I was sitting on the plane with my hiking boots laced up, ready to explore the first jewel of the small Atlantic island straight from the airport. The clock showed 8:25 as the plane rumbled onto the runway in the warm, red light of sunrise and the passengers began to clap. Reasonable, because after all, Madeira's airport is considered one of the most dangerous in Europe. It is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and there is a steep slope to the west, which often causes wind shear which let the airplanes drift when landing - only trained pilots are allowed to land at this airport. However, you shouldn't let this make you feel too anxious, as the journey to the "Pearl of Portugal" is well worth it, as I discovered on my first hiking tour of my short trip.
Ponta de São Lourenço
Madeira without a rental car - sounds absurd at first, but not impossible. So I waited for bus 113 to Baía D'Abra, which took me directly to the starting point of the PR8 trail Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço (bus map: https://www.sam.pt/113.html).
My first impression: damn windy!!! How glad I was to wear my winter jacket, which I would take off and put on again from time to time during the hike - the weather is very changeable here. My second impression: Wow! You could already see the striking hill formation in the north-east of the island from the air, but hiking it on site is a completely different story: panoramic views of the crashing waves and the deep blue sea all around. The peninsula was originally formed from a volcano. The rustic flair of its origins accompanied me here at every turn, along steep coastlines.
The beautiful panoramic view is the result of the sparse vegetation and treeless area, which is due to the semi-arid climate and exposure to northerly winds - rather atypical compared to the rest of the island.
However, you will not experience a feeling of complete isolation here. The approximately 6-kilometre hike is one of the most popular on the island and is also well frequented in the low season. Advantage: If you want, you will find many open-minded people who are willing to take photos and are happy to have a quick chat.
It's worth keeping your eyes and ears open during the hike, not just to avoid stumbling on the uneven paths. If you're not careful, the cheeky seagulls will happily steal part of your lunchbox. After all, this is home to one of the largest seagull colonies in the region. With a bit of luck, you may also spot protected seabirds such as the black-tailed shearwater or sea lions in the wild.
There is an opportunity to take a short breather just before the last ascent of the trail. The beautiful café resembles a tropical oasis. It is the only café on the route (and the only toilet) and therefore slightly more expensive. But it's worth it: I ordered a milk café (€3.20), which is called "Chinesa" in Madeira.
Refreshed, I set off on the last section of the hike, which was also the most strenuous. Healthy knees and a good level of fitness are helpful to climb the poorly maintained path. I was glad that I had remembered my hiking boots despite my light pack. Special care is required if you want to hold on to the old wire ropes on the ascent. Some of them are sharp and you can easily injure yourself. Once you reach the top at the eastern tip of the island, the view is all the more magical and makes the hike a special highlight of my short trip.
I would plan around 3 to 4 hours for the 7 kilometres, so that there is still time for a photo shoot. Apart from the last section, the route is quite easy to hike and I saw many families with children who didn't seem to have a problem with the level of difficulty. The fact that the steep parts are spread out over the entire hike means that you don't break into a sweat so easily. If you have a car, you could definitely consider doing this tour at sunrise. In good weather conditions, it is certainly unforgettable!
My own sunrise tour was scheduled for the next day. I had actually planned a day hike over the Pico de Arieiro to Pico Ruvio - THE hike on Madeira (PR1). A route that should inspire even the lazy hiker and have the locals raving about it. However, due to a landslide that resulted in the closure of the trail, I had to change my plans. But I look on the bright side: I definitely have a reason to come back. Because the Pico de Arieiro is a must-visit, not only for taking beautiful Instagram photos!
So I was forced to shorten my tour, but that didn't mean I could sleep in. After all, I wanted to be above the clouds shortly before 8am. A moderate time for sunrise tours - in high season, some tours start as early as 5am. Not for morning grouches.
As hard as it is to get out of bed so early, the view of the impressive cloud cover is all the more beautiful, through which the soft pink light shimmers and changes into a deep orange-red as the minutes pass. 08:08 - The sun blinks off the day and bathes the icy hiking trail in a warm light.
The weather forecast was kind to me today and gave me a truly breathtaking panorama of the surrounding mountains and the sea on the way up - impressive 1,862 metres above sea level. For me, this combination makes Madeira a very special destination that hiking enthusiasts should definitely not miss out on.
Dolphin-watching tour in Funchal
Those who get up early get more out of the day. This was my experience when I was back in Funchal already at 1 pm after my tour. Quite spontaneously, I booked myself on a boat tour that promised me the chance to observe dolphins and maybe even whales in their natural habitat. Sceptical about this promise but in a good mood, I swapped my hat and gloves for shorts and flip-flops and made my way along Funchal's beautiful marina to the departure point of the boat. The atmosphere was relaxed, the captain joked about his colleagues while giving a brief overview of safety on board and what to expect (or not expect) on the tour. It made a very professional impression on me, as meticulous care was taken not to disturb the animals. A maximum of two boats were allowed to approach for 10 minutes as soon as they were located. Using analogue tools, the crew members kept an eye out for the sea creatures while the fresh sea air blew through my hair and I enjoyed a bite of my picnic.
I relaxed on the deck and approached with very low expectations. Being entertained for three hours, seeing the island from a different perspective and hearing interesting facts about Madeira and its inhabitants was more than fine for me even without dolphins. I had a small local beer called Coral at the bar and put my feet up for the first time in two days. But not for long. After just half an hour, the trip turned into a real highlight. "It seems you are lucky, we just spotted animals and are about to identify them," said the captain. And shortly afterwards, the spectacle began.
The boat was literally surrounded by dolphins, which dived under the boat and jumped through the air. Almost as if they were trained to perform tricks for their audience. I could feel the water droplets on my face as the animals swirled around. I could hardly believe my eyes and even the crew assured us that this was one of the best tours they had ever been on. Whether they say this on every tour, who knows?
Nevertheless, you should lower your expectations on such tours. But with a bit of luck, a tour like this will be a unique experience that you will never forget in your life. The boat was not too crowded, which makes the atmosphere on board relaxed and gives every passenger the chance to get a good look at the animals. I paid around €30 for three hours, which I think is a reasonable price.
Levada das 25 Fontes
Translated, the Portuguese word “Madeira” means "wood" and on the PR6 hike to the 25 Fontes, the island lives up to its name: it is something magical about it, because you can feel the power of nature up close. In the truest sense of the word: you can easily bump your head on the cross-growing trees. So: Don`t drink and hike!
The smelly road surface at the start of the route indicates that you might come across animal companions. The free-roaming cows like to be stroked and will even try to squeeze themselves into a selfie if they turn up.
The scenery at the path was a complete contrast, especially compared to the trail from Ponta de São Lourenço. Here you feel more like you've fallen into an enchanted fairy tale and there are sections of this hiking trail where you are completely surrounded with nature - breathtaking views and pretty little paths included. Small streams flow almost everywhere along the beautiful natural stairways. The countless water springs on the false walls noticeably refresh the air. Waterproof footwear is a must here, as these springs can sometimes take over the path.
I haven't counted, but the name of the trail "25 Fontes" (25 springs) is based on the assumption that exactly 25 water springs would fill this pretty natural lagoon at the end of the hike. Some visitors count 15 springs, others 27, so perhaps it's a matter of interpretation.
When I arrived at the 25 fountains, I immediately noticed the many birds fluttering excitedly around the people. They are friendly and beautiful to look at and can even be a bit pushy, especially if you decide to unpack your lunch. Nevertheless, you should not feed the animals. Unfortunately, many tourists ignore the signs, but sugary foods in particular can lead to health problems for the birds. But a little tip: if you take a few stones from the ground and place them on the flat of your hand, with a bit of luck you will still get the perfect photo.
Before heading back up the mountain - yes, this tour starts with the easy part downhill - I made a detour to the Levada do Risco. Only a short diversions of about 1.5 kilometres took me to the sunlit waterfall, which rose vertically into the air and formed a wonderful contrast to the dark-coloured rock. Not quite as enchanted as the 25 Fontes, but a lot warmer and more friendly.
In my opinion, a sunrise tour is not absolutely necessary here, as the Pico Ruvio is much more impressive in the morning. Nevertheless, it is advisable not to get up too late to avoid the crowds of tourists. The oncoming traffic along the slippery cliffs can cause the odd queasy feeling - not for people with vertigo.
One last highlight awaited me on the way back to Funchal: a free car wash on the E.R.101 route. Yes, that's right. And it was completely natural. The Cascata dos Anjos - Waterfall of Angels leans picturesquely over the road. It got its name from a legend saying that the beauty of Madeira attracted a group of angels. The waterfall in Ponta do Sol particularly impressed the celestial beings.
What you should definitely try:
The Madeirans swear by their poncha. Especially when it rains for a few days and is cold (anything below 20 °C), the locals are tempted to drink a few glasses over their thirst. At least that's what my driver told me on the 25 Fontes tour.
If you don't try this traditional drink, you will probably miss out on a piece of true Madeira. It consists of sugar cane brandy (aguardente de cana), lemon juice, honey and regional oranges. A good price is between €2.50 and €4.00. You should not spend more than €5.
Tip: Don't buy the pre-mixed poncha from the souvenir shop. It's better to take a bottle of brandy with you and make your own poncha at home.
Peixe espada com banana
Scabbardfish with banana - a tropical combination. As is usual in Portugal, fish is at the top of the list of regional delicacies and Madeira adds its fruity treasures to the mix. The dish is often served with passion fruit sauce and the typical milho frito. Perhaps the salty-sweet mixture is not for everyone, but you should definitely make up your own mind and try it.
If holidays were a flavour, it would taste like Nikita: vanilla ice cream with a dash of beer and fresh pineapple - my personal culinary highlight on Madeira. You shouldn't be put off by the somewhat unusual mixture. For those who prefer not to drink alcohol, this special drink is also available in a virgin version.
You will come across a very speciality on the menu of many cafés in Madeira: Prego Especial. An absolute must-try, especially for garlic lovers! Prego is no ordinary sandwich. Here, the typical Madeiran bread bolo do caco is toasted until crispy, spread with garlic butter and topped with a juicy piece of steak, lettuce, tomato, cheese and ham. Super tasty and definitely on any holiday budget.
Hope you enjoy your next trip to Madeira!
- Sophia Rothlauf
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