Slow Guide to Madeira
The island of Madeira is an inspiring fusion of tropical waters, towering peaks and the cultures of three continents. The seas are warm all year round and teem with an incredible array of marine life; the weather is consistently sunny, but its seven microclimates turn a simple hike into a journey of wonder and the cuisine is rich with seafood, local fruit and the aromatic scent of Laurissilva wood.
The rugged, rural northern side and the craggy stretches of unspoilt coast contrast sharply with the slightly more staid attractions of Funchal. So, if you like your winter sun with a dash of excitement and the joy of discovery, then forget everything your grandma told you about Madeira and get ready for a real adventure.
This is the first of our Curious Guides. They’re designed to help you get off the beaten track, to explore further and find a new angle on some well-loved destinations. We want to uncover the people, places and experiences that make somewhere unique and inspire you to go out and find even more.
One Epic Journey
The trail that runs between the heights of Arrieiro and Ruivo is literally the standout feature of hiking on Madeira, as it joins the two highest peaks on the island, rising and falling sharply as it tracks along windblown ridges through the core of the mountains. Cloud pools in the valleys and the sea sparkles constantly in the background as you trek through tunnels and past caves carved out of the volcanic rock.
The hike begins from an inn near Pico Arrieiro in the centre of the island and, while dramatic, only takes around five hours out and back. If you’re prepared to make a day of it, you can extend the route by following the myriad of walks along the network of stone irrigation channels known as Levadas.
A flow of immigration and emigration between Europe, The Americas and Africa have created a vibrant, distinct culture, rich in storytelling, music and food. The fruit is tropical, the meat is aromatic and the fish are, well, you’ll see. These fantastic flavours and culinary experiences go far beyond the fortified wine that Madeira is famous for.
Go to market
In most towns you’ll find local markets where the term “small producer” doesn’t even come close to the truth. Individual farmers and growers will bring the day’s crop and sell them by the handful. You might find spiky but sweet anona, the tabaido (or Indian fig), guava, the wincingly sour (but delightfully addictive) pitanga, yams or the Split-Leaf Philodendron, also known as a “banana pineapple”.
What the F-ish is that?!
Although unlikely to replace battered cod in the UK anytime soon, the eel-like Scabbard fish is a delicacy that stares toothily and defiantly into the face of anyone who claims that, “the first bite is with the eye”. Locally caught and served with a specific variety of tiny banana and sometimes also passionfruit, it tastes far, far better than it looks.
A little tart
Madeirans are big fans of the crumbly, rich vanilla tarts known as Pasteis de Nata. The locals gather in the Pasteleiras in the late afternoon and wash them down with coffee. It can take a little hunting to find the best places, but if you put the time in, you can get a tart and a coffee for a grand total of €1. Your best bet is to follow the old men. They’ve had years to work it out!
Secret or Social?
In the centre of Madeira, away from the more popular hiking spots, lies the perfect place – the plateau Paul da Serra and the Laurissilva forest of Fanal. Broad meadows studded with ancient, moss-covered trees, sit like an island within an island, floating in the clouds trapped by the surrounding peaks and valleys. It’s an easily accessible, gentle walk and an ethereal, meditative experience.
Follow the soft scent of Laurissilva wood, the earthy smell of roasting beef and the crackle of open fires up into the hills of the Parque Ecologico north of Funchal and you might find yourself engaged in a long-standing local tradition. Families and friends gather there at weekends and festival times for evenings of stories and song and the spit-roast dish Espetada – a garlic-rubbed beef cooked in juicy chunks on wooden skewers.
Learn Something New
Madeira is one the few places where a winery tour can be a real education, rather than an excuse to have a drink in the afternoon. Or at least, “as well as” an excuse to have a drink in the afternoon. The history of the island’s most famous export is fascinating, including the accidental discovery of the benefits of fortification and how the wine trade helped keep the island going during punishing economic hardship. Wineries range from the world-famous Blandy’s, to Ricardo Diogo’s small-scale artisan production at Vinhos Barbeitos.
Blandy’s has been producing Madeira since 1811 and is drunk all over the world. Tours run every day except Sunday and can include a trip to the Cooperage where Blandy’s, almost uniquely among wine producers, make their own barrels.
The Barbeitos winery made the difficult decision to turn its back on large-scale production in the 90s, returning to traditional methods and small batch production of crafted blends. You can arrange a visit by phone or email.
An unmissable experience
The warm waters around Madeira are a national park home to a fabulous diversity of marine life. Sperm whales and Pilot whales, Atlantic Spotted dolphins, Monk seals, sea turtles and huge gliding Manta rays are all regularly sighted and there are numerous species of fish unique to Macronesia. The water never drops below 18°C throughout the year and reaches 24⁰C in summer, so snorkeling or diving with local companies Lobosonda or Mero, is simply a must whenever you go.