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Central Peaks and Santana
The lofty peaks of central Madeira come as a surprise after the lush greenery of the coast. Mountains rise up to more than 6,000 feet, their craggy summits often above the cloud line. Most are easily accessible to walkers, while you can drive almost to the top of one of the most awesome, Pico do Arieiro, from where there are spectacular views and great hikes. To the north and east lie the much-photographed village of Santana, with its thatch-roof A-frame houses, and a varied coastline that reaches round to Madeira’s second town, Machico.
Pico do Arieiro
It’s a 45-minute drive from Funchal to the soaring peak of Madeira’s third-highest mountain, when on clear days visitors are afforded panoramic views around the entire island. If you’re an adventurous sort with a head for heights, consider setting out on one of the island’s most scenic hikes, which starts here and crosses Madeira’s three highest peaks.
The landscape grows more lush on the northern side of the island, and the road is full of waterfalls. Ribeiro Frio (Cold River) is known for its beautiful gardens—native species and nonindigenous flowers and plants grow prolifically around a government-run trout farm, the village’s main sight. Ribeira Frio is also the starting point for two popular levada walks. The first is one of the island's easiest and prettiest, taking around 30 minutes round-trip. At the lookout of Balcões (meaning "balconies") jagged peaks tower behind you, and there are views over densely wooded valleys. A longer, 12-km (7-mile) hike leads along a levada to Portela. If you attempt this, it should take three to four hours. Arrange for a taxi back.
The village of Santana is famous for its A-frame, thatch-roof palheiros (haylofts), which are unique to the island. Traditionally painted in bright colors, they look as if they've come straight from the pages of a fairy tale. Although few islanders still live in these dwellings, you can look around several of the houses just off the main through road, one of which is Santana’s tourist office and the others are little craft and souvenir shops. You’ll see that the upper floor was used for sleeping, while the lower floor was used as a living area or for storage. Cooking—and toilet facilities—was traditionally done outside, clear of the dwelling space. Santana is also a good base to see pretty vineyards and take a levada hike.
Porto da Cruz
The little fishing village of Porto da Cruz is a charming village on the northeast coast. Plenty of bustling cafés and restaurants gather round an attractive little harbor. At its western end there’s a great seawater swimming pool right on the seafront, which is popular in summer. Take the seafront promenade past here for an attractive walk to the Companhia does Engenhos do Norte, a working rum distillery—you can peer inside to look at its giant wooden barrels used to store the aguardente liqueur. This firewater, a sugarcane brandy, can be tasted at any bar in the village. It's far more palatable when tasted as part of the island's famous cocktail, poncha, mixed with honey and lemon juice.
Come to the second-largest town on the island after Funchal to wander through the old quarter, attractively situated in a crescent bay with a lovely beach that’s popular for swimming. The tourist office sits in the squat Forte do Amparo, built in 1706 to defend the town from pirate attacks. Local folklore says the bay of Machico was discovered in 1346 by two English lovers, Robert Machin and Anne d'Arfet, who set sail from Bristol to escape Anne's disapproving parents. The couple's ship was thrown off course by a storm and wrecked in this bay. Anne died a few days after becoming ill, and Robert then died of a broken heart. But their crew, according to legend, escaped on a raft, and news of the island made its way back to Portugal. (Legend also has it that Shakespeare heard the tale before he wrote The Tempest.) When the explorer Zarco arrived in 1420, he found a wooden cross with the lovers' story and the church—the island's first—where they were buried. He named the place in memory of Machin. Today you can visit a replica of the old church.
Multicolored boats bob in water flanking this village with a long history as a whaling station—the industry ceased operation in 1981. In 1985, 5 acres of the sea surrounding the town were designated a national marine park; today, thanks to these conservation efforts, you may catch a glimpse of a sperm or humpback whale offshore. Just east of Caniçal, the rugged Ponta de São Lourenço comprises eroded volcanic cliffs and feature a terrific hiking path that showcases the scenic wind-battered landscape.
Central Peaks and Santana at a Glance
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