Having booked my flights and accommodation on the spur of the moment and done very little research as to what I would actually find once I got there (aside from fortified wine and cake), I've put together 5 things anyone thinking of heading to Madeira in Winter should know.
2. Getting around Madeira via bus is absolutely possible if you're not interested in hiring a car, and there's much to recommend it. Driving on the island can be a headache, on account of the endless twists and turns, hill starts and the fact that you're having to concentrate on the road rather than the view.
But it should be noted that, despite its small size, Madeira's bus network consists of more than one company, and it's not so easy to switch between them. In other words, efficient bus travel on the island means that you're limited by the routes of the company that operates in your area.
SAM is the bus company for the East of the island, and they didn't let me down once. On time and with helpful drivers that speak English, SAM buses are a brilliant way to get from one trail to another. (I'll be writing a blog post soon about which walking trails are the best to tackle if you're based in Porto da Cruz, which is a charming village on the North shore with many of the very best walking and views on its doorstep - also good for surfers.) So, for Eastern islanders, Machico (which is where settlers first landed) is the main bus station. Assume that wherever you're starting in the East, your journey will probably take you via Machico. You may have to get off there and change buses, but this process is seamless - just ask the driver which bus you need to be on for your destination. To give you an idea, it costs 4 Euros to go from Porto da Cruz to Funchal, which is about as far a journey as you'd take with SAM. Porto da Cruz to Machico or the airport (which, despite being called Funchal airport, is actually located between Machico and Santa Cruz) is 1.95.
Get a trail book in your native language. My French is good, but I'd have got lost a hell of a lot less with directions en Anglais.
All the walks are graded easy, intermediate or challenging. For challenging, read 'potentially pretty treacherous' as the grading is indicative more of the condition of the path, rather than the level of fitness required to tackle the route. The Boca do Risco trail, for instance, has a minimal ascent of 220-360m going from P'Cruz to Machico, but is challenging because at least half of it is on a narrow pathway cut into the cliff face (see pictures above). You're aided in the trickier sections by a secure length of cable to hold onto, however those with vertigo are not going to enjoy this one.
With this in mind, it's worth saying that a Madeiran walk should be considered more as a scramble - you get up or down any way you can. So, use your hands, and the trees and rocks where possible. If you're a skier or boarder, think about how you'd get down ski slopes outside your comfort zone. Consider slide slipping the trickier parts. Don't look at the view while you're walking - that's how you fall.
Photograph crossings and unusual trees to help you if you get lost. Be mindful of the surfaces you have to tread and which part of the foot is best to use on it (leaves, rock, root, earth, wet, dry). Beware the mini trails that look like they might be something but turn out to be routes between farmland for farmers and/or locals to their houses.
If you think you can do it, you probably can but if anything doesn't feel right DON'T DO IT & don't beat yourself up about backing out. Trust your instincts. And if in doubt, think 'what would a mountain goat do?'
4. Not everyone speaks English! Sure, in Funchal and Machico most people do, but if you get lost in rural parts, you're going to need someone under the age of 30 to help you out. That said, I got by on more than one occasion by pointing hopefully in one direction and saying the name of my intended destination in the best Portuguese accent I could muster. Every Madeiran knows the trails, so at the very least they'll be able to confirm or deny.
5. There's not just plentiful walking here, there's surfing too. Surfers, you want to be on the North shore unless you're a pro, in which case you might stand a chance with the bigger waves in the South. When people are talking about conditions and wave sizes, check whether their measurement is the back of the wave or the front. The tendency on the island is to measure the back of the wave, so if your instructor is talking about a half metre wave, bear in mind that it could be 2 metres at the front. Photographers, if you want a beautiful sunset, you need to be on the South of the island. And when you're fed up of all that, scare yourself silly by walking on the glass bottomed viewing platform at Cabo Girao, the second highest cliff in the world. Well worth a look.
And one more thing: You're in possibly one of the most beautiful places on Earth, so while you're being a tourist, be a mindful one. Notice the way the noise of road traffic, towns or the ocean appears loud when you're exposed on top of a mountain and yet around the corner, turning into a sheltered piece of mountain, it ceases almost entirely. Notice the colours and the sunlight. Feel the trees and the moss (it's incredibly soft!)
Where to stay: I can't recommend Madeira Surf Camp in Porto da Cruz highly enough for those looking for an easy, accessible hostel from which to explore the island, complete with a super helpful host - his name is Helder and he's exceptionally knowledgeable about surfing, and is always happy to help provide lifts to and from trails. His relaxed outlook on life is infectious and he made me laugh on more than one occasion (though perhaps he wasn't intending to!)
How to get there: Norwegian Air Shuttle does flights from Gatwick for bargainous prices. I think a return was £70. 3 hours, no time difference, job's a good'un.
What to eat: The local specialities are scabbard fish, Espetada (beef, squid or fish on a stick), Pecado (beef pieces in garlic gravy), Bolo de Caco (garlic stuffed flatbread, often turned into a steak sandwich called Prego). If you're in P'Cruz, eat at 'Pipa' snack bar. It's the best restaurant in town and they do a great house red, the largest you'll find for 2.50 Euros.