One of the first things one notices on arrival in Madeira is how hilly and mountainous it is. It is not so common to have this abruptness of landscape so close to the sea. But considering the island is the top of an almost 4 mile high sea mount, somehow it is not so surprising.
The highest point above sea level is Pico Ruivo at an astonishing 6109 feet!
Here are five tips for enjoying our beautiful island from up high:
Tip 1 – Cabo Girão
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If you really like to exercise your height bearing muscles a great way to start is a visit to Cabo Girão, the highest sea cliff in Europe. At a gasp generating altitude of 1903 feet, the experience has been enhanced by the construction of a view point whose floor is made of glass…gasp… to recover from the experience, why not climb the hill a little further by car to Jardim da Serra and visit a lovely old Quinta which has been lovingly restored into a hotel (Hotel Quinta da Serra). It is a historic luxurious building and has an organic farm on site, so why not enjoy a cup of herb tea or a lovely meal made with local sustainable produce. It is a joy to visit in June when all the cherry trees are in bloom. In the Quinta which was built by the British consul Sir Henry Veitch in the beginning of the 19th century there is the tallest tree in Madeira (210 feet tall) which is said to have magic powers: those who hug this tree will have eternal love. Ask the staff about that story, it is a lovely one!
Tip 2 – Pico do Arieiro
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After lounging by the sea during the day, why not pack a good jacket and a thermos of hot cocoa and drive up to watch the sunset from Pico do Arieiro which is the third highest peak in Madeira. The view is simply thrilling for you can see all the other peaks and the plateau in the distance. You might hear a very mysterious sound: it is quite haunting, so the shepherds called the Freiras (nuns), imagining this petrel which is endemic to Madeira was actually the ghosts of nuns who died escaping pirates in Nun’s Valley. These endangered sea birds (Pterodroma madeira) go out to sea to fish during the day but return to their nests high up in the mountains at night and have a call reminiscent of a Disney reproduction of a ghost. On you way back down from the chilly peak, if you stop at Abrigo do Pastor, you can warm up with bowl of chicken soup, or simply have a poncha to make the drive back to town more merry.
Tip 3 – Laurissilva Forest
On a bright sunny day few things can beat a lovely levada walk. Levadas, are one of the reasons Madeira is as green as it is. The UNESCO classified World Heritage Laurissilva, the forest of the laurels, hugs the breeze coming off the sea and then the fall of condensation is collected in rivers and streams and the narrow man built canals and is taken all over the island. In Ribeiro Frio (at 2822 feet), after visiting the trout farm, you have two choices: either you go to the right, which will take you on a 6.7 mile walk (practically flat) through a forest of endemic trees that smells gloriously of laurel (bay leaf). At the end at Portela there is a gorgeous viewpoint looking over the north village of Porto da Cruz with it’s impressive humongous rock named the Eagle’s Nest (Penha d’Águia). There is also a small restaurant next to it that makes the most delicious tomato soup!
The other option is you go to the left, and that will take you on a short hike (just over half an hour) along the levada to aa absolutely epic view up to the highest peaks at Balcões where you can also make friends with the local endemic and very friendly Madeira Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs maderensis) . On the way back, take a shortcut through the agricultural fields down some steps to your left and you will arrive at a roadside restaurant called Faísca that serves the best prego on the island! And what is a Prego, you rightly ask? Well, it is our glorified version of fast food. Prego mean a nail, because a steak is hammered into tenderness, and it is basically a steak sandwich, but oh what a sandwich: steak fried in garlic butter, cheese, ham, tomato, lettuce and a fried egg in a bread that is called cake, Bolo do Caco, the local flat bread dripping in garlic butter deliciousness. As an alternative, you can also choose to have a grilled trout with delicious accompaniments.
Tip 4 – Curral das Freiras
Nun’s Valley (Curral das Freiras) is a dramatic valley with a little village nestled in what seems to be the crater of a volcano and it is well worth the visit. The name comes from a very unfortunate event in the history of Madeira which was a terrible attack by pirates led by Pierre Bertrand de Montluc who looted the island and killed over two hundred people during their two week stay in Funchal. Petrified, the nuns in the Convent of Santa Clara remembered they owned land in the remote valley called Curral da Serra at the time. of Start with a brisk climb to the Eira do Serrado viewpoint at more than 3000 feet high, it is no surprise that it is one of the most iconic views on the island. You feel as if you are at the edge of a volcano and that the orange of the terracotta roofs of the houses in the village of Curral das Freiras is lava bubbling down below.
When you get down there you are appeased for the mood is rural and tranquil. You will wonder why so many products in the shops and coffee shops have chestnut in them… well this little place is the capital of chestnut trees on the island and many, many things are made of this symbol of Autumn: jam, soup, cakes, liqueurs,… So why not give in to the experience and visit the Sabores do Cural Restaurant, where you can have a delicious meal of roast pork with a chestnut sauce and end with a toast with a little glass of Ginja, a cherry liqueur which is made locally.
Tip 5 – Paul da Serra and Fanal
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The only larger flat bit of land on this hilly hilly island is the plateau of Paul da Serra. At an average altitude of about 4900 feet it is pretty high and astonishing at any time of the year: it can even go all white in Winter, on the very rare occasions when it snows in the highest parts of the island! There are several walks and hikes in this area so explore the Madeira Ocean Trails website to choose which one you would like to do. Our recommendation is to do one that takes you past or to Fanal.
Fanal is an absolutely magical place where you will feel like hugging every single tree you see! Here you will feel as if you are in a fairy tale with the crooked shapes of these old stinkwood (Til – Ocotea foetens) that have been shaped by the winds of centuries. They can get to have an amazing girth of almost 26 feet! That’s what you could call a family hug. When walking through this magical place you will also have the company of a small herd of cows, so watch out for the dung!
If you packed a picnic there is a lovely spot in the shade of an old giant til, on a little hill overlooking the small lagoon around which the cows like to gather. It won’t be long before the fearless chaffinches come hopping up to your feet in the hopes of catching some crumbs. It can’t get much more idyllic than this. On the way down, stop at Encumeada for a….yes, you guessed it… a poncha!