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Destination X

The Portuguese island of Madeira has been more readily associated with cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts. But with its consistent weather and jaw-dropping landscapes, it’s starting to reinvent itself as Europe’s adventure sport capital

Destination X

Text by Toby Skinner Photos/Tim E White

Somewhere along the way, Madeira got the wrong reputation. To many, it’s still a slightly tired cruise ship stop-off and its capital, Funchal, is often seen as a place for a cable car ride, a hotel buffet or a meal in the old town sold to you by over-eager waiters and accompanied by My Way on the accordion. There’s a slightly sad saying here that Madeira is for “newly weds and nearly deads”.

Yet all of this seems like a staggering folly when you see the place and drive around a bit. The lush, craggy island – arrived at on a runway that juts out into the sea – looks like Tracy Island by way of Middle Earth, with the formidable ocean crashing into sheer cliffs backed by the lush, World Heritage-protected Laurisilva forest. The sea’s always warm, it’s basically spring all year round, and because the volcanic island rises steeply and dramatically from the Atlantic, there are whales and dolphins frolicking off Funchal all year round. The roads are mostly good, the villages are quiet, the seafood fresh and the fruits exotic.

If you’re into the outdoors, it only gets better from there. It’s a hiker’s paradise, with trails criss-crossing the 57km length of the island, and the old levada aqueducts – which have been built since the 16th century to transport water around the island – make for great ready-made hikes. With its stunning peaks, like the Tolkien fantasy that is Pico do Arieiro (1,818m), the island has also become a magnet for trail-runners, including the 116km Madeira Island Ultra Trail race. It’s now set to become a stop on the Ultra-Trail World Tour.

The volcanic landscape, forests and steep cliffs also make it one of Europe’s fastest-growing and best mountain biking spots, while the warm blue seas are good for surfers as well as dolphins, with clean rocky point breaks off sleepy villages on the island’s south west. It’s also considered Europe’s best spot for canyoning, which involves scrambling and abseiling down its volcanic ravines. The world’s most prolific paraglider is here, as are a growing number of kids who ride their longboards down the steep mountain roads (just type “Madeira longboard” into YouTube).

Of course, if all that’s too much, you can just chill out, take in the scenery and watch the sea roll in under low-lying morning clouds. This is not a place for the nearly dead after all – in fact, it’s a pretty great place to be alive in.

The Trail Runner: Manuel Faria

Manuel Faria seems to have endless reserves of energy and patience. We’ve been up since 5am, trying to see the sun rise over the staggeringly beautiful peaks around Pico do Arieiro (1,818m) in the centre of the island, and we’re cold and tired. But Faria keeps running and keeps smiling, even as we ask him to jog up and jog down the same spot more than 10 times – all before he heads off to work at a Funchal communications agency.

Of course, this is child’s play when you’re used to running races of over 100km, across mountains. Faria is the top trail runner in Madeira, rivalled only by his good friend Luís Fernandes, who joins us for a few hours at sunrise, before jogging off to his job in the army. At last year’s Madeira Island Ultra Trail, a punishing 116km ultramarathon with steep climbs and descents, Faria had a bad race and came seventh against a strong international field. Like Fernandes, he’s won regularly in local trail running events – now he has a trainer, a daily schedule and is looking to take on the world, with three 100km-plus events in the coming year.

“Racing that distance, it’s all mental,” he says. “You have to listen to your body constantly, but you also have to realise that it can do things you never thought were possible. Most of the time in ultramarathons, it’s peoples’ minds that give up, not their bodies.” While many ultramarathon runners have reported hallucinations and out-of-body experiences, Faria says that he’s gained perspective: “You have a lot of time to think about your life, and the decisions you’ve made – it’s almost like therapy.”  

Faria took up trail running less than four years ago, when it was still a very small sport – but it has grown rapidly, with more than 700 people on the island now running trails regularly. Madeira is so good for the sport that it’s being put forward for a slot on the Ultra-Trail World Tour, the world’s top trail running competition. We meet development manager Jean-Charles Perrin, a Frenchman who’s flown into Madeira to plan logistics for the event: “It’s just about getting the organisation right,” he says. “In terms of a location, I mean… wow, it’s unbelievable.”

Faria says that being in touch with the island is one of the main attractions of trail running; the other big one is pushing your body. “People want to push their limits, and it’s a personal thing rather than a competitive thing – when you’re in a 100km race, you have to help each other out.” Faria practises what he preaches – he recently gave up the lead in a local race to help a competitor who’d fallen in a levada irrigation channel. “This sport is not really about winning – it’s about more than that.”

Madeira Outdoor runs hikes to Pico do Arieiro, as well as levada walks and many more of the activities featured madeiraoutdoor.com

Meet more of Madeira's extreme characters on the next page...

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