24 May 2023

Exploring West and North Madeira by Jeep

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Madeira was the one-day tour I took around West Madeira. Stunning mountain vistas, lush green landscapes, natural swimming pools and ethereal forests were all on the agenda. Suffice it to say, my camera got a good workout that day! Read on to find out more.

If you don't have a rental car in Madeira, joining an organised tour is the most efficient way to explore the island beyond Funchal in one day. There are dozens of different one-day tours available, almost all of which focus on either the east or the west side of the island. The latter ticked more of my boxes and I booked a full-day small group jeep tour with True Spirit. Our guide Gil was great, smoothly negotiating all of the impossibly steep, narrow, twisty roads, taking the time to share details about the history and culture of Madeira and even climbing up trees to show us some of the wonderful tropical fruits.

My top tip for the tour is to pack an extra layer even if it's warm and sunny in Funchal. Madeira has dozens of microclimates and we switched between bright sunshine, wind and cool, damp fog many times during the course of the day. I had a cardigan with me but a scarf would have been a useful extra buffer against the wind later in the day.

Gil pulled up outside my hotel just before 8:30 am. The front seats were already taken by a family of four, so I took one of the sideways-facing seats in the back. I was soon joined by three other guests, completing our group of eight. If you have the choice of where to sit, I'd definitely recommend the front seats as my neck was a little painful after turning to look out of the window all day. It wasn't too bad, though, and as the roof of the car was removed for much of the day, I still got a great view.

Cabo Girão

Our first, brief stop was in the hills to the west of Funchal overlooking Câmara de Lobos. "Who knows what lobos means?" Gil asked. As a long-suffering fan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, with its strong Lusophone contingent, I knew that lobos are wolves. But it also means 'sea lions' and alas, there was no sign of Rúben Neves in the bay below.

A few minutes later, we arrived at Cape Girão, whose clifftop skywalk is the highest in Europe, at 580m above sea level. I had hoped we would end the tour there, as billed, in order to get the best light — since the best view, over Funchal, is to the east. Although it was busy and my photos didn't turn out too well, the views were still impressive. It costs €2 to access the walkway; cash and credit cards are accepted.

She sees Seixal on the seashore

Back in the car and with the roof down and the wind blowing through our hair, we drove through various long tunnels to the north of the island where it was cooler, cloudier and windier. It was incredible to watch the landscapes change from verdant hills to craggy ocean cliffs and back again. We stopped a few times to take in the views, including just outside Seixal where there was a beautiful waterfall flowing down into the sea.

We also visited some stunning natural rock swimming pools. Technically, you can swim there — and a couple of brave souls were — but the sea was pretty rough and Gil advised us not to. The pool looks quite calm in my photo below but big waves would crash over the 'infinity' edge every so often.

Rock pool swimming at Porto Moniz

Instead, we went to the more developed pools at Porto Moniz (€3), where there are changing rooms and lifeguards. At 20C, the water was a little chilly for a wuss like me, but I soon got used to it. Sadly, my waterproof camera broke here after nine years of loyal service. I was able to salvage its last photographic efforts, although given the image quality, I think some damage had already been done.

We had about an hour at the pools so after I'd finished swimming, I wandered around to the other side of the site. There's another more rugged pool there — again, be careful of the waves and currents — and some beautiful mountain views.

Off-roading in an 'enchanted' forest

Once we'd dried off, we met up with Gil, who drove us up to Fanal Forest. The roads and 'shortcuts' were extremely steep and narrow, with nerve-jangling hairpin bends. Cross your fingers that you don't meet a car coming in the other direction or you'll have a long reversal to make! Gil also stopped a few times to show us some of the local fruit and flowers. 

We saw some not-yet-ripe pineapple bananas (I didn't realise they came from the Monstera deliciosa; my own cheese plant has got a lot to learn!) and tried some delicious passionfruit. We had to hang on even more tightly when we left the road and off-roaded through the muddy trails of Fanal Forest.

Our next stop was in the forest itself. Gil had been talking about the fog, which I'd assumed was a bad thing but actually, you want it to be foggy when you visit the forest so that you can see the ancient trees in all their ethereal glory. It was incredibly beautiful; chilly, but beautiful. Just as we were leaving, the fog cleared completely, taking some of the magic with it.

Mountain vistas in Paul da Serra

Five minutes later, we were driving through the Paul da Serra plateau and it was bright and sunny again, if very windy. The dominant colour here is yellow thanks to the ubiquitous vibrant genista flowers. 

We had lunch in the sunshine at a small eatery on the plateau (not included but reasonably priced) and then stopped at a few more places to take in the views of the mountains and the valley below. If you squint, you can just about make out the radar dome of Pico do Arieiro in the first photo below. It was too windy to leap, though!

Down the hill to Funchal

We were on the home strait by then — although the steep and winding road down from Paul da Serra certainly wasn't straight! There was time for a few more stops and a few more photos before arriving back in Funchal at around 4:30 pm. I said goodbye to Gil and the group — who were a friendly bunch — and hopped out of the car outside my hotel. 

It was a full day but it didn't feel too rushed and it was nice to return to Funchal with enough time for a quick dip in the sea before dinner. I had thought about taking an East Madeira jeep tour on another day, but I think that would have been too much jeeping and too much touring for a five-day trip. But I did take an early-morning sunrise tour to Pico do Arieiro on my final morning, which I would recommend highly.

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