“It’s better if you stand up,” yells Rui as we tear off into the mountains. I’m somewhat prone to motion sickness but have dosed up on the appropriate stomach-settling tablets, so I’m good to go. We tear off downhill to the south coast as I stand in the back of our open-top jeep, bouncing and whooping… through dense forests, hugging cliff edges, taking breakneck turns up unfeasibly steep inclines. Rui clocks my look of concern and just laughs calmly. This is why you need a local.
“I like to travel, but always like to come back here,” says Rui. “There’s so much to do here. It’s a small island but it’s a beautiful one. The average salary here is just 800 Euros per month. And the average rent is 800 Euros per month. So living here is tough and buying a place is hard unless you’re married. But man, it’s a great place to live.”
On we go, vertiginous mountains looming over us and, plunging ravines below, through steaming tropical forests. Rui takes advantage of the open-top by driving us under some of the roadside waterfalls, a refreshing blast of fresh mountain water leaves me showered for dinner.
I’m up before dawn the next day, hopscotching over cowshit on a cliff edge in the north of the island. I watch the sunrise surrounded by the thousand-year-old trees of the laurel forest. The trees are dripping with moss and lichen; the air is humid and clean.
I’m ready for some yoga with Emilie Mangoni, a French transplant who offers yoga retreats on the island.
There’s vigorous, sweaty yoga and there’s hippy yoga. When she gets the chimes out I guess it’s the hippy kind. Which is fine by me. I love a gong bath. We contort ourselves for a bit as the early morning sun warms us up. Then we lie down and meditate while our teacher plays mystical tones on gongs (“432 hertz, the sacred frequency of the heart,”) and guides us through breathing exercises.
Speaking to some of my classmates afterwards, about being trapped in our small flats or working alone from empty offices, our teacher looks around and says “my office is not so bad.”
Join us on an adventure
Subscribe to our newsletter to enjoy early access to the latest news, luxury hotel reviews and inspiring travel tales, delivered straight to your inbox.
A confirmation email has been sent to your inbox. Welcome to the club!
We take the old roads to Camara de Lobos, a fishing village where the scabbard fish is caught. It has the cobbled and aged look of a town that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. The small traditional white houses mottle the cliffs surrounding the village. It’s a fine spot to try some Poncha, a local spirit made from sugar cane, honey and lemon juice. It can be incredibly strong, so should be approached with care. Or you could opt for the safer option and try some of the local wines.
Wine goes back six hundred years here, and the unique terrain makes mechanisation impossible, so it is cultivated in small terraces using traditional methods. The fortified wine is famous the world over and is beautifully balanced and sweet. But the local white, Caracol, is also perfectly refreshing, especially when sitting at a small tavern after an afternoon’s hike.
But I opt for the ‘healthier’ option of kayaking, setting off from a sandy beach towards the epic cliffs. I’ve never been to Hawaii but this feels indistinguishable from my mind’s impression of that place, constructed from a thousand movies. The water is clear and of perfect temperature, the cliffs are towering and the sky is a perfect blue. I paddle deep into dark caves where all I can hear is the roar of the water and the echoing sound of my own voice as I howl into the darkness. Rising and falling with the pulse of the ocean, I circle in and out of the caves, along the crazed volcanic coast, drifting on the waves. I lose time out there, completely in the moment. This is the escapism I sought. Dolphins allegedly abound here, though I didn’t spot any today, because I spent most of my time looking up at the cliffs. But boats will happily bring you out to spot them.
I stick with the kayak, powering along for a bit, then lying back and drifting. Fifty yards from the shore, a few hundred miles from Africa, I feel a million miles from home.
Zack’s winter-sun escape to Madeira was in partnership with Visit Madeira. At time of press, travel restrictions and testing requirements were still in place. For seamless travel testing, we used Qured.
Photography courtesy of Visit Madeira / Digital Travel Couple and by Yves Alarie via Unsplash
Get out there
… get out on the water. Whether on a whale or dolphin spotting boat trip, a yacht charter or just adrift on a kayak, the power and beauty of the Atlantic Ocean is restorative and energising. If being on the sea is not your thing, take time to admire it from the coast.
… invest in and bring a good camera. The landscapes across the island are so breathtaking and dramatic that sometimes even the best smartphones can’t capture its depth and detail.
… at least one levada walk. Just in case we haven’t quite drummed that point home. There are some that are a whole day’s hiking, while others just take a couple of hours, but they all offer up breathtaking views.
… miss the opportunity to taste some fortified Madeira wine and be willing to ‘open your palate’ to it. Fortified wine may be known as grandmother’s tipple at home, but here there are so many different and delicious varieties to try across the island.
… just swim on the beach or in your hotel pool. Try the volcanic lava pools – designed and engineered by nature for an experience that is truly Madeiran.
… just happen upon a spectacular sunrise or sunset. Go out and hunt them down. Madeira’s unique and remote location in the middle of the Atlantic means that there is next to nothing looking East and West. So sunset from the right position is absolutely magical and uninterrupted.