Madeira – and why it’s not just for cruise passengers

The Portuguese island of Madeira has been more readily associated with cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts. But with its consistent weather and jaw-dropping landscapes, it’s starting to reinvent itself as Europe’s adventure sport capital

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2014. Photography by Tim White)

Somewhere along the way, Madeira got the wrong reputation. To many, it’s still a slightly tired cruise ship stop-off and its capital, Funchal, is often seen as a place for a cable car ride, a hotel buffet or a meal in the old town sold to you by over-eager waiters and accompanied by My Way on the accordion. There’s a slightly sad saying here that Madeira is for “newly weds and nearly deads”.

Yet all of this seems like a staggering folly when you see the place and drive around a bit. The lush, craggy island – arrived at on a runway that juts out into the sea – looks like Tracy Island by way of Middle Earth, with the formidable ocean crashing into sheer cliffs backed by the lush, World Heritage-protected Laurisilva forest. The sea’s always warm, it’s basically spring all year round, and because the volcanic island rises steeply and dramatically from the Atlantic, there are whales and dolphins frolicking off Funchal all year round. The roads are mostly good, the villages are quiet, the seafood fresh and the fruits exotic.

If you’re into the outdoors, it only gets better from there. It’s a hiker’s paradise, with trails criss-crossing the 57km length of the island, and the old levada aqueducts – which have been built since the 16th century to transport water around the island – make for great ready-made hikes. With its stunning peaks, like the Tolkien fantasy that is Pico do Arieiro (1,818m), the island has also become a magnet for trail-runners, including the 116km Madeira Island Ultra Trail race. It’s now set to become a stop on the Ultra-Trail World Tour.

The volcanic landscape, forests and steep cliffs also make it one of Europe’s fastest-growing and best mountain biking spots, while the warm blue seas are good for surfers as well as dolphins, with clean rocky point breaks off sleepy villages on the island’s south west. It’s also considered Europe’s best spot for canyoning, which involves scrambling and abseiling down its volcanic ravines. The world’s most prolific paraglider is here, as are a growing number of kids who ride their longboards down the steep mountain roads (just type “Madeira longboard” into YouTube).

Of course, if all that’s too much, you can just chill out, take in the scenery and watch the sea roll in under low-lying morning clouds. This is not a place for the nearly dead after all – in fact, it’s a pretty great place to be alive in.

The trail runner: Manuel Faria

Manuel Faria seems to have endless reserves of energy and patience. We’ve been up since 5am, trying to see the sun rise over the staggeringly beautiful peaks around Pico do Arieiro (1,818m) in the centre of the island, and we’re cold and tired. But Faria keeps running and keeps smiling, even as we ask him to jog up and jog down the same spot more than 10 times – all before he heads off to work at a Funchal communications agency.

Of course, this is child’s play when you’re used to running races of over 100km, across mountains. Faria is the top trail runner in Madeira, rivalled only by his good friend Luís Fernandes, who joins us for a few hours at sunrise, before jogging off to his job in the army. At last year’s Madeira Island Ultra Trail, a punishing 116km ultramarathon with steep climbs and descents, Faria had a bad race and came seventh against a strong international field. Like Fernandes, he’s won regularly in local trail running events – now he has a trainer, a daily schedule and is looking to take on the world, with three 100km-plus events in the coming year.

“Racing that distance, it’s all mental,” he says. “You have to listen to your body constantly, but you also have to realise that it can do things you never thought were possible. Most of the time in ultramarathons, it’s peoples’ minds that give up, not their bodies.” While many ultramarathon runners have reported hallucinations and out-of-body experiences, Faria says that he’s gained perspective: “You have a lot of time to think about your life, and the decisions you’ve made – it’s almost like therapy.”

Faria took up trail running less than four years ago, when it was still a very small sport – but it has grown rapidly, with more than 700 people on the island now running trails regularly. Madeira is so good for the sport that it’s being put forward for a slot on the Ultra-Trail World Tour, the world’s top trail running competition. We meet development manager Jean-Charles Perrin, a Frenchman who’s flown into Madeira to plan logistics for the event: “It’s just about getting the organisation right,” he says. “In terms of a location, I mean… wow, it’s unbelievable.”

Faria says that being in touch with the island is one of the main attractions of trail running; the other big one is pushing your body. “People want to push their limits, and it’s a personal thing rather than a competitive thing – when you’re in a 100km race, you have to help each other out.” Faria practises what he preaches – he recently gave up the lead in a local race to help a competitor who’d fallen in a levada irrigation channel. “This sport is not really about winning – it’s about more than that.”

The Mountain Biker: João Fernandes

Around 15 years ago, 12-year-old João Fernandes was one of a group of young folk who got bikes and started exploring the roughly 250km of trails that criss-cross Madeira. What the members of the nascent scene found was an almost unlimited supply of routes, running from the highest peaks (1,818m) down to sea level.

“You’ve got it all here,” says Fernandes. “Mountains, sea, incredible views and trails running down every valley. You can feel like you’re riding on Jurassic Park island, but then you always end up on the beach.”
Nowadays, the mountain bike world is starting to cotton on. Pinkbike, the world’s biggest mountain bike website, wrote recently that it was “like a mini New Zealand… Every trail we rode was up there with the best ever.”

The growing buzz around the island has been stoked by Freeride Madeira, a mountain bike tour company Fernandes started with sales manager Filipe Caldeira and marketing manager Roberto Chaves in 2011. The company runs tailored tours and holidays on the island, and it’s become central to the local scene, organising events and competitions, and helping to maintain the island’s hundreds of trails.

Go to their very slick website, and the video on the homepage tells a lot of the story – clouds rolling beneath mountain peaks, ridges, forests, sea cliffs, and a host of British pros saying that Madeira offers “everything you can imagine in one place”. We spent two hours riding the Calheta hills with Fernandes, looking over the sparkling sea from the green hills, and we can confirm: this place is a bit special.

The Canyoner: Filipe Ferreira

With its steep volcanic ravines, waterfalls and pools, Madeira is by most accounts the best place in Europe for canyoning, which involves jumping, abseiling, sliding and scrambling your way down a canyon. There are hundreds of routes, ranging from beginners’ trails to tricky advanced routes.

Canyoning guide Filipe Ferreira has been doing the sport for five years, and has been an instructor at Madeira Adventure Kingdom for three. He’s also part of the island’s hardcore Fast Descent canyoning team, who make videos of themselves descending giant waterfalls and leaping into rocky pools. When he’s not canyoning, he’s fond of spearfishing, hiking and rock climbing.

“It’s really starting to change here,” he says. “Young people across the island are growing up with adventure sports, and it’s starting to change tourism here too. Ten years ago, just about everyone who visited Madeira was older, and they just wanted to stay in Funchal. Now there are more young people wanting to explore the island and the activities on it. There are also more people from different countries – it used to be mostly English and German tourists, but now we’re seeing people from across Europe. It’s growing every day.”

On our trip with Madeira Adventure Kingdom, Ferreira and co-guide Tiago Freitas guided us down the beginner’s trail at Ribeira das Cales, a gorgeous ravine 1,500m above Funchal. It’s great fun, from abseiling down a 15m face to sliding down rocks (you’re in a protective neoprene suit) and whizzing down a flying fox. There are also plenty of chances to jump into the fresh mountain water – though you don’t have to do what Ferreira does, leaping from a 10m cliff and back-flipping off a smaller one.

There’s also plenty for experienced canyoners and rock climbers, with Ferreira saying that the best canyons are around Seixal, a beautiful seafront village on the island’s north-west. “But really, this is for everyone – it’s just another way to be part of this beautiful island.”

The Surfer: Orlando Pereira

Growing up in the sleepy seaside village of Jardim do Mar, on the island’s south-west coast, Orlando Pereira first “surfed” by paddling with a wooden plank. While the odd American and Australian came here to surf the rocky point breaks in permanently warm waters (17oC is as cold as the sea here gets), there wasn’t a surfboard on the island. Then, in 1993, Surf Portugal magazine came to do a story, and left behind a single board, which five local kids shared, trying to emulate the visiting surfers they watched. Pereira was, in his own words, “the most nuts”, and 21 years later is considered the godfather of a scene that now numbers 60 or so local surfers.

On the way he became the island’s first pro surfer, competing between 1997 and 2005, and winning the Madeira surf championships in 2000. Today, he’s calmed down, and is a kind of ambassador for surfing on the island, welcoming visitors like big wave legend Garrett McNamara, even if his four kids are more keen on emulating Madeira-born football icon Cristiano Ronaldo.

When Pereira’s not surfing, he’s either working as a hotel receptionist or running Madeira Native Motion, which specialises in surf lessons but also does everything from levada walks to diving and canyoning. Like most people we meet in Madeira, he’s unfailingly obliging, happily driving us round the island and jumping out of his jeep into the sea for shots.

“You know, I went to Hawaii expecting a surf paradise,” he says, “but I was really disappointed. The waves weren’t how they look in the surf films, and there are hundreds of people in the water. Here it’s a crowded day if you have five surfers, the water’s warm and the breaks are consistent – this is my Hawaii.”

If so, it’s a very low-key Hawaii. Slow doesn’t begin to cover the pace of life at Jardim do Mar, probably the island’s main surf village, where the staff at the beachfront bar sport tattoos and surfer’s tans. Just along the coast at Paul do Mar, reggae wafts out from the Maktub bar (locals just call it the Reggae Bar). The mural outside the rainbow-painted shack reads simply: “Legalise Life.”

And while Madeira hasn’t traditionally been sold as a surf destination, Pereira says things are changing. “We’re getting more young people coming here to surf, and more beginners wanting to try it out – it’s not just the crazy big wave guys any more, which is right because we have waves for everyone.”

The Paraglider: Hartmut Peters

When we first spot Hartmut Peters, “the crazy German”, he’s where he is more than 330 days a year – up in the sky over the Calheta district, on Madeira’s south-west coast. After a dash up to the top of the hill at Arco da Calheta, we find the patch of grass overlooking a steep cliff where Peters takes off and lands. At first there’s no sign of him, but then he glides over the brow of the hill and seems set to land right on top of us. “Incoming!” he shouts, as we scarper.

Soon he’s in a heap on the floor with his passenger, who’s laughing hysterically. It’s a little like Doc Brown and Marty crash-landing into the future. “Who the bloody hell are you?” he says by way of introduction.
For all that Peters is gloriously eccentric, he’s also a serious and world-renowned paraglider – in fact, he’s the most prolific in the world, flying more than 1,650 hours and registering more than 3,000 flights since 2008. He’s been paragliding for 22 years, but has lived on Madeira since 2000, where he bought a patch of land on the edge of a cliff and turned it into a paragliding centre with its own pool and charmingly roughshod take-off zone.

Looking at the panoramic view from the cliff edge, with seaside villages and rolling valleys on either side, it’s not hard to see the appeal. “In my opinion, this is the best place in the world to paraglide,” says Peters. He decided to come after a flight in Austria in -20oC in 2000. “I remember someone asking if it had been a good flight – it was, but I couldn’t move my lips to say so.” In Madeira, temperatures never drop much below 15oC, and Peters reckons Arco da Calheta is the sunniest spot on an island famous for its microclimates (you can’t paraglide if it rains, which it often does on the north of the island). He knows – in the early days, there weren’t the webcams and internet analyses there are now, so Peters clocked up 20,000km driving around the island, developing an almost intuitive understanding of its weather systems and all-important thermals.

After a career in telecommunications near Düsseldorf, life is good now. “If someone asks me for a drink down in the village, I can paraglide down,” he says. In fact, one of his sponsors is the local bar Taberna da Madalena, 800m or so down on Madalena beach, though he insists that he never flies after drinking poncha, Madeira’s fiendish, fruity spirit.

And for all that his number of clients is ever-growing, and Red Bull have come to film him, he’s not going to change any time soon. “If they think, hey, that’s the crazy German, that’s fine with me – I am,” he says. “As long as they know that, when I’m up in the air, I know exactly what I’m doing. You can’t afford to make any mistakes up there.”


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