We woke up at 3am and arrived at the Lisbon airport at 5am. Why? Because EasyJet (oxymoron) is anything but easy, requiring you to check in one hour before flight time…that is when they close the window! I was surprised at the number of people headed for Madeira which is 600 miles away and about a hundred off the coast of Africa. It was foggy all the way until we approached the island (there are two others, one small and the other long and a national park). We were met by our driver, Daniel Freitas, who has a large van and runs a taxi service who came highly recommended. We were with him from 8:30am until 6:30pm and we could never have seen all that we did by renting a car or on a tour bus. As we climbed up into the mountains we were in low fog but soon we were above it and it was beautiful. It is one of the most picturesque Mediterranean-climate islands in the world. It has hundreds of miles of hiking paths, many of which require great stamina, but the views are worth it. We drove to the lookout at the top of the second-highest peak on the island…if you hike 9km you can reach the highest which is only 50 meters higher.
There are 360 degrees of fantastic views. Daniel pointed out some small houses in a valley surrounded by towering peaks that are almost vertical. That is the Valley of the Nuns, he said, but said we are going to the other end of it. We then drove down roads with switchbacks and steep cliffs and when we arrived the lookout of the south end of that valley was unbelievable…probably 1,000 feet below us. To get to the town from the other end is a two hour walk. These are rugged people who happen to live in a paradise.
There are surprisingly good highways around the perimeter of the island and beautiful bays. He took us to a restaurant that cooked meat on hot fires and made them into something like kebobs. The tables had a square hole in the center and they brought the skewers to the table and hung them on hooks on a rod that fit into the hole. A plate was placed below them to catch the drippings. You just took your fork and pushed down on a square of incredible beef and put it on your plate. Everything there was fantastic including a view of the ocean over the town.
From there we visited Henriques y Henriques, a Madeira company established in 1850 with a solid reputation and excellent Madeira’s. Madeira is placed in hot rooms which, unlike Port, pasteurizes it, making the wine last indefinitely both in the bottle and unopened. You can find Madeira’s back to the 1800’s…and priced accordingly but despite the song that lent the title to this piece, are not for old ladies’s. The one’s to use for cooking are at least Sercial, and for drinking Bual or Fine Malmsey. You can find young ones for around $20 a bottle and worth it!
We then visited The Madeira Wine Company where Blandy’s and many other labels are made. It is a very commercial yet old feeling setting, highlighted by the Madeira’s.
Saving the best for last, Daniel drove us past the tram to the top of the mountain (just normal sky ride gondola’s), for something I had wanted to do since I was a kid and saw Around the World in 80 Days! The toboggan ride which has been billed by some magazines as ‘the best five-minute commute in the world’! …and it is. You sit in a basket with a seat that is made for two and is on wooden skids…then two men wearing white shirts and pants, and black sashes with straw hats give you a healthy push down the hill and then jump on the back of the skids and using one foot each, steer the toboggan down the hill. It isn’t scary but it is certainly fun. 25 euros for one person, 30 for two and well worth it. I used my camera phone to film it and it is fun to view.
We arrived back at the airport again having to check-in an hour before the flight. The amazing thing is the original runway had a ramp built in to extend the surface and was billed as the second most dangerous airport in the world. A plane crash by an airline pilot who didn’t use common sense caused them to extend the runway on the land side to accommodate the newer and larger jets…but there still isn’t a lot of runway left at the end.
A final comment on EasyJet, which is the low cost provider, but makes up for it in others ways: the seats are crammed in so close that they made them unable to recline. More importantly, they don’t even give you water on the plane unless you pay 3 euros for it. Most airlines want you to drink all you want to keep hydrated. but not this one. Also, the drink prices are so high that from the time they start the drink service it only takes about five minutes to cover the entire plane! Nobody buys anything. Then they spend the rest of the trip trying to sell you over-priced duty-free items…we saw few takers on that. I didn’t have to use the restroom but quipped that there was probably a 1 euro coin slot on the door!
We arrived back at our hotel in Lisbon at 12:30am, exhausted but wouldn’t have omitted the excursion for anything in the world. FYI, Daniel charged us 160 euros which we felt was a great deal…and got a nice tip too!
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