Walking Holidays

Walking Holidays

Ideas for Short Weekend Trips away from London, and Walking holidays in Europe

Maderia (Portuguese Atlantic Island, north of the Canaries)

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Madeira is a Portuguese island off the coast of North West Africa, a few hundred miles north of the Canaries.

It is very mountainous... 90% of the island is over 1,500 feet (500 metres), and there is almost no flat land on the island. Its possible to be at 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) only a mile from the coast. Almost everywhere, there are fantastic views out to sea - you can see for miles! There are almost no beaches either (the land falls steeply into the Atlantic) which means much less tourism than the Canaries. The island is 35 miles (60 km) wide.

What it does have though are levandas. These are small canals that contour around often very dramatic mountains. They were originally built to carry water from the wet side of the island to the inhabited side. They have a footpath by the side of them, and are often planted with tropical plants. Walks in Maderia are graded both for toughness (how hilly) and scariness (how precipitous the drop and how narrow the ledge alongside the canal).

For walkers, especially less fit or olders walkers, this can be magical. An incredible mountain walk, with beautiful tropical flowers, with almost no change in elevation.

For more adventurous walkers, there are the tunnels (take a torch), which take the canals under ridges from one side of the mountain to the other.

There are a wide range of levanda walks. Some have wide, well maintained paths planted with tropical paths, and fences on exposed stretches, and are suitable for the elderly and children. Others are along older levandas with exposed drops and very narrow or crumbly paths. Guidebooks will tell you which is which beforehand.

Some of the levanda walks are in alpine regions, with dramatic views. The trailheads are easily accessible by car, but you need to be OK with hairpin bends, steep drops and hill starts. Others are between towns in the more populous south east corner of the island. These are reached by either car or bus from Funchal (capital and only big town).

There are 2 other types of walks on the island. A few alpine ridge walks in the centre of the island, and a few coastal walks. The paths are well maintained.

The west side of the island (Paul do Serra) has a flat top at about 6,000 feet (1,800 m), with many levanda walks, from which you can see nearly 100 miles out to sea at this altitude. It is easily reached by car. The east side has a more mountainous centre, with some alpine walks.

The levanda walks can be a little strange. On one side, the there are tropical plants and stunning out to sea views, with little physical effort. On the other, doing a 10 mile walk with a 5 metre gain in altitude can be a little unfulfilling. Strange :)

Guide books : The best guidebooks are the Sunflower and Rother. However these are pure walking guides, they don't have any general tourist stuff

Accommodation : There are relatively few hotels, and not so much camping. Its best to book as part of a package tour, or with a 'Expedia' type website. Funchal is a good place to stay, either near the motorway or the old town  if you have a car, or by the bus station if you don't. The other good option is Riebeira Brava - its on the coast near the middle of the island, and handy for many good levanda walks. We stayed in Paulo do Mar (south east coast), while nice is meant a lot of driving to/from it each day. Navigation is easy in most of the island, but Funchal can be very difficult without a satnav.

When to go : Year round, but mid winter can a bit rainy with cloud on the high peaks.Mid-summer isn't too hot, but the sun can be fierce if you're outside walking in the mid-day sun, so spring and autumn are best.

Getting Around : Best to rent a car. Many walks can be done by bus, but if you do this, you MUST base yourself in the centre of Funchal (near the bus station, the centre of the bus network). The islands roads are truly amazing. They've recently built a series of tunnels (many a couple of miles long) through the mountains and bridges over ravines, so drives that used to be all day can be done in an hour! Beware though, that away from the motorway along the east and south coasts, travel can be very slow, zig zag bends down into a ravine, and backup the other side, the down into the next one...

Getting There : Fly to Funchal Airport on the east coast take about 3 hours from London. Easyjet, BA, and TAP (Air Portugal) fly direct.

Cost : About £400 (Euro 500) for a hotel and flight package for weeks. More in Summer or Christmas/New Year. Based on 2 sharing. Add £100 (Euro 150) for a rental car. Self-catering with breakfast is a good option, especially if you are near Funchal with a variety of restaurants to choose from. Away from Funchal, the variety and quality of restaurants is poor, so a breakfast and dinner package might be better, but do check times for the earliest breakfast, and latest dinner. Once there supermarkets are reasonable, with some interesting local produce, e.g. dates, which are very cheap here. Away from the coast, cafes are very cheap. About 1 euro for a coffee or beer.

What Else To See : Wander around Funchal's old town. Drive up to Monte for the view and tea on the terrace, but give the tropical gardens a miss - you'll see nice flowers on the Levanda walks.

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