The Discerning Traveler » Charming Madeira

by Philip Wagenaar, M.D., first of two parts

“Money,” the young crook hissed, aiming the rock at my face.

Scared out of my wits, I uttered, “I have no money.”

I yelled for help and looked around only to discover that six more villains had materialized and had completely surrounded our car. Nobody else was in sight at the deserted miradouro (viewpoint) at Câmara de Lobos.

My mind in complete turmoil, I could only think of my wallet, which was still in my back pocket, as I had felt no need to transfer it to my money belt while in “safe” Madeira. If the thieves searched me, they would easily find it.

Terrified, I wondered what was going to happen next.

I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Seconds later, the leader snatched from the inside pocket of the car door the small green portfolio in which I carried my itinerary. Hoping that it contained money, he ran away, his companions following him.

I anxiously started the engine, quickly turned the car 180 degrees and, with the rear doors still open, sped away from the fleeing attackers. Fortunately, after half a minute the doors slammed shut by themselves.

We returned to the hotel, where we detected that the rogues also had taken the backpack containing our clothes and camera.

Since we knew from past conversations with people with similar misfortunes that there would be a good chance that the thieves would discard everything but the camera, we decided to return to the scene of the crime.

Not wanting to go back by ourselves to look for our possessions, we rented a taxi. It first took us to the police station. From there we followed a patrol car in quest of the stolen items. Alas, we found nothing.

However, all is well that ends well. That same evening, the police called with the message that they had found all our belongings except for the camera.

Land of flowers

We had chosen Madeira for our vacation because of its reputation for outstanding beauty and terrific outdoor activities.

This gorgeous island, a province of Portugal lying in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 600 kilometers west of Morocco, welcomes the tourist with thrilling scenery of wild, tall mountains, precipitous valleys, forested slopes, terraced fields and a multiformity of colorful semitropical flora. In addition, miles of wild coastline with crashing waves keep the visitor spellbound by nature’s magnificence.

With its year-round mild climate, its fantastic hiking trails, water sport facilities and plentiful accommodation, the island is one of the important European getaways. Planeloads full of travelers from the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany descend on the island using all-inclusive tours combining air, accommodations, meals and car rental.

Hotels and car rental

Making hotel bookings via the Internet was difficult since most accommodations cater to the package trade and did not respond to my e-mails. I finally managed to make a reservation at the pleasant Madeira Regency Cliff (Travessa da Quinta Calassa, 6, 9000-108 Funchal, Madeira, Portugal; phone 011/351 291 710 732, fax 011/351 291 710 701, e-mail regencycliff@madeira or ifernandes@madeira or visit html) for the entire 10 days of our stay.

All of its 59 rooms have balconies facing the Atlantic Ocean. The cost of a twin with buffet breakfast varies from €85 to €172 (about $98-$200), depending upon the season.

We rented our car from Sixt, which had the best price at €234.50 ($267) for seven days, including taxes. We normally decline CDW, but when it was offered for only €14 for the entire rental we felt we could not pass up the opportunity.

Before leaving, I had requested a vehicle with automatic transmission and asked that it be delivered to our hotel. However, the Sixt U.S. Reservation Center (phone 800/800-6000) informed me that no automatics were available and that we had to pick up the car ourselves.

Nevertheless, when we called the Sixt office in Funchal, a representative promptly brought us the car (and retrieved it at the end of the rental), and when a few days later the clutch went out, the agency amicably replaced our gearshift vehicle with an automatic one.


The morning following our arrival, we embarked on our first levada hike. Levadas are canals built by the Portuguese to carry irrigation water from the mountains toward the agricultural terraces on the lower slopes. Many of these are accompanied by footpaths, with the total network encompassing 2,000 kilometers of trails. While you can tackle the simple walks on your own, the more difficult ones are best done with a tour company offering guided hikes.

One easy hike is the Levada da Central da Ribeira da Janela, described as hike No. 42 in the book “Landscapes of Madeira” by John and Pat Underwood (details in part two of this article). As a bonus, when driving toward it from Funchal you will travel through the most stunning scenery.

To reach the trailhead, start at the Via Rápida (freeway) in Funchal and follow the signs “São Vicente.” After exiting the expressway, you enter a narrow canyon. At a fork, you can either go through a tunnel (don’t take it as it is boring) or take the road signed “São Vicente via Encumeada.” The latter highway snakes up the mountains to a pass in the center of the island, affording incomparable views of the north coast and the tall mountains in the east. (On the south side of this pass is the start of the Levada do Norte — signposted “Folhadal” — where a 4-kilometer fairyland hike takes you past ferns and aromatic Mediterranean laurels.)

As you continue on the corniche between São Vicente to Porto Moniz, an even more majestic panorama unfolds: a never-ending wonderland of precipitous waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside plus thunderous breakers crashing on the beach.

Once in Porto Moniz, continue on the twisting road, which rises steeply toward Lamaceiros, where you will encounter signs pointing toward the levada.

The 2½-hour round-trip ramble starts at a reservoir and ends at a tunnel. The easy trail that parallels the concrete levada channel leads past an abundance of passionflowers, apple and fig trees and huge bushes of fennel. Look down between the trees to treasure the views over the terraced valleys below. Be sure not to miss the remnants of the block and tackle used in bygone days to move materials from the top to the bottom.

Next month, I will recommend other hikes, list stunningly beautiful car itineraries and present practical information.