I wanted to visit Madeira ever since I heard about the wonderful levadas that criss-cross the island, making ideal walking routes. These levadas are a fantastic network of ingeniously constructed channels providing water for irrigation. They really are engineering marvels, traversing impossibly steep hillsides, crossing gorges and ravines, and plunging into long dark tunnels.
The best thing is that all the levadas have a footpath beside them for access and maintenance. This makes many of them perfect for a pleasant, gentle stroll, where it is almost impossible to get lost!
Others are far more adventurous. They allow you to reach places that would otherwise be completely inaccessible to normal walkers.
But be warned; you often need a strong head for heights, and to be comfortable walking through long, narrow, totally dark tunnels, with the sound of water rushing close beside you. If you can cope with this, these walks are totally unique and very exciting.
During a recent holiday to Madeira, we spent a week in the capital, Funchal. Here we used the excellent network of buses to get to different locations each day. We then hired a car for the second week. We spent three nights in a hotel up on the Paul da Serra plateau, followed by three nights in Porto Moniz on the northwest coast, and a final night on the southeast coast.
FUNCHAL – The Bustling Capital
Funchal in August is a busy, bustling city, with constant traffic – not quite the gentile, elegant city I had imagined. It does, however, have excellent hotels and restaurants. And from the bus station you can get buses to all parts of the island. You can easily spend a week or two here, and get a bus to a different place each day. It is possible to get off a bus at the starting point to a walk, walk to a different location, and then get another bus back.
As well as being an excellent base from which to visit all corners of the island, Funchal has many attractions worth visiting. There are several parks and gardens, museums and galleries, as well as the historic city centre and Gothic Cathedral.
Hotel Quinta da Penha de Franca
During our week in Funchal we stayed in the beautiful Quinta da Penha de Franca. This hotel is set in lovely gardens, which are great for al fresco dining. It also has an indoor a la carte restaurant and two outdoor swimming pools. The rooms have views to the ocean or the gardens.
Despite being in a secluded location, it is an easy stroll from the hotel to the centre of Funchal, or the marina. I can highly recommend this hotel, and it will definitely be my first choice if we stay in Funchal again.
A great day out is to take the cable car up to Monte. From here you get a fantastic view over Funchal bay. You can stroll through the village and the Municipal Gardens, with more lovely views, followed by a trip to the wonderful Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. These contain a massive collection of exotic plants from many parts of the world, together with sculptures, a lake, birds, fish and a collection of minerals. You can then return to Funchal by the cable car or bus. Or if you are feeling adventurous, by the famous wicker toboggan sled ride.
This looks a bit crazy! You sit in an open wicker sled, and two smartly dressed men propel the sled down scarily steep roads, dodging traffic en route. It is hugely popular, but I have to admit it looked dangerous to me. I think there is a lot more traffic than there used to be – and if one of those men stumbled…… But perhaps I am just a wimp!
Another great day out from Funchal is to take a boat trip to the Desertas Islands (Ilhas Desertas).
The islands and surrounding sea are a nature reserve because of the rare and abundant wildlife. This includes the monk seal, numerous seabirds, and the critically endangered Deserta Grande wolf spider. Trips can be arranged online through Viator.
Most trips land on Deserta Grande, where there are information boards and you take a short guided tour. There is a chance of seeing dolphins and whales on the journey to the islands. Even if you don’t, it is a fascinating and informative trip with wonderful scenery and the chance to visit a truly secluded place.
For planning walks I highly recommend the Sunflower Guide to Madeira by John and Pat Underwood. This not only gives clear route directions, but tells you which bus you need to get to the starting point, and from the finishing point, of each walk. It also includes timetables, and I found them to be mostly correct, even though my copy was an early edition, Though of course it is always best to check for up-to-date information on the latest timetables.
The book includes walks for all abilities. For many of the longer, more difficult walks there are suggestions for shorter alternatives. The book also has suggestions for driving routes and picnic places, making it an ideal and inspiring guide. I have listed a few other useful books at the top right of this post.
Many of the walks suggested in the guide books include an initial warning that there is a possibility of vertigo. You will usually be walking on quite a narrow, but firm, well-made path. Some of them do have very steep drops to one side, often with only a flimsy barrier or no barrier at all. And occasionally there are wet, mossy parts which can be slippery.
In most cases, if you are reasonably sure-footed, and if you concentrate on the path, you should be fine. Concentrating on the path can sometimes be difficult, because you want to look at the magnificent scenery. Walking poles are good for steadying yourself, and improving confidence. I am very nervous on steep scree slopes or any unstable surfaces, but for the most part I coped well with the levada paths. But if vertigo is a problem for you it is best to select your walks with care. Often the most difficult part of the walk is an ascent or descent to reach the levada path. If any do look too vertiginous for you, turn back. It is better to be safe, and there are always other routes you can tackle!
Make sure you have a good torch if you have to go through any tunnels – some of them are long enough to be completely dark away from the entrances. Just take them slowly, being careful with your footing as the surfaces are often uneven. They can be a little unnerving, but they make the walks very unique and memorable!
The opportunities for walks in Madeira are almost endless. You can use the suggested books to select routes that match your ability. We found that the best levadas were ones away from Funchal. The more populated area around the city leads to inevitable litter and many of the channels being dry.
The Levada das 25 Fontes is extremely beautiful, but hugely popular with tour groups. This would be best visited out of the main holiday season.
CURRAL das FREIRAS (the Nuns Valley)
One trip that I would particularly recommend, whether or not you wish to walk, is to the Curral das Freiras (Nuns valley). This is situated in a natural depression between almost vertical mountains, and is absolutely stunning. The journey alone, whether by car or by bus, is incredibly spectacular, though some of the roads are a bit unnerving!
Unsurprisingly much of the walking around here is very steep. But the paths are well maintained and often stepped, and the views make the effort well worthwhile.
PAUL da SERRA – a Windswept Plateau
After leaving Funchal we spent three nights in a hotel on the Paul da Serra plateau. This large area is situated at an altitude of approximately 1500m, and is frequently misty and prone to strong winds. Hence there are numerous wind turbines which supply a lot of the island’s power.
The area is practically uninhabited, and in parts has a desert-like appearance. It has a desolate beauty, which I really liked. Unfortunately the hotel we stayed in is presently closed, apparently for restoration, though the rather unusual themed Jungle Rain café on the same site is still open. Hopefully the hotel will reopen soon. Its situation on the main road through the plateau is convenient for walks and at a wonderful view point. The night sky here was particularly special.
There are many excellent walking opportunities around the Paul da Serra. There are also several spectacular driving routes down towards different areas of the coast, so it is a great base.
PORTO MONIZ – Natural Swimming Pools
The next three nights we spent on the coast at Porto Moniz. This is a very attractive little town with some beautiful natural swimming pools. The coastal scenery is very attractive, and the town is particularly nice in the evening when the day tourists have left.
We stayed in the simple, but very pleasant, Hotel Euro Moniz.
The room of our hotel looked directly over the natural swimming pools. These are actually a series of lava pools which fill up at high tide. The photo below was taken on a calm day, but when it is windy the waves come crashing over quite dramatically. This can make the pools quite exciting. There are different areas, ensuring that the pools are suitable for bathers of any ability.
There are also several lovely walks and drives in the area, and the Levada da Central da Ribeira da Janela is particularly worth a visit. Access to this levada is at the reservoir above Porto Moniz, which you can reach by car or taxi.
HOTEL ALBATROZ – Ideal for the Airport
We spent our final night on Madeira at the excellent and highly recommended Hotel Albatroz, which is just outside Santa Cruz. This is an elegant and peaceful hotel, with a great restaurant. It also has steps down to a fantastic private swimming area. The balconies and gardens look out towards the Desertas Islands (see photo earlier in the post). It is literally a few minutes away from the airport, making it ideal as a first or last night stop.
Though it was so nice that I would have loved to stay longer…..