Madeira, A Walker’s Paradise

After kayaking in the fjords, hiking the Ox mountain, and completing my first ever via ferrata in a beautiful but cold Norway, I was looking forward to some much needed R&R in Madeira.

But first I faced the prospect of slumming it on the airport concourse floor at Gatwick airport.

You see, as a travel journalist, I sometimes find myself travelling from one country to another pretty much back-to-back.

With my flight arriving from Norway at around nine in the evening and my next flight out to Madeira at six in the morning, I didn’t see much point leaving the airport.

So you can imagine my delight when I discovered Yotel nestled within the basement of the airport.

These little rooms are almost hidden away like a secret so I was pleased another travel colleague alerted me to this place.

I was able to get a small cabin, complete with a shower, tv and wifi.

The beauty of these rooms is that you can pay by the hour and get as much sleep as possible until your flight. You only have to get a lift up into the airport.

If you are ever on an early flight and have to get to the airport the night before, it really is worth staying in one of these rooms.

You’ll feel refreshed and ready to tackle the busiest time of the day at the airport: the 4am rush.

So after a good night’s sleep, I flew to Madeira in very good spirits looking forward to exploring the island on foot and the numerous Levada walks it has to offer.

Having braced almost sub-zero temperatures in Norway a few days earlier, any sunshine was welcomed.

The great thing about Madeira is that it has balmy weather all year around due to its excellent location and mountainous relief.

The staff at the Reid’s Palace in Madeira’s capital Funchal must have been psychic and knew I was in need of serious pampering; they offered me a complimentary regional spa treatment, just moments after I arrived.

I just had time to unpack and take in view of the subtropical gardens overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, that my room had to offer, before I was whisked away to the spa tucked away amid trees.

Sonia, my therapist, explained that the massage she was going to give me was regional one – regional because the oils were made with products from Funchal.

The very word means ‘fennel’ and is one of the main ingredients in the oil used all over my tired and aching body from the active days before.

The pampering put me in good stead for my levada walk the next day.

Levadas are water courses running round the mountains.

They are testimony to the island’s ancestors who went to great lengths to bring water from the high mountain springs to the slopes and valleys.

I met my guide Maria outside my hotel and together with the driver, we drove some 20 minutes from Funchal into the mountains, where we beagn our two hour gentle levada walk.

Maria explained the levadas of Madeira, which cover over 1500 kilometres, were mostly sculptured by hand and access remote villages through tunnels and cliff hugging ledges.

Walking on a levada path is truly an unforgettable experience.

Our walk took us around hidden parts of the island, rare nature and some beautiful sights.

We stopped at several points to discuss the unique shrubs, plants and flowers that are found in this beautiful landscape.

I was informed birds and other species of fauna and flora can be found in the levadas which are hard to find anywhere else.

Most of the walks are accessible to all though there are different degrees of difficulty.

It’s recommended that walks are planed with a mountain guide rather than going it alone.

Aside from leaving you tired, a long walk can work up a healthy appetite and fortunately Madeira is abundant with good fresh food.

Thanks to its close contact with the sea, most restaurants offer excellent seafood.

The cuisine is typically Mediterranean, with olive oil and garlic featuring heavily on the menu.

And staying at the best hotel in town, I didn’t have to travel far to sample the delights of the islands gastronomy.

There’s a number of places to eat within the hotel but I chose to dine at Ristorante Villa Cipriani.

My choice was perhaps swayed by the most wonderful sea views from the cliff top.

I opt for the espada or scabbard fish which is the island’s most traditional fish.

Despite its terrifying appearance, this long sharp-teethed, wide eyed fish is actually really tasty.

The white flaky flesh served with sliced banana works really well and I decide to have that fish a few more times before leaving.

Daily life on the island hasn’t submitted yet to the rhythm of a tourist life.

The ratio of tourists to locals who live and work here all year around, is very low.

Thankfully, as a result, there aren’t many tacky souvenir shops to be found and  shopping on the island is a pleasure, even for someone like myself who doesn’t indulge in it often.

Perhaps the best of the shops are situated along Funchal’s narrow back streets as you’re likely to discover some attractive little gems hidden there.

But if you do like a really good souvenir, then perhaps it’s worth poking your head in an embroidery shop.

Often connected to a factory, they can be found all over the city centre of Funchal.

I stumbled across Bordal, one of the biggest embroidery makers based near the market in the old town.

Staff were more than eager to give me a tour of the factory above it, as they explained proudly how they still embroidered by hand.

With the advent of machines, this is rare, so a seal to prove it is genuine hand embroidery is slapped on all their items.

To take a pause from shopping, I decided it was time to try Madeira wine and take a tour of Blandy’s.

The English wine producers are one of the most popular on the island having been established there since 1807 and have a shop in the city centre.

And with Madeira wine being so diverse, it’s served at any time of the day with practically any type of food, so I didn’t feel guilty that it was only just gone lunchtime.

The guide explained how the grapes are still all picked by hand from the small terraced vineyards situated on the steep slopes around the island.

They are then transported to the ‘adegas’ – wineries – where the winemaking takes place.

There are more than 30 Madeira wine grape varieties and connoisseurs of this art, should definitely come to Madeira in September to see and participate in the Madeira grape harvest and its festival.

Not a connoisseur myself, I can appreciate a good wine though and I sat back, relaxed and savoured a glass, drinking a toast to life in Madeira…..

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