Madeira’s levadas date back over 500 years, explains our enthusiastic guide, Fabio Castro, as he leads my wife and I on a three-hour round trip to the 25 Fontes waterfalls.
Bordered by a level footpath, these gently flowing irrigation channels run for more than 2,000 miles and penetrate deep into the mountains and forests of this magnificently scenic Portuguese island.
Some walks can be challenging, with unlit tunnels, vertiginous drops and rockfalls, so it helps to do the first with a guide as you explore spectacular hidden valleys and waterfalls that cascade 300ft in a thundering shower of silvery threads.
Into the woods: Above is the view from the Levada do Risco hiking route that Nigel treks along in Madeira
Nigel’s enthusiastic guide, Fabio Castro, leads him on a three-hour round trip to the 25 Fontes waterfalls (pictured)
Nigel stops at the World Heritage-listed laurisilva forest, pictured, which is filled with ‘lichen-bearded branches and giant plants that are primordial relatives of the dandelion, heather and lily of the valley’
Madeira’s levadas (pictured) date back over 500 years, explains Nigel’s guide. Bordered by a level footpath, these gently flowing irrigation channels run for more than 2,000 miles and penetrate deep into the mountains and forests
Fabio points out a wealth of sights we never expected, such as the trout that swim in these slender concrete waterways, and endemic birds such as the Madeira firecrest and chaffinch.
There is a fairytale beauty to the World Heritage-listed laurisilva forest that shades us with lichen-bearded branches and giant plants that are primordial relatives of the dandelion, heather and lily of the valley.
Don’t expect to be alone. The most popular levadas get busy, especially at weekends, and can be plagued by a phenomenon new to me — trail runners who belt along in a sweaty posse.
‘Madeira has numerous mountain and coastal walks,’ says Nigel. Above, a hiker follows the walking trail near Boaventura on the island’s northern coast
Walk the trail along the Sao Lourenco peninsula, pictured, and you’ll be greeted by ‘stupendous views over the shimmering blue Atlantic Ocean’, says Nigel
Fortunately, Madeira has numerous mountain and coastal walks too, such as the five-mile switchback along the São Lourenço peninsula that presents a tableau of vivid wildflowers, layered rocks like an upended slice of chocolate cake and stupendous views over the shimmering blue Atlantic Ocean.
And spring is when this island bursts into bloom.
While Madeira retains an old-school charm — where else can you find hotel dining rooms that still use fish knives and forks? — it is no longer ‘God’s waiting room’, a reference to the elderly clientele that flocked here for winter holidays.
‘To see the full glory of Madeira we spend a few days in the charming capital, Funchal (pictured), then tour the island in a hire car,’ writes Nigel
‘In Funchal don’t miss Mercado dos Lavradores, with its flamboyant displays of island produce,’ writes Nigel. Above is one of the market’s stalls
Today, Funchal is home to designer hotels, such as The Vine with its panoramic rooftop pool, and sell-out restaurants such as Kampo serving palate-wowing dishes including black rice with octopus.
Another discovery is the excellent network of roads that can whizz you to almost any point within 45 minutes, making the island as much a destination for an exhilarating fly-drive holiday as it is for walking.
To see the full glory of Madeira we spend a few days in the charming capital, Funchal, then tour the island in a hire car.
In Funchal don’t miss Mercado dos Lavradores, with its flamboyant displays of island produce from tropical fruits to the aptly named scabbard fish, and Atelier Vicente, a fascinating old family photographic studio that is now a museum.
Nigel’s final stop is Porto Moniz (pictured), a town that’s ‘famous for its seawater swimming pools fashioned out of lava rocks’
A plane flies into the monumental Cristiano Ronaldo Airport, where the runway ‘juts over the ocean like an aircraft carrier’
From here we drive anticlockwise, zipping along the VR1 motorway that hugs the south coast to pass immense ravines terraced with bananas — and the monumental Cristiano Ronaldo Airport, where the runway juts over the ocean like an aircraft carrier. At Santo da Serra we find a lively Sunday market where islanders stock up on garden vegetables, delicious honey, homemade cakes and colourful blooms that help explain why Madeira has also been dubbed the ‘Floating Flower Pot’.
In the north-east near Santana, Quinta do Furao makes a welcoming stop, framed in vines and set atop towering cliffs with tremendous coastal views. A popular base for levada walking, it is known for a country cuisine featuring chestnut soup, slow-cooked meats and almond-crusted sweet potatoes.
Circling round to the north west, our final stop is at Porto Moniz, famous for its seawater swimming pools fashioned out of lava rocks that are an ingenious riposte to Madeira’s lack of sandy beaches. The mood is shamelessly seaside-tripper, with fish restaurants and an aquarium — and we love it.