Steve Barham has developed a ‘thing’ about exploring islands – particularly those in warmer climes. Living on the seaboard of western Ireland he’s had the privilege of being able to ramble around a good few small and isolated rocky mounds of green that rise above the wild waters of the Atlantic, but when the daylight hours dwindle and rain clouds come scudding in through the cold winter air his thoughts turn southwards, towards blue seas and skies. One such place is Madeira, an island whose fertile volcanic rock shot steeply up into a warm and moist subtropical air stream that remained unvisited in spite of a growing fascination.
The winter before last I hiked the GR131 across all seven of the Canary Islands. The following autumn, as the weather cooled at home, I had the opportunity to trek Majorca’s Tramuntana Mountains and the GR121 on Menorca. To cap off a year of hiking I spent last Christmas on Mafia Island, a beautiful undeveloped speck of sand and coconut palms off the coast of Tanzania.
A lot of dreams had been fulfilled and destinations had been ticked off my ‘bucket list’. I'd heard a lot of good things about Madeira for a long time, particularly good things about the walking along the levadas – paths built alongside the irrigation canals that pass the abundant waters of the mountains to cultivated terraces across the island. Paths that, by their very nature, are fairly level and maintained, and so make for gentle hikes through rural and natural landscapes.
With a blank week in our working calendar approaching and winter setting in, it was time to seize the moment.
Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guide Walking in Madeira suggests stringing his day walks into a multi-day trek, and there's nothing I like as much as planning such a challenge, poring over maps and route descriptions and searching for beds at the end of every stage: wild camping isn’t allowed and we wanted to travel light.
We arrived in Funchal with a 100km roughly circular walk around eastern Madeira ahead of us, divided into six days of 15–20km. The first morning we let the cable car (teleferico) take the strain and rose silently and smoothly 550m from the seafront to Monte, passing over steeply climbing streets full of colourful houses and getting a bird’s-eye view of the widespread destruction caused by the wildfires of August 2016, which threatened the city and resulted in three deaths.
We were sad to see burnt-out forests on the surrounding hills to the north, and even more concerned by the possibility of landslides blocking our route to Camacha, 16km away. But then, carefully picking our way across occasional fallen trees and mounds of boulders, we were heartened by the rapid recovery of the subtropical flora over the first few kilometres. Soon enough we were out of the fire-damaged area, enjoying coffee and apple pie in the gardens of the Hortensia Tea House amid a riot of exotic plants and flowers, with views down to Funchal 650m below.
We were walking beside the Levada dos Tornos, one of the most popular hiking routes, where Paddy Dillon warns of slow-moving crocodiles of tourists that can be irritatingly hard to get past. We had no such problems, and during our entire trip only came across a dozen or so people on the levadas.
The amazing engineering involved in creating 2500km of these aqueducts was brought home on our first encounter with one of the many tunnels, hacked by hand through solid basalt: we ventured through with a stoop, a headtorch and a great admiration for the workers who constructed it.
We finished the day at the basket making centre of Camacha, where our hotel was connected to a shop/museum/factory selling a huge collection of wicker work of every kind, including the sledges that are used for dragging tourists down the steep streets of Monte.
In the morning we climbed on quiet roads and tracks to meet the higher Levada de Serra do Faial for the 20km leg to Santo de Serra. Having left the busy south coast the route became tranquil and deeply rural, wooded with eucalyptus and lined with ancient oaks.
The old levada was mostly dry, the water diverted to the Tornos, but was still beautiful, with hydrangeas and agapanthus planted on both sides. The steep land around the hamlets was cultivated in a series of well-tended terraces, with many houses sporting exquisite gardens and small orchards.
The fertile volcanic soil, the sunshine and the abundant water produce a wealth of crops. The paths around and between the villages and gardens are obviously still well used, and were sometimes fitted with incongruous street lighting.
We passed through a wild area of laurisilva forest, with gorse, broom, laurel and tree heathers, before leaving the levada to descend on a track through a forest of pines, cedar, oak, chestnut and eucalyptus. At the bottom a road soon led to Santo De Serra, and a bedroom with a fine view of the tree-clad mountains around us.
We reached the highest point of our trip, 830m, the following morning. Here the Levada do Furado headed west, into the mountainous interior of the island, while we turned eastwards, following the Levada da Portela steeply downhill through woodland.
A long flight of wooden steps, with water rushing ahead of us through mimosa and cedar, brought us down to the road at the pass of Portela, where we refreshed ourselves at one of the two restaurant/bars and took in stunning views of the mountains and coastline, with the massive bulk of Penha d'Aguia rising above Porto da Cruz. We spotted the Quinta de Cappela, our home for the night, far below us, and headed towards it down a magnificent cobbled path that swept us down some 300m in a couple of kilometres.
Our short (12km) day’s hike gave us time to enjoy the gardens, ending at a delightful 17th-century manor house, complete with historic chapel and furnished with traditional antiques. Here we prepared for a 25km stretch eastwards along the coast in the morning.
We awoke to fine mist and drizzle, what we call in Ireland a ‘soft day’. We had to descend 300m down steep streets to Porto da Cruz and the sea before turning to face a 300m ascent. An elderly woman en route insisted we called in and fortified ourselves for the climb with some of her home-made sugarcane hooch, and she put some more canes through her antiquated crusher press to make a juice 'chaser'. It was a bit early in the morning for such an eye-opener and, extracting ourselves from what she seemed to hope would be an extended session, we made our excuses and waved goodbye.
As we climbed so did the clouds, allowing for ever more dramatic vistas of the rugged coastline. The tarmac came to an end: then the concrete ended. Soon the gravel came to an end on the Verada do Larano, a beautiful cliff path with a precipitous 350m drop past impossibly steep cultivated terraces, aided by an old teleferico cable. At times densely wooded, and on other stretches open and grassy, the path led us over streams and under waterfalls as the night’s rain found its way to the ocean.
We stopped for our packed lunch on the hill above Boca do Risco, where the path turns south towards the busy towns of Ribeira Seca and Machico. Determined to continue by a wilder route, we followed a less-used trail that continued along the north coast’s majestic cliffs.
The long finger of our next day’s destination, the Ponta de Sao Lourenco peninsular, came into view as we clambered over the vivid rocks of the volcanic landscape. Finally we turned south, through forest, to Canical and a simple B&B by the sea.
On our penultimate day we walked a 15km loop around the peninsula: this was the first time we’d shared a trail with many other people.
The spectacular route crosses the crest of the high, open easternmost point of Madeira, and was obviously a popular tourist destination: but we couldn't begrudge anyone the opportunity to explore the dramatic scenery. Sheer cliffs, crashing waves to the north, placid turquoise waters in the south, extraordinary geological formations with intense colours, and a path along a jagged ridge a hair's breadth wide to the island’s extremity, made for a wonderful day's walking. It got even better when we circled back around to a five-star bargain bed at the plush Quinta do Lorde resort, nestled in a quiet cove halfway back along the peninsula.
Our 100km loop of eastern Madeira was completed on another old footpath, the Pedra da Eira, which took us from Canical, high up into the rugged coastal hills, to Pico do Facho at 322m. There we stopped for Madeira wine and cake and watched the planes taking off and landing on a remarkable runway built on stilts a couple of kilometres down the coast, before clambering down to Machico along a line of lights erected along the ridge to guide pilots away from the cliffs and onto the stilts.
We weren't sure if we were lucky or not when our flights the next day were cancelled due to adverse winds. But don't let me put you off a hiking trip to a glorious island in the sun, Madeira.