This Portuguese archipelago is way out there in the Atlantic, just under 1,000km south of Portugal. The main islands are Madeira and Porto Santo, and the others are made up of two uninhabited groups, Desertas and Selvagens. Our Madeira walking holidays focus on the main island, also called Madeira. Although it is only 55km long, it’s mostly the coast that has been developed, leaving an inland idyll of wilderness areas, and many reasons to go walking in Madeira. These include the high-altitude Madeira Peaks and UNESCO Laurisilva forests. Walkers are also gifted with unique walking trails throughout the island, called levadas, which are man-made irrigation channels dating back to the 15th century, still directing water but also walkers who follow these ambrosian arteries across the island.
Weather in Madeira
Even though you might not associate the middle of the Atlantic with being warm and soothing, Madeira is like a balmy blip emerging from the waves. And the best bit is that this is the case all year around. Which is why we run self-guided walking holidays there every month of the year. It’s luscious without a rainy season, it’s warm without a scorching season, with average temperatures all year of around 20C on lower elevations around the coast. Sea temperatures never dip below the high teens, and as for getting wet on your hikes, June is the driest month, and April is the wettest, with 36mm of rain over three days.
Madeira’s levada trails
Madeira is famous for its extensive network of levadas, which are narrow irrigation channels that were originally built to distribute water across the mountainous island from the rainier north-west side to the more arid south-east. As a result, agriculture thrives here, with terraces of sugar cane, bananas, sweet potato, figs, oranges, lemons and grapes.
Levadas are still used for water supply purposes, but their banks also now serve as natural arteries for walkers and trail runners, making this otherwise mountainous island much more accessible. They all have different names, and you can explore many of them on this levada trails holiday. Such as the Levada do Rei (King’s Levada), which takes you through semi-tropical forests, past waterfalls and springs. Or the Levado do Norte, which is one of the island’s largest channels, from which you get some superb views of the coast and the capital, Funchal.
The most famous levada is the Caldeirão Verde through the UNESCO laurel forests to the iconic waterfall and lagoon after which the levada is named. You get to follow this levada on our Flower island of Madeira walking holiday.
“Madeira is a stunning island, and with this trip we were fortunate to travel around and see the best bits. The levada walks followed the contours of the mountains and hence the walks weren’t too difficult. The north coast in particular is wild, rugged and stunning. The standard of accommodation was exceptional and beyond our expectations.” – Fiona, Northern Ireland, 2023.
The Laurisilva of Madeira
The Laurisilva of Madeira are unique and ancient forests that are considered to be some of the best-preserved and largest laurel forests in the world. When we say ancient, we mean millions of years, dating back to the Tertiary period. Consequently, it has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999, and it covers 150km2 hectares and is protected by the Parque Natural da Madeira.
You walk through parts of the forest on both our coastal and levada trails and our flower island of Madeira walking holidays. Walking up to high altitude paths, enveloped by the island’s Madeira Peaks, you emerge to have superb views of the island, or simply immerse yourself in a blanket of flora-rich and fairytale-like forest. Indeed the word Madeira means ‘wood’ in Portuguese because when they settled here in the 15th century, the whole island was covered in these trees.
Madeira’s cuisine reflects its location and history, with a blend of Portuguese, African and Mediterranean influences. Its traditional dishes include espetada (a meat kebab) and cozido Madeirense, which is the local stew made with salted pork, sausages and seasonal vegetables. Not surprisingly, there is also plenty of fine seafood. The most common fish is the black scabbard, or espada, prepared traditionally with passion fruit and banana sauce. Limpets, or lapas, are often served as starters, as is octopus, known locally as polvo. For a main course, tuck into a tuna steak (bife de atum) fresh from Atlantic waters. For picnics, you can pick up the local bolo do caco flatbread, so called because they are traditionally cooked on a basalt stone over hot coals, called a caco, as well as an array of local produce to go with.
Madeira wine is a world-renowned fortified wine that has been produced on the island for centuries. The unique winemaking process involves ageing the wine in barrels and subjecting it to high temperatures. The varieties are Sercial (dry), Verdelho (medium dry), Bual (medium rich), and Malmsey (rich and sweet). There are also other red and white wines to be found on the island, as well as various espumante wines or bubblies that go down very well after a day on the hills. Also, don’t miss the opportunity to try poncha, a traditional local drink made with rum, honey, and citrus.
“I went with a friend and we honestly had the best time. I’m an avid hiker. However, he is not, and it was a great mix between easy and hard hikes. Would recommend to everyone thinking about going!” – Ellie, UK, 2023
Festivals in Madeira
Madeira is a hive of cultural activity throughout the year, with a strong community that is keen to celebrate its unique island culture, traditions and gastronomy. The most famous festival is the Festa da Flor (Flower Festival) in Funchal, which takes place over several weeks in May. From a floral Wall of Hope to streets filled with floral carpets, this is an event that is simply good for the soul. There is also Carnival in February, which runs over an incredible three weeks with masked and costume parades, dancing and drinking. There is quite a lot of drinking to be done at the Madeira Wine Festival in September too, when you have a window of several weeks to toast the tracks and trails, viticulture and contemporary culture of this unique place in the Atlantic.
Madeira is just one of many islands where you can go on a walking holiday, and you can read about more in our blog, Island walking holidays. You can also read more about all our other Portugal holidays here and, in particular, its other archipelago, the Azores. For any other questions about Madeira or any of our other walking and cycling holidays, please don’t hesitate to contact us.