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Mad About Madeira

Updated: Nov 22, 2021


“We arrived in eastern Madeira, in a bay under a dramatic crop of volcanic rocks. Stripey seams of dark burgundy and a rocky arch made for a very dramatic anchoring place. The water here, like in Porto Santo, is the clearest we have ever seen. "




There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Madeira. What a gem. Like Porto Santo, Madeira is volcanic. Formed five million years ago after volcanic eruptions, the island is much more mountainous than its smaller neighbour to the north and these peaks attract rainfall and support an excellent growing culture. In fact, Madeira is Portuguese for ‘wood’, although it sounds much prettier in the Portuguese language. The island is covered in exotic flowers and lush forests and everywhere smells lovely.


Our sail from Porto Santo to Madeira was just 21 miles - a leisurely day sail. We didn’t have to leave too early and we finally worked out how to use our Hydrovane. We had tried using it a couple of times on the way from La Línea to Porto Santo, but it hadn’t quite worked. The Hydrovane is fairly simple to use, but not as simple as switching on the autopilot and setting your course. As it is a mechanical steering system, using a wind vane to steer the course you set, you have to ensure that you have balanced your sails sufficiently to enable it to do its job. We know the basics of sailing, but we had to learn a little more, specifically about downwind sailing, which is what most cruisers do. Downwind sailing is where you have the wind pushing you in the general direction you wish to go. Cruisers travel long distances and want to maximise their sightseeing time thus try to time their sailing trips to accord with the prevailing wind conditions at the time. This is why crossing the Atlantic from East to West is generally done from November to January and from the general latitude of Cape Verde - because the trade winds will push you across and make it easier and faster. Although there are additional bonuses of avoiding hurricane season at this time of the year too. This is different for example from racing where more challenging conditions may be sought or encountered. Before this trip we had only sailed in the UK and done day sails or just waited for good weather conditions if doing a longer trip like bringing the boat back from Cardiff, rather than looking at prevailing winds in a certain area at a certain time of year. We had sailed from La Línea with two Australian boats. Both couples on board have been cruising for years and gave us some solid downwind sailing tips which we hadn’t known, such as ensuring the mainsail is smaller than the headsail. We sailed with them across from Porto Santo and put their tips into practice. We finally got the Hydrovane to work to steer our course correctly.


We arrived in eastern Madeira, in a bay under a dramatic crop of volcanic rocks. Stripey seams of dark burgundy and a rocky arch made for a very dramatic anchoring place. The water here, like in Porto Santo, is the clearest we have ever seen. When we dropped our anchor in Porto Santo, it was the first time we had been able to see the anchor clear as day all the way at the bottom and the chain stretched out along the ocean floor below. Here in Madeira it was the same, but because the sea floor is darker, the water also appears darker. On the way to Porto Santo we had run out of gas. We need gas for cooking and had been unable to refill our canisters anywhere in Spain or Portugal, where refills are illegal. Madeira is autonomous and so has its own rules on this. We could have bought an expensive and tiny new canister of Campingaz, the favoured brand in Europe, but we wanted to try and wait to get our own canisters refilled as they are larger and will last us longer for crossing the Atlantic. As butane is the favoured gas in the UK and Europe and propane is favoured across the Atlantic and as you cannot fill a butane canister with propane, we didn’t want to buy the new canister as it can’t be used when we get to the Caribbean. We managed to get a place in the marina just along from the bay but we had to wait nearly a week to get the gas. This is just one of the practical considerations of sailing. Things you take for granted at home, like doing the laundry, having clean running water and being able to cook and make a cup of tea whenever you want require considerably more effort and planning on a boat.


There was a brief weather window to get to the Canaries soon after we arrived; one of the Australian boats took it as their boom had snapped on the way from La Línea. The marinas in Madeira were unable to complete the works for them (or install our watermaker) so they headed off to the Canaries. An Austrian couple on a catamaran who we had kept crossing paths with on the way from La Línea to Porto Santo also decided to take this weather window. We had to wait for our gas and also wanted to see Madeira so we decided to stay put. The other Australian boat had the same idea. One day we walked to the nearby town of Caniçal where they have a whale museum. Madeira had a thankfully brief whaling industry in the mid twentieth century hunting sperm whales. This part of the exhibition was not too pleasant. However, nowadays they have whale watching instead. The sperm whales were not wiped out and can still be seen today. The museum had some really interesting information about whales and how their bodies are adapted to living in the water, as well as painful exhibits of plastic that have been found in the stomachs of stranded whales and dolphins. We also walked out to Ponta São Lourenço where you can see the spare volcanic landscape this eastern side of the island offers, lower, arid and dark unlike the greener rest of the island.


Funchal is the capital, set at the bottom of a mountain with a lovely waterfront walkway dotted with parks and the Cristiano Ronaldo museum, with a prominent statue of this famous Madeiran outside. Above Funchal, at “Monte” (meaning ‘hill’ in English), The cable cars rove up and down. At the top are the Monte Palace Gardens. These gardens are planted with a range of native and exotic plants that flourish in the shaded hills, such as huge fern trees from Australia and a range of colourful orchids. You walk down the hills through oriental and other themed gardens with the tinkling of fountains and waterfalls in your ears and art works displayed throughout. Such as tiled Azulejos telling the history of Portugal and the history of the Portuguese in Japan. The Palace itself used to be a hotel but is now closed to tourists. What goes on in there, who knows. There is however, a modern three storey exhibition space as you head down. We saw an exhibition called African Passion, with a range of facial sculptures from the Zimbabwean Tengenenge collective from the late 1960s. These sculptures were arranged as they would be if you visited the community itself, with works from all of the artists surrounding you. On the lower floor was an amazing collection of minerals and crystals, huge, colourful and alien specimens, most of them coming from Brazil. Some of them looked like blown up 3D microscopic forms. We also visited the botanical gardens and saw the traditional sleds which push people down the slippery roads down from Monte to Funchal!


We took the cable car down that time, but had our own turn on slippery roads the next day when we hired a moped to see a bit more of the island. We were staying in the remote eastern side of the island and the bus service was pretty limited from there, with the last bus leaving Funchal at 6.15pm so we hired the moped for a couple of days so that we could have dinner in Funchal for my birthday the next day. We first decided to ride up to Pico do Areeiro. At 1818m high, it is Madeira’s third highest peak. Getting up there was an adventure. The Austrian couple had given us a lift in their hire car. Coming from an Alpine region, they immediately noted that the approach to road building in Madeira was notably different to that in the Austrian Alps. The Alps have snow so gradual inclines and hairpin bends to ascend the mountains are the roads of choice. Madeira doesn’t have snow, so the roads are often just straight up the mountain. For economy’s sake we had hired one little 125cc moped between us. Getting up these long super steep roads really made the little scooter groan! As we got higher we got freezing cold. I was driving first and my ungloved hands were freezing on the accelerator as we got higher into the misty mountain tops. It was all worth it when we made it to the top though! We first dashed straight into the café for camomile tea and tomato and onion soup in an attempt to warm up. Then we got moving to try and warm up even more. We started the trek to Pico Ruivo, or Redhead Peak in English, presumably because of the red colour of the rock. This is Madeira’s highest mountain at 1861m. The views were stunning, all the more precious because clouds kept obscuring the view, so when they cleared, it really felt like a fleeting extra special moment. The trek took us along the mountain sides and through tunnels, water dripping on our heads. Before we reached the top we decided we needed to turn back, going up those mountain roads had been one thing, coming back down them was going to be a challenge and not one we wanted to do in the dark.


The next day was my birthday. Luciano made me a cake which is popular in Brazil called Pavê de Chocolate. We had the Australian couple over on our boat to help us enjoy it with coffee for breakfast. Then we set out on the moped again heading for Porto Moniz, some volcanic rock water pools on the far western side of the island via the coastal roads. This time the driving was easier as most of the roads took us through tunnels into the mountains to get through the peaks. We passed some amazing rock formations along the coastal road and eventually made it to the rock pools. Here the seawater gushes over the black volcanic rocks and into the shallow pools. I braved a swim and it was a pretty epic scene although not warm by any stretch of the imagination. We then rode to Funchal for a romantic birthday dinner up on a candlelit balcony overlooking the streets. It was a beautiful end to a special birthday and certainly beat last year’s 40th in lockdown last year.


This week's Vlog.





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