Hiking on Madeira

This item appears on page 36 of the August 2009 issue.

During a trip to Portugal, Nov. 5-14, 2008 (July ’09, pg. 15), my husband, Kip, and I visited Madeira for some hiking and sightseeing.

Your TAP Portugal boarding pass will give you a free ride into Funchal on the express bus. Ask the driver to drop you off at the nearest bus stop to your accommodation. If it’s not near the bus route, you can take a taxi from the center of Funchal; otherwise, expect to pay about €25 ($32) for a taxi.

We were at first dismayed by the traffic and the sprawling development in and around Funchal plus the throngs of tourists, but our small hotel, Hotel Quinta da Penha de França (Rua Imperatriz Dª Amélia, 9000-014 Funchal, Madeira, Portugal; phone +351 291 724 273, fax 291 762 171, www.penhafranca.com), was very quiet.

The original manor house is charming and perhaps preferable in terms of décor and style to the annex where we stayed, the Penha de Franca sur Mer. The annex was more motel-like but offered sea-facing balconies overlooking the pool, and it was only a 20-mintue flat (!) walk into town. We paid €100 (about $131) per night, including a full buffet breakfast.

One goal during our 3-day stay was to hike the paths that follow the levadas, the extensive system of irrigation canals on the island. You can access some of the walks near Funchal on your own by taking buses or the cable car. Check at the tourist office.

To get to the paths deep in the island’s interior, though, you need to rent a car or sign up for a day walk with a tour group. We recommend the latter to avoid the steep, curvy mountain driving.

All tour companies pretty much hike to the same destinations but on different days. Pick up the various brochures and check out which hikes are available, along with their lengths and levels of difficulty, on the day you want to go.

Note that different outfitters may take different routes to reach the same destination, causing the level of difficulty, distance and time to vary. If you have concerns, ask. Prices of hikes vary as well. Check for special deals, such as buying two different day walks and getting a third one free. I believe the maximum group size is usually 16.

We hiked with Macaronesia Tours (www.macaronesia-tours.com) to 25 fontes (little waterfalls). The cost was €32 each. The walk was about seven miles total and, including time for a packed lunch at the waterfalls, took three to four hours at a steady pace on mostly flat paths. Our van stopped at a grocery store prior to the hike to let us buy lunch provisions, or you can bring your own.

Even if the day is warm and sunny, be sure to take a fleece jacket or something similar, as the temperature was much cooler once we entered the forest. We enjoyed this immensely. It was one of our favorite experiences of the entire trip.

On our second day we took a full-day van tour of the entire island. We found only one company, Inter Tours (Avenida Arriaga nº30, 3º, P.O. Box 8, 9001-901 Funchal, Madeira Island, Portugal; phone +351 291 208900, fax 291 225020, www.intertours.com.pt), that offered this tour and only on Sundays. (Most companies offered full-day tours of only half of the island, with a stop at a wicker factory or some other retail establishment which did not interest us.)

This tour was a very long day, about nine hours, but we felt that in combination with the hike the day before, we had seen as much of the island as possible in a short time. The tour, priced at €60 each, included a delicious and plentiful lunch — soup, salad, rolls, entrée, side dishes, dessert and wine.

In Funchal we recommend the restaurant O Celeiro (Rua dos Aranhas 22; phone 29/123-06-22), where we had the local specialty of swordfish with bananas. With side dishes, dessert and two glasses of wine, our meal cost about $65 for two.

We also enjoyed eating at a sidewalk table at O Tapassol (Rua D. Carlos I, N.º 62; phone +351 291 2525 023), in the Old Town. The food ($11-$20 per person) was just average, but the amusing, good-natured, mustachioed tout was the evening’s entertainment!

Brunswick, ME