Hanging above a sun-drenched waterfall, I let the suspended rope edge through my fingers. After a lifelong fear of heights, I was abseiling down a vertical drop.
Forests of eucalyptus and pine, sweet blackberry bushes and towering prune trees framed my descent, and as I plunged into waist-deep mountain water, I knew I’d left all my preconceptions about Madeira at the top.
I was canyoning on the third day of a one-week trip to the Atlantic island, an autonomous region of Portugal famous for its wine, flowers and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is a destination for retired Brits, Portuguese honeymooners and natives returning to settle after spending a wild youth in Lisbon.
Or so I thought. Madeira, rich with lush, imposing landscapes, rugged coastlines and steep, volcanic edges, is also a playground for the adventurous.
Among the abseiling, swimming and jumping, canyoning brought an unexpected delight.
As we clambered through remote gorges and bushy overgrowth, we picked fruit and herbs straight from the trees. It was an experience illustrative of the entire trip, because if you want to sample Madeira, you have to taste it.
A short food and wine tour in Funchal, Madeira’s capital, provided me with a whistlestop tour of an exceptionally exhaustive menu.
Tasting Madeira is savouring a glass of medium-rich reserve after a generous meal of freshly baked “Bolo do Caco” bread, limpets slathered in garlic butter, and the ugly but delicious black scabbardfish served with passion fruit sauce.
Other typical dishes include beef roasted to perfection on laurel wood skewers, fried corn and a paradise of fruity chocolate puddings.
With a 500-year history, Madeira wine is recognised and appreciated around the world. George Washington liked a glass, and Shakespeare, Napoleon and Churchill were also big fans. But it’s not the most popular drink on the island.
Instead, locals mix aguardente de cana – distilled alcohol made from sugar-cane juice – with honey, lemon and orange juice.
The result, Poncha, is drunk everywhere at all times of day, and it certainly hits the spot.
Walking off a food-induced coma is also not a problem as Madeira’s unforgettable landscape provides a whole host of on-foot activities.
Walking in the mountains along the levadas, a unique irrigation system of narrow water channels, is breathtaking.
The channels were carved by early settlers (or, more likely, their slaves) and now form an unofficial hiking network through beautiful and otherwise inaccessible countryside.
Madeira’s crumbling landscape of deep troughs and gnarly ridges also offers multiple sport opportunities for adrenalin seekers. Mountain-biking, trail-running, climbing and jeep safaris are just a few on the list.
And despite a lack of sandy beaches, watersports are abundant. Whether you want to paraglide high above the waves or paddleboard on to the surface, there is an activity for everyone.
When I took to the sea it was on a catamaran and we were in search of some other Madeiran locals.
Thanks to its ocean location, whales and dolphins can be seen off the coast all year round. As guides with binoculars scoured the waves, our lazy eyes wandered the coastline until, suddenly, a dolphin calf flung itself against the horizon.
Within minutes, we were among a 300-strong throng.
The dolphins were not afraid of the catamaran and swam alongside us, jumping, flipping and racing as though the vessel was a big brother. Watching the animals in their natural habitat – so playful and in such a large quantity – was incredibly beautiful.
A couple of hours before boarding the catamaran, I took a cable car to the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. High in the hills, overlooking Funchal, 100,000 native and exotic plant species enjoy a perfect climate and extremely fertile soil.
I got lost in a maze of azaleas, orchids and proteas before suddenly emerging at the central lake, heaving with koi, turtles and swans.
On my way back to Funchal, I decided to ditch the cable car for a sled ride. The traditional Monte Toboggans – which look like wicker baskets on skis – were used in the 19th century as a means of transport by locals in a hurry.
Today, straw-hatted “carreiros” steer nervous tourists down polished tarmac at speeds of up to 30mph. The descent from Monte to Livramento is a mile or so and takes about 10 minutes.
All good things that traditionally attract older folk to Madeira still exist. Within 10 minutes of landing at Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport (yes, you read that correctly) a taxi driver told me every Madeiran’s middle name is “hospitality”.
There is an amazingly mild climate of between 25C in summer and 17C in winter, with warm winds and moderate humidity.
My base, the well-located VidaMar Resort Hotel, offered multiple freshwater swimming pools, attentive bar staff, live music, a gym – including exercise classes – and a beautiful spa overlooking the ocean.
While I took advantage of the endless activities on offer, I also spent four days of my trip doing nothing but swimming, relaxing and venturing into Funchal’s old town for dinner.
One thing is for certain – the older folk have it exactly right.
Book the holiday
loveholidays offers seven nights at the 5 star Vidamar Resorts Madeira in Funchal from £612 per person on a half board basis (breakfast and dinner) including return flights from Gatwick on 10th June 2019 based on 2 adults sharing.
£687 from Manchester on 14th June (on same basis as above)
You can find out more and book at loveholidays or call 0203 870 6844.
Price subject to availability and change.