We had never been to Madeira before and we have just come back from a week spent in a friend's timeshare apartment in the Royal Orchid Hotel in Canico. I had done a lot of research before we left and I thought I knew what to expect. I had seen the photos and read the articles and read a whole book about levada walks. However the sheer scale of the island took my breath away - the views, the mountains, the plants, the sea where so much more (in everyway) than I had expected.
It took us just 30 minutes from touch down to sitting on our hotel balcony - the taxi ride was just 10 (quite exciting!) minutes. Our balcony looked out toward the Deserted Islands and we sat there and drank in the view as we planned the week. The first thing was shopping as we self catering and that meant a trip into the main town of Canico which the map showed as very close. It was very close but we had reckoned without the 300m height differenceand living in Suffolk, England that is nowhere more than 60m above sea level this was quite a shock! We toiled up the hill and came quite suddenly into this picture book square with a white painted church and old house and an "SA" supermarket! We di dour shopping and then had a meal in the hotel on the square - Recidencial Larreira - which was excellent - good food well served but not hurried.
The next day we caught the local bus from close the Hotel which whisked back up the hill to Canico on our way to Funchal. The bus we chose was the stopping bus which took 40 minutes to get the 5 miles to Funchal - there is an express bus too which uses the new motorway and that only takes 15 minutes but not such fun!
Funchal is hard to describe and the photos I have seen do not do it justice. On the face of it Funchal is a sprawl of white houses with red roofs filling the natural amphitheatre around the harbour but when you get up close you realise that this is a real living city and that the little houses are perched on very steep slopes rising as much as 2,000 feet above the harbour. The little streets and alleyways of the old town between the bus station and the Sao Laurenco palace are delightful and full of real shops and bars as used by local people who live here - and are not just there for tourists like us. The Market hall is very special - built in the early part on the twentieth century this art deco building houses the market for Funchal everyday. There are stall of all kinds but it was the fruit stalls that really caught my eye - fruits I had never heard of never mind tasted. The people were without exception friendly, helpful and unhurried and the traffic was busy but never intimidating or aggressive.
Later in the week we used the local bus to travel right across the island to Sao Vicente to visit the Volcano Centre and the Lava caves. This was interesting and quite well done but for me the highlight was the bus ride along the south coast to Ribiera Brava and then north across the mountain pass of Encumeada (some 1,000m above sea level) to Sao Vicente on the north coast.
During our visit we did two levada walks - both on our own and not as part of a organised walk. The first walk was from near Comacha along the Levada Dos Tornos westwards towards Monte. In all the walk was about 7 miles and stopped for lunch at the Jasmine Tea House. This was an excellent introduction as the going is quite easy because the levada was only built in the 1960s and is quite wide with a well established path. that said there are two tunnels on the section so you need your torches and a good hat will save your head from a bump or too.
Another day we walked along the older Levada da Canico from below Comacha to Assomeda - a much prettier route with lovely views. This was an older and much smaller levada with a narrower path and some quite steep drops down to the valley floor abour 1,000 feet below us in some sections.
I wish we had longer and had time to explore further afield and especially to have walked some of the high alitutde levadas.