Tuesday, December 11, 2012: Funchal
We arrived before the sunrise to the Portuguese island of Madeira. Though we had a 7am arrival to the port city of Funchal, we exited the ship as soon as possible as today was only a half day stop and all-aboard was at 1:30pm before we began our Transatlantic leg across the Atlantic. Just before 7:30am a pristine yellow and blue striped Mercedes Benz Taxi arrived at the port and its driver, Daniel greeted us by name. We quickly hopped in and we took off.
Within a few minutes, Daniel had us completely at ease as we glided through the pre-dawn streets of his island home. We reviewed the day’s itinerary and knew immediately that he was here to present his homeland, a place that he not only took pride in, but ultimately brought a personal touch to each and every viewpoint, stop, and sight along the day’s tour.
As it was still dark, we worked our way through Funchal and as the first light of the day was breaking, we started at an amazing miradouro (viewpoint) on the cliffs of Ribeira Brava, viewing the cliffside homes and the crashing surf far below.
Our tour today was designed to be introduced to wide variety of scenic locations on this island of nearly 500 square miles. It was arranged and recommended by Daniel’s wife who we emailed several times prior to our arrival. The “Western Loop” started us in Funchal, took us to Ribeira Brava, and then cut north through Serra de Agua. Continuing up past Encumeada, we would drop into the Northern coast, passing through Rosario, and arriving into the community of Sao Vicente. Turning west, we would venture through picturesque coastal villages of Seixal, Ribeira de Jamela, and Porto Muniz. Once complete on the coast, we would head southeast back into the mountains passing through Fonte de Pedra and Fonte do Bispo. We would then drop back down to the coast passing through Daniel’s hometown of Calheta, Madgalena del Mar, and Ponta del Sol before standing 1700 feet above the crashing surf on a clear Plexiglas platform at Cabo Girao.
Though we covered more than 200 kilometers in a single day, we never felt rushed. We stopped dozens of times for pictures at the myriad of miradouros all over the island, offering everything from waterfalls to scenic coastlines, to crashing surf and picturesque walks through small village towns.
All along the way, Daniel taught us about the island — its history, people, industry, exports, the fertile farming and huge variety of crops that grow on the island and much more. It was like a fun and interactive classroom as we moved from place to place.
In addition to beautiful seaside villages for visitors to bask in the warm sun, crashing surf, and the variety of waterfalls to view on the island, there is more than 3000 kilometers (2000 miles) of hiking trails on the island, bringing folks from all over the world to enjoy and appreciate hikes as simple as a 30 minute straight shot on flat terrain to advanced, multiple day treks across and over mountain ranges. The trails are well established, well-marked and there are a multitude of tour buses and companies that can arrange your activities.
Along the way, we were astounded by the amount of farming and options in terms of fruits and vegetables available on the island. Created from a long since dormant volcano, more than six million years ago, the fertile soil of the island brings a wide selection, though the most prevalent are bananas (on the south side of the island) and Madeira wine (on the both sides of the island). We stopped in Porto Muniz to sample some of the local Madeira wine and ultimately purchase the tasty local harvest.
Daniel took great care to ensure that we could see the island and all of its beauty. Twisting local coastal roads wound around cliffs as we watched dozens of waterfalls carry water to reservoirs for irrigation and hydroelectric power generation. The high-speed “Via Rapida” now moves traffic from the major population centers. The two lane switchback roads that take you up into the highlands and back down to the coast are minimally travelled. Travelling the jaw-droppingly beautiful roads with lush green, rust color, and gray peaks and plateaus all along the way, we passed free range cows and watched lavadas (irrigation canals) carry water throughout the island from natural springs.
Even when a blocked road (the massive blade from a wind power generation windmill needed to be hauled up the mountain on a double length open air semi, blocking the main road for at least an hour) meant a detour, Daniel didn’t miss a beat, adjusting the tour and ensuring no impact to our timelines as we had a chance to visit the village he was born, Calheta, and taking a different route back home.
As we were driving along, Daniel had identified that the cliffside roads were frequently subject to massive rockslides, damage, and regular closure. In the last 10 years a huge network of tunnels had been dug and made to allow for traffic to transit the island with minimal impact. Though in some cases, this changed some beautiful and exceptionally dangerous views along some of these coastal roads into dark and viewless, but ultimately safe, tunnels, he jokingly identified his home as the Island of Swiss Cheese, since there were now so many holes in it. We tended to agree, but found that his expertly selected route gave us a much “non-tunnel” time as possible and to enjoy the amazing views that came along with it.
There were so many memorable moments along our path, but some to specifically call out include Bridal Veil falls along the northern coastline, walking through the quiet village of Sao Vicente and being able to see Catholic mass in Portuguese in their beautiful and striking little church, and the crashing surf of Porto Muniz as we walked along the rugged boardwalk in this picture postcard community.
Though we were limited to about 5 1/2 hours here, the amazing introduction we had with Daniel established this little island as a return destination for us and this is no small feat. Given all of the amazing places there are on this planet, it truly takes a special place, great people, a vibrant culture, and a little something special to make that list of return locations. We look forward to returning here again at some point in the future, maybe in conjunction with a trip to Portugal and the Azores?
Thanks Daniel for an amazing day and for the introduction to your home, a place that will not soon be forgotten.