Mike and Julie on a Madeira Sidecar Tour

I finally made it to the island of Madeira for the first time in August. As usual, my list of places to visit was ambitious, especially since Mike and I had decided not to rent a car. We thought we’d leave the hairpin bends to the experts like Filipe Freitas from Madeira Sidecar Tours who offered to take us on a tour of the East side of the island. 

Thanks to him, we saw more than we’d bargained for and felt like mini celebrities as people gawped and took photos of us and our stylish black motorbike and sidecar. It’s not surprising that people stare. There are currently only three of these replica Russian military bikes on the island so they are still very much a novelty. 

Filipe on his beautiful Ural motorbike with sidecar, Madeira
Filipe on his beautiful Ural motorbike with sidecar, Madeira

Filipe stuck to the old roads wherever possible on our adventure. Although the new roads and tunnels are a vitally important addition to the island’s infrastructure, they’re not so much fun on a motorbike or sidecar.

Pootling along narrow windy roads through villages and around mountains taking in the spectacular scenery is exhilarating. We were able to relax and enjoy the sense of openness and freedom while chatting about snippets of local history and oddities via the headphones and microphones in the helmets.

Bananas and grapes near Câmara de Lobos

Our first stop was the Pico da Torre viewpoint overlooking the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. As we drove away from Funchal, the patches of greenery start to spread, although I was surprised by the amount of dried vegetation.

For some reason, I’d expected that even in August, Madeira would be green all over. As the day progressed, we discovered several microclimates that proved me well and truly wrong.

The south of the island gets the most sun, which is great for growing tropical fruits such as bananas. Sadly, although it seems as though every other house has its own plantation, Madeiran bananas are too expensive for the local population to buy. Steep slopes equal high labour costs and it’s cheaper to import them from Equador and the like, even if they aren’t as tasty.

We never got to sample a local banana on this trip but you can read about the Madeiran food and drink we did enjoy in this post.

As we climbed further uphill, the banana plants were gradually replaced by Malvasia grape vines which form low jungly canopies over every spare patch of ground. This helps the heat from the earth to heat the grapes and improve the flavour but again, it makes harvesting tricky, which is partly why Madeiran wine is relatively expensive.

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Cabo Girão, Madeira

A glass-floored viewing platform extends from the Cabo Girão clifftop, 589 metres above sea level, provoking squeals and plenty of photo opps from the hundreds of tourists that come here each day.

The views are stunning and the sensation of looking down at the sea far, far below is a little disconcerting so I was happy to relinquish my spot to others and get back on the bike.

 
Cliffs, Cabo Girão, Madeira
Cliffs, Cabo Girão, Madeira

We returned to Cabo Girão on Sunday, albeit unintentionally and without Filipe. If you have more time to spend in this area, the views from Restaurant Miradouro Cruz da Caldeira are spectacular and they do a mean steak sandwich (prego especial).

It’s possible to walk downhill along Caminho de Cruz da Caldeira and Vereda de Levada da Caldeira to the Faja de Cabo Girão cable car but be warned, it’s extremely steep in parts. The path zig zags past vegetable plots and rural houses and although the views are impressive, the route isn’t always pretty.

For easier walks in Madeira, take a look at this post.

If you don’t fancy the descent, Rodoeste bus #27 stops near the cable car and nearby Restaurant Teleferico do Rancho which also has excellent views, great ice cream and mixed grills.

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Fajã de Cabo Girão beach

Mike and I took the cable car down the cliff to the tiny patch of farmland that backs a pebble beach (5 euros return journey).

This bay is a popular swimming spot for the catamarans and boat trips that anchor to allow their passengers to go for a dip before returning to Funchal.

Approaching the water from the beach is a bit trickier as you have to pick your way across mounds of loose pebbles. I learned the hard way that it’s easier with shoes on.

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Ribeira Brava, Madeira

This sprawling town is built in a river bed and is still recovering from the devastating floods that killed around 50 people and destroyed many homes and businesses in 2010. Although we only had time to stop for a coffee, Ribeira Brava seems pleasant and has a small grey sandy beach beyond the esplanade which I imagine is much easier to deal with than the pebbled beaches.


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São Vicente, Madeira

From Ribeira Brava, we cut across the island towards the north coast. As we drove up through the Serra de Agua, I was captivated by the jagged peaks and impossibly located patches of farmland.

The descent to São Vicente took us through Madeira’s famous Laurel Forest into greener, sub-tropical territory and the lush vegetation that my mind had associated with Madeira.

We took time out from the tour to explore the inside of the island at São Vicente caves, a fascinating experience. We only managed a quick peek at the small but attractive coastal village of Sao Vicente but we noticed a few cafés and restaurants and I could easily while away a few hours or more here.

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Arco de Sao Jorge, Madeira

Instead, I climbed back into the sidecar so that Filipe could drive us through hand-carved tunnels to Arco de Sao Jorge, a spot that English settlers immediately fell in love with. I can see why. The semi-circular stretch of flat land is backed by a horseshoe cliff that looms large and green.

Within this patch of paradise you’ll find Quinta do Arco, and the 1,700 species of roses which are cultivated in its gardens. For 3.50 euros, we got to wander along the leafy paths, past the attractive self-catering bungalows to the rose garden.

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Santana houses

Apart from an amusement park, Santana is best known to tourists for its triangular thatched roofed houses. Nowadays, hardly anyone actually lives in this type of property; they’re tiny.

The ones that visitors will see have been spruced up and painted to make them as photogenic as possible and at least one now houses a souvenir shop. I’m very glad we didn’t spend hours on a bus just to see these cottages. A quick photo stop is all we needed.

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Parched Ponta de São Lourenço

After the greenery of northern Madeira, it came as something of a shock when we reached the desert-like landscape around the free-trading zone and fishing port of Caniçal and the magnificent rocky peninsular that leads to Ponta de Sao Lourenço. The rock formations are alien and it came as no surprise when Filipe told us the area has been used as the set for sci-fi films.

From one side, you can see the three Ilhas Desertas (desert islands) which are uninhabited and protected for their fauna and flora. You can take a boat trip to them if you’re interested. From the other side of the peninsula, the larger island of Porto Santo is also visible. If endless sandy beaches are your thing, you might want to consider taking the ferry across.

Personally, I’d rather stick to the main Madeira island and if I get the chance to go back to Ponta de Sao Lourenço, I’ll do the 2-hour walk along the headland then go for a dip in the ocean before retracing my steps. There’s a bus stop and a car park at the start of the walk.

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Machico, Madeira’s former capital

Our last stop before returning to Funchal was Machico, the first settlement in Madeira. From the Pico do Facho viewpoint, you can see the city spreading away from its golden sandy beach along the valley into the hills.

Up close, the seafront promenade was still getting plenty of use in the early evening and although I didn’t find time to return on this trip, I’d like to spend a little more time getting to know Funchal’s biggest rival.

Machico, Madeira from Pico do Facho
Machico, from Pico do Facho

Practicalities for a Madeira sidecar tour

Exploring Madeira by motorbike and sidecar was a great way of getting a sense of the island’s diversity and an idea of which places are worth going back to to explore in more depth. You won’t get to see all of the sights we did on a 3-hour old road tour or the 4-hour scenic tour but you will have a great introduction to the island.

Because of the individual nature of the tours, it’s easy to customise itineraries if you have specific interests and to build in time for visiting attractions. For example, we ended up doing the East of Madeira tour in reverse so that we could have time to explore the caves at São Vicente.

The only downside to that, I discovered, was that the view from the sidecar was slightly restricted by being next to walls and hillsides for much of the time. Normally, this wouldn’t happen as the routes are designed so that the sidecar passenger spends most of the journey on the outer side of the road with heart-stopping views down deep valleys.

Mike and I found that the views from the back of the bike were better and the sidecar was more comfortable so we took it in turns to relax in the sidecar and perch on the bike.

For more information, visit the Madeira Sidecar Tours website or watch this video, which starts at Ponta de Sao Lourenço.

There are plenty of other ways to explore Madeira if the sidecar tour doesn’t appeal to you, such as this Cliffs and Valleys Jeep Tour from Funchal.

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Exploring Madeira By Sidecar: An Exhilarating Tour Of The Island

Disclosure: Mike and I were guests of Madeira Sidecar Tours on this trip. 

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19 Comments

  1. We managed to see most of that in our week 5 years ago, Julie, but the glass topped viewing platform at Cabo Girao wasn’t there. It’s a glorious looking island, isn’t it? So much variety! I love that watery shot of yours at the Ponta da Sao Lourenco.
    Was the bike tour expensive? I’d definitely go back.

    1. Author

      Hi Jo, I think as far as price is concerned, it’s value for money. As you’re getting a personalised, individual tour in a novel vehicle, it’s obviously more expensive than a group tour but they offer tours from 1 hour to 8 hours and the price is per bike not per person.

  2. Hi Julie, glad you enjoyed your hol in Madeira. You must go back and this time take as jeep trip to the west end of the island. This is a lovely island and my wife & I can’t wait to getback.

    1. Author

      Hi Maurice, Thanks for the tip. I was thinking of doing a jeep tour but simply ran out of time. I’ll probably give it a go next time though and I hardly saw anything of the west of the island so looking forward to that whenever I get chance to return.

      1. We’ve been going for 20 years and love the place and its people.

  3. Wow – a new approach. I’ve been to Madeira at least 6 or 7 times (although never in summer – always at easter or Christmas) and have walked many of the levadas and forest trails, but this is certainly a new perspective. I love the photo of you on the bike and Mike looing ever so smug in the sidecar. Surprsed about the bananas, though – we’ve always found the local one plentiful in restaurants etc – although it’s true that the (very photogenic) market in Funchal exploits tourists for all they’re worth.

    See you soon!

    1. Author

      Hi Robert, It was a great experience. Thrilling without being scary; I always felt safe.

      As for the bananas, I’m sure there are plenty available, we just didn’t try to buy any. Filipe was explaining that for Madeirans, it’s cheaper for them to buy foreign bananas than local ones, unless of course they actually grow their own.

      1. Thank you for your article on my lovely island. It is a small island but you can see a lot of different things here.

        Regarding the bananas, we do see them on supermarkets and actually most people (in the countryside) never ever buy bananas because we always have them for free in our plantations or neighbours tend to give some.

        POssibly in Funchal it is different.

        1. Author

          Hi Cesar, Thanks for taking the time to clarify the banana situation 🙂

          I was genuinely surprised at how varied Madeira is and I’d love to come back and explore some more. For example, I never made it to Porto Moniz. Next time…

  4. Julie,
    Ribeiro Frio was the first of my three guided levada walks. We walked into a misty and damp rainforest, the laurisilva World Heritage Site, with limited visual prospect whenever the tree canopy opened out. But for me this just added to the sensual pleasure. Colours were saturated. Waterfalls noisy and purposeful, just like teenagers. Eucalyptus fragrant, and slender fences waiting for my grasp before the steepest drop to another place. You need company on these walks… not just for safety, but to share the experience with. I remember thinking then, that the water flow was not unlike our walking pace, and that the same body of water may have been our companion for the day. Like a Swiss St Bernard perhaps, carrying refreshment, just in case. It was a longish walk as I recall, about 4.5 hours plus travelling, but I may be mistaken.
    Pico Arreeiro / Pico Ruiva is strenuous, I’d say. However, I was not particularly fit, then or now, and completed it without being unduly taxed. Your blogs elsewhere suggest you and Mike are active people, so you’ll need a better excuse than that frankly!
    Like the water that flows, your blog too has been a companion these past couple of years. Thank you for that. Garry

    1. Author

      Garry, Thank you for such a beautifully evocative description of the walk. I must go back and complete it next time. I’m still not sure about the Picos – I enjoy walking but not so much the uphill part. We shall see…

  5. Julie, I completed three Levada guided walks:
    Pico Arreeiro / Pico Ruivo
    25 Fontes / Rabacal
    Ribeiro Frio / Portela / Laurisilva forest
    These and the catamaran whale-watching were the highlights of my visit. I would have returned to Madeira sooner, but as a solo traveller, cities such as Lisbon have more pull given the greater choice of evening music venues. The Madeira climate is so different to Wales say, such that the tree-line in Madeira is at much greater altitude than here. A good example of this in Madeira can be seen taking the mountain road due north to Sao Vincente. Tropical rainforest-like conditions at more than 1000m. Jaw dropping. I’ve become a regular visitor to Lisbon, returning my third time this year in mid October. I may include Porto in my next visit early in the new year, and possibly Madeira later that year. It’ll be to Portugal somewhere. Of that I’m sure! Garry

    1. Author

      Garry, We have a shared experience of the 25 Fontes walk, then. I only did a short section of the Ribeiro Frio walk – we did the Balcões viewpoint walk first and needed to catch the bus back to Funchal. What’s it like? We never got out of the forest!

      I didn’t even try the Picos this time – I’m not fit enough and it was very hot – but I’d like to one day. We walked down to Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley), which I loved. I want to go back at a different time of year, maybe May, when it’s cooler and greener and the waterfalls are in full flow.

      I know what you mean about the tropical rainforest effect near São Vicente – wonderful stuff and not at all like Wales!

  6. Another great post. We did a week’s walking there about two years ago, and got around wholly by public transport (from our Funchal base). It’s very good once you’ve gotten to grips with the bus timetables! Hoping to go back again…. Wonder if you saw this street art in Funchal? Thought it impressive.http://www.lisbon-coast-apartment.com/funchal-street-art/

    1. Author

      Thanks, Brid. We also used the buses to get to several places and I also did one group tour but I’m very glad we did the sidecar trip – it saved us a lot of time and was so much fun.

      I’m planning another post about things to see and do in Funchal and yes, the street art will be in it. I think my favourite door is one with a mermaid sitting on a letterbox swing. Having looked at your photos, none of them seem familiar so I’m wondering if they change them each year or we just visited different streets. Either way, they’re fantastic!

  7. So glad you and Mike enjoyed your trip to Madeira, Julie. We visited a few years ago and were blown away by the views – especially when we were looking over a cliff which was so high, we watched the buzzards circling far below us! I was also impressed by the flower market in Funchal where it was possible to buy armfuls of fresh orchids. Bliss! We would love to go again as it was impossible to see all the sights in just a week.

    1. Author

      It’s amazing, isn’t it? We loved the market, too, especially for the fruit. And the scenery… definitely worth going back for more!

      1. Julie, that looks so much fun. Thanks for the post. I’m a regular visitor now to Lisbon, about three times per year, but your post has reminded me of my first two visits to Madeira. I must return sometime. Levada walks and a sidecar tour. Must go and do. Best, Garry.

        1. Author

          Thanks, Garry! I’d definitely recommend the sidecar tour as a way of exploring, especially as the tours are so flexible. As for levada walks, I have a post in the works about the ones I did – I wonder if they’re ones you’ve already done…

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