By Jonny Dawson
Madeira, also dubbed ‘the pearl of the Atlantic’, has plenty to offer visitors no matter how long you plan on staying. It is a relatively small island (even compared to the UK) you can cover the length of the island in 2 hours. Put simply, there is plenty to capture the sense! But the unsung hero of Madeira is surfing. This little known fact is what has kept this discovery completely preserved from all but the professionals until the 1970s. Once you have recognised the surf potential of this mid-Atlantic gem, experienced the fresh food, friendly inhabitants and all the activities available to you, the only question will be ‘How soon can I get there?’ Madeira will put you within reach of some unreal surf spots in truly amazing settings.
Are you looking for the surf-travel experience, wanting to see everything the Island has to offer? Then you can use the bus system that connects all parts of the island, it is very affordable but bear in mind you may not find many buses running at the weekend. For an Island so remote and with plenty of small towns along the coast and raw beauty waiting to be found in the interior, a car is the best way to explore for short trips.
The position of these Portuguese Islands ensures that they receive a huge amount of wind. As a result, currents find their way to the island and keep its winters mild, sea temperatures cool, and offer spectacular swells serving up surf on all sides of the exposed volcanic remains. When the waves are the highest in the year, the sea will be 19-22 degrees Celsius. Even in the coldest months of January and February, the water temperature won’t drop below 15 Celsius, meaning you can leave your boots, gloves and hood at home.
This Portuguese archipelago, created by a “Hot Spot”, is situated just 360 miles off the African coast of Morocco. The coast is rugged; it is as volcanic as they come. This means mostly rocky reef breaks and point breaks that are only surfable when the swell reaches a height of over 6ft. However, novices be warned! These breaks command respect and a learning curve as steep as the island’s cliffs – the entry and exit to the water is treacherous. A few small sections of the coast have developed into finer black sand beaches, but you will still see larger pebbles and smooth rocks reminding you to keep your head screwed on tight.
When to surf
Surf high season is tourist low season. This means lower prices. September to March is the best time to be there while December and January will throw out the best sized waves of the year. During these months, you won’t experience crowding in or out of the water, meaning that Madeira and its waters will be your personal playground.
Porto da Cruz, on the North East side of the island, is a quiet little town with loud waves. A ruined fort atop a small peninsula in the bay divides the two breaks. The black sand Praia da Alagoa is on the left, where you can also paddle out and across to a rocky-reef break that can’t be accessed on foot. On the other side of the outcrop is the much longer Praia Maiata, pumping out waves with more intensity and usually higher than its counterpart. The long beach with one safe access point, gives you plenty of room to play, but a few areas where exposed rocks looming out of the water remind you to pay close attention to your surroundings.
Machico is a town definitely worth checking out. Located close to the airport named after Cristiano Ronaldo, Madeira’s most valuable export. This small town boasts great food and an above average surf spot on the man-made beach when the swell is good. It is a place where a lot of lessons take place due to the sandy bottom, the smooth formation of the waves and enough room to get a little bit creative and be bold with your board.
See also: Ponta da Sao Lourenco, the most easterly point of Madeira Island.
For those brave enough, Paul do Mar and Jardím do Mar are excellent spots for the barrel hunters out there. These places kick out very high quality waves at the peak of the surf season but pack the appropriate punch to match. Nearby, at the most Western point of the main island, and the best place to watch sunsets is Ponta do Pargo, where waves can reach the 50 ft mark! These break on the very exposed South Western region, favouring winds in that direction.
Further up is Achadas da Cruz, an impressive spot based in a tiny town found at the feet of the cliffs. You can hike or take the cable car down the 500 metre drop where you will be greeted with consistent and long waves peeling both left and right. A flat rocky bottom will suit all surfers and best of all: you can take every wave you paddle for. There are few people taking advantage of this magical place.
Stay at: Madeira Native Motion. Base yourself here to be able to reach a number of surfing spots on the Western half of the island.
Another solid location, this time on the North of the island is Seixal. This is one of the finest black sand beaches on Madeira. Great waves are funnelled into a small bay as they build and grow coming along the coast. Ribiera da Janela is a nearby point break, close to the campsite. This might sound vague, but the campsite of this region is clearly signposted where the river meets the ocean, sandwiched between a valley. It is one of only two on the whole island. Pitching up a small two-man tent will only set you back €7 a night.
Must see: The Natural Swimming pools of Porto Moniz
When you aren’t riding the wave of your life and soaking in the intense sun, Madeira serves up surprise after surprise to stun you at every opportunity.
Hiking sights: ‘Levadas’ provide irrigation to the whole island to nourish the many types of fruit trees; built by convicts and slaves, they form a huge network across the whole of the volcanic island. The most spectacular is the ‘levada do 25 fontes’ 25 waterfalls.
Visit also Europe’s tallest cliff – standing 580 metres tall! Cabo Girao, a short drive from the capital of Funchal.
Pico Ruivo is the peak of the highest volcano that formed Madeira. Hiking trails take you up to 1862m above sea level for uninterrupted views for miles out.
Drink: Rum at the sugar cane factory and rum houses. The local drink – ‘poncha’ – made from passion fruit, is sweet but strong, is a must-try. Choose the homebrewed option where possible.
Extra credit: Slide down the streets in a wicker basket which was initially designed for transporting fruit. The 5km route will be done in 5 minutes, and two men in rubber soled shoes act as your brakes; an activity popularised by Ernest Hemingway.