December 22, 2018
By Joey Tyson
Sam swore the trail was a short cut. It turns out it was once, it just hadn’t been used for a while. Now, the path in front of us had become an overgrown forest of 8-foot-high thorn bushes, complete with sharp, needle-point pines, jabbing and stabbing everywhere. And we’d waded right into the middle of it. In too far, there was only one way out: onwards through the spiny forest.
Not all walks in Madeira end like this, Sam, our guide from outdoor activity specialists Harmony In Nature, assured us afterwards, a cold beer and a million apologies later. We’d been hiking along one of the Atlantic island’s levadas, the old-school irrigation canals that trace Madeira’s ancient laurel forests like veins. Until that point, it had been absolutely lovely.
The levada paths cover a distance of around 2,000km, cutting through lush canopies of sub-tropical rainforest and steep-sided ravines. Madeiran farmers once used them to transport water to the lower areas of the island, but now they are mostly used by hikers. Largely flat and enclosed from the sun, these routes make for ideal walking.
Hidden waterfalls and sweeping valley views were our reward as we made our way along the levada’s shaded paths. It was October and the island had seen one of its wettest summers in a while. An explosion of green surrounded us; the forest was alive with colour. Down below at the valley bottom, other walkers took on the Levada das 25 Fontes, one of the island’s most popular walks. Length and difficulty vary across the different hikes, so all abilities should find something suitable.
Madeira has a bit of a reputation as a fairly sedate destination. There’s no shortage of sleepy little towns, and long relaxing walks. That’s only half the picture, however. An island of cloud-shrouded peaks, vast ancient forests and adrenaline-pumping activities, Madeira was made for adventure – if you want it, that is.
“Welcome to your office for the day,” said Alex. A huge goofy grin on his face. He’d barely finished his sentence before making a huge running jump into a stream pool, soaking us all in the process.
We were about to get a taste of canyoning, an exciting mish-mash of adventure sports used to explore the streams of Madeira. For the next few hours we scrambled, climbed, swam, abseiled and jumped our way down a rocky mountain stream, led by our guides Alex and Philippe, also of Harmony In Nature.
A combo of rappelling down fifteen-foot high water falls, leaping into natural plunge pools and swimming through cool creeks – if there’s any activity that proves Madeira can bring the thrill factor, it’s canyoning. It’s been around in Madeira since the late 80s, and the island’s network of streams and year-round temperate weather have seen canyoning become one of the most popular activities on offer.
And anyone can have a go. Alex has led groups with all ages from 14 up to 80. Due to the island’s weather, canyoning is available pretty much year-round. However, the northern rivers are better for summer, and the southern ones for winter, according to Alex.
Canyoning might be a fairly recent activity for Madeira, but the island has serious history when it comes to adventure. For over one hundred years, the residents of Funchal’s Monte neighbourhood have been flying down its precariously steep streets in wicker toboggans. Monte, which sits high above the city, has streets with inclines that could give a mountain goat vertigo. Ideal for a bit of urban sledging, then.
When we arrived we were greeted by a team of carreiros, the people who man the toboggans. Dressed in crisp white uniforms, smart straw hats and rubber-soled boots to control the speed, they look more barber shop quartet than bobsled team.
It didn't take long before we were loaded into the sleds and sent hurtling down the streets, the two men on the back of our sled propelling us on with measured strides of their rubber boots. Taking hair-pin turns at 30-miles-per-hour in what’s effectively a large picnic hamper is quite the trill, it turns out.
It’s one of the island’s bigger tourist draws, particularly popular with cruisers who’ve docked for the day, but it’s well worth the €30 (two people). A funicular from Funchal’s old town takes you to Monte.
On the final day, we swapped the island’s streams and streets for the open ocean. Madeira’s location, just off North Africa, out in the Atlantic, ensures that dolphins and whales can be seen year-round with almost clocklike frequency.
As we pulled out of the harbour, two spotters took their posts atop the catamaran, scouring the deep, endless blue of the Atlantic with powerful binoculars. The boat sailed out alongside rusty cliffs before cutting south, bounding out into the sea. Madeira receded in our wake, and the entire southern tip of the island came into focus; a collection of black volcanic peaks, partially covered in the brilliant greens of mountain forest and banana plants, and dotted with the clay-coloured roofs of Funchal.
The whales were playing hard to get, according to the captain, and we had to head out further than usual to find them. Finally, after an hour of sailing, we spotted the giants: short finned pilot whales, a pod of 8 or 9, their sleek black fins bobbing up occasionally as they gulped in air. We watched the whales for just 10 minutes, so as to not distress them, but it felt like an age. Once the initial excitement passed, a serene quiet fell over the boat; all eyes transfixed on the wild whales.
On our return we passed Cabo de Girao, an enormous sea cliff famed for its staggering height. Apparently, it’s the second tallest in the world, and the previous day we’d been to the glass-bottomed viewing platform at the summit. But the view from sea, seeing the cliff in full, is much more impressive.
Over five days, we'd packed a lot into our trip, but I feel we barely scratched the surface of what this tiny volcanic island has to offer. One thing's for certain: Those who think Maderia is sedate and dull simply aren't doing it right.