Wednesday started nervously as we embarked on our great ‘wrong side of the road’ car rental adventure. After a light brekkie and a slow queue at the Hertz office we picked up the blue Ford Fiesta and headed for the hills. At a quiet road I practiced gear changes and manoeuvring in an attempt to avoid bashing the door with my elbow every time I changed gear. Throwing in a bit of hill start practice too, it might as well have been a driving lesson for half an hour.
Soon enough I was confident I could control the car and we began our car tour, number 5 in the sunflower book. We headed north, through the Encumeadá tunnel to São Vicente on the north coast. In the north trees clung to steep rock faces and natural waterfalls flowed from impenetrable clouds, and without the direct sun it all felt that much darker.
Along the coast we made an occasional stop, at Seixal and a seaside promenade at Praia. We avoided the suggested scenic coastal roads, they’d been chained off and on inspection large sections had fallen into the sea.
At Ribeira da Janela we made two sharp right turns for a detour inland, towards Fanal. A short way up the very steep and hairpin lined hill we weren’t sure whether the road looked safe or if it was even the right one. On a steep incline, where a turn in the road was egregious and reversing downright dangerous, we had no choice but to continue. Putting the Fiesta into second I revved up and around each hairpin, stopping once, suddenly, as a coach swept across the tarmac as it turned. Third gear had been so abused that even on the flat the car struggled to hold any speed, but we chugged along at a decent pace.
Near the top the road levelled out and soon we’d climbed from sea level to a view point above the clouds. Standing on picnic benches I watched huge clouds form beneath me, slowly growing, slowly climbing. Everything else silent, the sun bearing down. It was awe inspiring.
At Posto Florestal we stopped for food and were joined by birds keen to thief our croissants and bread. With a little bait I was able to snap a few pictures of them.
The ground was damp and the air moist, and from clear skies we fell into thick fog and back again, within a minute. Eventually the fog descended and didn’t shift, and all hopes of a view from the nearby mound were lost. We stood eerily in thick fog not daring to move too far – a sheer drop potentially in front of us. With the odd sound of hooves cows passed us and we waited for some visibility before returning to the car.
Back down the 209’s curling, twisting course we returned. Porto Moniz’s lava-rock pools didn’t interest us enough to stop, and at Santa we made a 12km detour to Achadas da Cruz. Up here there’s a spectacular straight-down view of Quebrada Nova, which can be reached by a perilous cable car ride. As the cable cars disappeared over the edge the cable chassis wobbled. No way were we doing this ride, and instead we relaxed with coffee and cake at the cafe next door.
On the home stretch now, we took the 110 back along the mountain peaks. The guide talked of magnificent views, but we were deep in fog and rain, trying to work out how to turn on the fog lights. At the “much loved beauty spot” of Rabaçal we saw only pebbles and a signpost. We couldn’t drive faster than 20km per hour it was so dark. The clouds momentarily lifted as we drove across the obscure moors of the Paul da Serra with its eerie wind turbines.
Then we began our descent to Encumeadá to the tunes of Portuguese radio; Phoenix played, we notched up the volume and enjoyed the drive, eventually low enough to catch more spectacular valley views.
Not wanting to eat in Funchal while we had the car we made a byline along the west coast in search of a good restaurant. Our awful AA guide recommended somewhere that appeared quite terrible, and we concluded he didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Ribeira Brava is a coach stop off point, and is perfectly avoidable, literally nothing to see here. Carrying on, still hopeful, we reached Ponta do Sol. It’s a quaint pretty village, nestling in a small cove with a little beach, a new hotel and a few eateries. It was a little retreat from the tourist bustle of Funchal, perfect.
We ate at the cool looking Hotel da Vila, with its outdoor leather sofas, smart furniture and modern style. With the charming waiter’s advice we ordered:
I hadn’t tried octopus since Greece, when we’d had it grilled and tough. This was totally different and delicious. The fish was excellent too.
Pleasantly filled we skipped along the rocks outside to watch the sunset. From blue to orange, red and then nighttime, we drove home, through the tunnels, back across the winged bridge to Funchal.