Watch: Exploring Portugal's Covid-free alternative to Mallorca by bike

Keen cyclist Simon Parker meets his match on Madeira’s steep climbs and zig-zag descents

“There’s no shame in walking,” I growled to myself, as my wheels creaked to a halt, and my cycling shoes clunked out of their cleats. The adjacent road sign proudly boasted a 19-degree incline, and as I hunched over the handlebars, a torrent of sweat ran all the way from my sodden crown to my grimy, road-dusted ankles. 

I was just three miles into a clockwise circumnavigation of Madeira by bicycle, but already I knew that elevation – instead of distance – would be my nemesis. 

On a computer screen, the idea had seemed perfectly simple: 150 miles, divided by five days = a lazy 30 miles a day. I’d sleep late, eat big breakfasts, pootle about a bit, eat even bigger lunches with half a bottle of wine, take digestive dips in the sea, cycle a bit more, and then make it to the next hotel in time for a siesta. No chance. 

With the island’s whitewashed capital, Funchal, disappearing behind me, I clip-clopped upwards into its hillside suburbs. Banana plantations – no bigger than badminton courts – spurted green and yellow from red earth gaps in the asphalt. Down, south, on the flat-calm Atlantic, a flotilla of hatchback-long fishing boats resembled chubby cream draughts pieces sliding about on a toothpaste-splattered bathroom mirror. 

I’ve made some almighty cock-ups as a travel writer over the years – my back catalogue is punctuated by incompetence. But thinking I could just amble around Madeira on a bicycle is – for now, at least – the pinnacle of my professional naivety. 

Google Maps should have been a red flag – the bicycle option doesn’t exist. I’d assumed I could just follow the perimeter of the island. It was, after all, next to the sea, therefore it must be flat? Think again. 

Spewing prehistoric lava had no regard for 21st-century imbeciles in Lycra. Worse still, the main road on the south of the island is a busy national highway, on which cyclists are banned. My only option would be to zigzag up and into the island’s hinterland. I could still circumnavigate – however this would be an endurance pursuit, rather than a slothful holiday.

Inbound passengers are tested on arrival, then – once proven negative within 12 hours – are free to roam

Unlike mainland Portugal, Madeira has retained its “travel corridor” status, meaning that British tourists are able to visit without having to quarantine on their return. Inbound passengers are tested on arrival, then – once proven negative within 12 hours – are free to roam. 

Face masks are mandatory in most public places, and hand sanitizer is as commonplace as it is back home. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to know that there are only about 50–100 active cases of Coronavirus. And, unlike in the UK, the stringent testing of new arrivals is allowing the tourism industry to keep its head above water, while slowly eradicating the virus entirely. 

Madeira – unlike the better-known cycling island of Mallorca, which is currently an FCO no-go – could, therefore, become the two-wheeled hotspot of this autumn and winter. However be warned, it’s no wheelie in the park. 

But in adversity so often comes opportunity, and as I veered from the well-worn coastal road towards the lush green mountainside, church bells chimed and tarmac-splattered black grapes gave off a vinegary, harvest time whiff. 

In fact, autumnal bounty seemed to encroach my route around every stifling corner. Carrots, cabbages, green beans, figs and pomegranates basked in the island’s south side sunshine. 

I cooled off in air-conditioned village cafes, where espressos cost just €0.50 (£0.45p) and flaky palm-sized Pastel de nata were so cheap I always bought two. My cycle computer calculated that I was burning over 4,000 calories per ride, and Madeira’s cream cakes, empanadas and pastries trump sickly energy gels any day. 

Be warned, says Simon Parker, cycling Madeira is no wheelie in the park

I’d arranged to stay at a series of hotels along the route. The five star Savoy Saccharum at Calheta welcomed a bedraggled, skin-tight-clothed version me – sweaty and filthy from the road. I made light work of cold beers and protein-rich Madeiran dishes, as my calves screamed with lactic acid. The Atlantic-caught tuna tataki, wrapped in sesame seeds, tomato chutney and mango jelly, made a beeline for my weary quadriceps. 

Mountain biking is much more established on Madeira, while road cycling is still a relatively novel pastime. So much so that most motorists not only gave me a wide berth, but also often a sympathetic double beep of the horn. 

The island is so consistently and incomprehensibly steep that the sight of me on a bike – struggling up hill at less than walking pace – prompted old ladies to stop sweeping their porches, and for teenagers dozing on benches to pause between drags of their cigarettes. “You’re crazy,” said a man, who felt compelled to wait in a layby to watch me cycle by. “But it’s good to have you back. It’s been a quiet few months.”

Travelling by bicycle allows me to truly feel a place, in a way that the sanitised vacuum of a vehicle cannot. No more so is this possible than on Madeira – an island of 24 unique microclimates. Most mornings I’d swelter on black pebble beaches in sunshine over 30 degrees centigrade, then – after 2–3 hours, climbing 6,000 feet into the mountains – shiver as my sodden shirt froze in the shade. 

This was my first overseas trip for six months – and like many of us now taking our first tentative steps back out into the world, every turn of the wheel felt new and exciting, albeit exhausting. 

The island’s distinct regions reminded me of the planet I’ve missed so much. Credit: Getty

Moreover, the island’s distinct regions reminded me of the planet I’ve missed so much. In the northwest corner, the cool eucalyptus forests smelt just like the foothills of the Andes around Cusco, Peru. Then, to the northeast, Madeira’s highlands resembled the staggered tea plantations of Sri Lanka or Darjeeling. 

On my penultimate night, staying at the hill top Hotel Quinta do Furão – Madeira’s serrated coastline looked more Hawaiian than anything remotely European. Mountains rambled into Barbicide blue shallows, before dropping sharply into the leopard black Atlantic.

In a normal year, Madeira welcomes roughly two million visitors, but – unsurprisingly – that number is currently down by at least 80 per cent. The island’s tourism industry must keep treading water – however, until the crowds return, cyclists with an appetite for hills should fill their boots. 

I admit that I made a mistake in doing a loop of the island. I was stubbornly transfixed with the idea of cycling every mile, but the much better option would be to hire a car with a bike rack and drive to a series of day rides. Furthermore, my route took me through dozens of scary tunnels – some of which were over a mile long. You’ll need good flashing lights and nerves of steel. 

So is Madeira really a viable rival to better-established European cycling destinations like Mallorca, Tuscany or the Dolomites? 

If you’re a serious amateur cyclist – training for a triathlon, or looking to shed a few pounds quickly – then yes, Madeira’s ascents, road surfaces and switchbacks are world class. I climbed over 30,000 feet in five gruelling days – that’s well over an Everest. But if you’re after a lazy cycling holiday with easy miles, then perhaps stick to the flats of the Danube or Denmark. 

Personally, I enjoy my cycling somewhere in between the two extremes. And that’s exactly why I opted to unclip from my pedals and traipse the final steep downhill into Funchal on foot, rather than risk doing a front flip over the handlebars. Because sometimes, there’s no shame in walking. 

Funchal Credit: getty

Getting there 

Easyjet flies from London Gatwick to Funchal most days of the week, from £62 return. 

Staying there 

In order to complete a circumnavigation of the island you’ll need to pick hotels at appropriate intervals. 

In Funchal, Allegro Madeira is a four star hotel with a rooftop bar and good views of the city. The Free Ride bike shop is less than two minutes’ walk away. Doubles from £69. 

In Calheta, the five star Savoy Saccharum serves great local seafood like Tuna Tataki wrapped in sesame and black scabbard with banana and passion fruit. Its series of rooftop pools are perfect for resting tired legs. Doubles from £77. 

In Porto Moniz, the four star Aquanatura Hotel looks out over the town’s natural pools and the restaurant specialises in Japanese, Madeiran and Portuguese cuisine. The crispy shrimp – cooked in a peanut tempura – is exceptional. Doubles from £74.

In Santana, the four star Hotel Quinta do Furão enjoys spectacular views over Madeira’s northeast coastline, and has one of the best restaurants on the island. The beef skewers cooked over bay leaf wood are delicious, so too is the fish soup. Doubles from £78.

In Porto da Cruz, the two star Hotel Vila Bela looks out over Praia da Alagoa and has wide-reaching views of the Atlantic. The food is very good – try the garlic mushrooms, followed by the seared tuna steak and local new potatoes. Doubles from £47. 

Riding there

Free Ride Madeira hire road bikes for €35 per day. They can help guests pick the best routes and also specialise in mountain biking tours with a guide. 

More information 

Madeiraallyear.com