Madeira, Portugal

A surprise trip to the wonderful Portuguese island.

Following a return from a desert trek across the Namib (I’ll get to that one later), I had a secret trip planned by my amazing other half. She had booked the flights, accommodation, car hire – the lot. My job: to turn up at an airport at a certain date and time. And I didn’t know our destination until we were on our way.

I had an image of Madeira being a kind of Ibiza/Magaluf type of place. This preconception was based on very little other than having seen Funchal as a destination alongside the others from time to time. Madeira, however, was far from that. In fact, at times it was reminiscent of some parts of Kauai and was a laid back, scenic place.

After the interesting landing at Madeira International Airport Cristiano Ronaldo, and a bit of a mini tour of some of the coast, we made our way across the island to the north west and a tranquil spot in a lovely house outside of Porto Moniz. As a place to take it easy and as a base to explore the rest of the island, it was fantastic.

As a small island, Madeira is easy to get around and coast-to-coast (east/west) will take a couple of hours at the very most. The old coastal roads have largely been replaced by tunnelled motorways to zip through and even the roads up to some of the peaks are perfectly driveable. Just hope you don’t meet a tourist coach coming down the hill in the opposite direction.

Parts of the north and north-west were cooled under some cloud whereas the southern parts of the island and the coastal walk out by Ponta de São Lourenço were generally under blue sky and sunshine. In fact, even on a beautiful day, the fantastic and popular coastal walk on the north east seemed to be a few degrees hotter than the towns just five minutes drive back down the road. Thankfully, after a few kilometres in the 30C heat, there’s a cafe in the middle of nowhere which serves cold drinks.

While the beautiful towns around Madeira were wonderful to visit, walk through, stop for food and drinks in, and while the coast at times was truly beautiful – a bit like the Faroe Islands in places – the gems of Madeira lie higher up. If you follow the roads away from the coast, it’s inevitable that you’ll see signs for some of the peaks of the island. They cannot be missed.

Pico Ruivo and Pico do Areeiro are Madeira’s highest and third-highest peaks respectively, and are connected via a walking trail which also takes in Pico das Torres, the second-highest. And the views are mesmerising. On a clear day there are jagged peaks and summits all around as the winding path works its way along ridges and up and down steps to navigate through the scenery. The valleys and sheer drops below give a sense of scale, and the lookout points along the way provide some of the best views you may ever see.

Our stop at Pico Ruivo was unfortunately in the middle of some thick clouds at the top (bettered only by the visibility of just 5m early the following morning when we hoped to catch the sunrise from another visit to Pico do Arreiro). But, not to be put off, the walk to the summit was still undertaken in good spirits in the hope that the clouds would clear. But no luck. If nothing else, it’s a great reason for another visit to the island.

It isn’t only the peaks that provide these views. The viewpoint at Miradouro do Curral das Freiras looks over the isolated little town in Nun’s Valley below and provides almost a toy-town view of it. The traffic and buildings are so far below they barely look real, and this is watching over a town which is surrounded by huge mountains on three sides in an incredible setting.

The coastal roads also provide spectacular views at times. While some of this is now closed and replaced with the modern tunnelled roads, the north coast does have a large section of the old, windy tracks, which at times become a bit of a dodgy single track road for a short distance. Along the way there are quiet towns and villages to pass through and plenty of stop offs: Jardim Do Mar, Porto Moniz, Seixal, they’re all lovely villages dotted around the coast with some beautiful spots.

The best thing about Madeira is simply exploring. I had the impression that a lot of people don’t stray too far from Funchal, and it’s a shame if people miss out on these amazing areas of the island. There are countless walking trails, view points, towns and villages, beaches, valleys, and with a bit of effort you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views you’ll ever see.

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