The Portuguese island of Madeira is a magical, one-of-a-kind destination for people who prefer dirt-under-the-fingernails adventure over glamorous beach resorts.
It’s a fact I learn quickly when our off-roading guide, Rui, pulls away from the asphalt of the island’s main roads and expertly puts his Land Rover Defender into gear on a treacherously uphill dirt path, starting our bumpy ascent to the top of Lombo do Mouro – a cloud-capped vista.
With the roof folded down, I struggle to stay upright as I stand in the back of the vehicle, clinging on to its frame as it jerks over rocks and tree branches. Gazing at kestrels as they glide above the dramatic bowl of the Serra de Água Valley, I appreciate why people fall hard for this “Pearl of the Atlantic” and its natural beauty.
As we drive onward, I’m hit by fresh air, rural views and the adrenaline rush of trying not to get flung out of the vehicle at the same time. Like any urbanite who’s momentarily escaped the city, I’m instantly soothed by the sheer onslaught of greenery surrounding us, as loafing cows shoo out of the way of our path.
See the sights
Daily tours operated by Adventure Madeira are a fantastic way of seeing the jaw-dropping vantage points of Madeira in all their glory. The volcanic island is so pint-sized, you can drive around it in just 90 minutes, but its microclimates are extremely diverse. Start the day on a baking-hot beach and you’ll seemingly change seasons in one morning, ending your journey in rain and winds.
We observe this phenomenon up close on a trip to Fanal forest – a Unesco World Heritage site that’s part of the largest surviving area of sub-tropical laurel forest in the world.
Dreamlike and creepy all at once, the fairy-tale forest is filled with 500-year-old gnarled and knotted trees that make dramatic shapes in the dense fog. Like an impressive magician’s trick, the fog disappears in the snap of finger while we’re taking photographs.
As we continue our journey towards the coast, Rui points out the island’s famous Levadas, a 15th Century network of stone channels that were designed to bring water from the mountains to the crop fields, but have since been repurposed as over 1,300 miles of scenic hiking trails. Madeira is covered in these walkable irrigation channels, which are catnip for keen hikers, and an efficient way to see the flora and fauna of the laurel forest by foot.
What Madeira lacks in white sandy beaches (most natural beaches here are black sand), it more than makes up for with wild swimming spots on the north coast of the island.
The natural saltwater pools of Porto Moniz are a popular tourist haven reminiscent of Sydney’s famous Bondi Icebergs baths. Further off-the-beaten-track, you’ll find Seixal pools, a hidden treasure of a wild swimming spot where visitors can paddle through a rugged sea arch and into the ocean pool with a hidden wall that protects you from being smashed by oncoming waves.
A taste of paradise
Feeling tingly and refreshed from the cold water swim, we stop at Sea View Restaurant in Porto Moniz to enjoy a plate of freshly-caught black scabbardfish, a delicious deep-sea species that’s a common delicacy on the island.
I recommend spending an afternoon pottering around Câmara de Lobos, a town on the south side of the island where fisherman play cards in the bay, waiting for nightfall, so they can take their boats out to trawl for the white meat fish that live at several thousand metres deep, but move into mid-water at night.
If you have a green thumb, you’ll want to take the cable car from the capital city of Funchal to Monte Village where you’ll find the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. The gardens have a wonderful array of exotic trees and flowers on display, with football-sized hydrangeas, koi carp pools and botanical palms.
You’re not short on boutique hotels in Madeira. 1905 Zino’s Palace (1905zinospalace.com; rooms from £137) is a restored pink manor house with stylish Scandi interiors and a pink pool on a sun terrace that overlooks the tranquil Ponta do Sol and its surrounding banana plantations.
If you want to be right in the thick of the Funchal action though, check in to Hotel Caju (hotelcaju.com; rooms from £82). Getting pampered here is the best way to round off a week of hiking, swimming and off-roading, which will leave your muscles sore, but your soul supremely full.
P.S. When in Madeira, I’m told you must also stop for a poncha, a local drink that’s a mixture of lemon juice, honey and 40% proof rum, available at most taverns. The island is known for its excellent fortified wines, but its sweet and incredibly strong cocktail is what you’ll see the locals drinking.
Fly from the UK to Funchal airport with WizzAir, with prices from £60pp in September. For help with planning a trip to Madeira, go to visitmadeira.pt
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