Madeira is a volcanic island, so no golden beaches (well, there is one), unlike The Canaries which have imported tons of sand from the Sahara to please its visitors. Most beaches, where they exist, appear to be dark shingle or larger rocks, so Madeira attracts visitors who want a bit of sun but who are also keen to explore.
So exploring is what we did. As well as the trip by cable car to Monte we took the east tour, the west tour and the trip to Nuns’ Valley in the central area.
Because of the mountainous terrain Madeira is wetter than The Canaries, with the north receiving more rain and being cooler than the south which is sheltered by the mountains. With temperatures that mostly remain in the mid twenty degrees in summer and around the mid teens to twenties in the winter, and as it rains during much of the year, Madeira avoids scorched landscapes in favour of lush ones. The rain mostly amounts to a few light, passing showers, but December being the wettest month it was common to see people wearing all types of outfits from work gear to casual to dressy, all with a snazzy umbrella tucked under an arm.
The mountains also provide water to the southern part of the island through a system of levadas or channels. Many visitors are attracted to walk the network of paths by these levadas from one part of the island to another.
The diversity of scenery gives the island great appeal. Within a short time you can travel from the shore to six thousand feet up in the mountains, winding your way along narrow roads where hairpin bends and sheer drops are the norm, through changes in vegetation and weather, into the grandeur of the mountains.
On the west tour we lunched in a restaurant at Cachalote, an old whaling station where the rocks were so jagged and forbidding it was difficult to imagine boats venturing anywhere near it.
Another village on the north coast huddled in the mist by the Atlantic waters, backed by a sheer rockface.
It amazed us to see the narrow strips of land, terraced up mountainsides, on which grapes for Madeira wine, and the produce sold in the Funchal market and elsewhere, were grown.
Farmers can own strips scattered over a wide area, and because of the terrain these have to be worked by hand with no mechanisation, or transportation between them other than legs and feet. This is not unlike the runrig system in use in Scotland hundreds of years ago before modern methods of farming were introduced.
For our east tour we were lucky to have a day of wonderful weather even at six thousand feet up in the mountains. Blue sky contrasted with dark rocks and the only sound was the pipes of the Andes musicians who looked eminently at home amongst the peaks.
Deep in the Nuns’ Valley is a well-hidden village where, at some point in history, nuns from Funchal took refuge from marauding invaders. The only way to reach the village was on foot, but today it is accessed by roads that cling to mountainsides. Then from the village in the shadow of the mountains we snaked upwards, barely managing to pass cement lorries and refuse vehicles, all the time keeping an eye on the sheer drop on one side of the road and the solid rock rising up on the other.
Eventually the road widened and we found ourselves in a parking area at Eira do Serrado.
The trip was nicely rounded off by a visit to D’Oliveiras wine lodge in Funchal where we tasted three different Madeiras and returned to our hotel in a merry mood.