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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Read my full review here.
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.
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.
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