Taking advantage of the ridiculously long space of time between appointments at the eye clinic we flew south for a few days in the sun. Ideally, we'd have chosen our favourite little family run hotel on the island of Menorca but Thomsons said it was fully booked.
|Savoy Gardens - a bit too posh for me! (Click pictures to enlarge)|
We finally opted for somewhere on a much grander scale, Savoy Gardens on the up market island of Madeira which we rated marginally below 4 stars with only two minor complaints.
|A welcome message on the telly! Never had that before...|
Dim lighting from energy saving bulbs in our room made it almost impossible for me to read at night, and coffee, much needed to fire the old engine into life first thing in the morning, was of poor quality. But all guests were given a glass of bubbly on arrival. In fact, my wonderful partner and I were presented with a whole bottle to celebrate our 25th anniversary. So overall it was great value for money and we'd certainly go again.
|Out for a morning run|
As always in a new location, first priorities were getting to know our surroundings, locating the nearest supermarket, sussing out a running route, acquiring bus timetables, testing the temperature of the pool and working out a rough itinerary to make the most of limited time. After that, it's all systems go.
|Agapanthus along Levada da Serra|
Our first venture into the wild was a 10km walk along the dried up Levada da Serra through a forest of eucalyptus and pines, agapanthus and montbretia, erygium and hydrangeas.
We passed an amazing hedge made from old bicycles approaching Camacha where we killed time waiting for a bus by watching potential beauty queens being put through their paces on the cat walk.
|Hedge of old bicycles. Best place for 'em I say...|
|First float in the Wine Festival parade|
Arriving back in Funchal we were just in time to witness a wine festival parade where elaborately decorated floats from various wine-making villages processed along the sea front.
|Dancers in the parade|
All were dressed in period costumes, some dancing to pipes and drums, some on horses, some carrying huge baskets of grapes, gentry walking arm in arm in all their finery.
One little boy found it all rather boring..
|Little boy lost...|
On previous holidays we've tended to avoid organised tours and do our own thing, but on this occasion, with little time to explore on our own, we were tempted by two of them. Firstly, a sail westwards on a replica of Christopher Columbus's boat, Santa Maria, then a guided walk linking the islands two highest peaks.
|Santa Maria replica|
With a temperature bordering 80º it was wonderful to sail into a sea breeze on the top deck of Santa Maria. As Madeira's beautiful landscape slipped past we were entertained by a pod of frolicking bottle nosed dolphins, causing much clicking of cameras as they arced and plunged in the Atlantic swell. They can grow to 4 metres long and weigh as much as 600 kgs.
|Bottle-nosed dolphins saying 'Hello'|
At our turning point, a ½ mile out from the highest sea cliff in Europe, it was time to swim. A beefy German guy jumped in from the top deck causing quite a splash. Others dived or jumped from lower parts of the boat. Our guide dived faultlessly from a rope ladder just below the crow's nest.
|Delectable place for a swim|
Yours truly jumped from a much lower ladder that dangled into the sea. I was hoping dolphins would join in the fun but they were having none of it. Revelling in the sun, the warm sea, the towering cliffs and our galleon silhouetted against the sky, I swam too far away and was shouted at to come back! It was a truly delectable experience.
|That's me at the back, waving goodbye to go hunting for dolphins!|
On most mornings my phone burbled at 7am to waken us for our morning run. A series of descents to a lido, then a run along the sea front, under a bridge where an itinerant slept among his cardboard boxes, past a roofless old building with rusting machinery and out onto a jetty where fishermen cast their lines in the dawn light.
|Back from a morning run, feeling good|
We'd no time for a run on 'Peaks day' as we were scheduled to be picked up from Savoy Gardens at 8.30am for a long drive into the hills.
A portly gentleman greeted us, spot on time, relieved us of our money and jokingly told us we could now go back to bed.
|Sunrise from our balcony, prelude to a great day in the hills|
|View from bus window showing circular military building at top of Pico do Areiro|
We'd imagined him to be the coach driver, or tour organiser to tick off names of everyone on the trip, but surprisingly he turned out to be our guide who'd shortly be sweating his way over perilously steep ascents and descents in the broiling sun carrying a rather large rucksack full of goodness knows what.
|Our Guide - with big yellow rucksack|
The coach deposited us by the restaurant atop Pico do Areiro at 10am. It was already teeming with walkers and sightseers all anxious to 'spend a penny' before setting off on their travels. Inflation must be rather high in Madeira for the summit loos cost 50c - half a Euro.
|Obligatory pose on viewing platform before starting the walk...|
After posing for an obligatory picture at Pico do Areiro's high point (5,965ft) we set off across the arid landscape towards an impregnable looking peak in the far distance. I was glad, very glad indeed, we'd employed the services of a guide rather than attempt to traverse these mountains on our own.
|How the heck do we get over that lot?|
It wasn't long before any vertigo sufferers would have been trembling in there boots as narrow paths teetered over thousands of feet of nothingness. Thankfully, there were miles of cabled handrails for those of a nervous disposition to hold on to.
Some paths formed airy terraces high on vertical walls with overhanging rock to crack the heads of taller people.
|Walking in the air. An airy cliff path.|
|Looks like the rim of an old caldera|
At times, just when forward progress appeared to be coming to an end at impossible looking obstacles, clever people had long ago bored tunnels straight through to the other side. Some of these low, narrow tunnels are quite long, and dark, and wet, so it's advisable to carry a torch.
|Oh good, there's a tunnel|
The transition from black dark to blinding light was quite a shock to my failing eyes as we re-emerged onto platforms overlooking verdant sunlit valleys surrounded by rocky spires jutting into a blue, cloudless sky.
In past mountaineering days neither of us had ever experiences anything quite so surreal as this
|A few steps to help us to the top|
|In my element...it would be wonderful to run along that background ridge|
|The Refuge where our Guide deserted us!|
|Some friendly partridge|
We must have been bordering on exhaustion when eventually arriving at the summit, still under that cloudless sky and grilling sun. We assumed the true summit was one with a tall cairn and trig point, but we opted to visit a second one too, just in case....
|Summit of Pico Arivo, highest point on the island|
From this highest point on the island we could look back across the peaks to a rounded military installation, possibly a tracking device, beside which we'd begun our incredible trek three rocky hours ago. Any exhaustion was tempered by a happy sense of achievement, so much so I almost danced down the pumice path back to the Refuge where our Guide awaited us.
|Showing how far we'd walked - summit of Pico do Areiro on far right|
From there on an easy walk along a good path led to a car parking area at Achada do Texeira where our coach was shimmering in the heat. We'd a welcome stop at a restaurant overlooking a baranca where a cold glass of refreshing Coral beer went down very well indeed.
|Contentment after a beer and long day in the hills|
It seemed a long drive back to our hotel, down, down, through lots of tunnels, past the airport, through the fleshpots of Funchal and finally up the hill to be deposited outside Savoy Gardens. As we alighted from the coach our Guide shook my hand and left with the words " I wish I was as fit as you".
It made my day......
|Sadly, the plane arrives to take us home|
Anything else would have been anti climax after such an extraordinary and amazing day in the islands high mountains. The weather gods had been kind. Our bodies had performed wonderfully in the challenging environment. We couldn't have wished for more.
I've a feeling we might be going back to Madeira......