In 1419 ships on a mission for Henry the Navigator hit the coastline of Madeira. Located just 250 miles from the coast of Africa and the Canary Islands this 286sq mile Island is one of Europes' best kept secrets. Known for Madeira wine, gastronomy, history, culture and some amazing old growth forests. I was excited to delve into this mountainous and culture rich island.
I left Los Angeles bound for Portugal. Stopping in Berlin and Lisbon I was finally on a TAP Portugal flight bound for Madeira Island. After traveling for more than 20 hours I arrived into the city of Funchal. Madeira Island is a unique place and a great escape from the bustling cities of Europe. With high mountains, interesting history and amazing coastline its warm year-round temperatures will welcome you any time of year.
I arrived around 8pm and headed straight for the rental car lot; Even in the dark I could tell that the island was beautiful. Departing the rental car lot, I headed East out of the airport to the tip of the island. The road takes you through tunnels that seem to stretch under the hills of the whole island. It took about 20 minutes to reach my hotel for the first night, Quinta do Lorde.
This open air resort and marina has won many awards including being named Portugal's Leading Green Hotel. My large room with spacious bathroom and patio overlooked the ocean and the warm air off the ocean was a welcome feeling after such a long day. I stopped by the restaurant for a buffet dinner before walking the grounds. The resort is tucked into its own corner of the ocean, with lighthouse, jetty, marina and several restaurants. One of the 4 pools has an infinity edge right into the ocean and was built into the surroundings seamlessly. It was strikingly beautiful and has everything I might have needed. A private beach tops it off. It is certainly a great place for a family vacation with sailing, scuba diving, a kayaking center, small grocery store and free parking all on site. I settled in for the evening and tried to come up with a game plan for my first day in Madeira.
Sunrise on this Southerly island wouldn’t be until 7:45. Thanks to Google Maps I had seen an amazing viewpoint nearby which I hoped to explore for the rising of the sun.
That night I was a light sleeper and could here nearby neighbors snoring, and a car that screeched to a halt most likely avoiding the cats I had seen in the marina earlier.
When I woke I got in my car and headed as far East as the road would take me. After about a 5-minute drive I reached the end.
I put on my headlamp, grabbed a flashlight, consulted a map in Portuguese and headed off in what I hoped was the right direction. I had never hiked alone in the dark especially in a place I had never been and this wouldn’t be the last time on this trip either.
As small glimpses of sunlight started to illuminate my surroundings I began to see the beautiful coastline appearing before my eyes. Unsure of how far I should go or where this trail would take me, I often questioned if I should stop and wait here or there for the sun to rise. But I always decided to continue. At one point I got to a bend in the cliffside where I didn’t see the trail, so, I went up. The steep cliff led me to a high peak with a dizzying 100 foot + drop to the sea on the other side. After a few moments of enjoying the beauty I saw glimpses of flashlights down below.
“Ahhh, there’s the trail.” I exclaimed to myself.
So I ran/slipped down the mountainside and passed their group.
I didn’t want anyone seeing the sunrise before me.
Every second that passed saw the sun coming up bit by bit. At this point I was running, hopping and skipping along. Chasing the sun. Looking for the most epic spot to watch the sun bring life to another day. I found an amazing place to finally stop and as the sun said “Good Morning.” It revealed some of the most amazing coastline I have ever witnessed. With the ocean crashing down below and a lighthouse in the distance this was an amazing start to my trip in Portugal.
Sunrise lasted an hour, and even though I was behind schedule for my days’ activities I couldn’t tear myself away. I finally did though; and I headed to the hotel for a quick breakfast, a walk around the hotel in daylight, then it was off to explore the World Heritage Sites at the top of the island.
Madeira Island has some beautiful lush green mountains, dotted with the remains of some of Europe’s oldest forests called Laurisilva. This area is protected as a World Heritage Site, as it is one of the places on earth this forest can still be found. There are hundreds of miles of trails to choose from if you like hiking like me. My plan had been to hike the tallest peak then head to Paul De Serre a popular hiking spot at the top of the island. With time not on my side I decided to head to the plateau first and hike the tallest peak if time permits. The drive from the coast into the mountains is a beautiful one. Taking you past terraced villages, farms and high up the winding mountain roads. Unfortunately, I had a terrible time locating exactly where Paul de Serre was. My assumption was that it was a parking lot, but in reality it is a huge expanse of land on the top of the mountain plateau.
Lucky for me I had downloaded some of the trail maps on my IPad and with that I found my way to the 25 Fountains trail. To be clear there are dozens of trails, and if you aren’t set on one particular one, you can pretty much pull over anywhere and find a trail head. There is also a huge amount of tour groups that specialize in taking people to hike in the region, if you don't want to go it alone.
I had read a lot about the 25 fountains trail that would take me along the traditional Levadas or aqueducts that line much of the mountainside in Madeira.
To get to the trail, pass the plateau and look for a sign that says Rabacal. You can park here and then choose to ride the shuttle or walk to the Rabacal Guest house where the trail begins.
I chose to walk, not because I wanted to but I didn’t know there was a shuttle until it almost ran me over some ways down the road.
The walk is 1.8 km each way to the guest house, and keep in mind its uphill on the way back.
When you get to the beginning of the trail, you will continue downhill and down several flights of stairs before flattening out onto a leisurely trail. The Levadas are neat and really will blow your mind. They were built beginning in the 15th century after the island was colonized to run water from the mountain into the town and crops. When you think about people trying to build these perfectly sculpted aqueducts on the sides of a steep mountain with no machines it makes you cringe. Which is why, this work was dealt to slaves and criminals.
The trail itself goes on and on and eventually gets quite narrow as it winds back up into the mountains. I turned around after about 12 fountains. Begrudgedly thinking about the uphill I would face on the way back.
On the way back to civilization I took the road less traveled, a cobblestone road down the other side of the mountain to the town of Calhetta. Unbeknownst to me much of this area had recently burned and it was almost like the island was trying to hide it all from view. As I came down the road thick fog billowed up and over the road from the forest below. Giving off an eerie but magnificent site; you could almost stumble into the clouds and disappear.
After my long day of hiking and exploring I checked into the Galo Resort. A grouping of three hotels all with their own specialties like Ayurvedic healing, scuba diving or luxury. The best part, is their commitment to the environment. Located on the Cliffside above the Garajua Marine reserve; Galo Resort has solar panels that create most of their electricity. They encourage experiencing nature and staying in shape, as well as helping the local community.
I was lucky enough to be able to stay in their glamping hut. A one of a kind bungalow situated on a deck on the edge of the ocean. With no electricity it was to be a quiet night gazing at the stars and listening to the sounds of the ocean. After an amazing dinner at their restaurant Atlantis which consisted of traditional Espada (fried fish with banana and passionfruit) yucca fries and salad I headed to my hut for some champagne under the moonlight. The hut is located on the bottom of the cliff that the hotel sits on top of, on its own slab of dock with private swim ladder and sun deck. It has three walls and the front is open to the sea with curtains for privacy. This goes for the toilet as well, so if you want to do your business while watching the sun rise, go for it.
Staying in the glamping hut was one of the best experiences I have ever had. When I woke in the morning to the sun rising in front of me, the happiness I felt from being surrounded by such beauty was indescribable. The hotel served me breakfast out in front of my hut at the oceans edge. I took turns enjoying coffee and the sea, as I took advantage of my private swimming deck and the warm waters of the Atlantic.
My second day in Madeira would be short, as that afternoon I was to fly to the Azores. I spent the late morning and early afternoon exploring the city of Funchal. Taking a ride on the cable car and traveling back down the hill on a toboggan.
In the early 1900’s people living on Madeira began traveling down the steep hills on toboggans driven by local men. These men wore shoes with rubber soles similar to tires and steered the people down the streets. These traditional sleds are still used today. It was pretty exhilarating sledding down paved streets, passing cars and zipping by private homes. After a quick snack of the local street food; roasted chestnuts, it was time to head back to the airport.
I had managed to snag a flight to Sao Miguel, Azores on Azores Airlines for less than $100. Unfortunately, this flight pattern is not offered every day, so make sure you plan ahead if you are trying to island hop. In the off season which begins October 1st less flights are offered between the islands and the mainland. Which means you may need more time if you are trying to fit a lot in.