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Almost 1,000 kilometres southwest of Lisbon and blessed with mild winters, the subtropical island of Madeira has long been a popular retreat for sun-hungry pensioners. The harbour-hugging capital, Funchal, still attracts its fair share of grey hair, but wilder and more remote parts of the island are starting to entice a new breed of young, adventurous and nature-loving tourists.
And it’s easy to see why: Madeira’s remote location in the Atlantic has helped to keep development in check, and the jagged landscape – shaped by ancient volcanic eruptions – provides the perfect backdrop for an active holiday. Plunging valleys and misty mountain ridges snake through the interior, where untouched forests await exploration, while swollen waves pound into the island’s rocky coastline, drawing surfers from around the world. So visit Funchal, Santa Cruz and Câmara de Lobos, where it’s said the first Portuguese explorer landed in 1420; but remember that beyond the sunny coastal resorts, there’s plenty to discover.
Five unforgettable activities to try on holidays to Madeira
Paragliding in Madeira
Madeira has dozens of spots with paragliding potential, but only a couple have been developed to give first-timers the chance to fly with a qualified instructor. One of the most scenic locations is Canhas, 25 kilometres west of Funchal above the tiny village of Madalena do Mar. From the grassy take-off zone, bald cliffs tumble for 470 metres, passing emerald banana terraces and whitewashed villas on their way down to the sea. Spiralling high above the island on warm thermals allows you to drink in views of forested ravines and the rippling blue Atlantic, which fades hazily into the horizon.
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Swimming with wild dolphins in Madeira
Forget cramming into a glass-bottomed boat: the best way to meet the wild bottlenose dolphins that frolic around Madeira’s coastline is to jump right into the water. Ecotourism company Madeira Wind Birds runs guided boat trips from Caniçal twice a week, giving you the chance to spot dolphins and – when the conditions are right – swim with them. If the cetaceans don’t show, you’ll still be able to take a dip at the Ponta de São Lourenço nature reserve, a deserted rocky peninsular on the island’s eastern edge.
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Canyoning in Madeira
Madeira’s steamy laurisilva forest – declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999 – is a place of wild flowers, hidden waterfalls and ancient evergreen trees. At its heart is Ribeiro Frio, a pristine canyon best navigated while wearing a wetsuit and helmet. There are six nerve-jangling abseil descents on the three-and-a-half-hour trip run by Adventure Kingdom, which runs all winter. Along the way you’ll have to swim, negotiate waterfalls and scramble over rocks, with occasional free-fall leaps into cool green pools carved out by the gushing water.
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Surfing in Madeira
There are two reasons why surfing in Madeira is not to be taken lightly. Firstly, the waves have an enormous fetch, allowing them to pick up huge amounts of energy (and size) on their way across the Atlantic. And when they do eventually break, it’s usually onto solid rock – less forgiving than a nice sandy beach. One of the few places with beginner-friendly waves and a sandy shoreline is Porto da Cruz, on the northeast coast, which has its own surf camp. Lessons are available by the day or week, and crowds are never a problem.
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Walking in Madeira
Madeira’s original active pursuit and still mightily rewarding, levada walking involves following the mossy irrigation channels (or levadas) that guide water from the wet northern reaches of the island to the drier southern settlements. There are trails for all abilities, but the most spectacular deviates from the levadas for a long slog between two of the island’s highest peaks: Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo. The well-trodden path includes steep ascents and a walk through a lightless tunnel, but any effort is more than made up for by the sight of wild flowers, endangered seabirds and – on a clear day – coast-to-coast views of the island.
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