A thrilling slice of life in Madeira


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ON A lung-bust­ing hike to the 1,800m sum­mit on the sub-trop­i­cal is­land of Madeira we dis­cov­ered a land­scape that could have been plucked from Scot­land.

Un­der bril­liant blue skies in mid-Fe­bru­ary, a warm sun shone down on heather bushes and trees as high as 10m, and as much as 600 years old.

Some had silvery stunted trunks from a dev­as­tat­ing fire that swept the land­scape in 2016. On this wooded green land, known as the Pearl of the At­lantic, fire is the only en­emy of heather which by spring­time car­pets the vol­canic is­land in flow­ers, just like the Bon­nie Auld Scot­land poem’s ‘fra­grant hills of pur­ple heather.’

With no na­tive an­i­mals to gnaw away their branches and roots, heather and gorse grow taller than any in Scot­land. The only in­dige­nous wildlife on Madeira, which burst into ex­is­tence when two con­ti­nen­tal plates col­lided be­neath the ocean mil­lions of years ago, are spi­ders, snails and lizards.

The rep­tiles are re­luc­tant refugees from African storms, trav­el­ling thou­sands of miles across the seas on felled tree trunks.

Madeira was dis­cov­ered thanks to the 15th cen­tury Prince Henry the Nav­i­ga­tor of Por­tu­gal, , a land

560 miles away. It’s on the same lat­i­tude as Casablanca in Morocco so the lizards en­joy a tem­per­ate cli­mate – as do tourists – with av­er­age tem­per­a­tures be­tween 16°C and 24°C year round.

This fer­tile is­land, with bananas the main ex­port, is a mass of fra­grant flow­ers, from mi­mosa and magnolia, hi­bis­cus and or­chids, gera­ni­ums and jacaranda, to Birds of Par­adise and aga­pan­thus. Hay fever suf­fer­ers be­ware.

Only the top third of the is­land is above the sea. The rest is un­der the At­lantic, at places 2,800m deep, and an ideal spot for whales and dol­phins to breed, feed and play.

A whale-watch­ing boat trip was the high­light of my trip, while oth­ers voted for canyon­ing and moun­tain bik­ing. De­spite only one day of snow a year, you can also go to­bog­gan­ing... down streets rather than snowy hills.

This crazy tobog­gan ride is one of

Madeira’s most fa­mous and quirky at­trac­tions, dat­ing back to the 1850s.

It’s like a land-based gon­dola trip aboard a wicker sledge on two run­ners. Two pi­lots – or Car­reiros – smartly dressed in white with straw hats, wear rub­ber-soled shoes to steer and brake their pas­sen­gers on a white-knuckle 2km ride from Nossa Sen­hora do Monte Church to Livra­mento, a sub­urb of the cap­i­tal, Fun­chal.

It’s cheaper than Venice at around €30 per cou­ple, more bone-jar­ring and much, much speed­ier.

Our boat trip was even bumpier. We bat­tled choppy seas the colour of molten lead for two hours into the teeth of a strong east­erly wind.

“It’s very lumpy go­ing,” agreed our skip­per Nuno as he pow­ered our RIB Zo­diac up­hill, into white horses, then slammed down into the troughs.

Sight­ing whales and dol­phins was our goal. It was a chance to see these mag­nif­i­cent and so­cial an­i­mals up close and per­sonal in their nat­u­ral habi­tat rather than one of those dis­cred­ited and down­right cruel man-made en­clo­sures.

And what a habi­tat! End­less miles of At­lantic Ocean, 2,300m deep in the Sao Lournco area and inky black.

Our guide said there were 28 species of cetaceans out there, in­clud­ing bot­tlenose and spot­ted dol­phins and pilot, sperm and fin whales. With life jack­ets buck­led, we were warned to stay seated un­til the boat slowed for a sight­ing.

“Don’t touch, kiss or feed,” we were told. I think that was to pro­tect the crea­tures of the deep rather than other pas­sen­gers.

Two look­outs were po­si­tioned on head­lands and armed with 12km range binoc­u­lars for our prey.

Give­aways are foam­ing seas, birds over­head, a glimpse of a fin or that show-off thwack of a whale tail fin be­fore it dives. It won’t be seen for an­other 45 min­utes thanks to its huge lungs.

Af­ter two dis­ap­point­ing hours of bump­ing and bounc­ing we were head­ing back to Fun­chal, whose port is a mag­net for those vast float­ing, flashy ‘towns’ called cruise ships. A crackle of the two-way ra­dio elec­tri­fied the crew.

Sight­ings of whales, pos­si­bly fin whales, sent us and half a dozen other boats speed­ing to­wards the spot.

I couldn’t re­sist a ‘Thar she blows,’ as a jet of wa­ter rose up be­tween us and the shore, and an­other, and a fin.

“Prob­a­bly a mother and her calf from the size,” sug­gested our guide, Joao, “and they’ll be feed­ing.”

Each boat is al­lowed to re­main just 10 min­utes at any sight­ing to pro­tect the cetaceans from too

Quirky: The tobog­gan ride dates back to the 1850s

Madeira’s cap­i­tal, Fun­chal

Thrilling: Moun­tain bik­ing

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