Discover the breathtaking islands of Madeira for your next adventure
With mainland Portugal currently off-limits, it’s an opportunity to visit not-so-sleepy Madeira and its lesser-known little sister, Porto Santo.
I am a woman on the edge – literally. I’m sitting in something resembling an oversized breadbasket, poised at the top of what looks like the tarmac version of the Cresta Run.
Downhill lies 2km of steep, twisting road, in places polished to an obsidian shine, testament to the decades over which the activity I’m about to experience has occurred.
I’m in the hilltop district of Monte, which looms 1,840ft above Funchal, the capital of Madeira.
This lush little island, which sits 600 miles southwest of mainland Portugal, and west of the top of Africa, was first claimed by Portuguese sailors in the fifteenth century. Four hundred years later, wealthy residents built summer homes in this cooler, breezy district.
Horse-drawn carts ferried people up – today, thanks to the cable car which was installed in 2010, you can simply float above the sinuous, curving terraces cut into the hill which grow the grapes for Madeira’s famous wine, plus reams of tropical banana trees and eucalyptus plants. Getting back down, however, was a trickier proposition.
The idea of using large, wicker toboggans came about in 1850. Attached to two wooden runners, passengers sit inside, and two men, or ‘carreiros’, steer it from behind, also acting – crucially – as brakes.
Dressed in white, with straw boaters, they resemble Venetian gondoliers. The most important part of their uniform, however, is the thick-soled shoes they wear which act as resistance.
I’m about to find out how it actually works; the heavy contraption strains at the ropes, as my two friendly carreiros, Tomas and Filipe, get ready to launch (carreirosdomonte.com, from £13.50pp).
With a sickening lurch, we’re off – and it’s utterly terrifying. I’m told they can reach speeds of nearly 35mph, and as the wind whips past, the carreiros accelerate, swinging the toboggan from side to side – eliciting rather unladylike screams from its occupant – and bombing down the track as if they were going for gold in the Winter Olympics.
It’s over in about three minutes, but it’s a wild ride. And as a first impression, it’s not exactly how I pictured Madeira. My granny came here on holiday, drawn, like many, to its year-round warmth, and it consistently attracts silver-haired hikers and nature lovers.
But these days, the birthplace of ace striker Cristiano Ronaldo – his bronze bust greets you at Funchal airport – is hoping to shake off its slightly staid reputation and appeal to a broader range of visitors, including those who want to take part in more adventurous pursuits, like diving, paragliding, or canyoning.
I’m not intrepid enough for any of those, but the next morning I’m up before dawn to meet Marco from Discovery Island Tours for an off-road jeep safari (discoveryisland-madeira.com, from £32pp).
First, we climb steadily upwards to one of Madeira’s highest points, Pico do Arieiro (1810m) for a spectacular sunrise. I try to concentrate on what he’s saying about the Jurassic-era, UNESCO heritage forest we pass through, steadfastly ignoring the prospect of tumbling into the gulfs and chasms made by the many hills and mountains which form Madeira’s undulating topography.
Then it’s back down through narrow forest trails, bumping along bone-jarring tracks, to the Skywalk of the Miradouro Cabo Girao. This turns out to be a viewing platform with a giddying glass floor, which extends over a cliff – at 580m, it’s apparently the highest in Europe. I inch over it gingerly, looking down onto craggy, black rocks, the Atlantic sea churning at their base.
I spend my last couple of days on neighbouring Porto Santo, a 2.5 hour ferry from Funchal (portosantoline.pt/en/; £22 one-way).
Where Madeira is fertile and verdant, Porto Santo is almost comically brown, rocky and barren; my guide, Nuno (en.lazemar.com; tours from £18pp) explains that any trees I see were actually hand-planted. ‘We’re like a small desert in the Atlantic,’ he laughs, ‘while Madeira is a big garden.’
However, it does have one huge weapon in its tourist arsenal: its seven-mile sweep of pale golden beach. I get a great view of it after puffing up to one of the tiny island’s highest peaks, Pico do Castelo (437m); at just 18 miles square, I can practically see all around it.
Afterwards, Nuno takes me to Pico Ana Ferreira, a weird-but-wonderful set of basalt rock formations, similar to the Giants Causeway. We end our tour with a glass of poncha, Madeira’s traditional – and rather strong – drink made with rum, honey, orange and lemon juice.
‘After a couple of these you’ll be speaking fluent Portuguese!’ jokes Nuno. I’m not sure about that, but after the adrenalin rushes I’ve experienced here, it’s a fitting finale.
Five fabulous Madeiran dishes
Check out these delicious Portuguese delicacies:
Fly direct from London to Funchal from £61 one way, flytap.com. Rooms at Pestana Carlton Madeira, Funchal, from £95pn, pestana.com; rooms at Vila Baleria, Porto Santo, from £63 pn, vilabaleira.com. For more info, go to visitportugal.com/en/destinos/madeira.
Remember to check entry requirements for the country you are planning to visit at gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice. Currently in England and Wales you do not need to quarantine on arrival or on return to Madeira and Porto Santo; a free test is given on arrival: gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/portugal.
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