It may only be around 57km long and 22km wide, but with its high mountains and rugged coastline Madeira is an island of contrasts – and what better way than to discover this island than by a 4×4 guided tour.
By Anna Waddington-Feather
While exploring this island independently by car is easy, having a local guide do the driving is a great way to see and learn more. On my recent visit, my friend and I fancied a bit of an adventure, so we opted for the 4×4 guided tour and discovered far more than we’d expected.
Leaving the motorway behind is where the fun begins. Much of our route took us along the steep narrow laneways, which the farmers use to access the terraces. These are lined with irrigation channels and it’s only when you’re driving along them you realise just how precious the land is and how labour intensive farming is here.
Our guide filled us in on how the bananas are harvested by hand and manually loaded onto the backs of trucks. As we climb higher into the mountains, the banana and sugar cane plantations give way to vineyards; the vines are often trained to form a canopy so the ground underneath can be utilised to grow other crops, such as sweet potato.
As we venture higher into the mountains, it’s now we start our off-road adventure along rocky tracks and trails. Madeira has a variety of micro-climates and as the delicate mountain rain falls, the air becomes heavy with eucalyptus scent; our guide informs us eucalyptus was originally introduced to stop soil erosion, but in fact this hardy Australian tree has become quite aggressive and making it difficult for the indigenous plants to grow. Plus its wide roots require a lot of water.
Leaving the forests behind, we eventually reach the Ribeira da Janela plateau; cows nonchalantly acknowledge our vehicle and begrudgingly move out of the way so we can pass.
At over 1600m, It is noticeably colder – and very windy!
Dropping down onto the north side of the island, the barren landscape dotted with gorse and bracken gives way to lush vegetation and the mist clears to reveal stunning vistas as we make our way to Porto Moniz.
Here we make a stop and we enjoy a refreshing dip in the remarkable natural complex of lava pools. Filled by the tide, the water is crystal clear and while the waves are crashing in the open sea, the pools are calm and serene.
By the time we reach Seixall, we are ready for our lunch. We both decided to go for for traditional scabbard fish and banana. Whilst the thought of banana and fish together didn’t immediately appeal, this is a very tasty dish and we both can highly recommend it.
Our final stop for the day was at the skywalk, above the cliffs of Cabo Girão. With a near vertical drop of over 500 meters down to the raging Atlantic Ocean, the skywalk might not be for everyone so if you do suffer from vertigo, you don’t look down and keep your eyes on the horizon; the view is definitely worth it.
All too quickly, the adventure was over, and we headed back to Funchal, to be dropped off at our hotel, Quintinha Sao Joao.
See more pictures of Anna (and Mary’s) bespoke great girlie escape, 7 nights on Funchal in the dedicated album on our Facebook page.
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