Madeira is an island of discovery, and there is nothing short of adventures and experiences to be had. Here are just a handful of fabulous options to consider on your day of leisure.
Step off the Cabo Girão Cliff
It takes a while to adjust your mindset. Madeira’s staircase geography of lush green terraces and dark, plunging cliffs is so abrupt and dramatic, it’s hard to comprehend when first you see it. So go to Cabo Girão early in the trip and accelerate your acclimatisation. Here, not far from the island capital of Funchal, a wall of rock drops 589m, straight down onto one of the island’s all-but-unreachable strips of faja farmland. And to deepen the sense of awe, the clifftop viewpoint has been rebuilt to include a glass-floored skywalk. Some people will tell you this is the highest cliff in Europe. It isn’t, but your heart will be thundering all the same.
Snorkel with Dolphins
The waters around Madeira’s island archipelago are teeming with life. You’d be mad not join a tour and go looking for it. Of course, whale and dolphin sightings are not guaranteed, but the boats are often guided by clifftop spotters — los vigias — to increase the chances, and most companies report a success rate (for dolphin sightings at least) of more than 90 per cent. Simply being out on the Atlantic, with a fresh view of the island, is exciting enough. But to then see a pod of bottlenose, striped or spotted dolphins, or maybe pilot or sperm whales, will give you goosebumps. Some companies also supply wetsuits and snorkelling gear. Swimming with dolphins is not always permitted. It depends which species you find. But if you can, grab your goggles and jump in.
Taste Madeira’s Wine
Madeira wine is, essentially, cooked. Hundreds of years ago the island’s winemakers discovered that if they fortified their produce and took it on a long, hot sea voyage to the East Indies, it became delicious and almost impossible to spoil. Once bottled, it can last for centuries. Now, of course, the process is more scientific, but the estufagem of the wine is still the key — as you’ll learn on one of the many guided tours on offer at the wine lodges of Funchal.
Walk the Levadas
Taming an island as remote and vertiginous as Madeira was a huge, sometimes brutal undertaking, and nothing quite evokes the size of the challenge as its network of levadas. This sinuous and spectacular network of irrigation channels brings water from the wetter northern and western parts of the island to the drier southeast, and at times the channels hug terrifyingly steep hillsides. For self-reliant hikers, the Sunflower guide is the bible, but if you’re setting out on your own, make your first levada walk an easy one. Some, such as the Levada Caldeira Verde, are not for the unfit or faint-hearted. Guided walking tours offer a more reassuring introduction, but avoid Saturday excursions to the Levada das 25 fontes, which can be overcrowded.
Swim in a Giant Rock Pool
Madeira sits at the top of a huge underwater volcano, 6.5km up from the ocean floor. So don’t be surprised by the lack of white-sand beaches. But what the island does have by way of compensation are spectacular, oversized rock pools in which to swim. Most are raw and rudimentary, but at Porto Moniz they’ve been shaped with concrete to create smooth-sided bowls with steps down into the water and, in places, flat bottoms too. With the waves breaking near by and sometimes washing over the pool’s leading edge, it’s the perfect place to flirt with the power of the Atlantic without actually being in its grip.
Ride the Monte Toboggan Run
Who needs snow? It’s more than a century since the locals in the village of Monte realised that their wicker sledges could carry people down into Funchal, just as well as fruit and veg. And it wasn’t long before the island’s growing number of tourists were joining them. On the steep road that drops away from Monte’s church (near the top of Funchal’s cable car) it’s not hard to get going, especially if you’ve greased the runners. It’s the stopping that’s the problem, which is where your team of two carreiros come in, keeping speeds down to 20mph and pulling up after just over 1.5km.
Climb the Pico Ruivo
Madeira scrambles through all kinds of ecosystems as it hauls its way to its highest peak. At the ocean’s edge on the south coast it’s almost tropical. Higher up, beyond the terraced fields and bananas, it can have an almost Alpine feel. But once you’re on the 1,862m peak of the Pico Ruivo, the atmosphere is altogether more austere. Up there you can expect narrow ridges and sun-blasted rock, and even though the R1.2 footpath from Achada do Teixeira is well-mapped and maintained, you might want to join a guided party for your first ascent.
Escape to Porto Santo
There may of course come a time when you’ve had enough of sheer cliffs and lush cloud forest, and long for a proper beach. In which case it’s time to take the boat to Porto Santo. Twenty-five miles northeast of the Ponta do São Lorenço, this is Madeira’s little sister, ready to deliver the ultimate mid-Atlantic beach day with an 8km strip of sand. The return crossing by ferry from Funchal takes two and a half hours each way and gives you almost a full day on the island, albeit with an early start. Once there, hire a kayak from the southern tip and you could deepen the middle-of-nowhere atmosphere by paddling across a narrow strait to the rugged and completely deserted isle of Cal.