Madeira is an archipelago located 600 miles south from Europe and 300 miles from the African coast and an autonomous region of Portugal. With a volcanic origin, Madeira Island is the main one in the group, allocating the region capital Funchal, well communicated by air with other European cities, or reachable by a short flight from Portugal.
The island is 57k in length against a 22k width, rich in vegetation and fresh water, offering high-contrast areas, from its highest point in Pico Ruivo to the coast. It contains over 3000 kilometers of “levadas” or irrigation ditches, built since the XVI century to transport water from the North of the island to the south, with many hiking routes following their course. A paradise for outdoor travellers, as together with the multiple hiking opportunities, weather conditions are ideal all-year round.
For a long weekend trip (Friday to Monday) we decided to book accommodation in Funchal, with plenty of choices for every budget, and rent a car. Although there are many companies offering tours, a car offers freedom and saves time, allowing to cover more ground. A premium insured rental for 3 days was less than 100€ (Europcar).
The first evening is used to visit the old quarters in Funchal. The city occupies a band along the coast, and is strongly focused on tourism, with countless restaurants and hotels. It is the first opportunity to taste a traditional dinner, with “espetada”, a cow meat skewer, fried corn and passion fruit dessert, and also a glass of “poncha”, typical alcoholic drink from the islands.
Saturday is time to go the distance. Although not very big, the complicated roads don´t allow high driving speeds. The first stop is in the Pico do Arieiro, 1818 meters high, a great viewpoint of the surrounding mountains. A popular hiking route goes to Pico Ruivo, the highest in the island, in a round trip of 6-7 hours for a 12k walk. The views are surely worthy, although it would take most of the day. As we are trying to visit other spots we continue our route.
Descending the mountain and crossing the clouds offer some eerie views of the forest as we get to Ribeiro Frio, starting point of many hiking routes following the “levadas”, and where we also visit a trout farm. Continuing towards the north coast we get to Santana, a small village with some traditional Madeiran houses that make for a short stop.
Heading back to Funchal there is still time to visit the Botanical Gardens overlooking the city, and spend the sunset in the spectacular lookout of Cabo Girão, a cliff 580 metres high.
Sunday afternoon, after the marathon, we head towards Porto Moniz, one hour drive from Funchal. On the north coast it is famous because of its natural pools, although the rain, that appeared as we crossed the island, only lets for a short walk.
The last visit of the tour will be the mountainous village of Curral das Freiras, nestled in a valley of difficult access by road. One can imagine the isolation of this area a few years ago, before modern tunnels allowed easier access from Funchal.
A perfect end for an island, worth of a longer visit.
Extras: two restaurants to recommend, O Polar and Santo Antônio, both in the surrounding area of Funchal, for typical espetadas.