The island of Madeira – reputedly all cake, sweet plonk and sandals worn with socks – is not known as a hotbed of adventure or new experiences. Indeed, a few short years ago it was written off as a bit of a bore: lots of flowers and bovine tourists doing the soft-shoe shuffle along its black and white pavements.
In reality, Madeira is a terrifying place. This autonomous Portuguese archipelago, peeping out of the Atlantic Ocean, is full of soaring cliffs and mountains, plunging seas and hard-drinking locals whose livelihood consists of hauling monsters from the deep.
As soon as you make the notoriously white-knuckled approach to Madeira’s airport, which had to add a cantilevered runway sticking out into the Atlantic to stop planes falling off, there’s a sense afoot that the island not only defies gravity, but actively flirts with topographical danger. Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo, is 1,862m high in a landmass of just 755sq km. In the whole of the UK, we can only manage Ben Nevis at 1,344m.
It’s an extreme landscape that sometimes revolts against its twee image. Last year, floods on Madeira killed dozens as landslides plunged through the capital, Funchal.
Offshore, the Portuguese-owned island is no less awesome. Leave Funchal’s harbour and the ocean shelf soon drops 3,000m – those mountains in reverse – supporting a sea-life of barracudas, groupers, rays, dolphins and whales. Indeed, Madeira was a whaling nation until 1982, and has a whaling museum in Caniçal, near the airport.
The tourist board likes to emphasise the idea that this winter-sun stalwart has become a bit hip and rejuvenated, with a mini-boom of hotels and restaurants – and it’s true. But the real point of Madeira is raw, scary, fecund nature. Throw a seed on to the ground here, you feel, and a plant will grow.
As you drive along the corniche into Funchal, you see this remarkable city emerge from the sea-mist like a mini-Rio (only without the beaches, buttocks and crime): a glittering bay framed by cliffs, red roofs and a cable car crossing green banana palms. Stroll around its harbour, look at the rusty steamers and you realise that Madeira is closer to Africa than Portugal.
It’s also a touch eccentric. Cambridge has punts, Venice has gondolas, and Funchal has wicker baskets, carros, that sledge down a steep hill from the Monte district at a cost of €25. The ultra-macho basket men remind you that the strutting turkey-cock of Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo, is a proud Madeiran.
Then you can wander the streets of Funchal, and enjoy the pavements patterned with chunks of black lava and the white houses. And try Madeira wine at Blandy’s Wine Lodge. It’s a Brit thing.
When you get out of Funchal, you’ll ascend quickly to the interior, with roads that test the nerves of any driver. Up on the Pico, you’ll look down on to clouds, with glimpses of the Atlantic. Up here, the Madeirans wear woollen hats; down by the sea, they’re in T-shirts.
Along the coast from Funchal one passes by a spaceship-like casino, by the great Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer, and then on to a coast of awesome ruggedness. There’s Camâra de Lobos, a fishing village where tough guys bring in the primeval Madeiran delicacy, the Espada fish. (This beast with diabolical eyes and teeth lives so deep that it is mercifully dead by the time it is hauled by line to the surface.)
It’s here that Winston Churchill liked to paint when recovering from ill health, before retiring to Reid’s Hotel in Funchal, a Wiltshire country house that somehow landed in the Atlantic 120 years ago. It’s another Brit thing. They even cut the crusts off their sandwiches at Reid’s.
Walking the levadas
A little further on, the Casa das Mudas art centre is Madeira’s own ‘icon’, stone boxes high on a cliff. Nearby is Cabo Girão, 580m high – Europe’s highest cliff, if you believe this to be Europe. Then turn into Madeira‘s interior, where the terrain is wooded until the treeline, when it explodes into light. Up here there are thatched houses that look as if they migrated from southern Thailand, and plentiful levadas: little irrigation channels through the mountains, now used as hiking trails.
Up on a levada you trace the history of the sugar industry, as water was bought from the mountains to the sugar cane fields below (many were built by slaves). But choose your trail wisely. Some levadas have yawning vertiginous drops, and long damp tunnels. They are genuinely dangerous, and each year tourists die.
Even deeper into Madeira is the Laurissilva forest: a Unesco-rated zone. Stand alone in this intense, fragrant forest, and you’ll soon expect to hear the swish of a pterodactyl’s wing.
Over the sea is Porto Santo, Madeira’s smaller sister and a sleepy hollow in the middle of the Atlantic. It has an asset that (largely) sand-free Madeira hasn’t: a 10km beach. In summer, the Portuguese bury themselves here, believing the sands to have healing properties. It’s wonderful, soothing: Madeira’s way to help you recover from the exquisite terror of its extraordinary, prehistoric landscape.