‘The for­est breathed – you could feel the life in it’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

Buf­feted by wind, the plane banked sharply above the At­lantic, fill­ing my win­dow with blue swell and white horses. We straight­ened but still rocked side to side. The run­way ahead stood on struts in the ocean, ex­posed and pre­car­i­ous. It was like land­ing on a tres­tle ta­ble. The pi­lot wres­tled us into po­si­tion. Closer, closer, closer we came… nearly… but no. With a last-minute en­gine thrust, we lurched up­wards, sky-bound again. The tres­tle ta­ble re­ceded. The weather had won, this time.

It took us a few at­tempts to touch down at Madeira’s Cris­tiano Ron­aldo Air­port, a ter­mi­nus as tricksy as its name­sake’s feet. It’s known as one of the world’s most dif­fi­cult land­ings for pi­lots, thanks to the cross winds that whip its run­way. This seemed quite the con­tra­dic­tory in­tro­duc­tion to an is­land that is more of­ten con­sid­ered se­date, con­ven­tional, maybe even nice-but-dull. How­ever, that per­cep­tion is be­ing chal­lenged.

All the good things about Madeira still ex­ist – the safety, the hos­pi­tal­ity, ex­otic flow­ers, just three hours from home. But a new cam­paign, Madeira Ocean Trails, is aim­ing to high­light the is­land’s more ac­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties, es­pe­cially for the grow­ing num­ber of trail run­ners and hik­ers.

To­po­graph­i­cally, Madeira is con­stantly fall­ing over it­self – it’s a crum­ple of vol­canic basalt, ram­pant green­ery, deep troughs and gnarly ridges; there’s hardly a flat bit to be found. Now, this ter­rain has been recog­nised as a per­fect play­ground for those seek­ing on-foot ad­ven­tures.

So, dull? Not a chance. The is­land – like its air­port – is apt to knock you side­ways. Ex­treme sport isn’t new to Madeira. Since the mid-19th cen­tury, the lo­cals of the Monte neigh­bour­hood have been zoom­ing down the steep streets to the cap­i­tal, Fun­chal, in wicker sledges. Ernest Hem­ing­way – a man not un­fa­mil­iar with thrill-seek­ing – found it “ex­hil­a­rat­ing”. To­day, strawhat­ted car­reiros still steer glee­ful tourists down­hill in these ham­pers-on-skis, reach­ing speeds of up to 30mph. I watched from the top as the driv­ers pushed off, their white trousers flap­ping, pas­sen­gers whoop­ing with de­light.

Pass­ing on the to­bog­gans, I opted for a four-wheel-drive trip to get bet­ter ac­quainted with Madeira’s un­du­la­tions. At the wheel was guide Ri­cardo Car­valho, ap­par­ently half-man, half-Jeep, so com­fort­able was he with his ve­hi­cle. I won­dered if, just as pi­lots need ex­tra train­ing to land at the air­port, driv­ers might re­quire an ad­di­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tion to tackle the roads? Some “roads” barely qual­i­fied as such – they were more like ski jumps. But Ri­cardo was un­per­turbed as he took me on a tour of the is­land’s east, swing­ing swiftly around tight corners, horn beep­ing, brush­ing aside the ba­nana palms, al­most graz­ing the sides of the hill-cling­ing houses. “Clutches and brakes,” said Ri­cardo, “they’re the parts we’re al­ways re­plac­ing here.”

We revved up tracks through forests of eu­ca­lyp­tus and pine, past fit-to­burst mi­mosa, ex­otic bam­boo and su­gar cane. We took scenic short­cuts over ridges where ver­tig­i­nous ter­races nur­tured pota­toes, broc­coli, wa­ter­cress and vines. It must have been in­cred­i­bly good soil for the is­landers to bother cul­ti­vat­ing these steep slopes, I mused. “They had no ma­chin­ery any­way, so it wasn’t so tough,” said Ri­cardo. “Farm­ers still have to do ev­ery­thing by hand.” On cue, an old man in a flat cap hefted a pail of pota­toes up the sheer road be­side us.

The is­land’s rich soil did seem un­lim­ited in its pro­duc­tiv­ity, which is thanks to the lev­adas, the net­work of wa­ter chan­nels that ir­ri­gate the fields. Madeira was dis­cov­ered by the Por­tuguese 600 years ago, and the lev­adas date back al­most as far. They con­vey pre­cious wa­ter from the vi­tal, spon­ge­like lau­rel forests to the thirsty ter­races. Across Madeira, there are more than 1,200miles (2,000km) of lev­adas, trick­ling like veins. The paths along­side these chan­nels are also a big draw, pro­vid­ing fan­tas­tic routes for walk­ers.

I traced a cou­ple of short lev­ada sec­tions, in­clud­ing a stroll along the Ribeiro Frio. En route, the for­est dripped and breathed – you could feel the life in it, cours­ing through the mossy trunks and beardy lichen. I passed a café sell­ing pon­cha, the lo­cal liqueur of aguardente de cana, honey, su­gar and lemon, to reach the Bal­coes look­out. The view was some­how like China, a mys­ti­cal, mist-draped scene of ver­dant slopes fall­ing to a river be­low; the cloud mo­men­tar­ily parted to show a glimpse of ocean, then the cur­tain fell once more.

Ri­cardo and I con­tin­ued to Quinta do Fu­rao for a de­li­cious lunch of scab­bard fish and limpet risotto. From our ve­randa ta­ble we looked along the is­land’s north coast, a se­aboard that gets quite a beat­ing. The pre­vail­ing winds hit full force, erod­ing the cliffs into sub­mis­sion; the rocks sim­ply drop into the spume. Just be­low the res­tau­rant, I no­ticed a patch of land for sale. It was over­grown, seem­ingly un­reach­able, ut­terly im­prac­ti­cal. And I be­gan to day-dream of buy­ing it, pitch­ing a tent and spend­ing my life look­ing out on that wild, hos­tile shore.

“Madeira was at­tacked by pi­rates many times from the 16th cen­tury,” Ri­cardo told me, be­fore re­veal­ing he has pi­rate blood him­self. “In the years af­ter pi­rate raids,

Over­hauled in 2017, Tiles is a smart tower block in Fun­chal’s main ho­tel district, with bright rooms, a big pool and a rooftop bar; dou­bles from £85 B&B (tiles­madeira­ho­tel.com).

Aqua Natura, in Porto Moniz, is a friendly base by the town’s spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral pools; dou­bles from €76 (£68) B&B (tele­graph.co.uk/ tt-aqua-natura)

Go Trail Madeira or­gan­ises trail-running and hik­ing day-trips and tours (go­trail madeira.com).

Moun­tain Ex­pe­di­tion of­fers 4x4 ex­cur­sions (moun­tain­ex­pe­di­tion.pt)

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion: madeiraal­lyear.com

lots of births were reg­is­tered with an ‘un­known fa­ther’ – in­clud­ing one of my own an­ces­tors. I think it’s why I like to have a rum ev­ery morn­ing.” In 1566, French pi­rate Ber­trand de Montluc sailed his ar­mada into Fun­chal and went on a ram­page, killing hun­dreds of lo­cals. Af­ter this, fortresses were built to de­fend against at­tacks. “They didn’t need to build many de­fences on the north coast,” Ri­cardo added, as we both gazed along the wall of in­sur­mount­able rock.

Or was it? A few days later I found my­self edg­ing along just such a ram­part via a groove some­how hewn from the cliff­side, with streams tum­bling down and scrub fall­ing away to the waves be­low. I was trot­ting along be­hind Ser­gio of the com­pany Go Trail Madeira, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing one of the is­land’s Ocean Trails. As well as be­ing spec­tac­u­lar, this stretch also hap­pened to be the last part of the Madeira Is­land Ul­tra Trail (MUIT), a running race that cel­e­brated its 10th an­niver­sary in April. The full race is 71 miles (115km) long, link­ing Porto Moniz in the north-west and Machico in the south-east, via 6,109ft Pico Ruivo, the is­land’s high­est point. Ser­gio and I were trac­ing the 12km (seven-mile) route be­tween the towns of Porto da Cruz and Machico, via the Vereda do Larano path.

We be­gan at En­gen­hos do Norte, the only steam-pow­ered rum dis­tillery left on the is­land. But there was no time for booz­ing. We left Porto da Cruz, dodg­ing wave spray on a coastal track be­fore climb­ing into the ru­ral hin­ter­land. We passed along­side goat-grazed fields and fol­lowed flat lev­adas. Then we joined the wild cliff path, wend­ing around with the rock and look­ing along the head­lands to where the is­land’s far east fin­ger – Ponta de Sao Lourenco – fiz­zles into the ocean. There was noth­ing dull about this, at walk­ing or running pace.

Madeira, with its rarely flat, sparsely pop­u­lated wilder­ness, is built for trail running. The sport has boomed here in the past two years,

Ribeiro Frio, above; Quinta do Fu­rao, be­low; one of the spec­tac­u­lar vis­tas, above right

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