Madeira has a reputation for appealing to Silver Travellers like us, especially in the winter months when temperatures can happily hover in the low 20s. With a mild climate, spectacular scenery, and gleaming white villas, it has an upbeat air that’s guaranteed to put a spring in anyone’s step.
Many holidaymakers don’t stray far from the cultural sites and shopping of Funchal, or even the hotel poolside – and why not – but Madeira also attracts a more active kind of Silver Traveller, as I found on a wintersun walking break with Silver Travel Advisor partner HF Holidays. Their seven-night holiday at the 4-star Hotel Galosol in Caniço de Baixo runs from late December to the end of March and again through September and early October.
Just 15 minutes’ drive from the airport and 20-minutes from Funchal by fast local bus, the Galosol ticked all my boxes for location, facilities and meals. All rooms have balconies and for a supplement, you can look directly across the water to an island nature reserve, particularly beautiful at sunrise. There’s a large gym and tranquil indoor pool, an outdoor pool, and a wellbeing spa nestled in a cliff. HF guests eat in the main hotel dining room from a copious buffet spread at breakfast and dinner.
With a choice of two graded walks each day, the routes largely follow Madeira’s famous levadas, at which point, let’s separate fact from fiction. These man-made water channels – named after the word to ‘carry’ – bring rainwater from the high peaks and moorland to the drier lower slopes, mostly in the summer months. Tourist photos often depict narrow paths with vertiginous drops, and these do exist, but there are levada trails to suit all abilities.
Lined with concrete, the gulleys generally follow the contours of the slopes with only a gradual incline, so any steep sections of the routes are usually between one levada and another, or detours to viewpoints. And whilst the paths themselves can be narrow, they are often fringed with trees, or simply a gentle slope. Any steep drops are guarded with a rail and are generally only for short sections. And of course HF – and other tour operators – do not subject clients to any unnecessary risks.
As with other HF itineraries, we were offered a choice of walks, the Easier and Harder options being outlined each night at a pre-dinner briefing. Often the difference was more on gradient than length and several of us chose to mix and match. Our youngest walker probably just made Silver status, a business consultant taking his annual winter hill walk break away from the family. Our oldest was everything I hope I will be at 85 – vibrant, sprightly and up for anything. But walking on the levada trails is not age dependent.
Levada trails are not for walkers with any kind of mobility or vertigo issues. Our routes covered roughly 12-18 km per day and were all linear, covering different areas of the island and contrasting terrain. An ability issue with one of our group during our first walk was dealt with sensitively and sympathetically by our leaders, who worked hard to find a solution without disrupting the rest of the group, but the situation should not have arisen. So be honest with yourself about your fitness before you book. And be aware that some levadas pass through unlit tunnels, so a torch – even on a smart phone – is essential.
But if you are fine with all this, you will love this holiday. Our varied levada routes took us through small whitewashed villages and across moorland ablaze with gorse; through lush forests of laurel and eucalyptus to a tumbling woodland waterfall. And not all walks involved the water channels. We followed some broad panoramic tracks and on the last day, took the undulating footpath along the Praia de São Lourenço peninsula with views to each side of volcanic formations and crashing waves.
There’s a sightseeing element too, including the view from Europe’s highest sea cliff and, inland, over a hidden valley. A guided tour of Funchal introduced us to the whitewashed cathedral, Blandy’s Madeira distillery, and the colourful produce market. Don’t miss the downstairs fish market to see the gruesome but scrumptious scabbardfish with their vicious teeth.
HF build in a free day midweek when some walkers chose to chill out around the hotel, easing tired muscles in the spa, gym or swimming pools. Others, like me, headed into Funchal or to hilltop Monte for the spectacular gardens, for which a few tips:
The bus to Funchal (from the Galosol to the bus station) takes 20-35 minutes. Here you can get the bus to the Botanic Gardens for that famous Funchal panorama across the green and red Choreographed Garden, or the cable car to Monte to visit Monte Palace Gardens.
Monte Palace Gardens tumble down a steep ravine and only a small part is accessible by electric vehicle. Many paths are roughly cobbled and fairly non-slip but wear shoes with good soles or you’ll get more of a foot massage than you bargained for. I particularly loved the Oriental Gardens with their koi ponds and red bridges, and the adjacent orchid garden, but expect native flora, a collection of African sculpture, and the history of Portugal told in traditional tiled panels in a stunning woodland setting.
This is the perfect walking holiday for anyone who loves spectacular and varied scenery, plus an element of sightseeing. Just remember to pack your balance with your boots!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends HF Holidays.