway which extends below some steep ground on concrete stilts and needing some sharp braking on landing. Not as thrilling as Lukla or Paro, but up there.
My transfer quickly took me to my first stop for this trip, the Quinta do Furão, a 4* hotel perched on the cliff edge below the village of Santana. This is a journey that took half an hour, one quarter of the time it would have taken 15 years ago before the country's network of road tunnels were built, some over 3km long.
The landscape is magnificent, deep ravines intersecting rocky peaks of weathered volcanic rock, rich vegetation thriving on the volcanic soils...watered by the complex levada irrigation channels that criss-cross the island. Bamboo, banana, maize, vines, sweet potato, flowering cacti and abundant flowers mark this as a sub-tropical island, with sunny mornings and sea fog a common development as the day progresses. And some flowers bigger that I've seen before, magnificent hydrangea adorning many lanes near the hotel. And a slow pace of life, farmers still tilling and planting the steep slopes by hand, and the remains of the tiny thatched farmhouses seen almost everywhere, some nicely renovated.
And I mustn't forget Madeira's famous wine, still produced by Blandys, my own favourite the rich and complex Bual, a wonderful pudding wine.
This next week or so will be a treat.
My first walk was an 'out and back' walk with a couple of loops, and some 600m of ascent and descent...just enough to get the leg muscles warmed up again. And some verticality too, the narrow clifftop path west from the hotel yielding to a 300m drop on one side. But most paths, including the ups and downs into Calhau and São Jorge, were well graded and constructed in a cobble like fashion, using local basalt. Interesting walking, and kept amused by the endemic lizards (Madeira wall lizard - Lacerta dugesii) scurrying away as I approached. A good start.
Pay attention to your footing!
Cobbled descent to Calhau
Not for those with vertigo!
Lizard in Prickly Pear
The evening produced some great conditions for photography, with a cloud bank on the Atlantic below the cliff tops. Awesome.
The second days' walking was up on to the famous levadas of Madeira. Levadas are water channels built to move water for irrigation from the wetter north and northwest of Madeira to the drier southeast, which is more conducive to habitation and agriculture (such as sugar cane production). Construction was started in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese, although most were constructed in the 1940s.
It promised to be a hot one today, none of the sea fog that has featured over the last couple of days, but perfectly clear skies and great views to Pico Ruivo, Madeira's highest point at 1862m.
A transfer took me up to the start of the Levada do Caldeirão Verde (one of the oldest on the island, dating to 1796), a delightful clearing featuring large thatched forestry buildings at Parque das Queimadas. The walking is initially on a broad path through beautiful woodland (Laurissilva forest), but you quickly reach the narrower sections of the path, often just the levada wall itself and no more than a metre wide. A steel cable to one side provides the necessary reassurance, but this certainly not a route for walkers with vertigo, as there are huge drops, about 500m, into the ravine of the Ribeira dos Arcos valley. Later, there were equally dramatic views into the Ribeiro Grande and Ribeiro São Jorge valleys.
Nor is this a walk for those with claustrophobia, as it's necessary to pass through a number of tunnels en route, some as long as 200m, with bends and a relatively low roof, although straightforward with a head torch. It's easy walking otherwise, the exposure not overwhelming, and the walk challenging enough to maintain interest throughout.
The objective today was to reach the Caldeirão Verde waterfall, with a drop of 328m, quietly impressive in its lush green surrounds. The name translates to 'Green Caldera', as the waterfall empties into a large circular amphitheatre adorned with green vegetation. This is one of several caldera on Madeira – circular pits which were the vents from which pyroclastic material was expelled in violent explosive eruptions. When the volcanic activity ceased, circular vents with sheer-sided walls remained to be colonised by vegetation and eroded by water, ice and snow.
Caldeirão Verde waterfall
The return route took in three of the tunnels again, before venturing off on to some remote forest trails back to the quiet hamlet of Ilha.
This was hard work in places as the rock underfoot is ‘massapez’ – a very hard ‘rock’ comprising a mixture of volcanic ash and sand. It weathers to a reddish sort of clay which when moist – as it usually is in the lush, cloudy laurel forests – is very slippery. A fascinating day out.
Although, once again, I'd travelled with Headwater who suggest walks and fix hotels and transfers along the route, the following day I ventured on to a route that doesn't feature in their itinerary. It's the vertiginous Verada do Larano, starting from Porto Da Cruz and finishing in Ribeiro Seca, just above Machico.
It's a little used path, but a classic traverse of the cliffs towering above the Atlantic as it crashes into the north east of the island. There are great views along the north coast, and as you descend into Ribeira Seca you get a real feel for rural Madeira. I was able to relax on the final leg of the walk which follows the popular Levada Caniçal, but for much of the route I was forced to concentrate on my footing, grabbing views when I could, as the tiny path, eroded in places, and protected by steel cables on numerous sections demanded my full attention. A slip on this path could have resulted in a fall of some 300m, so walking on my own made me especially cautious (or am I just getting older?!). But very rewarding, and nice to reflect on it over a cold beer at the end of the walk!
Some sections of the path required care, especially when you're on your own!
Spot the traverse!
'Protected' sections 300m above the sea
The following day I took a transfer to Ribeiro Frio ('cold river'), and found myself above 800m to start my walk. First I took a quick 3km side trip to the Balcoes viewpoint at 898m, which gave great views of Pico Ruivo 1862m and Ariero 1816m directly west, and fine vistas to the northeast from the Ribeira Metade valley into the Ribeira Seca valley further north. Well worth the extra distance, albeit on a very easy path.
View to Pico Ruivo 1862m, Madeira's highest mountain, from the Balcoes viewpoint at Ribeiro Frio
From Balcoes, the view northeast to Faial and Porto Da Cruz
The main walk was to follow two levadas, the Levada Furado and Levada Serra to get me from Ribeiro Frio to Santo da Serra, a small village pleasantly situated inland at about 700m and a little cooler than the rest of the island.
What a difference a day makes though! Today's walking, whilst elevated and with the usual drops to one side of the Levada, was very straightforward and apart from the need to beat a number of guided walking parties on to the same route, was a very relaxing affair. The views can be concealed by dense laurel forest on some sections, but the latter half of the Levada Furado gave interesting walking through numerous rock arches with wonderful views to the northeast coast at Faial, looking down the Ribeira São Roque valley.
The second part of the walk, from the Lamaceiros water tower, was delightfully relaxed strolling through pine forest alongside the Levada Serra. No heart attacks today!
Walking the Levada Furado
The Levada Serra weaves its way gently through pine forests
A 'rest day' followed, although I slotted in a quick 10km walk down to the Levada Nova above Santa Cruz (near the airport). Easy walking, the path passing many bunches of agapanthus amidst eucalyptus trees and stands of bamboo. But now it's 'beer o'clock'...
On my penultimate walk, I joined the tourist throngs walking the popular stroll along the São Lourenço peninsular. A walk of about 8km, on well protected and many surfaced paths, including the 171m summit, the Morro do Furado. Splendid views of the peninsula cliffs, multi-coloured volcanic rocks, and north and south coasts. If you're going to do it, go as early as you can to beat the masses!
The little summit of the São Lourenço peninsula, the Morro do Furado
North side of the peninsula
Walkers on this popular route, some in flip flops, others bare chested, most unprepared. Sore feet, sunburnt bellies, and throbbing headaches from dehydration beckon...
The tip of the São Lourenço peninsula from the summit
Stumpy on the summit, not the biggest he's ever climbed...
My final walking day took me from the village of Camacha, along the shady Levada da Serra and on to the Levada dos Tournos into the town of Monte. Giant eucalyptus trees dominated the walk, today in hazy sunshine.
Monte is famous for its botanical and tropical gardens, street toboggans and the cable car link down into Funchal, the capital city of Madeira.
And now for a couple of nights in the elegant Quinta da Bela Vista, situated on a ridge above Funchal.
Feet up. Glass poured. Bliss.
Last day spent wandering in Funchal. Nice town, quite laid back and home to half the island's population of a quarter of a million people. Doors on one street on the Old Town showcase work by local artists, there's a fascinating fish section in the Mercado do Lavradores, and it's good to watch the world go by from the famous Golden Gate 'Grand Café'. I didn't bother with the Blandy's Wine Museum although it's probably worth a visit (check tour times beforehand), but enjoyed the various city gardens and sashimi in a tiny restaurant SHU.AKA on Rua das Fontes.A lazy final afternoon beckons! Ciao!
Black scabbard fish, locally known as Espada, feature frequently on Madeiran menus. If you'd seen this picture beforehand I bet you would have had second thoughts about trying it! Caught at depths of 800-1200m apparently! But tasty nonetheless...
Blandy's tasting room