Ponta de São Lourençao

On one of our last days in Madeira, we decided to drive to the eastern tip of the island.  Ponta de São Lourençao is a craggy peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic, flanked by islets and white water.  It’s a strange place; when you set out from the car park and walk between huge, red rocks it looks a little bit like somewhere in California or Arizona, and then you turn a corner and peer over the cliffs and you could be in Wales or Cornwall.  It’s a mish-mash of textures and colours, which only makes it all the more photogenic, I guess!   You can walk all the way to the tip (8 kilometers), but we gave up half way.  We’d tired ourselves out from walking up Pico Ruivo and the surface of the trail wasn’t the easiest the walk on.  Yeah, yeah!  Excuses, excuses!  😉

Câmara de Lobos

Let’s brighten up the grey skies and January drizzle with a throwback to the clifftops, banana trees and pastel houses of Madeira, shall we?  Or more specifically, Câmara de Lobos.  Just around the corner from the capital, Funchal, Câmara de Lobos is a pretty little town tucked away in a horse-shoe shaped harbour with colourful houses, clear waters and plenty of nice places to eat.  Apparently, it was the original landing site of the explorer, João Gonçalves Zarco, who discovered Madeira in 1419.  But I didn’t know any of that back in October when we parked up there for a stroll and an ice-cream.  🙂

While we were walking around the harbour we stopped to watch this kid who came along with a bucket, a loaf of bread and fishing rod.  He broke the loaf into tiny pieces and began fishing.  Sunny – who likes to think of himself as a bit of an angler (“If I went on The Island with Bear Grylls I’d be out there fishing every day!”) – went over and watched and asked the kid in broken Portuguese what he was up to.  I think even the kid was surprised when he actually managed to catch something, and said that he was going to take it home to his Mum so she could cook it for dinner.  Bless!  Mind you, to me it looked a bit small for that – the sort of fish you’d chuck in a fish tank not onto a plate…  🙂

If you’re starting to look into your travel plans for 2017 I’d definitely recommend Madeira; it’s such a beautiful island, and there’s a bit of something for everyone 🙂

Driving Around Madeira

When we told people we were planning on renting a car for the final week of our trip to the island of Madeira, we got a lot of ‘Ooh, be careful’s and even one ‘Are you effing crazy?!’  We shrugged off all those horror stories about terrifying roads and laughed off the warnings about suicidal drivers; we’d made up our minds that we were going to do it – we’d planned it into the trip – and as two fairly confident drivers we were firmly of the opinion that there was nothing the road could throw at us that we couldn’t handle (try driving in South East London for five years…!).

Well, the horror stories weren’t true, but they weren’t that far off either!  The roads in Madeira would test even the most experienced of drivers.  They’re hilariously steep, terrifyingly narrow and have bends like a paper clip.  Oh, and the tunnels that stretch for miles through the mountains are pretty amazing things.  But as well as the roads being challenging they’re also a hell of a lot of fun to drive on, and the scenery is stunning.  We felt we saw more of the real Madeira in one day with the car than we had in a week without it.  Exploring those mountain roads and driving through clouds and tiny villages on clifftops was by far my favourite part of the whole trip.  And Madeiran drivers aren’t crazy or suicidal; they’re just experts at driving those sort of roads and can therefore afford to take those turns a little quicker. 🙂

So my advice is that you should absolutely rent a car in Madeira if you feel confident enough to.  Take the horror stories with a pinch of salt and follow these five tips instead.

1. Fork out for the extra insurance

The truth is you can be as careful and drive as slowly as you want to in Madeira, but you can never rely on everyone else to be.  We’d been super careful driving our little Renault Clio around the island and thought we were returning it in exactly the same shape as it was when we got it, but nope, someone else had scraped the back bumper.  Luckily we’d opted for the full insurance so we were covered.  Remember, the roads are extreme; they’ll put a lot of strain on the car regardless of how carefully you drive, it’s worth paying a little extra for peace of mind.

2. The Sat Nav is both your best friend and worst enemy

Most cars come with a built-in Sat Nav now; but if not, it’s definitely worth having one.  While the island is small and you can drive all the way around it in less than a few hours, you don’t want to mess around with maps and get lost on roads with sheer drops and hairpin bends!  The Sat Nav also really helps whoever’s driving to predict the road up ahead; thanks to the map, you can see when you’re approaching a tunnel or about to drive into a tight bend.

Be warned though, the Sat Nav likes to throw a few curve balls.  Sometimes it took us on roads that turned out to be closed or blocked off by fallen rocks, and more than a handful of times it opted to take us on narrower, older country roads instead of the much faster, much safer highway.  Doing a three-point-turn on roads like that ain’t fun – no matter how good you are at hill starts!

3. Keep your eyes on the road!

Kind of an obvious one, but it’ll make sense in a sec!  Renting a car allows you to see so much more of Madeira than you would do if you simply opted to bus it around, and the scenery that’ll pass by your driver-side window is a little like a siren’s song.  Get lured in by the waves down below, the bananas or the clouds on the mountain for too long and you could get yourself in trouble.  While you’re busy staring out the window the road might zig out of nowhere.  If you like what you see, pull over if you can and take it in – or look out for the brown Miradouro signs that’ll take you to a safe viewpoint.

4. Use your Co-Pilot

Usually I hate back seat drivers, but in Madeira it’s helpful to have another pair of eyes watching the road for you.  Sometimes your co-pilot will be able to see further around a bend than you will, or see a hazard that you’ll have missed.  It’s also helpful to have another pair of hands that can sort the Sat-Nav out when it’s taking you on a terrible route!  While we were out there, our Sat-Nav wanted to take us up a very narrow, very steep path (it definitely wasn’t wide enough to be called a road!) and we had to make a very sketchy ten-point turn to get out of it – avoiding a sheer drop on one side and a garage on the other!  Phew!

5. Use the gears properly

Inexperienced drivers who rely too much on the brakes and aren’t confident making hill starts probably should think twice about renting a car in Madeira.  During the last couple of days on the road, the brakes of our Clio started to make a horrible noise.  A grinding, screeching sound – which was scary when we were whizzing down those steep mountain roads.  When we handed in the car and told the rental guy he explained that too many tourists used the brakes to slow down instead of the gears as you’re supposed to.  Don’t be a lazy driver, use your gears to control the speed of the car!

Where’s the craziest place you’ve driven?

Nacional v Sporting Lisbon

I don’t think we went to a restaurant in Madeira where football wasn’t playing on a TV in the corner.  Not a massive surprise; this is the country that gave the world Cristiano Ronaldo after all.  Anyway, while we were staying in Funchal we got the chance to go and see his home team – Nacional – play Sporting Lisbon.  It involved driving up some very steep, narrow and winding roads in the dark to a stadium perched on the side of a mountain and shrouded in clouds.  In all honesty, it was more Sunny’s thing than mine – it has to be said, I’m not a huge fan of football – but I was lured there with the promise of street food.  🙂

There weren’t any pie and mash shops, no burger stalls or newsagents – just one option.   Bolo do Caco com Chourico.  I had no idea about it at the time, but apparently it’s a traditional Madeiran bread that’s cooked on a stone and filled with garlic butter and other fillings – in this case, Chorizo.  It was warm, it was soft, it was lush.  If they served these at games back in the UK then I’d probably go along more often! 🙂

The game itself wasn’t exactly the most exciting of games.  Not a single goal in the whole 90 minutes!  But the Nacional fans sitting around us seemed pleased with a draw anyway, and it was interesting watching the clouds passing over the roof of the stand (the views from the stadium during the day must be amazing!).  The most exciting part for me (other than the food) was when Sunny accidentally dropped one of the peanuts he was eating into the hood of the man sitting in the row in front of him.

Climbing Pico Ruivo

Madeira is a hiker’s dream.  The whole island is criss-crossed with trails up mountains and alongside Levadas (irrigation channels).  Sunny and I, we’re not hikers, but we like walking and exploring so we knew we wanted to do a couple of walks while we were in Madeira – especially seeing as we had the rental car as a lot of the trails are difficult to get to without one.  There’s a handy website that lists all the walks based on level of difficulty and distance and overall time, and based on that information we picked Pico Ruivo.  The highest peak in Madeira at 1861m, the website stated that the 5 kilometre walk up Pico Ruivo was an easy one over the ridge and would only take three hours to complete.  Brilliant, it was the one I was hoping to do and considering some of the walks apparently could take up to thirteen hours I thought we’d lucked out.

Holy whoa.  If that walk was easy, I don’t even want to know what a tough one looks like!  We drove up winding roads to the car park and then began the 5 kilometre walk along the ridge towards Pico Ruivo.  We climbed up and down steps and wobbled along an uneven, narrow stone path with a terrifying drop on one side and the wind battering us from the other.  There were hardcore hikers there with walking sticks, proper boots and all-weather anoraks and I was there hopping rocks in my converse and leather jacket.  It was a hell of a hike, but worth it.  The trail took us up into the clouds and the view from the top was incredible.  I’m telling you guys, Madeira is a total stunner. 🙂