For surfer Tiago “Saca” Pires, a lad used to exotic destinations and the lap of luxury, Madeira is an obligatory stopover; whether for practicing his surfing, having fun, going for a stroll or just chilling out. This is where we are headed.
“That island is magic”, said my friend the surfer João Capucho, “that island could be the Ibiza of Portugal, only better. It’s got sun and heat. It’s got beaches, pools, luxury hotels and discotheques. And much more. It’s got the levadas (irrigation channels). It’s got the botanical gardens and trees with weird and wonderful names from the Americas, Australia and Asia. It’s got heaps of world class style in scenery that reminds you of Hawaii and Tahiti. It’s got waterfalls for doing canyoning and amazing mountain bike trails. And you can eat very well. And drink even better”. And this. And that. And the other… João spoke about Madeira with such enthusiasm it was catching, like a virus. The only cure was to go back to the island to confirm that all these wonders were true, but for that I needed the right companion. I picked up the phone, dialed the number and crossed my fingers that someone would answer. “Hi, Tiago… Shall we go to Madeira?”. “Lead the way!” he answered without hesitation.
The DNA of Tiago “Saca” Pires, who at this moment is sitting on a plane headed for Funchal, may well share a few molecules with the genetic code of Ferdinand Magellan. Both had a hunger to see the world and, in the face of everything and everyone, set to sea to find their dreams. Ferdinand Magellan wanted to prove empirically that the world was, in fact, round. Saca wanted to show the world – round, as proven by Ferdinand Magellan – that there was a place for someone Portuguese it in the World Championship Tour of the Professional Surfers Association. This is the first world surfing league, which only has space for the 34 best surfers on the planet. Ferdinand Magellan made history in 1519. Tiago, 489 years later.
Since reaching the elite of the surfing world in 2008, Tiago has seen every year of work turn into a kind of voyage of circumnavigation. Let’s see: he starts the competitive year in March, in Australia. He returns to Portugal to cure his homesickness and then crosses the Atlantic to Brazil. He stops off again in his mother country to stay briefly in a European city and unwind from all that beach, and then returns to the fray: the South Pacific, Fiji and Tahiti. From there on to South Africa and, soon afterwards, he pops up in California. Another trip, another competition; in September the European leg of the surfing circuit begins. First France at Hossegor. Next Peniche in Portugal. And then, by December, it’s off to the Pacific, this time north to Hawaii, and the end of another year’s work. Phew! We were lucky to catch him at home. But convincing him to fly to Madeira wasn’t that difficult.
We approach the island: impressive, green and majestic, lit by the setting sun and even more beautiful like this, seen from the air. We make out its curves drawn without the aid of a compass, its peaks so high they tear through the clouds, the lush green of the laurel forest, a humid, subtropical canopy that has been granted world heritage status. And while the aircraft makes its customary turns to line up with the runway, Tiago says the first time he had ever flown was when he made this very approach. He was eight or nine at the time and since then Madeira has become his safe haven for a number of reasons, some emotional, some professional, others gastronomical. “Few things in life beat a good surf at the Jardim do Mar followed by a scabbard fish sandwich in a bolo do caco muffin with my friends here on the island”, he says.
Paradise in the west
At the exact spot where the island’s southern coast meets the northern tip, is a wave they call the Ponta do Pargo, named after the nearby town. To get there, you have two choices: either you climb down a cliff to the sea that is so high and steep that, even from below looking up, it looks more than a little tricky, or you go by boat. Saca came by boat with Dinarte Sousa and his loyal scouts from H2O Madeira, a company specializing in made-to-order adventure activities.
Tiago was rubbing his hands in anticipation because, after all, he was going to surf the wave he had heard so many raving about, when the sea caught us off-guard. We arrived at high tide and the waves were now declining as the tide receded. Nothing to be done, Tiago seems to be thinking, as he looks intrigued at a wave building at the side opposite the cliff. “Not that one”, says Dinarte seeing what was in Saca’s mind, “that wave’s dangerous. It’s very shallow and has a lot of pebbles. If you want, we can carry on and surf on the north coast”. Tiago shrugs: “Now we’re here, I’m going in to see what it’s like”.
Wax on the board, wetsuit, a few poses for the camera and he’s off. He paddles and paddles… until he has become a small dot floating in the Atlantic. In the boat, which keeps its distance, we are all craning to see the first wave. And suddenly the surfer emerges on one twice his size. He gets into gear and executes a series of re-entries on the lip which shoots water almost into the stratosphere.
It wasn’t a long session, but enough to leave Tiago with a ravenous appetite. On the way back to base, before a well-deserved rest and lunch fit for a warrior at Il Basílico, we go on to one of his favourite waves: Jardim and Paul do Mar, which have given the champion some of the most memorable surfing of his life.
Down the drain
The glorious morning skies cloud over so we have little alternative but to make new plans for the afternoon which we were supposed to spend walking a levada, the footpaths that follow the old irrigation canals and make for a pleasant pastime whatever your age. Instead, we get into the car and drive to São Vicente.
There are several delights on this northern part of the island. One is the view over the valley as it sweeps down to the sea, one is the beach and another the Volcano Centre, where you can learn all manner of things about how the islands were formed. To note: the archipelago comprises eight islands (Madeira, Porto Santo, the Desertas- three of them- and the Selvagens – another three), which sits on the African Plate at one end of an underwater ridge known as the Madeira-Tore Rise and is volcanic in nature. This group of islands was formed underwater during the creation of the North Atlantic in the middle of the Cretaceous period, some 130 million years ago. Only later did the islands emerge from the Atlantic. First was Porto Santo, then Madeira itself, which appeared around five million years ago. You should also remember that Madeira forms part of Macaronesia, a bio-geographical region that includes the archipelagos of the Azores, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands. Did you know that the word “Macaronesia” comes from the combination of the Greek words makáron, which means fortunate and nesoi, meaning islands, and was the term chosen by ancient geographers to refer to the “fortunate islands” to the west of Gibraltar? Nor did we.
Ok, that’s enough history and geography. Let’s get back on the road! From São Vicente to Porto Moniz, Tiago assumes the role of guide. Behind us is the beach of Galinhas (Fajã da Areia) and we pass Bruxas (Contreiras), and Madona (Ribeira das Janelas). “The waves were baptized by my friend and mentor José Seabra, who was one of the first to explore this place and take back to the mainland the precious information that there were fantastic waves in Madeira. From then on no surfing guide in Portugal could leave out this paradise.” We alight at a viewpoint to photograph what seems to be a scene from Jurassic Park and, at Porto Moniz, to see natural pools sculpted in the rocks by the seashore.
Later, we find a table at Il Galo d’Oro, the only restaurant on Madeira with a Michelin star, on Tiago’s recommendation, for which our palates are very grateful. Then, we visit Funchal old town, the centre for nightlife. The alleyways and bars are heaving. We drink toasts with two or three of the island’s official drinks: poncha (a mixture of sugar-cane spirit, honey and lemon juice) and Coral (the island beer). Only the famed Madeira wine itself was missing to complete the hat-trick. For the record: we narrowly avoided finishing off the night dancing at Molhe. Our bones ached for a comfortable bed and the ones at the Meliã Madeira Mare hotel– another of Tiago’s recommendations – are the best, for both body and soul.
A diverting ride
We ascend to Monte in the cable car from Funchal. From up here the city that was built on dreams sits nestling in the bay. It requires no great leap of the imagination to understand why since the 18th century people from all corners of the globe, of all ages and walks of life have chosen Funchal to spend their holidays. If Sissi and Bernard Shaw preferred the dolce fare niente, Winston Churchill identified with the bohemian side of the city and was driven around in a Rolls Royce with the boot converted into a bar.
To make up for the levada walk that went down the drain so to speak, we go to the Tropical Monte Palace, a garden-museum with trees and works of art from all over the world. It is cool here and smells fragrant. We spend a while trying to pronounce the scientific names of the plants whose colours are so vivid they hurt the eyes and we appreciate the pagodas, African statues and Portuguese tiles all sharing the same few square metres. Leaving the garden, we come upon a horde of men dressed in white with straw hats. These are the carreiros, the men who steer the famous wickerwork cars with their wooden runners down to Caminho do Comboio, a distance of two kilometres reaching speeds of 50kph. It is time to initiate Tiago, who by sheer chance had never done the ride.
Within minutes, after the punishing descent which has a certain radical je ne sais quo, we are back in the centre of Funchal. We pass the exuberant Farmer’s Market and cut along Rua de Santa Maria, the main part of the old town, which, having been abandoned for a few years, is now showier than ever, thanks to the Portas Pintadas (Painted Doors), a public art project to transform this area into a permanent art gallery. For this purpose several invited artists have used about 200 doors as canvases.
In the middle of this open-air gallery we stop for lunch. The Gavião Novo has a reputation for being one of the best restaurants in Funchal. What to order? A selection of grilled fish and some limpets, of course! And afterwards? Well, we could drive up the Pico do Areeiro, or swim with dolphins. Later we could even watch the sunset at Ponta do Sol and have one of Madeira’s famous kebabs for dinner. Another time, who knows, we would make a trip to the Desertas and the Selvagens, where Jacques Cousteau claimed he had swam in the clearest water in the world.
With all this information overload, I realise that the enthusiasm with which João Capucho infected me is more serious than I had predicted. Tiago laughs. He was well aware of the effect.
by Maria Ana Ventura