It was the end of November and the cold was striking in quite vigorously, along with the small rain, the fog and the darkness outside, stealing most of the day. A friend that I made during my previous trip to Thailand asked me if I d like to spend the end of the year abroad and sent me some travel offers, but nothing seamed to fit. Until I saw Madeira and it was a definite YES, although I knew little about the destination, I even had to look it up on the map. One of the first things I learned about Madeira was that it had an average temperature of 25C, all over the year, and that it made it to the Guinness World Records in 2009, with the amazing show of fireworks set in for the New Year s celebrations. I suppose for some people this still wouldn’ t be a good enough reason to take the trip, however, I never needed too many reasons to give a chance to Adventure.
Madeira is in fact a rocky, yet green Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean, closer to the African coast than to its mother country. Soon after Christmas, we boarded our charter flight to Funchal, the capital city of the island. On our way there ( rather late, you would say ) we learned that landing in Madeira is one of the most difficult and dangerous piloting experiences and we were reassured by the cabin crew that we have an experienced pilot aboard, who practiced the landing on the simulator several times before the flight. It was midday when we arrived, so we had the chance to change at the hotel and explore the city for the rest of the day, enjoying the lovely Christmas decorations but also the harbor and a little sangria.
The next day, we continued our exploring of the city with the Old Town, to the East of the city. On Rua Santa Maria, a lovely street with constructions dating from the 15th century, you will see houses with painted doors, making Funchal a top street-art destination. After the major flooding in 2010, the city started the Art of Open Doors project, in order to regenerate the area and brighten up the spirit. Further on, there is the Sao Tiago Fortress, an yellow fort by the ocean, built in the 17th century for defensive purposes, used nowadays for cultural and administrative events. I really enjoyed the fortress, so I advise you to go inside and visit, instead of just passing by. Besides, the ocean view is amazing and the warm sunlight is always a blessing.
In the afternoon, we took a boat trip along the shores to spot some dolphins. Spot is the key word here, as the dolphins that live near the island of Madeira are the Atlantic Spotted, with very visible back spots. Myself having a very bad sea sick day, I only opened the eyes when people started to scream and cheer for the friendly dolphins, swimming near our boat. It was in fact the first time I saw these amazing creatures at large and it was worth the effort.
The whole island is amazing and you need not stay only in Funchal and surroundings. You can either rent a car, but you need to be a skilled driver, because the roads over the mountains aren’ t always easy, or you can book day trips with a local agency, as they are rather cheap and you will travel in small groups. The first trip we took was to the Eastern part of the island, with a first stop in Camacha, then up the mountain, to Pico do Areeiro (1818 m) , followed by Pico Ruivo (1864 m), the highest point on the island. Further on, there is the village of Santana, with the beautiful well preserved thatched roof houses, symbol of the island and the village of Machico, where the Portuguese landed in 1419, when they discovered the island. Also, we stopped for an amazing view and some incredible pictures at Ponta de Sao Lourenco, a landscape where high cliffs melt into the deep ocean.
The next day, since it was New Year s Eve and everybody was preparing for celebrations, we took a short trip to Curral das Freiras ( Valley of the Nuns), a narrow road deep into the mountains. The lands became the property of the nuns of the Convent of Santa Clara at the end of the 15th century and apparently, in 1566, the nuns of the convent took refuge on these properties, during the French attacks on Funchal. Upon our return to Funchal, we took the cable car to the beautiful local Botanical Garden, situated on top of the mountain. Madeira is indeed a very green island, but other than that, it has many species of exotic colorful flowers, all over the place. Never in my trips did I buy so many seeds of orchids, strelitzias ( bird of Paradise flowers), palm trees, to bring back home, to a country with a totally different climate, so you can imagine the outcome of this enthusiastic initiative.
We started fresh the night between the years at a small restaurant, with local specialties which included plenty of seafood, and by 10 PM walked to the harbor where everybody gathers for the amazing fireworks. Before the light show, there is also a most unusual concert, as 10 to 12 cruisers dock in Funchal for New Years celebrations. The ship hooters can be heard at night in the harbor, as they signal the start for celebrations. The world record fireworks are indeed something out of the ordinary as they are set to launch from several opposing points on the island, mountain and sea, building in fact a huge circle of fire. After the midnight fireworks, people don t go to sleep, they continue to celebrate downtown, where most of the clubs are open late, but you can also have a drink at a table outside.
For the end of the trip, there are still a few beautiful places to see on the island. To the West of Funchal, there is a small and charming fishing village called Camara dos Lobos, where you can taste some swordfish or
tuna fish, recently picked up from the surrounding ocean and have a glass of poncha. Further on, there is the Cape Girao Skywalk, an amazingly high viewpoint over the ocean, with a glass bridge along the cliffs. Crossing the island, to the extreme North, a place to remember is Porto Moniz, where the ocean plays into the rocky terraces, making an outstanding performance of sound and shape. Madeira is of course a green garden to explore step by step and I have no regrets not making the most of my trip, as this only gives me reason to return there.