Magic in Madeira: Could Cristiano Ronaldo’s home island be one of the safest post-Covid destinations in Europe?
The Black Scabbard is a meter-long spear-shaped predator with a mouth full of terrifying teeth that hunts in the depths of the Atlantic off Madeira. When a fisherman rolls one up, the pressure difference between a mile deep and the surface causes his eyes to pop out of their sockets.
hen we can travel again, visitors to this Portuguese island in the north of the Canaries will experience the same feeling when they see how cheap it is. Food and drinks cost 40% less than in Ireland.
Having weathered the coronavirus storm much better than many other places that depend on tourism, Madeira bills itself as one of Europe’s safest holiday destinations once the traffic light turns green. Authorities are confident that their swift response to Covid and the measures imposed to suppress it (there has been no sign of the wicked Brazilian strain) will bear fruit with an influx of visitors this summer and fall.
Since the beginning of February, the island has welcomed hundreds of remote workers staying in discounted accommodation and using their laptops in the digital nomad village of Ponto do Sol in the south of the island. Introduced as a pilot project, it is due to end on June 30, but could be extended due to demand for places – 4,800 people from 90 countries have so far expressed an interest in transmitting the pandemic safely in the sun.
In recent years, Madeira has also lost its reputation as a retirement paradise and has become a magnet for outdoor adventurers. When holiday flights resume, they are likely to bring along again a complement of hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners, as well as daredevils who canyon, which involves rappelling thundering waterfalls. .
It’s something only a fool would try – and I’ve got the selfies to prove it. One shows me standing, trembling, on the edge of a rocky outcrop, wearing a wetsuit I must have been wearing in a situation I wanted to get out of. On the water of the river pool eight meters below, guide Nuno Freitas (madeiraexperiencetours.com) told me it would count to three and then I would have to jump. As I got ready for the dive, I asked him how often he jumped from that same spot. “Never,” he replied. I quickly shifted into reverse, bursting into my two companions who were screaming with laughter. I found myself in a bush.
It was in 2019, on a trip before Covid-19 turned the world upside down as we know it. My friends were still laughing that night over a delicious black barrel dinner with baked banana and passion fruit at the Santa Maria restaurant (santamariafunchal.com) in the old town of Funchal. Later, at Bar Venda Velha (@vendavelha), we tried poncha, Madeira’s famous fire water, made from distilled sugar cane and mixed with honey, lemon and a choice of freshly squeezed fruit juices. Poncha packs a punch, but it’s going so well I’ve had four – kiwi, tangerine, strawberry, and tomato.
As I remember the trip and tasty vacation treats like these, I crave a time when travel restrictions will be a thing of the past. Not for dancing, however. When a bartender suggested a few places with music until dawn, I called it a night. It took a lot of persuasion to go canyoning, but nothing persuaded me to clubbing – at 58 I’m a hip replacement, not hip hop, and anyway I had to get up early for mountain biking.
After breakfast, one of our members boarded a catamaran for a whale and dolphin safari while the rest of us hopped into a 4×4 which took us to- above the clouds to a roadside restaurant where our bikes were waiting. It was a decent day for a descent – 10 a.m. and already 20 ° C – which involved 25 km of biking on dirt tracks and through meadows, coasting down steep, winding roads one would have to be towed and zigzagged to avoid the tanned lizards, led by competitive mountain biker Sergio Abreu (lokolokomadeira.com). He was impressed with my frequent accelerations on the pedals until I confessed that I could settle for a cushion – those skinny saddles are murder, but the scenery kind of acted like a balm on my butt. painful.
The next morning we joined the naturalist Fabio Castro (madeira-adventure-kingdom.com) for a rainforest trek along a 6 km stretch of Madeira’s levadas – the narrow 16th-century irrigation canals built to bring fresh water from the lush north to the more arid south. The network extends over 2,200 km, of which 1,400 km are accessible to walkers, and the soundtrack of our hike was the cooing of doves and the chirping of tiny firecrackers, the smallest birds in Europe.
Some of the levadas are home to trout that escaped from the mountain lake fish farms, but none were on the menu that evening in the seaside Maktub restaurant (@MaktubPub) in Paul do Mar, a 45-minute drive from Funchal. Reggae loving owner Fabio Afonso only offers what a local fisherman brings him each morning, and that night he was a big red snapper drummer. I threw in the towel after a second help. There was plenty left despite we brought back four times two, but we left room for a few Fabio mojitos – he serves more of these Cuban highballs than anywhere else on the island.
As we retired to the lantern-lit terrace, we listened to the waves and reflected on three action-packed days that blew all our preconceptions of “modest” Madeira out of the water. I mean, who knew the World Travel Awards judges recently named it the most beautiful island destination on the planet for the sixth consecutive year on a shortlist that included Hawaii, Bali and the Seychelles?
Although it will continue to be a favorite of the elderly, thanks to its sunny climate all year round, value for money, almost negligible crime rate and Covid checks, the age profile of visitors to Madeira glide while the youngest are looking for thrills. find out that it delivers adrenaline – as well as afternoon tea – on tap. This was the case before the pandemic; the island hopes that will be the case afterwards.
My companion who went out on the catamaran to see the killer whales was not the only one who had an unforgettable time in Madeira – like the black scabbard, I was hooked.
The green travel lane at Madeira Cristiano Ronaldo Airport for visitors arriving with a negative PCR test has been widened. Now, the island is open to anyone who can prove they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or recovered without the need for testing or quarantine. See madeirasafe.com.
Tom was a guest of madeiraallyear.com and TAP Air Portugal (flytap.com).
NB: As part of Ireland’s Level 5 lockdown, people are currently advised against all non-essential overseas travel