Oh, the foolishness of youth. Madeira seemed like the island of the wealthy when I first visited it 30 years ago. Content to soak up the winter sun, these elderly visitors seemed loath to stray from their sunloungers; a G&T was never far away.
It’s a different scene now, as I discover after a few glorious days exploring the mountains and forests of the interior.
For a start, I am being overtaken on all the trails by superfit sixty-somethings and I’m struggling to keep up. What’s going on?
By the coast: Emma stops in Ponta do Sol (below) to take some photos and do ‘nothing more than take a few pictures’
Funchal’s capital is home to wine, coffee, and dessert. Emma checks in at the Castanheiro Boutique Hotel
I ask Miguel, the manager of my hotel, the Quinta das Vinhas, what’s changed over the years. It is located in a vineyard and has welcomed tourists for many decades. ‘Travellers of all ages come these days,’ he says. ‘Yes, we attract the older market, too, but those aged 60-plus want adventure and activity, not to just sit by a pool sipping Madeira wine.’
That’s why, early next morning, I find myself joining a Jeep tour, setting off from the Quinta in the south-west corner, heading north. We begin slowly, going along the roads and tunnels cut into the hillside.
We stop in Ponta do Sol on our way to the coast and take some photos. So far, so good.
A few people make their way to the Seixal beach, where they can relax in the warm, tranquil volcanic pools. They are protected from the roaring sea by the jet black rock formations.
Then it’s time to head for Laurisilva, the largest bay forest in the world. Diogo, our guide, takes us up the steep hills of ancient villages at near vertical speeds.
Stomachs heave — it’s clearly to prepare us for the off-road experience, driving over rocks and through streams in the laurel forest. Classified by UNESCO as a natural heritage site, with gnarled trees, lichens and mosses, it’s a verdant world of its own.
Above is Laurisilva which is the largest bay tree in the world. Emma writes: ‘Classified by UNESCO as a natural heritage site, with gnarled trees, lichens and mosses, it’s a verdant world of its own’
Quinta das Vinhas is where Emma stayed (above).
Looking at the abundant plant life, we are reminded that Madeira may be officially Portuguese, but it’s geographically closer to Africa, with a subtropical climate. Everything is around us, from giant Ferns, banana and passionfruit trees to hydrangea shrubs and Geraniums.
The drive home is filled with breathtaking views of mountains and canyons. Before we arrive at another green oasis, we get out of our Jeep and hike into an extinct volcano crater.
This is the enchanted Fanal Forest. This magical forest is home to trees over 500 years old. Even in the day, the ghostly shapes created by the twisted branches and stinkwood ocotea Foetens conjure are reminiscent of ghosts.
Emma hikes to the ‘stunning’ Risco waterfall (above). Emma wrote that the sound and smell of the rippling water calms our spirits.
Next morning will bring more mountain adventures, but this time it will be on foot. We’re all still tired, but hiking in such a lush environment, with warm water dripping from the vegetation, is refreshing.
And it blows away the cobwebs after a night of sampling Madeira wine and the other local favourite, Poncha — a potent mix of rum, honey and orange or lemon juice. The levadas are clever irrigation channels that run along the island’s north. We follow them.
These were originally built to transport water from the mountains to the crops of the more arid southern regions. They are still being used today. After After some hard work, we finally reach the Risco waterfall. Here the stream cascades down a gentle drop of 100m. We are soothed by the soothing sound of the water rushing.
After all our hard work, we are rewarded with a relaxing afternoon at the spa. We make our way to Funchal, where we check into Castanheiro Boutique Hotel. We enjoy a sauna and massage to relax our sore limbs. The rooftop pool overlooks the city’s skyline.
The next morning, I take a stroll along the seafront, buy dried bananas at a food market, and stop by Rua Santa Maria for coffee. Rua Santa mari’s wooden doors are decorated in street art. That night we dine at Ákua, a seafood-only restaurant. The menu includes tuna tartare, razorclams with ginger & coriander, and fried codfish tacos. Red snapper follows.
My white chocolate mousse with passion fruit comes with a black olive caramel sauce — a surprisingly delicious combination. This was indeed our forest adventure.
I leave this beautiful island regretting not having more time. There is so much to do on Madeira. Paddleboarding, surfing, kayaking and canyoning all await my next visit — I just need my muscles to recover first.
Amazing landscapes: Emma stopped at Seixal to take in the stunning views.
Emma writes, “I leave this magical island wishing that there was more to do in Madeira.” Ponta do Sol is shown above