Madeira may have a sedate reputation but the wild, rugged landscape is the perfect place for hiking and trail-running in the spring sunshine
Having found a bench in the hot spring sunshine, I was unwrapping my bolo de caco – an excellent toasted sweet potato sandwich, slathered in garlic butter – when “Michael Jackson” walked past. He was dressed Thriller era, and accompanied by a few pirates and a brass band in orange Afros. The band struck up. Michael strutted. The bystanders on Funchal’s lively Avenida Arriaga cheered.
That evening, the fancy dress and frivolity were fully unleashed. It was Madeira Carnival’s main parade – one of the Portuguese island’s biggest celebrations (10 March this year). Fairylights twinkled in the plane trees and around cafes serving poncha, the local tooth-rotter of aguardente de cana, lemon, sugar and honey. I risked a cup and waited for the razzmatazz to start.
Madeira is on the same latitude as Morocco, over 400 miles from the coast, and temperatures push 20°C, even in March. But I didn’t envy the revellers. Troupes flashed by in a scanty dazzle of jewelled bras and barely-there thongs; there were flappers, flower maidens, lions and gods. Lots of hip-shaking, lots of flesh. Whoever said Madeira was for “newlyweds and nearly deads” probably hadn’t seen this. Indeed, over a spring long weekend, on which I’d exchanged disappointing British weather for the subtropics in less than four hours, I found an island far wilder and more adventurous that its reputation suggests.
“Madeira is built for trail running,” Daniel Ferreira, founder of GoTrail Madeira, told me as we trotted into the hills above Funchal. “The terrain is ideal; it’s a great option when Europe’s mountains are under snow.”
Trail running is booming here, thanks in part to the MIUT (Madeira Island Ultra Trail), a 115km race across the island, via 1,862m Pico Ruivo, Madeira’s highest point. The race, held every April, now attracts some of the biggest names in the sport. I wasn’t about to attempt that, but joining one of Daniel’s tours, which involves sight-seeing at your own running pace, seemed a good way to get my bearings quickly.
It was also a good historical primer, with Daniel filling me in. He told me that Madeira was first discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1419, exactly 600 years ago; that it was colonised around five years later; and that, by the end of the 15th century, it had already become a major producer of sugar cane. This was thanks, in part, to its levadas, manmade channels built to carry water from the sponge-like laurel forests to the thirsty cane fields. Today, more than 2,000km of levadas permeate the island, providing both irrigation and an extensive network of footpaths. Daniel and I ran alongside a levada that wound through Funchal’s suburbs. We followed it through quiet lanes and banana palms. And we followed its vertiginous course high above the Socorridos valley, ducking through tunnels and, briefly, hanging in mid-air, with only a railing between us and the sheer drop.
Madeira was certainly turning out to be more thrilling than most give it credit for. Especially, as I found the next day, if you go on a jeep jaunt with Ricardo Carvalho. The top of a large, ancient shield volcano, Madeira is a geological drunk: its land seems unable to stand, always rising or falling, seldom flat. Negotiating this by 4WD, with a guide adept at not crashing on precarious backroads, is ideal. Ricardo took me on a tour around the east of the island, zipping round hairpins while showing off the sites.
We stopped to stretch our legs at the damp Ribeiro Frio, where a levada led via moss-draped forest to a misty lookout. Then we descended to Santana, where sunshine blazed over the town’s traditional triangular houses. All around, steep terraces nurtured vegetables and ripening vines, while spring wildflowers exploded – jasmine, mimosa and red-hot poker, African daisy and Echium candicans, aka the Pride of Madeira.Advertisement
We drove through the town of Machico, where those first explorers landed 600 years ago, where the MIUT race ends and where Ricardo was born. “I have pirate blood,” he told me as we passed Machico’s beach. “Pirates often landed here; in the years after raids, many births were registered as ‘unknown father’ – including one of my ancestors.”
As a second job, Ricardo does historical research for the sleek Museu da Baleia in the fishing village of Caniçal. “This used to be a whaling base,” Ricardo explained as we moved between displays on the island’s whaling history. The old wooden boats, smaller than many of the whales they hunted, reinforced how dangerous a profession this was for both sailor and whale. Fortunately, whale-watching is less problematic. Trips run year-round on Madeira, with spring the best time to see fin whales and striped dolphins.
However, I stuck to land. You can, of course, come here and just chill in the sun and explore at a gentle pace, but my plan was to fit lots of activity into a short amount of time. I walked the Vereda do Larano, a precipitous trail hewn from steep seacliffs, with dramatic views towards the island’s wave-crashed far east, and hiked up from the natural sea pools of north-westerly Porto Moniz to Fanal, a plateau cloaked in Madeira’s finest laurisilva, the primary laurel forest that was once abundant across southern Europe but is now incredibly rare. Here, I touched time-bent, bearded trees that felt magical and wise. Reliable but intriguing. Old, but far from dull. Much like Madeira itself.