Getting to Madeira is not something we’re likely going to forget soon. We had to fly from Montreal to Lisbon, where we spent a couple of days, and then took an EasyJet flight to Madeira. That wasn’t so bad. But little did we know that Madeira’s airport was one of the most dangerous in the world! Part of the runway sits on beams above the water, extended in 2002 after a plane crashed, and is still today one of the trickiest runways to land on for the most experienced pilots.
To give you an idea, in case it ever crosses your mind to go to Madeira one day, as we approached our destination the pilot announced that we would be experiencing intense turbulence and that he would probably have to take sharp turns so he could find the best angle from which to land. Huhhh, was he kidding? A glance in my boyfriend’s direction told me he wasn’t reassured. I took a sideways glance at a lady sitting a few seats down and she looked so white and frightened that I sent her a smile that said we would all be ok. I must admit I was not too confident myself, especially with our daughter sitting on my lap. Well the plane did indeed do a scary 180 degree turn as the nose plunged downwards and we hit some pretty good air pockets. With a heavy thud we landed safe and sound on the runway and everyone applauded. The lady from a few seats down let out a loud sigh of relief. So that was the beginning of our Madeira adventure!
At the airport we picked up our rental car and started along the coast towards Arco de Calheta which would be our home for the next couple of days. On one side of us sat the Atlantic ocean and on the other were banana plantations, homes and rolling green hills. We passed through too many tunnels to count. And let me tell you, we had the biggest smile on our face! Finally some sun after a long and cold winter in Canada and a few rainy days in Lisbon.
After turning around in circles for an hour because our GPS didn’t recognize the address, we finally found our villa, sitting on a cliff high above the Atlantic, next to the tiny village of Loreto. There was not one tourist in sight. Just women walking with canes up the steep streets carrying fresh fruit, men working in their gardens and dogs lazing on the road. This was the peace and quiet we were longing for…
The best thing about our villa was the view. Staring at the infinite ocean from our balcony I felt so far from home, from my worries and my hectic life back home. It felt like time had stopped. Pretty nice, no?
Unfortunately the villa had no heating system except for a small fireplace. We were so cold in the morning and at night that we had to wear our jackets and scarves in the house. We had chosen Madeira because it promised an average year-round temperature of 20 degrees which was perfect for hiking. But I had never given the heating a thought, presuming that all the homes in Europe had heating like we do in Canada. Boy was I wrong! At night it must’ve been about 13 degrees or so in the house. So you can imagine what happened, yep, my boyfriend and daughter both caught a cold and were stuck with fever and cough for a few days. I did some wash (with a view!) and relaxed while they slept.
When they were feeling a bit better, we took a drive out towards Ponta Do Pargo on the West coast. Oh my, what a panoramic drive! Every turn we took, a breathtaking view awaited us.
We stop on a pebbled beach in Jardim Do Mar, a quaint fishing village famous for its 8 metre high tunnel waves. International surf championships have been held here. If you’re wondering, Madeira is not a beach destination. There is only one artificial sandy beach with sand imported from Morocco. But across Madeira sits Porto Santo, a ferry ride away to one long stunning beach. There were also tons of natural swimming holes and lava pools on the North and West coasts but because of the mild temperatures while we there, it was too cold for swimming.
In the afternoon we headed to Mercado Dos Lavardores, Funchal’s popular fruit and fish market, in hope of finding our favorite fruit in the world, the passion fruit! And yes we were served! There were about 5 kinds of passion fruit, and every kiosk offered us a taste of each. Sooooo good! We couldn’t believe how expensive they were though! About 1.50 euros each. Almost the same price as in Canada. But we found out they weren’t in season and that they raised the prices for cruise-ship passengers passing through the port of Funchal.
The highlight of our day? The banana-ananaz, an exotic looking fruit a vendor made us try out. It is probably my new favorite fruit in the world! I’ve never seen it anywhere else. It tastes like pineapple and banana and it looks like a mix of both. The texture is creamy and the taste really sweet. Oh I can’t stop thinking about them. If ever one day you cross path with a banano, please do me a favor and bring me some back! hihi
On our last day in Arco de Calheta, we were invited for afternoon coffee at our hostess’s home. We met her husband who is the captain of a tuna fishing boat around the Galapagos islands and Panama. We would’ve loved to discuss with him about his voyages but he didn’t speak much English. I was so mad at myself for not having learnt more than a few words in Portuguese; but it’s not that I didn’t try! Portuguese is one hard language to learn. I thought it was a lot like Spanish but I was mistaken. It sounds more like German or Russian with a few Spanish words thrown in there to mix you up. So if you’re planning to visit Portugal and want to learn the language, get started at least 6 months before!
After saying farewell to our lovely host and new Madeiran friends, we escaped to the North, for the mountain part of our trip. Only 5 minutes in towards the North coast and we exchanged the sun and ocean views for rain and cloud draped mountains. We arrived at our 17th century house in Sao Vicente, to find no one was there to open the gate. I ran to the small snack bar across the street, to find out no one spoke a word of English. I waved my hands frantically, trying to make out that I had a baby in the car and needed to get to the house across. Thankfully everyone knew the owner of our rented house and someone called him right away. I was so relieved. I think I made everyone’s day in that snack bar. They were all laughing together when I left.
We had the whole first floor of our 17th century home, with 3 rooms and a large flower filled garden.
As much as it looked like an amazing setup, it was cold and humid! We had three heaters that barely heated anything. We had to keep our sweaters, jackets and scarves on in the house again. And guess who got sick this time? Me. It started out with a bit of fever but then my body got really weak and I began feeling nauseous. I was stuck in bed for 4 days, watching Fear Factor reruns, just wanting to be back home. But at least the view from our window was incredible.
On the second day I was so sick that my boyfriend brought me to the hospital. In Sao Vicente the hospital has just one secretary, one nurse and one doctor. But there was no one waiting. I couldn’t believe it! In Quebec, waiting 10-20 hours is the norm. They plugged me on serum and medication. And the doctor even spoke French. I couldn’t believe our luck! And the view from my hospital bed was dreamy…
The next few days we only took car rides as I was too weak to do anything else. So much for hiking! But the beautiful thing about Madeira is that anywhere you drive on the island there’s always a stunning view waiting for you. The roads themselves are an experience. To put it simply, the roads are absolutely crazy! But that was the fun part.
As we ventured through tiny mountain villages, it was usual to see men and women walking to and from the cemetery, bringing beautiful coloured flowers to their loved ones. In Madeira the cemeteries look more like gardens and are all situated in the most beautiful locations. It shows how much family is important to them and that really inspired me.
After five days of freezing and being sick, I was all better and in much need of some sun. We were supposed to head back to Lisbon but since we had not gone hiking at all (the purpose of our trip!), we decided to extend our stay on Madeira. That meant we were going to miss out on the Algarve in the south of Portugal (I know!) but we had no reservations yet and we told ourselves that it’s not everyday you get to enjoy a lush-green volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic.
So we rented an apartment in Funchal and headed back to the sunny coast for a few more days of fun. We found a nice park for Mila near the water and then spoiled ourselves with drinks and French cuisine while watching the sunset. It felt so nice to be healthy again! Oh how you appreciate your health after being sick.
Our Funchal apartment was situated on the resort strip, right in front of Reid’s Palace, world-renowned for it’s English afternoon tea. I didn’t get the chance to go because I felt it was something you had to enjoy with someone else and not by yourself. But next time we visit Madeira, I’m not missing out on the tea!
Apart from the nice view from our balcony, our apartment was really smelly and dirty (hence the good price!). Well that’s what you get when you reserve last-minute through your smart phone. Lol
During our last few days on Madeira, we were all in top shape and ready to go hiking, probably Madeira’s biggest attraction. The levadas (irrigation canals) system are all used as hiking trails (about 2000 km of trails). You walk along mountain sides, next to gorges that will make you dizzy, through forests and villages, through people’s gardens, plantations and farms. It is the best way to explore the island. It gives you such an authentic taste of Madeira!
We drove out to the East coast to go hike Ponta de Sao Lourenço. Unfortunately it seemed the rain followed us so we never made it to the end point. But the scenery was spectacular nonetheless. A true taste of Scotland.
The next day we did a short levadas hike near Funchal. We were the only hikers in sight. I felt like we were trespassing on people’s land but everyone smiled and waved at us. I guess they’re used to it on Madeira!
We saw cacti, butterflies, fat spiders, bamboo trees and an old abandoned house. We didn’t cross paths with any wild animals because on Madeira there are none. But what it lacks in wildlife it makes up with its incredible variety of exotic flowers and birds. Just to give you an idea, bird-of-paradise flowers grow wild everywhere on Madeira!
On the following day we drove up to Pico do Arieiro. What a view! At times it felt like we were falling in a duvet of clouds. Just completely amazing! I think the pictures speak for themselves…
We had soup at the little restaurant at the top to warm us up. It was so windy up there! There’s a popular 6.5 hour hike to get to the peak across but we decided not to do it because the wind was just too intense for our little one.
On our last day we decided to drive up to Madeira’s only plateau, Paul da Serra. When we had almost reached the top, we were asked to turn around because the road ahead had collapsed. Hmmm ok, so we turned back and luckily found another way to get there. We drove up into an eucalyptus cloud forest and a few minutes later we were in the middle of a desert with wind generators. How strange!
After Paul da Serra we parked next to a cliff in Rabaçal, put Mila in her hiking backpack and headed back down into the forest on one of Madeira’s most popular levada hikes. The 25 Fontes is known for its waterfall and spring water.
On our way back down to our Funchal apartment, the panorama was breathtaking once again!
Now do you understand why we decided to stay on Madeira an extra week? I’ve never been to a place with such diversity and natural beauty in so little space. You can literally drive around the island in one day (though I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want to be sick!).
We ended our last day on Madeira with takeout from Petit Fours Patisserie, the delicious bakery downstairs, one of the best in Funchal! We shared passion fruit mousse and home-made wine our Madeiran friends had given us. Miuuuuuuum, perfect ending to a not so perfect but still pretty awesome vacation!
And for your information, the flight back to Lisbon was way smoother this time around.