August: a blissful pocket of 2020 where life felt near-normal again. Writing this from England’s second lockdown in November, my long weekend in Madeira feels like years ago now rather than a few short months.
As somewhere I’ve visited many times before, it felt like a safe bet and it was: I’ve already written about what it’s like to visit Madeira during COVID-19. But as time goes by, I’m even more grateful than ever for that trip so consider this post a sort-of love letter to the ‘Pearl of the Atlantic’.
Stepping off the plane, I always notice a distinctive scent to Madeira that’s impossible to describe properly; a sort of exotic heat mingled with aircraft fumes. The first 360-degree view is always special, taking in the island’s steep slopes covered in greenery and orange-topped cottages around to the ocean sparkling directly in front of you. If it weren’t for the aircraft engines whirring loudly, you’d almost certainly be able to hear waves breaking below the runway.
Months of restrictions on leaving the house left me hungry to explore new parts of Madeira. As well as factoring in time to soak up the sun on Machico’s sandy beach, we drove to an attraction I’d never visited before: the natural swimming pools at Porto Moniz. Made from lava and filled with crystal-clear sea water from the crashing waves, it’s a wonderfully dramatic place to spend a few hours in the water.
The winding road to the pools on Madeira’s north coast wasn’t the only long drive we had on our hands as I had my eye on one of the island’s most famous levada walks. As avolcanic island, driving up through the clouds to the Madeira’s highest points is always an amazing experience and we did this again to begin Levada do Alecrim.
Getting out of the car alone was an experience. With nothing but blue sky above us, there was perfect visibility down the tree-lined Rabaçal valley: if it wasn’t for a couple of cows chilling near the cliff edge, it’d feel like I was living in a drone shot from a David Attenborough documentary.
Most of the levada walk itself is flat and super easy, although expect a weirdly dizzying feeling when you climb a short staircase adjacent to water streaming downhill. Continuing straight along the path leads to Lagoa Dona Beja, a small but fairly busy waterfall and lagoon. We set our sights on a bigger prize though – or so we thought.
Doubling back on ourselves for a few minutes, the trail to Lagoa do Vento is a 0.9km steep staircase that has you dreading the return journey as you descend. The goal? A stunning thin waterfall cascading vertically down the cliffs into a shaded pool.
On reaching the bottom however, a dry August summer heat meant the main waterfall was nowhere to be seen. Instead, many smaller showers trickled down the cliff in a relaxing symphony – still the perfect backdrop for lunch even without the main event. Maybe even more spectacular were the unreal valley views we found by hopping across the rocks and pools in front of the falls.
All that walking works up an appetite and the island tastes of meat. It’s definitely a place for the carnivores among you. As a veggie, turning down espetada (tender cuts of beef on skewers) never gets easier and then there’s picado; a Madeiran speciality of either beef or chicken cooked in a delicious gravy-like sauce. Occasionally I’ll find a veggie main but mainly, I’ve learned to get along by carb-loading on side dishes: the aforementioned rice, fries, salad, garlic bread (it’s SO good here) and milho frito, a Madeiran speciality made from deep fried cornmeal cut into cubes.
When it comes to sweet things, there are two things I never want to leave the island without tasting. Firstly, my auntie Gilda’s biscuit layer cake which I’m forced to ration in small cubes to eek it out as long as possible. I’m also obsessed with Bolo de Arroz, a light muffin topped with sugar, named for the rice flour used to create it. Cake for breakfast feels absolutely unacceptable for someone rapidly approaching 30 but if offered one of these, I’ll rarely turn it down.
It was the prospect of these cakes that incentivised me to join my dad on a pre-breakfast hike on my first morning in Madeira. Pico do Facho rises high up the valley of the Machico coastline with spectacular panoramic views over the entire town and beyond to the airport on one side and Caniçal on the other. The last time I’d visited this peak was back in 2000 where an old home video shows an eight-year-old me gallivanting around sporting a full fridge and trackies.
Setting off from Machico town, the dauntingly-steep incline became even more so when we realised there wasn’t a path – or at least, it didn’t start until three quarters of the way through the walk. Unfazed, Manuel proceeded to dart up the rocky hillside like a mountain goat, stopping frequently to coach me on or offer a helping hand as I jumped a particularly big ravine. There’s something about this memory I particularly love: it was spontaneous, fun and I only slipped over unceremoniously once – an all-round success, right? The views from the top were worth every second of the uncertainty, especially when I remembered being in a fairly grey Liverpool just 24 hours earlier.
For the more risk-averse among you, there’s also a road leading up to the viewpoint that drives you virtually all the way to the top. But honestly, our way was far more entertaining and as I boarded the flight home, it felt like I’d scratched another layer off the island that feels exciting but comfortingly familiar. I’m already excited to go back and see what else is in store.