As we watched clouds swirl across the heart of Madeira’s most inspiring and dramatic scenery, it was hard to believe that we had reached this earthly heaven by simply…catching a bus.
At 5,965 feet, Pico do Arieiro is the third highest mountain in a range of jagged peaks that were forged during volcanic eruptions 20 million years ago. It is a rugged and spectacular place that you might reasonably guess would only be accessible to sure footed visitors with enormous stamina, and a head for heights. Your guess would be wrong. Without so much as lifting a foot, we reached the peak’s summit in style and comfort aboard a Thomson excursion coach. But we were not alone. And this is why.
The ‘top of the world’ trip is among Madeira’s most popular tourist attractions, drawing thousands of visitors every year, many of them cruise ship passengers eager to see as much as possible in a few short hours ashore. From the summit, every safe vantage point offers stupendous views of a pre-historic landscape that stretches into the distance, filling the sky with huge ‘fingers’ of rock. It is an awesome spectacle.
OK, it’s hardly back to nature. A restaurant, souvenir shop, and a big parking area, also occupy the summit site, and purists might argue that the ‘easy rider’ excursions are yet another example of nature being sanitised. But, from what I heard and saw during our visit, it wouldn’t be a view shared by most holidaymakers. In fact, I can’t wait to go back.
Nearer to Africa than Portugal, Madeira measures only 35 miles long by 14 miles wide. But size isn’t everything. Like its famous son, Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably one the world’s greatest soccer star, the island ‘scores’ on all fronts. Soaring cliffs, gorges, waterfalls, forests, luxuriant vegetation, and quiet, picturesque villages, are just a sample of what’s on offer. On the food front, terraced hillsides groan with everything from bananas and grapes, to carrots and the humble sweet potato. Exotic shrubs and flowers run wild by the road sides, or adorn parks, orchards, and gardens, filling the surroundings with a riot of colours and exotic aromas. The whole island is a ‘Garden of Eden’ that owes a lot to the sub-tropical climate and rich volcanic soil. But the most remarkable input comes courtesy of man-made irrigation channels, initially built by slaves.
The channels, known as levadas, criss-cross the island for more than 1,350 miles, carrying rain and spring water to fields, terraces, and – more amazingly – to three power stations. Footpaths running alongside the levadas attract walkers from around the world. Our guided half-hour ‘hike’ along a small section is a good memory.
Apart from excursions, local buses are great value for money. Taxis are plentiful. And hiring a car is a good bet, especially with the convenience of a 120-mile road and tunnel network that skirts cliffs, and leaps across ravines.
So many places jostle for a mention. One of my favourites, Porto Moniz, on the north-west coast, looks across to a dramatic islet and boasts an impressive lido, natural lava pools, and acclaimed seafront restaurants.
Nuns Valley (Curral das Freiras), set amid a wonderful valley of extinct volcanoes, takes its name from a date in 1556 when convent nuns made it their hideaway to escape a pirate attack.
Funchal, the island’s capital, where the first settlers arrived in 1419, (yes, it’s a relatively young place) rests in a sweeping bay overlooked by a beautiful ‘necklace’ of mountains. You can’t fail to be impressed by the promenade, tree-lined streets, quaint alleyways, squares, bars and restaurants, museums, galleries, statues, cable cars, fish and flower markets, 18th century mansions, and last, but not least, a lovely cathedral.
After sheltering from a brief shower, we caught a number 31 bus to the world famous Botanical Gardens which boast 12 acres of terraced hillside dedicated to the cultivation of more than 2000 species of trees, plants, and flowers. Take my word, it needs some stamina to see everything. We caught a cable car to make the return journey from the gardens to the seafront – and it was worth every penny. But I confess to some toe clenching during the descent. I never did have a head for heights.
No Madeira holiday would be complete without visiting the magnificent Reid’s Palace Hotel where Sir Winston Churchill stayed in the 1950s when he was recovering from a stroke. Like Raffles in Singapore, it has become an institution.
Our hotel choice, the colonial styled Riu Madeira Palace, at Canico de Baixo, a seafront village just outside Funchal, ticked every box. We couldn’t fault the friendly, welcoming staff, the quality of food, and a wonderful standard of service that exceeded the hotel’s four star billing. Top class facilities include outdoor and indoor swimming pools, a spa, gymnasium, and – last but not least – an excellent shuttle bus service into Funchal. Having stayed at other Riu hotels in the past, we should have known what to expect. But this was exceptional. From Summer, the hotel will offer an all-inclusive package, but guests will still be able to opt for half board.
Our farewell to Madeira was marked by a happy, little moment. As we queued for our flight, the strains of ‘What a Wonderful World’ – the song made famous by Louis Armstrong – echoed from the airport loudspeakers, prompting wry smiles among travellers. It was a nice touch, but we didn’t need telling. We had learned for ourselves that Madeira is a wonderful world.