Intoxicating Madeira: The Portuguese island comes alive in spring

Madeira’s levadas date back over 500 years, explains our enthusiastic guide, Fabio Castro, as he takes my wife and I on a three-hour round trip to the 25 Fontes waterfalls.

Bordered by a flat path, these gently flowing irrigation canals stretch for more than 2,000 miles and penetrate deep into the mountains and forests of this beautifully scenic Portuguese island.

Some walks can be challenging, with unlit tunnels, dizzying drops and rockfalls, so it’s worth doing the first with a guide as you explore valleys and spectacular hidden waterfalls that cascade 300 feet in a thundering rain of silver threads.

In the woods: above, the view from the Levada do Risco hiking trail that Nigel hikes in Madeira

Nigel's enthusiastic guide Fabio Castro leads him on a three-hour round trip to the 25 Fontes waterfalls (pictured)

Nigel’s enthusiastic guide Fabio Castro leads him on a three-hour round trip to the 25 Fontes waterfalls (pictured)

Nigel stops at the World Heritage listed Laurisilva Forest, pictured, which is filled with

Nigel stops at the World Heritage-listed laurisilva forest, pictured, which is filled with ‘bearded branches of lichen and giant plants which are primordial relatives of dandelion, heather and lily of the valley’

Madeira's levadas (pictured) are over 500 years old, explains Nigel's guide.  Bordered by a flat path, these low-flow irrigation canals stretch over 2,000 miles and penetrate deep into the mountains and forests

Madeira’s levadas (pictured) date back over 500 years, explains Nigel’s guide. Bordered by a flat path, these low-flow irrigation canals stretch over 2,000 miles and penetrate deep into the mountains and forests

Fabio points out a host of sights we didn’t expect, like trout swimming in these thin concrete waterways, and endemic birds such as the fire crest and Madeira finch.

There is a fairy-tale beauty in the World Heritage-listed laurisilva forest that shades us with bearded branches of lichen and giant plants that are primordial relatives of dandelion, heather and lily of the valley.

Don’t expect to be alone. The most popular levadas are busy, especially on the weekends, and can be plagued by a phenomenon new to me – trail runners moving in sweaty groups.

“Madeira offers many walks in the mountains and on the coast”, explains Nigel. Above, a hiker follows the footpath near Boaventura on the north coast of the island

Hike the trail along the Sao Lourenço Peninsula, pictured, and you'll be greeted by

Hike the trail along the illustrated Sao Lourenço Peninsula and you’ll be greeted by “a breathtaking view of the shimmering blue Atlantic Ocean”, says Nigel

Luckily, Madeira also offers plenty of mountain and coastal walks, such as the eight-kilometer bend along the São Lourenço peninsula that features an array of vivid wildflowers, layers of rock like an upside-down slice of chocolate cake and breathtaking views of the shimmering blue Atlantic Ocean.

And it is in spring that this island blooms.

While Madeira retains an old school charm, where else can you find hotel dining rooms that still use fish knives and forks? — it is no longer “God’s waiting room”, a reference to the elderly clientele who flocked here for the winter holidays.

“To see all the glory of Madeira, we spend a few days in the charming capital, Funchal (pictured), then tour the island by rental car,” writes Nigel.

“In Funchal, don't miss the Mercado dos Lavradores, with its flamboyant displays of island produce,” writes Nigel.  Above, one of the market stalls

“In Funchal, don’t miss Mercado dos Lavradores, with its flamboyant displays of island produce,” writes Nigel. Above, one of the market stalls

Today, Funchal is home to designer hotels, such as The Vine with its panoramic rooftop pool, and sold-out restaurants such as Kampo serving stunning dishes including black rice with octopus.

Another discovery is the excellent network of roads that can get you to almost any point in 45 minutes, making the island as much a destination for exhilarating driving holidays as it is for walking.

To see all the glory of Madeira, we spend a few days in the charming capital, Funchal, and then tour the island by rental car.

In Funchal, don’t miss the Mercado dos Lavradores, with its flamboyant displays of island produce ranging from tropical fruits to the aptly named scabbard fish, and Atelier Vicente, a fascinating former family photographic studio that’s now a museum.

Nigel's last stop is Porto Moniz (pictured), a town

Nigel’s final stop is Porto Moniz (pictured), a town ‘famous for its seawater pools made from lava rocks’

A plane flies into the monumental Cristiano Ronaldo airport, where the runway 'overlooks the ocean like an aircraft carrier'

A plane flies into the monumental Cristiano Ronaldo airport, where the runway ‘overlooks the ocean like an aircraft carrier’

From there we drive counter-clockwise, gliding along the VR1 highway that hugs the south coast past huge terraced ravines of bananas – and the monumental Cristiano Ronaldo Airport, where the runway juts out over the ocean like an aircraft carrier. In Santo da Serra we find a bustling Sunday market where the islanders stock up on garden vegetables, delicious honey, homemade cakes and colorful flowers which is why Madeira has also been nicknamed the ‘floating flowerpot’.

To the northeast, near Santana, Quinta do Furao is a welcoming stopover, framed by vineyards and set atop towering cliffs with sweeping views of the coast. A popular starting point for levada walks, it’s known for its country cuisine of chestnut soup, slow-cooked meats and almond-crusted sweet potatoes.

Turning northwest, our final stop is at Porto Moniz, famous for its seawater pools made from lava rocks which are an ingenious response to Madeira’s lack of sandy beaches. The vibe is brazenly seaside excursionist, with fish restaurants and an aquarium — and we love it.

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