The time being slightly after 8am during the week and having no espresso maker in our Funchal airbnb rental it was time for one of my frequent fifty meter walks to the local cafe and grocery store. It would have been far easier to fit in with the locals had I ordered a straight Scotch or a beer than a Chino – the Madeiran name for a double espresso, and very similar to an Americano. I was getting to be a dab hand at ordering the best coffees but terrible at even contemplating liquor at such an hour! Is there anything wrong with being able to down a little tipple before heading off for an 8 hour shift?
We had flown into Madeira’s international airport from The Azores after having spent a great two weeks on the uncrowded island of São Miguel – our anticipation was that this archipelago would wow us equally, even with its many cruise ships and retirement crowd reputation. Our first port of call after reluctantly collecting another Goldcar rental was to Porto da Cruz in the gloomy sounding north of the small island. Apparently weather systems arrive from the Northern Atlantic causing the coastline and pretty much everything north of the centrally located mountain range to suffer from extremely fickle conditions. We experienced a mixture of drizzle, cloud, cold, drizzle, drizzle, more cloud, and very occasionally some sunshine! Knowing that thirty minutes around the coast the capital city of Funchal was in glorious sunshine drove us crazy.
It didn’t take us long to realize that driving here was going to be a lot of fun, the good side being that if we stuck to the main highway that skirts the island then we tended to stay as flat as this mountainous island would allow, never traveling very far before disappearing into the darkness of anther tunnel. I found that to be a little boring, much preferring the other side of the coin, the side that as soon as we left the highway took us either up seriously steep hills or down them – Andrea for some reason dreaded them both. Our airbnb was conveniently located well above the highway, no where near as high as we would get over the coming few days but enough to whet at least my appetite! Being up high meant the views were always amazing, if only the weather would cooperate long enough to allow us more than an occasional glimpse.
My bike had now made another leg of its journey from Miami to South Africa intact, this being the third flight using the same battered cardboard box – the next two legs both involved a connection, in effect four more flights. I was definitely going to need to find a new box in Spain. Right now that didn’t matter, all that did was to find routes that allowed some level of enjoyment on these brutal hills. Not wanting for Andrea to miss out on the weekends sufferfest I made sure to rent her a bike for a few days enjoyment too! With the help of Google and searching for things to do in Madeira we had a list of activities planned; hiking historical irrigation systems known as Levadas, Carnival celebrations, visiting colorful Santana houses, knocking off as many quaint cafes as possible, and as always making it to the highpoint. We would soon discover the Levadas to be an exceptional way of seeing the island, most offering many kilometers of flat trail following alongside manmade waterways that were, and probably still are, used to get water from the wet north side of the island to the far drier south. My plan to ride along these same trails soon came to a halt after finding them to be far too narrow, some with intimidating exposure and precarious drop-offs.
Spending these first few days away from the tourist masses of Funchal was for us the way to do it, breaking us in slowly to life in the south – we found some great clouded in viewpoints, spent a wet afternoon eating, drinking and enjoying Santana’s ‘Festa dos Compadres’ carnival celebrations, even managing to get Andrea on jeep trails and extremely dirty mountain biking. Sampling local food and drink has always been the highlight of visiting new places and Madeira was no exception with its Bolo de Caco, typically a round bread baked on a basalt stone slab and smothered with garlic butter, and Poncha, a very moorish drink made from sugar cane brandy. Continuing on the food theme we discovered one of the best restaurants we had the pleasure of eating at just down the hill from us.
The drive down to the small town of Porto da Cruz from our accommodation was seriously steep and narrow, especially in the dark, made even worse with Google Maps deciding that the shortest option is the best – discovering Snack Bar A Pipa made it worth listening to Andrea complaining the entire way! The first experience we just dabbled with the menu, the next time we went all out and the third time we drove all the way from Funchal to overindulge once more – we loved this place for its to-die-for seafood, friendly atmosphere, Fishermans Poncha, and amazing prices.
We both agreed that three days in the islands wet north was enough, an area that’s definitely worth revisiting but outside of the winter months when the weather is more stable. Everything was dramatic, it didn’t matter which direction one turned, but occasional glimpses didn’t cut it – we wanted more and that involved moving on to the capital city of Funchal.
So leaving Porto da Cruz and the north coast behind we had reserved a further six nights up above the city of Funchal, another airbnb rental and another hit for us. We had great views of the city below, an easy fifteen minute walk down into the quaint old town, a slightly longer grind of a walk back uphill, and dozens of places to head to for drinks and pastries. Both of us were getting extremely susceptible to a mid morning chocolate croissant or anything deemed to be a sweet local delicacy! In Portugal it was Pastel de Nata, the Azores provided us with Queijadas da Vila, and now here we had to at least attempt to stop eating the scrumptious Bolo de Mel, or Honey Cake.
Initially we had opted to rent a vehicle for only the first few days out of the city, deciding to exchange it for another cheapo at the last minute so as we could continue our island discovery – in hindsight we should have stuck with Goldcar, not my favorite rental car company due to a mistake that I made, for the duration. We ended up with a Fiat Punto, the worst piece of shit possible using Europcar, a company that should be ashamed to rent a car of such useless calibre on an island where gradients can easily be 30%. I must admit I did get some level of joy thrashing the crap out of it in the lowest gear whilst trying to make it uphill, then overheating the brakes going back down!
The best part about our move south of the mountains was experiencing such a drastic change in the weather, conditions being considerably warmer, blue skies and a big orange ball in the sky. It was hard to imagine that we were still on the same island. Maybe we would now actually get to see a view from a viewpoint! On one such morning we left a dreary looking city behind and headed extreme east towards Ponta de São Lourenço, almost turning back at the airport as the weather took a turn for the worst – we had quickly learnt that on this sub-tropical mountainous island the weather is extremely temperamental, with dark rain-filled clouds quickly replaced by blue skies, quickly replaced once again by rain. We kept on driving east to the beginning of the hiking trail, very pleased that we had as the sun shone over an almost empty parking lot, the wind and earlier rain keeping the masses away. The point was a rugged 6km roundtrip, providing fantastic views down into unreachable coves, sea stacks being whiplashed by a choppy Atlantic Ocean, and the temporary feeling of remoteness on an otherwise busy island. By the time we turned around and headed back to the rammed parking lot we were no longer alone, a continuous line of people walking towards us whilst being blown around and pelted by occasional rain showers – we were glad to be leaving them to it!
Over the coming days, and with Andrea not starting work until early afternoon we had plenty of time to discover numerous levadas, enjoy tea in flower filled garden cafes, and even attempt to drive up to Pico do Arieiro after an entire day of rain in the lowlands – rain down low meant snow up high, apparently around 8-12″ of the stuff. Unfortunately park staff had closed the road and wouldn’t allow us to pass in our little rinky dink car. Later that same day, and on my second attempt, I managed to cycle to the top, a surreal experience seeing so much snow on a subtropical island – the first attempt a few days prior had me turning back in a hail storm a mere three kilometers from the summit, freezing cold for the entire descent!
Whatever people say about Madeira being for the grey-haired cane-wielding crowd it couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, if you base yourself in the western side of Funchal it’s overloaded with apartment complexes, hotels, and cheesy souvenir shops, but with a car and a sense of adventure getting off the beaten path and exploring the island is easy and a lot of fun.
…and with a bike, well, where theres an up theres a down!
- Too many other tourists, even in the height of winter
- Getting a crap rental car rendered useless in the hilly terrain (most of the island)
- Extremely temperamental weather
- Not getting the chance to stand atop Pico Ruivo due to the above
- The expensive fun-looking toboggan ride down from Monte
- Viewpoints galore, spectacular on clear days, miserable on cloudy days
- Levada’s are everywhere and provide excellent walking routes
- Quaint tea houses in picturesque settings
- Significant snowfall in the high mountains
- Awesome cycling, especially if you get a kick out of suffering
I think that with trial and error both my photography and website design are progressively improving so hopefully these newer, better quality images will inspire you to get out there and travel. Click HERE to see more and if you like the content then feel free to comment.
February 2nd – February 11th 2018