On every trip, I plan an excursion that Morgan would consider worthy. It has to be relatively unique, something we wouldn’t do at home, and have a certain amount of danger. However, it also has to be something that George and I can do as well. After researching activities in each port using the boards at www.tripadvisor.comand the boards at http://www.cruisecritic.com, I came across this little company called Harmony in Nature who lead canyoning expeditions in Madeira. After a few emails back and forth, a trip was scheduled for our stop there.
We pulled into Funchal before sunrise and watched the day begin in the city. After disembarking the ship, we spied Hugo and Ruby in their van, got in, and headed through the city and up the mountain. Actually, Madeira is all mountains, pretty much straight up and down. Turns out that because of this, it is one of the world’s primo canyoning locations. Who knew?
So, you might be asking, what’s canyoning? Well, first you find a canyon. Then you walk to somewhere near the top of it and get yourself down to the bottom of it by walking, swimming, jumping, climbing, and rappelling. And it’s fun!
The van stopped at the end of the paved road at an old concrete house on the side of the hill. We changed into swimsuits and wetsuits in the side yard outside. It was a little chilly, temperature in the 60’s, so we were pretty quick about it. As we were finishing suiting up, a woman herding sheep came down the hill from behind the house. Back to the driveway, we find Hugo and Ruby all packed and ready to go. They helped us get a better fit in the wetsuits and off we hiked along the hill toward our canyon.
In about 30 minutes, after passing 200-year-old houses and gardens, we found a hole in the brambles alongside the road and descended through a tunnel of brush to the river. Well, it wasn’t much of a river; the water was low. Good for us newbies, though. After a brief tutorial practice rappelling on fairly level rocks, we were off down the canyon.
Our first drop was about 30 feet. Hugo hooked up the ropes and Ruby rappelled down the waterfall and stood in the bottom of the pool, holding the rope. Morgan got hooked up, and down he went. Easy and fun! Then George, then me. Really, anybody could do this. Because Ruby was holding the ropes below, there was no way that we could fall, even if we weren’t holding on. She let the line out enough, though, so we could control our own descent.
As we continued down the canyon, there was more rappelling, some butt-sliding and some jumping into the pools from the rocks above. Some pools were so deep that we had to swim to the other side, cumbersome in the wetsuit. The water was close to freezing temperature – anything that wasn’t covered by the wetsuit was take-away-your-breath cold. Verdant mosses and ferns clung to the rocks along the river. Primordial cascades of flowers from the trees above glittered in the sunlight. This is January, in May it’s even more flowerful.
About halfway down we stopped for a chocolate and water break. A local man with a radio was sitting on the ledge above us. He was almost midget-short and kind of reminded us of a hobbit. Refreshingly, he didn’t want a thing from us and just smiled. We smiled back.
We continued down the canyon until we found a trail alongside an old irrigation channel. The exit to the canyon led us back up through an old-world homestead. We picked some banana passion fruit from the wild trees growing in their yard. It was like a juicy yellow pomegranate. Back at the car, we unpeeled our wetsuits and changed back into our street clothes. On the way back, Ruby took us into their local supermarket and we bought some Madeira wine, sweet like Port.
After saying goodbye to our guides, we packed our wine in our packs and headed for the ship. We figured since they didn’t care about our bringing wine aboard in Barcelona, they wouldn’t care here. Wrong! As our packs went through the x-ray machine, we were told to line up down the hall and deposit our wine to be picked up at the end of our cruise. They did not want us drinking wine that was not sold on the ship! Unfortunately, the line was long, the wine check-in guy never heard the x-ray guy, and I had to go to the bathroom. We slunk down the hall, hoping nobody would catch us with our contraband. Thankfully, nobody did.
We left Madeira with memories of what I knew would be the highlight of our trip. Watching the sun set and the lights go on in Funchal, we toasted Hugo and Ruby as I tried to figure out how to get back to try the next level of canyoning (longer walk to canyon, higher drops, longer in canyon) in Madiera.