It’s all about the water on the island of Madeira
Inescapable and truly so when the clouds roll in, the flights cannot. There are worse places to spend an extra day or two.
Madeira is a mix of colors, feelings, climates and sounds, surrounded by water and effusing it as well. This Portuguese archipelago of 4 islands is off the northwest coast of Africa and a short flight from Lisbon. The microclimates on the main island are fascinating. Without hyperbole—experiencing the four seasons in one day is always a possibility. The fertile volcanic soil coupled with the diverse weather systems allows the island to produce a varied rotation of crops from grapes and bananas, often on the same face of a hill, to avocados, papaya, tomatoes, mangos, and over a dozen varieties of passion fruit. We spent days in awe of the flora and experiencing the climate shifts along the way. We came here anticipating the one thing we know the island is famous for but left with a richer comprehension of everything Madeira has to offer.
The island is known for its wines. Say the name and see what response comes up. Madeira wine is not only synonymous with the destination, it is the destination. The sweet sultry sipping wine found in the hands of many after a great dinner is from this Portuguese island. Dating back to the 15th century, this fortified wine is a staple known around the world. Six centuries later, the island is branching out to produce table wines in red and white. Talk about rebranding yourself. If anyone can do it, this dynamo of an island can. I think it is in its nature. Everything flourishes here and a can-do attitude is no exception. We say let the wine flow as freely as the water does. It’s everywhere. Of course water laps at the rocky coastline, this is an island. I briefly chatted about the microclimates, so there’s rain, mist, and dense clouds at higher elevations, but I mean to say that this land gushes with water.
Driving up (or down) to its highest point, Pico Ruivo, you’ll pass fern and moss growing out of the rocks on the side of the road, fed by waterfalls that crop up out of the unlikeliest of places. Water springs eternal here. It is cool, fresh, potable and delicious. I like to think it is filled with nutrients and minerals that will help me flourish as I see all the foliage doing with grace and elegance. At one point, I asked our guide to stop simply to sip from a gently cascading flow from the rock-face. It was worth the pause. You may be wondering where all this water goes, how it flows so freely yet I am not mentioning any sort of puddles, pooling or mayhem on the streets. That’s because there is a system of aqueducts, known here as levadas. These narrow concrete channels, specific to the island of Madeira, guide the naturally flowing water to where it needs to go. Ingenious, I say. Our guide was quick to tell us, when we stopped for a fresh sip from the wall, that water on the floor (in the levadas) is not for drinking, but water from the walls is perfectly fine. It makes sense! The aqueducts are used to fuel the homes and farms of the people of the island. Their practicality is often lost on visitors who fly here specifically to hike alongside these levadas. There are guides and maps, routes and trails where you can follow the flow to your heart’s content, 2,000 km worth. These hikes are worth the journey. Imagine following the flow of water as you meander through lush foliage and varying climates to peaks that offer unparalleled views…this is the place to do it. Surrounded by water in every sense of the word, you’ll never experience a hike like this elsewhere.
Après hike also doesn’t disappoint. You’’ll feel as though you’ve earned a good bottle of wine and perhaps a round of their local bread, bolsa de coca. I won’t go into too much detail here, but grab yourself a seat and indulge. It’s warm, garlicy, moist on the inside, crispy on the outside bread. Enjoyed with a good wine while you pre-plan your next visit and you’re all set. Check back with us in the fall issue to hear about the rest of our journey around the island an onward to Porto. You’ll be glad you did. We chat about wine pressing activities, the island-wide flower festival, and the not-to-be-missed cable car set against the volcanic cliff all the way to the black rock and sand beach for some limpets. Enjoy your summer in Madeira.