‘Time to off-road,” says Pedro, our jeep driver and guide for the day. It’s the most enthusiastic he’s been all morning; his 4×4 Land Rover is built for it after all, and he isn’t remotely worried that we’re stuck in mud with our back wheels hanging over the edge of the track. “Are we going to fall down the mountain?” asks my seven-year-old, her knuckles white. “We’ll be fine,” I tell her, as Pedro accelerates over a fallen log and hurtles up a steep hill in search of another panoramic view.
We’re about 1,500m above sea level and close to Madeira’s rugged north coast; mist clings to volcanic peaks further above us. The air is humid, heavy with the scent of eucalyptus and many metres below us are terrace after terrace of banana trees, fringed with sugar cane and palm trees. So far it’s more Malaysia than Madeira, subtropical and lush with waterfalls, lagoons and colourful vegetation. A few days before, I’d been told to expect a relaxing but possibly boring experience – a package-holiday crowd, sedate teas and sweet cake. “It’s nice, but full of old people,” a friend told me, who’d visited years ago. “I stayed in a lovely hotel and two pensioners had died by the end of the week. They had to ship them off the island.”
But no more, apparently. Madeira is in the midst of a makeover. According to its tourist board, the island is drawing a younger traveller in search of adrenaline-fuelled adventure. Thanks to the mountainous terrain, it’s ideal for trail running, downhill biking, canyoning and abseiling. Then there’s the walking: following the levada trails is the best way to enjoy the views, a network of narrow irrigation canals built as far back as the 16th century to bring water from the mountains to the farmland below.
Our attempt at a levada walk is curtailed after 20 minutes when black clouds roll down from the mountains and we’re caught in fog and rain. “It’s four seasons in one day here,” says Pedro. Fifteen minutes later, the rain stops and we’re sitting in Pólo Norte, a rustic restaurant near the village of Porto Moniz with stunning sea views. Pedro insists we try the Madeiran speciality – filete de espada com banana, battered fish crowned with buttery baked banana, a combination that shouldn’t work but is strangely delicious.
Afterwards, we visit a volcanic beach nearby, with sand like coal dust; the grey clouds roll away and the Atlantic turns turquoise in the sun. Despite Madeira’s infamous microclimates, it rarely falls below 19C in winter and by the end of our pre-spring stay we are slapping on sunscreen by the pool. But we’re not here to sunbathe; it’s adrenaline action we’re after. The next day, this comes in the form of a whale trip. The deep waters around Madeira are plankton-rich and safe; the perfect environment for whales and dolphins all year round. My seven-year-old is scared of whales and I’m increasingly nervous as dry land disappears and the sky turns as dark as the sea.
We head towards the endless horizon, Madeira shrinking behind us and the wind whips up. They stop the engine and my heart sinks; the Atlantic is oily and muscular, its swell pushing against the sides of our catamaran, waves crashing over the sides. But then we spot them in the water and our moods switch. My daughter is no longer afraid of something she can see in its natural habitat, rather than a model on display in the Natural History Museum. Anyway, she’s too distracted by a group of dolphins circling us, followed by four sleek black short-finned whales, including a mother and baby, skimming through the waves.
Heading back to Funchal, Madeira’s capital, we speed past the elegant seafront hotels built out over volcanic rocks with fabulous ocean views. I begin to realise that what I thought would be a massive downside – Madeira’s lack of beaches – is actually its crowning glory. Without a shoreline as a buffer, the Atlantic confronts you at every angle, wild and elemental, an arm’s reach away. Nowhere more so than the creamy and curvaceous Vidamar Resort Hotel where, sitting on my sleek glass balcony, I feel like I’m on board a liner that’s drifted out to sea. It isn’t a hotel room but more a spacious two-bed apartment that I could happily move into. But it’s the views that make it: steel blue everywhere you look. Who needs sand when just below you there are two terraced infinity pools tipping into the ocean?
Later that evening, we make a pilgrimage to the island’s iconic hotel, Reid’s, a faded pink pile high on the rocks which has been around since 1891 with a roll-call of former guests including Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. I’m too late for its famous afternoon tea on the terrace and opt instead for the island’s favourite tipple, a Poncha: a cloying and heady mix of sugar cane liqueur, honey, orange and lemon juice, served in their art deco cocktail bar. It’s a different world here and, watching the slow but decorous waiters serving Fawlty Towers-style majors in blazers, I wonder if our taste of adventure has run its course. Apparently not, according to our guide the next day. There’s a cable-car ride to the hilltop village of Monte over the rooftops of Funchal with a return trip that’s much more thrilling – a wicker toboggan ride through the narrow streets (waxed by hand to increase our speed), which is how villagers used to transport their goods, with two “drivers” in traditional boaters to guide us. Like a fairground ride, we’re thrown around at speed, screaming with delight all the way down the hill.
We end up in Funchal’s old town, which is much more characterful than the hotel developments that spread out from the centre. Most of the bars and restaurants run along Rua Santa Maria, where tables spill out on to narrow cobbles. We stop at Galeria Restaurante for its recommended asparagus risotto and explore the maze of narrow streets beyond, where all the doors are painted with colourful murals as part of an art project to revitalise what used to be a rundown area: difficult to believe now.
Back at Vidamar Resort, we recline on our king-size bed, doors open on to the Atlantic, watching 1980s films on cable (Pretty Woman followed by Ghost) and I can’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed. As we fall asleep, music drifts up from a nearby hotel bar: the unmistakable croon of Frank Sinatra’s You Make Me Feel So Young. So much for old-school Madeira – I couldn’t put it better myself.
Way to go
Rooms at Tiles Madeira Hotel start at €90 (£80) a night B&B for a family room (tilesmadeirahotel.com). Rates at Vidamar Resort Hotel start at €603 (£530) B&B for a family for three nights, in a two-bedroom apartment (vidamarresorts.com). Flights from London to Madeira start at £60 one-way with jet2.com. More details from Discover Madeira (madeiraallyear.com)
Three more early spring getaways on Atlantic islands
More exotic than the Canaries and the other usual island getaways, the Cape Verde archipelago is hidden away in the mid-Atlantic off the west coast of Africa. It’s a cluster of 10 islands that remain gloriously warm year round and are blessed with dramatic volcanic scenery. Head for Santa Monica, a sprawling white sand beach on the island of Boa Vista, where sea turtles are known to nest on the shore.
With its vibrant landscape, lush vegetation and water warmed by the Gulf Stream, São Miguel is the biggest island in the Portuguese Azores with spectacular volcanic scenery, rugged coastlines, thermal pools, empty beaches and, best of all, warm weather year round. For a bit of relaxation, try Furnas Boutique Hotel, a wellness retreat up in the hills that has thermal indoor and outdoor pools.
• Double rooms start from about £82, furnasboutiquehotel.com
The smallest of the Canary islands, El Hierro is also possibly the least well known. It is wild and remote, and enjoys a similar temperate climate to the rest of the Canaries. Its capital, Villa de Valverde, has about 1,800 inhabitants (the island’s total population is under 11,000), so there are no hotel developments – only a few quiet bars and simple restaurants. While the coastline is rugged and windswept, the landscape inland is more verdant with gentle rolling hills and juniper forests, making it ideal for walkers.
• To find out more about walking holidays in El Hierro, go to keadventure.com