By Louise Bell, Stonetown Travel
On a sunny but cold March afternoon, eight of us headed to Toronto airport to begin our two week adventure in Madeira and the Azores. Considering that it was a Friday afternoon, the traffic was not too bad and we had lots of time to enjoy the Plaza Premium Lounge before our flight.
It was a good thing that we were relaxed before our flight as our flight seating left much to be desired. We were flying SATA, the airline of the Azores. They had an issue with the plane that was supposed to go on our route and substituted it with a charter airline plane. I have never seen seats so close together. I’m about 5 foot 2, and my knees were just touching the seat in front. Some of the gentlemen in our group couldn’t even put the tray down flat when food was served. Funny in hindsight, but not fun at the time!
Luckily that flight was only five hours as we landed in Ponta Delgado in the Azores at 6:30 am local time. We had a two hour layover, enough time to clear immigration and get some breakfast before our flight to Funchal.
Funchal is the capital of the island of Madeira that lies 520 km from the coast of Africa and 400 km north of the Canary Islands. It is an autonomous region of Portugal with a population under 300,000 with more than one third living in Funchal. We picked up our rental car at the airport and headed to our apartment hotel in the heart of the city. We soon learned that the streets are narrow, winding and steep. As we travelled more during the week, we would add very and maybe even very very in front of the above descriptors!
Our apartment hotel was perfectly located for seeing the sights in the city. There was a bakery and a gelato bar at our door step, the main market and a grocery store one minute away and shops and restaurants within minutes walking distance.
Even though we were tired from our sleepless flight, we managed to stay awake to enjoy the Carnival parade that passed two blocks from our building. The dancers and bands were dressed in colourful attire for the two plus hour parade. The people’s parade that anyone can dress up for and enter was scheduled for Mardi Gras (a holiday in Funchal) but had to be postponed due to forecasted heavy rain and wind.
We took advantage of the car and drove to some amazing sights around the island. Our first trip was to Pico do Arieiro, the third highest peak on Madeira at 1810 metres. The road was a series of hairpin turns with many lookouts where you could look back onto Funchal. By the time we got to Pico do Arieiro we were above the clouds. The views were stunning. For those interested in hiking, there are levadas from the peak through the valleys. The levadas are walks along the open canal system that brought water from heavy rainfall to the dry south part of the island. Most are one way trails where taxis meet you at the end to take you back to your car.
Travelling through the mountains we saw many terraced farms, some long ago abandoned but others still in use. Some houses or barns were perched high up the mountainside so getting to them would be quite a challenge.
We finished our trip up the centre of the island to the north coast by travelling east to Machico where we found a seaside restaurant for a late lunch. The road around the perimeter of the island is relatively easy to travel as tunnels have been built through the mountains. The longest tunnel we were in was 3.1 km long.
Our second trip was to the west part of the island. We took a more direct route through tunnels to the north shore and stopped at Ribeira Brava. The north shore is cooler and windier than Funchal and the south shore. There are lovely views of the coastline in Ribeira Brava. We headed west along the coast, stopping briefly in San Vincente where the wind was howling and the waves crashing along the shore.
Heading further west, we passed a number of waterfalls, the most famous one being Bridal Veil. We ended up in Porto Montiz which is known for its natural swimming pools. Along the waterfront of lava rock are pools filled by seawater. There was no swimming the day we visited, as the waves were crashing over the rocks and sending water high into the air. The deep blue of the water, the bright white of the sea foam and the dark black of the rocks created a beautiful picture.
There are many options for touring around the island without a rental car. There are small group tours or tours by taxi. A full day tour would include most of the sights on the island.
For those who prefer staying in the city, there are many attractions to keep a person entertained. There is a cable car that goes from the promenade along the waterfront in the Old Town up to Monte. The ride takes 15 minutes as you glide over neighbourhoods, catching glimpses of how people live. From Monte you can take a cable car to the Botanical Gardens. For the more adventurous, there is a wicker toboggan ride from Monte down the hill two kilometres. Two people sit in the toboggan and are guided by two men called carreiros who ride on the back and use their feet to brake and steer.
There are many pedestrian streets in Funchal filled with outdoor restaurants and shops. There are museums, churches, forts, parks and markets to discover. There is a long promenade along the waterfront where you can sit and watch the cruise ships sailing in and out of the harbour.
Temperatures were forecast for the upper teens. We had mostly sunny days when no jackets or sweaters were needed while in the sun. It rained one night, the first rain they had in two months.
Funchal is a vibrant city on a beautiful island, making a wonderful escape from our Ontario winter.