The Portuguese island of Madeira is a magical, one-of-a-kind destination for people that prefer dirt-under-the-fingernails adventure over glamorous beach resorts.
It’s a fact I learn quickly when our off-roading guide, Rui, pulls away from the asphalt of the island’s main roads and expertly puts his Land Rover Defender into gear on a treacherously uphill dirt path, starting our bumpy ascent to the top of Lombo do Mouro – a cloud-capped vista at 1,250m in altitude.
With the roof folded down, I struggle to stay upright as I stand in the back of the vehicle, clinging on to its frame as it jerks over rocks and tree branches. Gazing at kestrels as they glide above the dramatic bowl of the Serra de Água Valley, I appreciate why people fall hard for this ‘Pearl of the Atlantic’ and its natural beauty.
As we drive onward, I’m hit by fresh air, rural views and the adrenaline rush of trying not to get flung out of the vehicle at the same time. Like any urbanite who’s momentarily escaped the city, I’m instantly soothed by the sheer onslaught of greenery surrounding us, as loafing cows shoo out of the way of our path.
Daily tours operated by Adventure Madeira are a fantastic way of seeing the jaw-dropping vantage points of Madeira in all their glory. The volcanic island is so pint-sized, you can drive around it in just 90 minutes, but its microclimates are extremely diverse. Start the day on a baking-hot beach and you’ll seemingly change seasons in one morning, ending your journey in rain and winds.
We observe this phenomenon up close on a trip to Fanal forest – a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s part of the largest surviving area of sub-tropical laurel forest in the world.
Dreamlike and creepy all at once, the fairy-tale forest is filled with 500-year-old gnarled and knotted trees that make dramatic shapes in the dense fog. Like an impressive magician’s trick, the fog disappears in the snap of finger while we’re taking photographs, leaving myself and the rest of the tour group questioning if we’d imagined it in the first place.
As we continue our journey towards the coast, Rui points out the island’s famous Levadas, a 15th century network of stone channels that were designed to bring water from the mountains to the crop fields, but have since been repurposed as over 2,100km of scenic hiking trails. Madeira is covered in these walkable irrigation channels, which are catnip for keen hikers, and an efficient way to see the flora and fauna of the laurel forest by foot.
Dipping into pools and gardens
What Madeira lacks in white sandy beaches (most natural beaches here are black sand), it more than makes up for with wild swimming spots on the north coast of the island.
The natural saltwater pools of Porto Moniz are a popular tourist haven reminiscent of Sydney’s famous Bondi Icebergs baths. The ocean pool is formed of volcanic rock, with the crystal-clear sea flowing naturally into the pools.
Further off-the-beaten-track, you’ll find Seixal pools, a hidden treasure of a wild swimming spot where visitors can paddle through a rugged sea arch and into the ocean pool with a hidden wall that protects you from being smashed by oncoming waves.
Feeling tingly and refreshed from the cold water swim, we stop at Sea View Restaurant in Porto Moniz to enjoy a plate of freshly-caught black scabbardfish, a delicious deep-sea species that’s a common delicacy on the island.
I recommend spending an afternoon pottering around Câmara de Lobos, a local town on the south side of the island where fisherman play cards in the bay, waiting for nightfall, so they can take their boats out to trawl for the white meat fish that generally live at several thousand metres deep, but move into mid-water at night. The bay is also famous for being a special retreat for Winston Churchill, and it inspired many of his personal oil paintings.
Madeira is home to a gentler pace of life for those not seeking thrills. If you have a green thumb, you’ll want to take the cable car from the capital city of Funchal to Monte Village where you’ll find the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. Occupying an area of 70,000 square meters, the gardens have a wonderful array of exotic trees and flowers on display (over 10,000 in total), with football-sized hydrangeas, koi carp pools and botanical palms.
A must-try and slightly bonkers tradition, which dates back 100 years, is riding the wicker toboggan from the mountainous slopes of the village back down to Funchal. The manmade sleds are placed on wooden rails and pushed by two runners and can reach terrifying speeds of up to 38kph.
Getting a taste for the food scene
When in Madeira, I’m told you must also stop for a poncha, a local drink that’s a mixture of lemon juice, honey and 40% proof rum, available at most taverns. The island is known for its excellent fortified wines, but its sweet and incredibly strong cocktail is what you’ll see the locals drinking.
Indeed, one of the lesser-known draws to this tiny gem in the Atlantic is its growing foodie scene. Socalco Nature Calheta is a family-run, farm-to-fork restaurant and boutique hotel that’s perched on the hillside overlooking Calheta beach. Here you’ll find excellent sustainable fare from Chef Octávio Freitas, with fresh ingredients picked from the restaurant’s gardens that day.
The Wanderer is another exciting opening on the island; a fine-dining experience that feels more like an intimate supper club, with a menu that changes every few weeks and just eight seats each evening. Self-taught chef Selim Latrous blows us away with his inventive dishes that included a quail egg mollet in edible soil, seabass with banana chutney, and duck with a variety of colourful vegetable purees.
Choosing the right place to stay
You’re not short on boutique hotels in Madeira either. 1905 Zino’s Palace is a restored pink manor house with stylish Scandi interiors and a pink pool on a sun terrace that overlooks the tranquil Ponta do Sol and its surrounding banana plantations. If you want to be right in the thick of the Funchal action though, check in to Hotel Caju, a Brooklyn-style four-star stay that’s all concrete, brushed steel and Instagrammable hanging plants.
It’s a recent project of one of the world’s leading hotel designers, Nini Andrade Silva, who is also the brains behind Savoy Palace – a luxury hotel on the island with a stellar spa that offers all manner of soothing massages and treatments, as well as a sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and ice fountain. Getting pampered here is the best way to round of a week of hiking, swimming and bumpy off-roading, which will leave your muscles sore and your legs bruised, but your soul supremely full.