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A week in Madeira, February 2015

PatrickLondon

100+ Posts
When a friend was offered the free use of someone else's timeshare in Madeira, and asked me along, it would have been churlish to refuse.

Madeira's an island of mountains, ravines and rocky inlets, out in the Atlantic between the Canaries and the Azores, with narrow coastal strips that don't allow much, if any, space for bucket-and-spade beaches. As a volcanic island, it's very fertile, originally attracting Portugal's interest for its timber, and subsequently a prolific producer of fruit and other agricultural produce. Its tourist market is mainly visitors from cruises, and (by reputation) older and better-heeled retirees.



Funchal, the capital, like many a Mediterranean island town, has its harbour/marina/cruise terminal and its its traditional fishing village core. Along the steep slopes dropping down to the shoreline, modern hotels and apartments with their gardens spread out to either side to maximise the opportunities for sea views and exposure to sunshine. But the solid mass of suburban development is punctuated with occasional gaps: the terraced plots of bananas that cover so many of the steep slopes behind retain a foothold right down to busy boulevards and shopping centres that, otherwise, might be anywhere.

We stayed in a timeshare apartment in one of those modern coastal complexes, some way out from Funchal town centre: pleasant and efficient enough but somewhat characterless. However, there were plenty of places to eat in the streets round about, and one hideaway restaurant at the bottom of the cliffside lift - one of those places which look not much more than a shack, but serve excellent dishes (mainly fish, of course). Moreover, bus services in and around Funchal are excellent, so there was no difficulty getting out and about.

What pulls the tourists to Funchal itself is in and around its centre, with its market, fancy mosaic paving, flamboyant cathedral interior, museums and grand town hall, arty displays and other distractions and entertainments for the visitor:


Up in the hills behind Funchal (so high there's a cable car up to it) is the village of Monte, which hosts not only the last resting-place of the last Habsburg Emperor and the start of Madeira's much-touted street toboggan rides (once a primary means of bringing goods down to the port), but also several gardens.

One of them is the Palace Tropical Garden, which sets into a deep ravine a largely Oriental-style garden with a large collection of other tropical plants and traditional ornamental tiling with a focus on Portugese links to Asia.


But the ordinary domestic gardens can show some interesting displays, not to mention the wild plants, which can verge on the weird and wonderful:


Madeira's striking landscape offers plenty of opportunities for walking, particularly those, unique to the island, offered by its levadas - the irrigation channels built to take mountain springs and streams down into the supply system for Madeira's farms and people. As such, they provide a network of routes in and around the moutain slopes to various scenic viewpoints.

Not all of them have a handy beaten path running alongside, so group walks with a guide are a useful way for the visitor to find their way safely. To get to and from the roads, there may be steps up and own, of varying heights and surfaces (sometimes sharp-edged cobbles, sometimes flat stone that gets slippy in the mists). The path may be wide and well-gravelled, or require you to inch your way along the narrow stone sill beside the channel, with nothing but a wire fence to protect you from the drop, or to hop or clamber over curiously shaped roots across the path. In a dripping mist, the atmosphere can be almost other-worldly, which is only increased when you're told those arching branches and huge roots are actually a variety of heather.

Everywhere lichens coat the trees and bushes, and occasionally a view of distant ravines and mountains will open out. But it's wiser to keep a close eye on the next piece of tricky ground to cover, until at last you reach the destination, in this case a particular set of cascades.

And if looking at falling water begins to pall, the local population has learnt this is a good place to come and pose for photographs, in the hope of some treats:


It's also possible to book guided walks around the high peaks in the centre of the island, and the photographs suggest the views are glorious. However, the day we booked, though the weather was fine in town and on the coast, but the cloud became thicker and colder as the van climbed up and up. At the top, the bushes were coated in ice and visibility didn't extend more than a few yards beyond the gift shop. So the guide's Plan B was a walk along a coastal headland, and in less than half an hour, we were in full sun and temperatures like an English summer.

And there was no shortage of compensatory vistas:



Resources
Official tourist information
 

Skelly

New Member
Great trip report, thanks for the info. We are going on our first trip to Madeira at the end of Feb and are quite worried about the weather as they seem to have had it really bad the last couple of months. We are going with our son, his wife and their 12 month old baby so don’t think we will be risking the walking if it’s as treacherous as you say. We have hired a car for three days, did you do any driving? If so do you have any tips on how that is?
 

PatrickLondon

100+ Posts
No, we didn't do any driving on our own, but the roads seem to be very well maintained, and I didn't notice any, shall we say, unduly excitable driving.

I'd wait to talk to some of the firms organising walks once you're there and know what the weather's like. We were there in a February, and it was mostly like an English spring. It is very hilly, but there may be some walks that can be done with a baby.
 

PatrickLondon

100+ Posts
Just to clarify, the walks we did were booked through the hotel we stayed at: whatever firm they used sent a minibus to pick everybody up,and did all the driving and route planning. If you don't mind carrying the baby up and down some slopes, the coastal walk we did might work for you, the "25 fountains" levada walk probably less so.

I'd imagine there are different firms doing the same sort of walks.

The regular local buses and funicular from Funchal are all you'd need to visit the gardens at Monte.
 

Skelly

New Member
We are staying about 30 mins away from Funchal so will check with our hotel if they offer any service for the levada walks.
 

sembach001

New Member
Great trip report. What was your overall impression of Madeira? Meet or exceed your expectations? Would you return? What resources did you use to plan your trip?
 

PatrickLondon

100+ Posts
I can see its attraction - nice people, good walking - but I've no burning desire to return.

The opportunity came up because a friend was offered the use of a timeshare apartment in a hotel complex, so that was accommodation sorted. A little internet digging, combined with the hotel's regular reception/welcome talk identified things we might see, and transport options. We were only there for a week, but the combination of public transport and walking within Funchal, and day excursions booked through the hotel, filled up the sightseeing time quite easily, and we got several good walks in.
 

sembach001

New Member
I can see its attraction - nice people, good walking - but I've no burning desire to return.

The opportunity came up because a friend was offered the use of a timeshare apartment in a hotel complex, so that was accommodation sorted. A little internet digging, combined with the hotel's regular reception/welcome talk identified things we might see, and transport options. We were only there for a week, but the combination of public transport and walking within Funchal, and day excursions booked through the hotel, filled up the sightseeing time quite easily, and we got several good walks in.
Thanks for the feedback. On the fence about putting it on my bucketlist. Trying to rank it with other island destinations.
 

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