Rugged, almost vertical cliffs, plunge into an azure blue sea that alternately crashes and caresses the charcoal colored rocks which form the coastline of this volcanic island. The towering cliffs veined with long ago cooled lava lead to an interior that is brimming with life. Lush green landscapes of ferns, palms and laurels soar over an understory of blue and white hydrangeas and agapanthus.
Traveling to the highest areas often requires passage through gently floating clouds surfacing to a deep blue sky and gently warming sun. Crossing a ridge line or driving through a tunnel carries visitors from one micro climate to another. Classified as a Mediterranean climate the weather is spring like year round. Anytime is good to visit!
“Brits go to Madeira to escape our damp, chilly winters,” my father Brian who lives in the UK had stated during our weekly Skype session sometime in January. “I’ve been told it is very pleasant.” We met in Madeira at the end of June. Hotels suitable for all budgets and tastes are plentiful.
We stayed at the three star Dorisol Buganvilia in the São Martino area of the capital city Funchal; close to bars, restaurants, grocery stores and the promenade and lido area. A daddy/daughter vacation to celebrate family ties that are sometimes stretched by the distance separating us across the Atlantic.
Madeira is a fascinating combination of old and new. Officially claimed for Portugal in 1418 by João Gonçalves Zarco. The spectacular scenery and temperate climate are what draws European tourists to Madeira. A slower pace of life, lower cost of living and friendly locals are what makes many into expats.
On our first day Brian looked at the map and selected Porto Moniz for our first excursion. Driving in Madeira is fun if you are comfortable driving a stick shift and don’t mind miles of twisty mountain roads. We went around many hairpin bends often coming face to face with a bus. The bus service is excellent as are the guided tours so if perfecting your hill start sounds more stressful than fun skip the rental car.
Porto Moniz is on the northern coast. The easiest route to get there is to drive across the island or more accurately through the island. Billions have been spent on infrastructure including an impressive network of tunnels totaling 120 miles which according to the locals have reduced travel times extensively. The longest tunnel we drove through was just over 2 miles in length.
Porto Moniz is spectacular although being on the north side it tends to be cloudy more frequently than the southern side of the island. The town is known for its natural lava rock pools where swimmers can enjoy safe waters while being splashed by ocean spray. The day we visited it was too cold to immerse in the cool Atlantic water however the incredible coastline and mountain views more than made up for it.
To drive back we chose the smaller winding roads across the moorland of Paúl de Serra. This area is home to the islands wind farms which along with solar and hydroelectric power generate a good percentage of the electricity. The same day it was cold and damp down in Porto Moniz it was hot and sunny up on Paúl de Serra.
Hiking the Levadas
Mist swirls around the top of the mountain. A short walk and a curve to the right reveals a hint of blue sky. A few more steps and the mist fades as the sun reveals a winding pathway next to a narrow watercourse framed with bright, forest green leaves, ferns and lilies all strongly accented with blue and white agapanthus and hydrangeas. Another turn and the valley below is revealed as it swoops steeply down towards the azure blue ocean in the distance.
Tiny orange and white dots lining the hillside are all that can be seen of the many houses in the town below with their white washed walls and orange tile roofs. Birds are chirping in the bushes, the gurgle of water in its endless decent downwards and the soft thuds of my footsteps are the only sounds I am aware of.
A few minutes later I reorganize my back pack onto one shoulder, reach for my flashlight and plunge into complete darkness.
The levada system is an engineering marvel particularly when you realize that most of it was built by hand. The levadas were designed to irrigate the terraced fields and in later years to collect and direct water to the power stations at the base of the mountains. The levadas consist of over 1,550 miles of water channels and narrow walkways. Over 30 miles of tunnels carry water under mountains and ever downwards. This section of the Levada do Notre begins at the Encumeada Pass and leads to a waterfall in the Folhadal forest that could be mistaken for a fairy wonderland.
The tunnel takes about 10 minutes to pass through. I carry my backpack on my right shoulder and tilt a little to the right to avoid hitting my head on the tunnel walls. The water in the levada seems to flow more quietly in the dark. I slow my pace to avoid a misstep or slip. Emerging from the tunnel the swirling mist returns and the vegetation has changed.
The ferns are larger here and the forest more dense. Laurel trees, paus brancos (members of the olive family) and the native Madeiran folhados trees that give the forest its name create a close canopy. Wild flowers in purple, yellow and white grow abundantly on the mossy banks of the levada. I walk for a while through this magical environment that could be a scene from a movie. The waterfall plunges through the canopy into a shallow pool and flows into the concrete levada to begin its journey downwards.
Located above Funchal, the suburb of Monte can be accessed by cable car from the promenade. The 20 minute ride costs €10 one way and gives an impressive view of the city and harbor.
Monte Palace Gardens began in the 18th century as an estate belonging to British Consul, Charles Murray. The gardens became known as Quinta do Prazer “Pleasure Estate”. In 1897 Alfredo Guilherme Rodrigues purchased the estate and added a large mansion. The gardens consist of plants collected from all around the world, multiple pieces of art and an impressive collection of tiled panels depicting Portuguese history.
In 1987 José Manuel Rodrigues Berado bought the estate for his foundation. One of the foundations goals is to protect and preserve the environment, which they have done beautifully at Monte.
Mother Church of our Lady of Monte (Nossa Senhora do Monte) stands on a site that originally housed a chapel dating back to 1489. Rebuilt several times over the centuries the current church was rebuilt in 1818 following earthquake damage. The 69 steps I counted are climbed by penitents on August 15 during the Feast of the Assumption. Seeking the Virgin of Monte statue within the church the repentant citizens climb the stairs on their knees!
A day in Monte would not be complete without a toboggan ride downhill to Livramento approximately a mile below Monte. Originally created to transport ladies and gentlemen around 1850 the Monte toboggan costs €30 for two people.
The wicker toboggans have greased runners and are piloted by two drivers who steer and brake the toboggans. The ride is fast. The toboggan turns and swirls as it slides down the narrow streets. Similar to a fairground ride without the assurance of mechanical certainty!
Naturally beautiful and steeped in history, Madeira surprises and delights at every turn. At Rabaçal Dad walked a little on the flat trail returning to the car to wait while I hiked on to 25 Springs (Vinte e Cinco Fontes). Returning a couple of hours later I found him sitting in the sun, drinking a beer and chatting to a lovely lady who just happened to be hanging out with her husband who was playing cards at the rest house. Born in Madeira she and her husband had lived in South Africa, traveled extensively and returned to their home for retirement.
Americans are used to smiling, welcoming people in the U.S. Culturally, the Portuguese are not as openly friendly but we found them helpful and friendly and proud to tell us about their island and its heritage.