Madeira is a popular, virtually all year round resort, with an equitable climate, there are no extremes of temperature, with summer temperatures typically at 24C and occasionally going into the 30’s, when the Leste, a Saharan wind blows across the island. Winter temperatures may be 4 to 5 degrees lower with night time temperatures for the whole year 5 to 6 degrees below day time temperatures.
As you would expect when you see the verdant nature of the island, it also experiences a reasonable level of rainfall, with the months of October to March receiving typically 10 days of rain per month. As you would expect, June to August are the driest months.
There are also numerous micro climates and it is quite feasible to leave rain and mist in one area and to arrive in sunshine and of course vice versa.
What this does mean is that this is an ideal climate for walking particularly the famous levadas.
So if you want wall to wall sunshine and hot then Madeira is not the place for you. Also do not expect miles of sandy beaches, they do not exist, with the one exception of the neighbouring island of Santo Porto, which you can visit on a day trip and it is possible to stay there.(Ferries take about two and a half hours each way, with about six hours on the island)
Madeira is a volcanic island, as witnessed by the black sands and outcrops on the coast and the interior is mountainous, reaching heights of 1800 metres. As a consequence do not be surprised if you see the interior shrouded in clouds. This sometimes presents a dilemma, if you wish to make a trip to the interior, as ideally you want to be rewarded with the spectacular views, but there is something atmospheric about catching glimpses through swirling mists and nothing beats a view of clouds from above.
A view from Pico do Arieiro, 1800 metres, to the coast.
There is a great walk from here to Pico Ruivo but you need a clear day and this eluded us. It is not a difficult walk but if you suffer from vertigo, then do not attempt this walk, as it involves negotiating narrow ridges with sheer drops on either side, but the views are staggering.
No brief overview of Madeira would be complete, without reference to the incredibly friendly welcome that you will come to expect from the locals and English is widely spoken.. OK you will be approached every time you pass a restaurant but if you decline politely, you will still receive incredible courtesy.
Air Portugal TAP has regular flights from Heathrow but it is also easy to fly from Gatwick with Easy Jet and Monarch. There are also numerous flights from regional airports and as it is a popular tourist destination.
Do not discount the package firms such as Thompson, who fly from Gatwick & many regional airports. Package tours can often provide the cheapest accommodation and flights, particularly if you can fly last minute. We received nearly a £400 discount, flying in March to the excellent 4 star Savoy Garden Hotel. Just make sure that you do not buy their tours. I had forgotten how expensive these were, typically charging a 50% premium over local tour companies.
The other option would be to use a specialist walks company, such as the Ramblers. These do have the benefit, that everything will be organised for you, to include the walks, so giving you complete peace of mind.
Madeira has an excellent bus service and though it can appear a little confusing at first, there are always people at hand to help you.
Not surprisingly the hub of the service is the capital Funchal, which usurped Machico as capital of Madeira. It is an extremely attractive town with its atmospheric narrow streets and absence of chain stores and in many cases virtually traffic free.
Rua de Santa Maria with its famous painted doors.
Car hire is of course possible but this does present a dilemma in some cases, where the walks are linear, as this will mean that you will have to retrace your steps.
Another option is to use one of the local taxis and create your own personal itinerary; this can be cost effective if there are 4 or more of you.
The alternative is to use one of the many tour operators on the island. We used ‘Pride of Madeira’
They offered guided tours of the Island together with a whole range of Levada walks and offer the advantage of being able to pick up and collect from different starting points.
Also they are able to offer the local knowledge of which levadas are safe, which have been blocked and which are to be avoided totally.
We are not great lovers of walking in groups but, there are advantages, in that you meet a lot of interesting people, from all over the world. Also if you are walking in unknown terrain, then a guide can be very useful and of course provide a lot of useful information. You just have to accept that you will not be alone.
They were excellent. The guides were fluent in English and not to mention German & French. They were extremely knowledgeable, particularly regarding the various fauna and flora.
One thing you do need to be aware of is that the ‘Information Centres’, that you will see are fronts for timeshare operators, who will give you a lower price, if you are prepared to spend half a day looking at their properties. We cannot vouch for these, as this would be something we would not be prepared to do.
These are basically irrigation channels, which were designed to bring water down from the mountains to the drier south.
Everywhere you go in Madeira, you will be amazed how every available scrap of land is utilised and the terraced system of agriculture is fascinating, as they cling precariously, in some cases, to the mountainside.
Bananas and sugar cane are traditional crops but potatoes are commonly grown also and of course vines.
The first levadas were constructed in the 16th century often using slave or convict labour and of course all constructed by hand, the latest ones as recent as the1950’s.
You walk along the maintenance channels at the side of the channels, sometimes these are wide dirt paths and at other times they are narrow stone paths, barely 18 inches wide. As stone is sometimes involved in the construction of these paths then they can be slippery when wet.
There are sometimes drops at the side of the paths, though many of these are fenced off .In reality as these walks are an important part of the island’s tourist revenue, health and safety predominates.
The walks are really not that difficult and as long as you are sensible and wear decent footwear there is nothing particularly challenging for the competent walker.
As always there is a danger to novice walkers. The common cause of accidents, are people concentrating on photography or on talking and not on walking.
It does, however, have to be put into perspective. Annually experienced walkers lose their lives in Scotland or need rescuing by mountain rescue but there is not a call for individuals to be banned from walking on their own.
If you are going to walk on your own, do not just rely on guide books, make sure you seek local advice as Madeira is a mountainous island and severe storms can do considerable damage and they can make levadas dangerous, either blocking them or making them very unstable. Also take local advice as some of the levadas are dangerous.
Do not attempt to do any levada in heavy rain.
Interestingly, our guide Emmanuel was very disparaging about the use of walking poles.
As is normal ,make sure that you have waterproofs and a warm sweater as it can be chilly higher up. A torch is necessary for any tunnels.
One of the most popular levada walks is the Rabacal Walks, where you can combine a walk to the Risco waterfall and to the magical Vinte e Cinco Fontes - The 25 Springs- picture below
A typical levada walk
Tunnels can be a feature of your walk - bring a torch - this one is a killometre long.
This is a spectacular coastal walk and though you will not be alone, it is a walk not to be missed. It is also accessible, relatively easily by bus no 113, from Funchal.
The hourly service will take just over an hour and can be combined with a visit to Machido and Canical or call into Porto da Cruz, where they make the rum, to go into the local drink, Poncha . This is a very pleasant drink, where when it is made fresh, is a combination of squeezed orange, lemon, honey and rum.
It is recommended for when you have a cold, though I can recall my local village doctor recommending a hot whisky toddy for my Dad, whenever he had a cold.
It is a linear walk and some of it on boardwalk but it offers spectacular coastal views. It is a relatively exposed route so you need to be prepared for wind.
The start of the walk
You will also need to take your own refreshments.
A bolo de mel (Madeira honey cake) , which you will find everywhere, we found was a good snack to take on a walk.
The Bolo de Mel cake became a popular when the island was an important sugar producer, since the cake itself is traditionally made with molasses.
When made with molasses the cake is very dark in colour and has a spongy sticky texture. The cake often has walnuts and almonds mixed within it.
Allow about 3 hours in order to give yourself plenty of time. It is an easy walk with some ups and downs.
View towards the tip of the island
Eagle Rock from Porto da Cruz
As in many holiday islands, the coastal area has undergone considerable development ,which does have limitations regarding coastal walks.
This walk, though through urban areas, does have the benefit of a short section of coastal walking and the reward of arriving at the delightful fishing village of Camara de Lobos, which retains many of its old world charms.
It is also the place where they land the Black Scabbard fish which is delicious when served with bananas from the island.
One of the local fishing boats at Camara
The walk also allows you to get close enough to the sea, to witness its spectacular power, as Atlantic rollers break onto the shore and where they hit the rocks, magnificent sea spray can be seen.
This fisherman was just high enogh above the breaking waves but it still looked very scary.
It is a walk to be savoured and what better way to enjoy, than a stop at the many seaside cafes on the route. The Europeans do café culture so much better than we do and we defy you not to stop.
The route is on the western side of Funchal and well-marked on the tourist maps. Urban bus no 1 and the open top tourist bus plies the route, so there is always the option of getting a bus for the return, or using the bus to arrive at the start, depending on where you are staying.
Take the Rua do Gorgulho on your left, from the main road and follow this to the sea and you want to pick up the Lido Promenade.
Follow this as far as you can until you are forced back onto the road. Follow this gently upwards until you reach the main road and then turn left for about half a mile.
Then you take a narrow passage on your left opposite the big apartment block with blue balconies. You descend down a narrow road and steps, until you reach a road at the bottom, where you turn right and then take a left to pick up the sea again.
This is the most spectacular part of the walk and you follow it all the way, until you reach Camara de Lobos.
This walk is not particularly difficult, I would allow about one and half hours with an extra half hour enjoying the view from the viewing platform at Eira do Serrado and you will want to spend some time in Curral at the end of the walk.
Curral das Freiras, which is located in an old volcano crater, a reminder of the volcanic activity that created this island.
The view is taken from the viewing platform at Eira do Serrado.
The walk follows the old Nuns’ path, which is also the name given to the valley, so called after the Nuns of the Santa Clara Convent who used it to escape from the marauding pirates who used to attack Funchal in the 16th century.
From Funchal you need to catch the No.81 bus to Curral das Freiras from the Funchal Cable Car Station. You need to ask for Eira do Serrado. Buses run approximately hourly and take about an hour.
Also just check, as not all buses run to Eira do Serrado. Some go straight through the tunnel to Curral des Freiras and it is about a 40 minute walk from here, along the road to Eira do Serrado, which is a very quiet road, so it is safe to walk.
The path starts where the buses turn around. You will see it next to the height signpost.
What you have to be careful with on this path, is that it can become very slippery on the cobbled staircase, after it has rained and it is fairly steep. You then follow the path, as it meanders down the mountain. You will also see the old mountain road into Curral das Freiras, now closed.
When you reach a set of steps you go down until you reach the road, turn right, cross a bridge and follow this road into town, to catch the bus back to Funchal. Check the bus times at the bus stop.
Every year on the 1st November the town has a Chestnut Festival and it is famous for its chestnut liquor and chestnut cake, Bolo de Casthana. Also try Ginja, cherry brandy which is often served in a chocolate cup.
Nuns Valley is also a popular half day trip with the tour operators, if you do not fancy a walk, though some of them will allow you to build it in.
A stopover on the Eastern tour of the island and famous for its traditional thatched houses - the ones in the centre having been converted into tourist outlets. They are first mentioned in the 16th century but most of the survivors are only 100 years old.
The houses were principally for shelter from the rain and for sleeping,as cooking and eating, took place outdoors in this warm all year round climate.
This is one of the highlights of the western island tour and though less than 50 miles form Funchal, it seems like a great achievement to reach it.
It is an extremely attractive fishing village on the north western coast and is famous for its natural rock pools but we must confess that we were rather disappointed, as they have been linked by concrete.
Fortunately there are some more naturally looking examples.
The coast at Porto Moniz, showing the volcanic rocks, eroded by the power of the Atlantic Ocean.