In search of some winter sun, Zack Cahill ‘discovers’ the wild and somewhat quirky nature of the Portuguese island of Madeira – through the eyes, traditions and experiences of the locals who call it home.
The elusive winter sun. You have the same conversation about it every year in England, don’t you? November rolls around. The usual damp squib of a summer is long behind you and it’s been months since you had a sun holiday. The grind is getting you down. You need a vitamin D hit. You need to traipse through some nature before collapsing on a sun lounger with one of those novels you swore you’d read a year ago.
But where to? Even Spain or Portugal isn’t going to cut it in the winter months. I set my sights further south. Morocco seems distant enough, but perhaps too culturally distant. For a short break, I’m craving something a little easier to navigate. How about Madeira? Geographically (and weatherwise) it’s closer to Africa than Europe… just 500km west of Casablanca in fact, though it’s technically Portugal and about a three-hour flight from London. Funchal is the island’s only real city. Half of the population lives there, but anywhere on the small island is easily accessible by car. Best of all, it’s basically t-shirt weather all year round.
“What do you know about Madeira?” I asked a few friends before I left. Most of them blurted out, “wine?!” A few assured me it was “very hilly” (true) and one even said, “oh yes, that’s where they fling you down a hill in a basket.” Intrigued, I thought I’d start there.
It’s less lethal than it sounds. An elegiac cable car to the top of the island, taking in the lush volcanic surroundings; ascending through banana plantations, then vineyards, then eucalyptus, then pines, all hugging the curved and crumbling clifftops, the modest farmhouses clinging on for dear life. You get to the top and sure enough, two strapping, neatly dressed men will sit you in a wicker toboggan and shove you down two miles of smooth, winding, EU-constructed roads for the price of a beer at the bottom. It’s certainly a unique flash tour. I whizz by waving locals, who seem well used to such human traffic. My happy captains in their straw hats and pressed white shirts steer me effortlessly, slowing down with a casual boot heel to the tarmac, pushing off walls and drifting like a 17th-century Fast and The Furious. The wind is in your hair, your partner is clutching your arm for dear life… but by God, you’re on holiday.
“My happy captains in their straw hats and pressed white shirts steer me effortlessly, slowing down with a casual boot heel to the tarmac, pushing off walls and drifting like a 17th-century Fast and The Furious.”
It’s not just the fear that’s thrilling. This place is stunning. What we think of as Madeira is in fact the very tip of a gigantic volcano rising six kilometres from the ocean floor and poking sharply out of the sea like a geologically interesting nipple. It hasn’t been active for about six thousand years though. Instead, the volcanic soil has produced an incredible variety of flora. There was no ice age here, so when you walk through the forests you’re seeing the trees that covered Europe millions of years ago, hiking through the ancient past.
My guide, Rui from True Spirit is compact and gregarious. He drives us along the tightly winding roads through many of the island’s 180km of tunnels bored smoothly through those every present, wildly jutting hills. Frankly, it’s hard to believe anyone got around before these things were built. You can see why they took to flinging themselves down hills on toboggans. Up, up we go to the top of the island, 1,000m above sea level, for a walk along the levadas.
The Portuguese settled here in 1425 and immediately started destroying indigenous nature. It was the era when being a great naturalist clearly meant murdering as many animals as you possibly could. Ironically, ‘Madeira’ literally means wood, but the early settlers initially destroyed 75% of the indigenous forest to grow sugar cane. But it has since been allowed to grow back and Madiera’s stunning laurel forests are today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The settlers needed water brought from the mountains so they began the immense, 500-year project of carving out the levadas; aqueducts unique to Madeira. These stone gullies run alongside the winding pathways from the highest mountains to the coastal villages, crisscrossing the island over 300km, providing water for sugar cane and banana plantations. They were the island’s own unique circulatory system. Nowadays, they act as the perfect hiking guide.
The 25-Fountain Levada walk is the island’s most famous hiking trail. The gentle rush of water accompanies you, acting as meditative background music. Mine is an easy stroll, perfectly shaded from the high midday sun by the trees and cliffs that surround the Levada walk. But if serious hiking is your thing, Madeira sports the highest cliffs in Europe offering immensely breathtaking views.
We stop for lunch at Quinta do Furão, a restaurant overlooking Santana beach and enormous cliffs. Again I’m struck by the drama of this place. It’s tropical, dramatic, positively Byronic. A lunch of the local Scabbard fish, an odd-looking, deep sea-dwelling beast the fishermen earn their living from. And with full bellies, it’s time for some off-roading.