Madeira: All the highs, none of the lows.
Luxury travel writer BRIAN BERKMAN (@BrianBerkmanZA) explored Madeira’s glorious ups and downs.
All the highs without the lows
Of the 300, 000 or so Portugese people in South Africa, I’d bet the majority descend from a little island just 400 km north of Tenerife. Portuguese Madeira is a volcanic archipelago that rises sharply out of the Atlantic. Just 500 km off the coast of Africa, it has year-round appealingly mild temperatures which benefit from the Gulf stream and Canary current.
Despite its small landmass, just 57km long and 23km wide, it has vast peaks and precipitously windy and narrow roads.
A vast network of highways and tunnels was built in the last decades and today it is possible to zoom from one side of Madeira to the other in under an hour. Not that you’d want to. This is a place designed for taking your time, living life at a more gentle pace.
As tourism has surpassed sugar cane production, grape cultivation and wine making along with growing banana as the island’s mainstay, expect the warmest hospitality in an area geared for visitors. Stand outs include that everyone we encountered speaks good English and we never once felt harassed or threatened in any way. In fact, we felt unnervingly safe and kept expecting to deal with the typical challenges of travel nowadays – being ripped off by taxi drivers or pickpocketed.
Start in the capital, Funchal, and stay at Belmond Reid’s Palace. (https://www.belmond.com/hotels/europe/portugal/madeira/belmond-reids-palace/)
From its position on the rock-face overlooking the bay of Funchal, this historic hotel is the postcard image of fine Madeiran hospitality. As a premium hotel, lodging comes at a premium price, but be sure, at the very least, to visit for Afternoon Tea on the terrace overlooking the bay. Belmond Reid’s Palace has everything you’d dream of in a resort hotel. A Michelin star for its William restaurant, two heated swimming pools, a tidal pool and direct Atlantic access from where you can dive deep into the sea. There’s a wonderful spa, gym, tennis courts, kid’s areas, billiard rooms and, in fact, too many attractions to name and the most elegantly comfortable accommodations imagined. Did I mention glorious gardens?
From Reid’s it is easy to walk into the CBD and view the cruise ships in the harbour. The old town is there too and the charming painted wooden doorways and narrow cobbled alleys.
Eat Black Scabbardfish with its refined white flesh traditionally served with grilled banana or beef cubes on laurel twig kebabs – Espetada. Drink Poncha – a rum-based cocktail that is a favourite with locals. Monte is a suburb of Funchal on top of the mountain and the easiest way to get there is via the funicular that departs from the waterfront. Pay 16 Euro roundtrip.
While in Monte, risk life and limb to tear down the mountain in wicker-basket sledges guided by jaunty Carreiros dressed in white, with straw hats. It looks like great fun and many were queuing up to enjoy it but the 30 Euro fare seemed as steep to us as the cliffs.
If you love gardens, there are botanical gardens in Monte but also, at the elegant Quinta da Casa Branca (http://www.quintacasabranca.com) in Funchal. This exquisite small hotel is set in the most magnificent garden with plenty of South African trees to make you feel right at home. Breakfast in the green-marble clad Garden Pavilion is a must as is fine dining in the historic Manor House.
Because Madeira is small, it is easy to take full or half day tours to see the sights from Funchal. We paid 60 Euros for a half-day South Western tour which included lunch and covered Câmara de Lobos, Cabo Girao (and its towering glass look-down-into-the-sea platform), Ribeira Brava, Porto Moniz and São Vicente.
We knew we wanted to return to Câmara de Lobos, just a short taxi away from Funchal. When you think atmospherically quaint fishing village you’re thinking Câmara de Lobos. There is even a Churchill’s restaurant in honour of the statesman who so loved to paint there. When we return we plan to stay in in the village and fully explore its lively cafe scene and bustling small harbour.
Another place we wanted to see more of was Porto Moniz to take advantage of the public swimming in its volcanic pools.
Our three days in Calheta on the South Western side of the Island were tangibly different from Funchal with its yacht basin, man-made beaches and resort hotels. Savoy Hotels are renowned in Madeira and the Savoy Saccharum in Calheta is one of their newest, designed by the famous Nini Andrade Silva. It is in the theme of sugar cane and rum production, something this part of Madeira is known for. Expect luxury in a contemporary setting with the most fabulous wet spa facility. Also available for non-residents, the spa includes an indoor pool, gender-neutral steam, sauna, sensation showers and various relaxation areas. There is also a Halotherapy or salt cave facility.
Although the climate is mild, it is also very changeable and any day may have rain in the morning, wind at midday and then bright sun through to evening. Temperatures can also drop by as much as 10 degrees as you increase altitude and always have a rain-proof jacket at hand.
In Calheta there are many mid-priced food options in the Yacht Marina including Aki Calheta owned by two South Africans. Visit the Calheta Milling Company (https://www.facebook.com/sociedadedosengenhosdacalheta/) for rum tasting. There’s a supermarket and pharmacy within easy walking proximity. Taxis were reliable and abundant but Uber wasn’t available.
A walk on the wet side
Although the 25 Fountains hike starting in Rabaçal is a short distance as the crow flies from the seaside at Calheta, it is precipitously high so don’t even think of trying to walk there. If you’re smart, you will take a 20-minute taxi ride from Calheta and call again for a pick-up.
Levadas are the irrigation channels carved into the volcanic rock by the hard-working Madeirans – a people for whom any vertigo would be a calamity.
I mention vertigo as I don’t like walking along cliff paths with nothing but clouds to catch a fall and yet, on this hike anyway, the heights didn’t much bother me. It might have been the overwhelming views from the start at the top of the mountain – a sea of lush green foliage, fluffy clouds and the bluer than blue Atlantic beneath.
Get to this hike early as it is one of the most popular of the many Levada hikes in Madeira and even in inclement weather is a busy route. Some of the paths are narrow and a stop-go to allow others to pass is to be expected.
This is one of the few areas of Madeira where Laurelsilva trees, which we know as Bay trees, still flourish. Today they are a protected species and the site is a UNESCO Natural Heritage area. It will also occur to you, after you’ve taken your thousandth step down into the crevice, that you will have to climb up again. The reward is worth the effort and other than steps, many, many, many of them, this is not a hike that requires any technical skills or advanced fitness.
A walking stick or prodding branch is recommended only to be sure that you are about to step on solid ground. Because of the steep slopes it sometimes appears that the lush ferns and mosses are growing on earth whereas they just float above the winds.
This hike is well marked and there are roped barriers where it is most dangerous.
The distance is just 8.6km but give yourself at least three and a half hours or four hours if you want to enjoy a coffee and Pasteis de nata (their famous custard tart) at the Casa de Abrigo do Rabaçal. A South African helped us when we visited. You’ll start at 1290 meters above sea level and walk down to 950 meters before heading back.
There is a side hike on the way to 25 Fountains called Risco (included in the suggested timing) which is definitely worth while to see a cascading waterfall and tunnels into the mountain.
At the lowest point, beautiful pools and the famous 25 springs which seem to leak from the mountain wall that forms the lagoon are your reward.
While there is no charge to do this walk many opt for guides or to walk as a group.