In the great outdoors of Madeira: 'We like to live, not just work'
An activity holiday in Madeira provides an adventurous getaway for Liadan Hynes...
'Don't look down," my companion shouts from above.
It's unnecessary advice; even if I wanted to, I couldn't see beyond the muck path which drops off sharply into nothing a mere hair's breath from where I stand. I am at the top of a cliff face almost 30m in height, down which gushes a loud waterfall.
This is canyon number seven of our six-hour trip. We had hiked uphill for about an hour, before changing into wetsuits and starting our descent, a mixture of cliff faces and scrambling along the more level parts of the river. By this point, I have learnt that it is better to simply concentrate on where the next foot will be placed on the sometimes wet, often moss-covered, potentially treacherously slippery terrain as I abseil down yet another rock face.
A brief flirtation with personal training has left me with the lasting, largely erroneous impression, that I am in some way a naturally active, hardy sort of person. So when my editor offered an activity themed trip to Madeira, I jumped at it.
It's so me, I thought to myself - completely ignoring the fact that I am in fact the kind of person who goes to the gym a couple of times of week, where I will often phone it in with a brief 20-minute shuffle on the treadmill.
I had been to the island once before, on what would be considered the typical Madeiran holiday experience - lots of lying around relaxing, strolling by the pier, pottering around the old part of the island's capital of Funchal.
The Madeira Archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal, and comprises four island groups, two of which, Madeira and Porto Santo, are inhabited.
Tourist season in Madeira lasts for most of the year, with the region enjoying a permanently mild climate.
The island, which holds the Guinness World Record for the largest fireworks display, likes to celebrate. There are festivals throughout the year; carnival, fauna, heritage, arts, music, wine, history, and nature all get a look in.
The two five-star hotels we stayed in reflected different aspects of the island. The Albatroz Hotel, situated minutes from the Cristiano Ronaldo Airport, felt like something out of an Agatha Christie. The Vine Hotel, in the centre of Funchal, was designed by Nini Andrade Silva, a world famous Funchal-born interior designer, and has a more boutique hotel feel. Both featured beautiful swimming pools; the former, a natural seawater pool at sea level, accessible by stairs built into the cliff face, the latter a rooftop pool with views of the mountains and bay.
The interior of the island, which measures 57km long and 22km wide, is covered in a Unesco World Natural Heritage laurisilva (laurel) forest. It's a landscape of dramatic mountains created by volcanoes, and greenery that goes from the tropical, to ferns, moss and lichens.
It is possible to explore the island's interior on foot, trekking along the levadas - man-made irrigation channels. Most of these footpaths are suitable for all fitness levels. For something more active, Madeira also offers trail running, golf, orienteering, diving, surfing, sailing, hang gliding and paragliding.
Our activities of choice for this trip were to be hiking, mountain biking, the aforementioned canyoning and a boat ride - for whale and dolphin spotting. Our first morning was spent hiking the island's highest peak, Pico Ruivo (1,862m), with Adventure Kingdom. The ascent led us to a viewing point set above the clouds, that offered breathtaking views of the entire island.
Our party included people of all ages; proving this activity is manageable for most abilities. Weather can be changeable along this walk, so bring layers.
Post-hike lunch was at Quinta do Furao, a hotel situated on a cliff top, with views reminiscent of the more dramatic parts of Kerry.
On our first night, we had eaten in another cliffside restaurant, Riso - Risottoria del Mundo, in Funchal. I had visited it on my previous trip, working my way though its delicious menu which includes beetroot with goats cheese risotto and lime risotto with fried scabbardfish fillet and banana compote.
Next up was mountain biking with Freeride. It turns out it is not always 'just like riding a bike'; I haven't been in the saddle in about 10 years, and had completely forgotten how. So it was a wobbly start. I had worried about coping with climbing the hills, but this was all downhill.
There is nothing like bombing down a smooth road, surrounded by views of mountains and forest, for really being in the moment. The route moved between on-road and off. It was the off-road that proved challenging.
"You need to commit," carolled a physically braver member of our party, as she dived down the muck path, surrounded by rocks and gorse. The thin path meant either walking your bike through for fear of careening into a small rock and going flying (me), or going for it and committing - bombing down the path with the wind in your hair (the rest of our party).
"We like to live, not just work," one of the guides told me, recounting how his preferred island activity was fishing with his father.
Back to the cliff top though, and the canyoning. Over I went. First, to get it over with. Don't look down. Clinging to your rope, you don't want to know how far there is to go. It turned out I was OK, purely because I was so terrified I listened intently to everything the guide said and then copied it to within an inch of its life.
Halfway down, there was an unexpected rockfall, just where I was about to place my foot.
It meant I had to reroute, and descend the path of the waterfall. It felt as if someone just above me was repeatedly throwing buckets of water in my face. Hyperventilation felt mere breaths away. I feared I might lose a contact lens, and be forced to descend virtually blind.
And then I reached the ground. Two minutes later, a wave of adrenalin unlike anything I've ever known hit. I am still high on the smugness. And am now officially an activities holiday person.
* Liadan travelled with British Airways (britishairways.com).
* Accommodation was provided by hotelthevine.com and albatrozhotel.com.
* Activities were supplied by Adventure Kingdom (madeira-adventure-kingdom.com) and Freeride (freeridemadeira.com).
* For more information on Madeira, see madeiraallyear.com
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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