Where there is sunshine, oh that’s where you are
Where there is laughter, then you can’t be far…
Your lips are honey but sweeter by far
From now till forever I’ll keep dreamin’ of
You and the sunshine of love!
– Louis Armstrong
Where’s that, Madeira?
In the middle of the Atlantic, off the coast of Morocco, there’s this tiny island blessed with abundant sun and natural pools, pristine beaches and spectacular coasts, vertiginous cliffs and ancient valleys, where exotic tropical flowers bloom and late harvest grapes magically turn into ultra-sweet liqueur wines in aromatic oak barrels, worthy of annual joyful celebrations… A land of lush laurel and pine forests, deep in disappearing mist, and trails along gently flowing stone canals, tunnels, and waterfalls… A fun-filled capital city, Funchal, where people look permanently tanned and happy, leisurely chatting away in street-side cafes, or enjoying a 3pm lunch of finger-lick’n seafood and a bite of honey cakes (why not?!), before disappearing into the meandering narrow alleys laced with funky street art or heading up to Monte, with a stupendous view of all of gorgeous Funchal basking in glorious sunsetting light… If there’s paradise on earth, Madeira must be a top candidate!
I spend a timeless week in Madeira by heading first to the eastern tip of the island, Ponta de Sao Lorenco, where it’s like leaping into the end of the world. From there, I swing to the other end out west to take a refreshing dip in a spectacular natural lava pool in Porto Moniz, then take a leisurely day trip to nearby gorgeous Porto Santo, and return to Madeira to hike some more along the irrigation canals of the levadas do Calderao Verde. I enjoy a few pleasurable days in Funchal, riding the romantic cable car up to Monte, tobogganing down in a traditional wicket basket sled (what great fun!), strolling in the old city, appreciating the fabulous street art. Time to get out my wrinkled dress and go meet the sommelier of the d’Oliveiras wine estate before settling comfortably in Adega da Queimada for a sumptuous lunch of lapas (irresistible garlic butter limpets) and mouth-watering octopus à lagareiro. I’m floating…!
Ponta de Sao Lorenco
It’s October, but the sun shows zero sign of retreating here. The gentle trail dotted with spectacular viewpoints in Ponta de Sao Lorenco takes one through dry grassland and red-stoned cliffs, offering breathtaking views of the Desert Islands, Santa Cruz, and the eastern coastline. Few days in life feel as grand as this, hiking in beautiful nature, being nourished by an effortless flow…
Porto Moniz Natural Lava Pools
I discovered the magic of natural pools in the Canary islands. After the efforts of an energetic hike, nothing beats soaking those sore muscles in mineral-filled water set in a majestic landscape. The bus to Porto Moniz takes whopping three hours – who’s in a hurry in paradise? – going through the entire southern and western coast, through the outskirts of Funchal, passing through the Formosa, Seixal, and Calheta beaches before suddenly entering a pine forest and descending dramatically into the sea. The natural lava pool feels almost like a zen garden, with rocky islets and little channels, except that one can swim in it with a full view of the city and crashing sea waves… Nothing short of magical!
Two and a half hour’s boat ride away from Madeira lies a small island called Porto Santo with the most beautiful beach in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. The ferry crossing itself, with sublime sunrise and sunset views over Ponta de Sao Lorenco, the Desert Islands, and Porto Santo, is spectacular. I grab a freshly baked bolo do caco, a typical Madeira bread made of sweet potatoes, and venture off for a day at the beach, a pleasurable 14km long round-trip walk, listening to the waves and enjoying a dip in another perfect day…
Levadas do Calderao Verde
Madeira is laced with hundreds of age-old rock canals, levadas, part of a 1400-km island-wide irrigation system to channel water from the mountains to the crop fields. The popular Levadas do Calderao Verde walk starts in a tiny village called Quimedas – famed for its traditional recipes – through a lush forest along vertical cliff drops where locals rock climb and with gorgeous views of the the coast and the city of Santana. Surprise surprise, a beautiful waterfall awaits the spent visitor at the end of the trail, a perfect spot for lunch break before retracing one’s steps, indulging in the luxury of taking in the whole landscape a second time in reverse mode…
Tobogganing down Monte!
Back in the city, I take the first cable car up to Monte in the morning with Vida, a fellow traveller from Lithuania, and we had great fun tobogganing down in a traditional wicket basket sled pulled by two runners all the way to Funchal. It’s such an original 200-year-old tradition back in the days without cars. The runners, all dressed in white and wearing the typical straw boaters, are so photogenic. What a marvellous way to start a thrilling new day!
Drunk at Noon!
In Funchal, one tumbles naturally into a wine lodge to taste the heavenly Madeira wines. Chucking my hiking pants and donning a dress, I go meet Luis d’Oliveira, a fifth-generation sommelier of the Pereira d’Oliveira wine estate in the heart of the old city. We start with a semi-dry Madeira liqueur-wine, move on to a semi-sweet, and finish with a sweet, a perfect digestive at 11am. When I compliment the full-bodiedness of the 5-year-old sweet wine (so much richer than Canadian ice wine), he goes behind the counter to get out a 10-year-old bottle! Wow, what aroma – all of Madeira’s year-round sun is there – in that glass!
What’s the secret? I ask.
Our 80-year-old oak barrels! Luis replies.
Heat, traditionally an enemy in wine-making, turns Madeira wine into a league of its own. Apparently, old, old wines still retain a youthful gloss, even after spending a lifetime in bottle. No trouble finishing that glass even though I don’t normally drink! If there’s a wine to pack away for my never-ending journey, this is it! “You can’t buy happiness, but you can” in Madeira!
Drunk at noon, a first!
Under the influence, still feeling the sweetness on my lips, I drift along the narrow alleys of Funchal, marvelling at charming old buildings with balconies and photogenic street corners at tilted angles! Perfectly drunk with happiness…
Open Doors Art
As if Funchal is not vibrant enough, local residents in the old city started painting their doors about ten years ago, adding even more colour to the fun capital. What an irresistible gem of a city!
Flower and Wine Festivals!
Luck had it that my stay coincides with the annual Flower AND Wine Festivals. Gorgeous floral dresses, huge Madeira smiles, nonstop flowing wines. How intoxicating !
The Island of Eternal Spring
Did you guess right that Madeirans are champions at enjoying their unparalleled quality of life? With year-round sun and warm ocean, fabulous food and live music, gorgeous trails and islands, and so much diversity in landscapes and cultures, no wonder Madeira earns its reputation as the island of eternal spring where bikinis are worn year-round (get to shape now!). Here, traditional bread is sold next to gelato. Tough choice for dinner: I go for a blackberry cone! Seventy years ago, Winston Churchill spent 22 happy days here before reluctantly leaving for elections. I know that if I don’t leave soon, I never would! Next: Magical Azores…
Yes, you’re in my dreams every night
Mmm, how I long to a-hold a-you tight
I’ll follow you dear from here to a star…!