Experience… Madeira

Words: Susana Ribeiro

To experience the natural beauty and magnificent nature of Madeira means walking far and stopping to appreciate the awe-inspiring views. From the impressive vantage points to the most dazzling of walks along paths and irrigation waterways, there is always something new to discover, even if you have visited Madeira before. And with its profusion of green landscapes, you can see why it is often called the Garden of the Atlantic.

Where to begin? We should set off from Funchal, at the Mercado dos Lavradores, to see, smell, taste and buy all the exotic tropical fruits on display. And then? Then it’s best foot forward, wearing comfortable shoes, to explore the many trails and spectacular vantage points.

See Madeira from above: only for those with a head for heights

The Cabo Girão vantage point is one of those places for which there are no suitable adjectives. No words can do it justice. The transparent glass balcony brings out the transcendent beauty of the land and the sea. At 580 metres above sea level, it is said to be the tallest cape in all Europe.

Yet, if you were to ask the locals what is the best vantage point, you would get a number of suggestions, with the Pico dos Barcelos vantage point coming not far behind Girão. It is in Funchal and offers an almost 360-degree view, including the Desertas islands. You already know… it’s high… but how high? It’s 335 metres above sea level, but the view is the size of the world.

From this next vantage point you can see the island’s tallest peak: Pico Ruivo or Pico do Areeiro. The Balcões vantage point has a balcony offering views of the green and dazzling Vale do Faial and the island’s central mountain range.

The Curral das Freiras’ reputation for beauty precedes it. So it is only natural that this should be one of the more interesting vantage points from which to get an overall appreciation of this area. The Eira do Serrado vantage point stands 1,000 metres above sea level and overlooks the village far below, where it looks as if it is Lilliputian.

At an elevation of 1,007 metres is the Boca de Encumeada vantage point, which offers views over the valleys of the Ribeira Brava (south coast) and São Vicente (north coast).

The sea is king at the Farol da Ponta do Pargo vantage point. Sure, it is an island and everywhere the sea plays an important role, but from here, 312 metres up, you can follow the coastline from a natural setting. Here is the Ponta do Pargo lighthouse.

Let’s climb a little higher to the Pico do Areeiro vantage point, sitting at an altitude of 1,818 metres. There is a road leading up there, which is an unforgettable trip in itself: from Poiso to the Pico do Areeiro. If you want to keep on climbing… then take the footpaths to the Pico Ruivo (the highest point on the island) at a height of 1,862 metres.

If you’re en route to Porto Santo, then stop off at the Terra Chã vantage point on the north coast of the island.

In the open air

Put on a pair of comfortable shoes, take some water and perhaps even some snacks to eat on the way. Don’t be in a hurry, don’t look at your watch or count the kilometres or the stops you make. Just enjoy every suggested trail and irrigation waterway and enter into the incomparable natural beauty. The Garden of the Atlantic is awesome and will leave you amazed and speechless.

Madeira’s irrigation waterways (Levadas de Água) provide some of the most beautiful routes and are a great way to get about and discover the island.

The Levada da Serra do Faial is a route on the east coast of the island, between Santa Cruz and Machico, passing through the Laurissilva forest and past UNESCO-classified Natural World Heritage species. Just 9 km long, it starts going downhill from the 6.5 km mark, so it is not too challenging. Difficulty: medium. It should take around three-and-a-half hours to complete.

Don’t want to walk, or can’t walk so far? The Vereda dos Balcões is a 1.5 km walk that will take about one-and-a-half hours there and back. It starts and finishes in Ribeiro Frio and follows the Levada da Serra do Faial as far as the Balcões vantage point. It is worth it for the view alone, but this trail is also beautiful as it follows the irrigation waterway through nature.

The Vereda do Urzal is a 10.6 km path that takes about four-and-a-half hours to complete. It starts at the Curral das Freiras in Fajã dos Cardos, and ends in Boaventura. It’s difficulty level is medium since it is all uphill to the Boca das Torrinhas, then all downhill to the Lombo do Urzal in Boaventura. The peaks surrounding the Curral das Freiras are impressive, especially the highest peak on the island: the imposing 1,862-metre Pico Ruivo.

And if you want to go to the highest point on the island… The Vereda do Pico Ruivo trail starts at Achada do Teixeira. It’s only 2.8 km and takes about one-and-a-half hours up and back again. The route finishes at Pico Ruivo, so you have to go back the way you came. Next to the shelter on Pico Ruivo you will find three other trails: PR1 Vereda do Pico Areeiro, PR 1.3 Vereda da Encumeada and PR 1.1 Vereda da Ilha.

The Levada das 25 Fontes in the district of Calheta is 9 km long and takes about four hours there and back. It is an easy trail that starts and finishes in Rabaçal. The local council operates a bus to take visitors to the starting point at the Rabaçal forest station (for a fee).

Important note: before setting out, confirm with the local tourism office that the paths are not closed for any reason.

Madeira cuisine

We all know that we can also eat with our eyes! But if you’ve ever smelled freshly-baked Madeiran flatbread (bolo do caco)… you know what we mean when we say it is impossible to resist.

Flatbread with plain (or garlic) butter is probably the most popular snack on Madeira… from the morning, through the afternoon into the night, on its own or with a meal. This bread, which is baked on a hot plate, is so delicious that it has been exported to many places.

The swordfish fillets with banana, tuna steaks with fried corn, octopus or shellfish (such as the delicious limpets), which can all be accompanied with sweet potato, are just some of the typical seafood dishes served on this island. Beef on laurel wood kebabs is another traditional dish. Tomato and onion soup is another delicacy that seduces visitors and others… it comes with a poached egg in the soup and some toasted bread on the side.

To drink… we mustn’t forget the renowned Madeira wine! You can visit the producers and sample some of the produce, and if you are there in September you can take part in the harvest and the Madeira Wine Festival. The experts say the grapes traditionally used to make Madeira wine are Sercial, Boal, Verdelho and Malvasia.

And, last but not least, there is the honey cake, the recipe for which we have included here for anyone who wants to try making it at home. The sweet potato doughnuts, the cheesecakes, the passion fruit pudding and fennel sweets are other sweet treats that many visitors take home as souvenirs. Bon appétit!

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