Off the northwest coast of Africa lies a tropical island that can only be described as paradise. Madeira is paradise for its ideal island vibe and the incredible beauty around every corner. Add thrilling mountain biking and a surf community like no other you'll find a special place that makes you question why you ever decided to leave. We found Madeira through the mountain biking world and finally found the right time to make the journey into the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. With a school break long enough to thoroughly enjoy an island adventure we finally made the plans to spend 10 days on the island doing whatever felt right.
The airport in Funchal has to have one of the sketchiest runways I've seen. Considering that there isn't a single flat spot long enough to land a plane anywhere on the island they did a pretty good job building half the runway on oversized pylons. If the quick flyby of the what looks like a giant overpass with nowhere near enough length to land a jet doesn't start you sweating then the steep, banked 180-degree turn to immediate landing should.
Safely in our rented delivery van, we made our way through the overabundance of tunnels to the smallest town on the island, Jardim do Mar. Our home for the next ten days. We decided on a small studio, or what we liked to call the cabana, with a view of the ocean and nothing else. A view that made it difficult to leave each morning but gave us even more incentive to return each evening before the sunset over the ocean. Jardim is a quiet village of 200 inhabitants and was the perfect setting for a relaxing island vacation. One bar, two restaurants, 30 cats and the constant sounds of crashing waves. Paradise. Our only concerns were deciding which days we would bike, surf or just chill on our porch eating bananas. It was going to be a stressful week.
Given that Madeira isn't a huge island it still has an incredibly wide range of terrain and weather. The weather seemed to change by the minute most days of our trip. At the summit of many of our rides, the wind and dense fog could be testing your balance to stay on your bike and by the bottom of the trail, you'd be shedding layers in the sun along a cliffside. One early morning surf lesson started with pouring rain and wind fit more for sailing then surfing but by the morning's end the skies were breaking away for the start of a perfect spring day. Island weather and mountain weather collide here in Madeira. Don't like the weather? Wait ten minutes.
Most of the island's beaches are covered with pebbles and stones rounded by the constant battering of waves that hit the coastlines. Most beaches have very little sand at all, making it difficult for your typical beachgoer to build sandcastles and enjoy a day of sunbathing next to the water. Not to mention the sizeable waves crashing on the shorelines. These factors alone are enough to keep the hordes of beach vacationers away, keeping Madeira a quiet reserve for the outdoor adventurer. While I think hiking is probably the most popular activity on the island and you'll more than likely be sharing the trails with other hikers, we didn't see any other groups on the mountain bike trails during our four days of riding.
Mountain biking is relatively new to the island and is surely gaining popularity among European riders. Fortunately, as the bike community grows so will the trail systems and the acceptance by the local government to include mountain biking as a viable source of revenue for the island. Unfortunately, some of the rawness and unique characteristics of the current trails will be lost. Let's just hope that's years away from now and riders who want to explore the islands special take on mountain biking can do so.
The mountain bike terrain on Madeira is raw, rugged, loose, physical, wet, steep, rooted.....shit. How do I put this? Bring your damn A-Game! It's probably some of the most challenging bike riding we've done while trying to keep a smile on our faces or even hiding tears behind our sunglasses. Although the riding is difficult and exhilarating, the trails offer such a wide range of "choose your own adventure" riding you're free to choose a line that suits you and your skills. But choose the wrong line and you'll more than likely pay with bodily harm. Being pushed to our limits and chasing better riders was a great test and I think we passed but it may be time for some full-faced helmets. As we keep exploring the world's best mountain biking and find it's not always going to be rainbows and singletrack we've learned that seeking out trips like this will only keep bike riding fresh and exciting for us. I'm just happy I still have my teeth after this trip.
For four days we rode with Bikulture (sometimes called Drinkulture), the only shuttle company based in Jardim do Mar. Jeremy, the owner, was very accommodating and worked well with our flakey vacation schedule. Each day we decided to ride we'd meet in the town square, load up our bikes and gear in one of the two shuttle vehicles and rip up from the coast to the top of the island. Uphill travel with a mechanized vehicle is a must here in Madeira if you want to see everything this place has to offer. Any given day we'd ride anywhere between 5 to 7 runs, and yes that was plenty of exercise for all you uphill lovers wondering. About midday we'd stop for lunch at a local establishment carefully selected for its delicious cuisine. The food is outstanding in Madeira, and super cheap. You almost feel guilty when you see the bill.
Living through the afternoon of riding meant you'd earned a Poncha. Poncha is a local beverage of freshly squeezed oranges, honey, maybe a mandarin, and of course one of Madeira's finest rums. Usually served in a small glass that never seemed to empty. After a few ponchas, dinner was again arranged by Jeremy and off we were for more local delicacies like skewered cubes of beef or the island freshest fish. For dessert, we'd hit the Pukiki Tiki Bar for more rum and an assured slow morning. By midnight, with bike shoes still on, if we could make the journey down the path to our cabana without any blood knuckles it was a good day.
After our last visit to Portugal, we still had the itch to keep learning to surf. Madeira has a strong local surf community that is welcoming to outsiders who want to explore the island's surf spots. Without a lot of friendly beaches for the learning surfer, the options are limited but well worth it. Madeira is known for its consistent waves but you have to be an experienced surfer with a strong knowledge of the ocean to keep out of harm's way around here. WIth most the waves breaking onto the jagged rock surrounding the island you have to be on point because the slightest miscalculation can lead to gaping wounds and multiple stitches.
We got a real feel for how friendly the local surf community is right from the start. As we're having dinner at the local Jardim restaurant the word got out we wanted to take a lesson and no more than ten minutes later Adriano, our contact for the cabana, walk up and handed me his phone. "If you want to learn to surf here's who you talk to." On the other end of the phone was the local legend (which we didn't even know until we got home) Bilmiro Mendes. After a five minute conversation with our new instructor we had a plan to surf the next morning in Porto da Cruz.
As soon as we hit the water you could tell teaching people to surf was a passion for Bilmiro. We struggled right off the bat with waves bigger than we'd surfed on our prior trip and found just getting back out to where we needed to catch our next wave was a huge challenge. Bilmiro never gave up on us and wouldn't let us give up on ourselves. His patience, humor, strength, and calmness got us through the morning still wanting to come back for more.
We took two more lessons from Bilmiro and came away from our time with him not only feeling like we improved as surfers but that we'd made a new friend. Isn't that how it should feel after connecting with a good, kind soul? Bilmiro is a good soul. His passion for surfing is obvious and after learning to surf from this legend you walk away feeling like that passion has now somehow been passed on to you. Thanks Belmiro! You had a lasting impression on us and we hope someday to surf together again.
Our ten days on Madeira will never be forgotten and surely can't be understood in only a few paragraphs. This trip was challenging, soul-searching, relaxing, and way more fun than not fun. We left with a strong, refreshed island vibe that even an overnight delay in Lisbon couldn't crush. The people of Madeira are wonderful and the kindness they showed us will be a big factor is what brings us back. The island of Madeira is one of the most stunning places I've visited and when the time comes to return it may impossible to leave again.