Jardim do Mar // Madeira's Big Wave Surf Spot

Surf’s up! 48-foot longboard…

There’s a book called ‘Barbarian Days,’ a memoir on a surfing life that won the Pulitzer Prize. it’s excellent. In it, a small village on the SW coast of Madeira called Jardim do Mar is feature prominently. In the 80s and 90s it was called the Jewel of the Atlantic, a magical, often overlooked big-wave surf spot way off the beaten path and hard to get to. When the conditions were right, it was apparently one of the best waves in the world.

I’m no surfer, but I can relate to the culture and love the philosophy. The connection to nature, the ‘artful’ aspect of the sport, the ecological conservationism that goes hand in hand with it. It’s right up my alley, even though I don’t participate.

When we added the Madeira passage, Jardim do Mar rocketed to the top of my list of places to see in the limited time we’d have ashore. I had this vision in my head about the place from reading the book, and I wanted to see for myself what it was like, see how that vision matched reality and see how much of the village had changed since the author spoke so highly of it.

We arrived in Funchal late on a Thursday night, just before midnight, and ratted alongside a big wooden ketch with a Danish family aboard who are on their way to the Caribbean. The boat looked a lot like a miniature Ticonderoga, but one that is actually used for family cruising and not a showpiece. The varnish on her wooden spars glistened in the sun.

Madeira rises up out of the sunset haze.

Friday was spent like many day-after-landfall days are spent…being lazy. We’d stayed up the night before drinking champagne and port wine in the cockpit until after 0200. After 3 and a half days at sea, a short passage but still, I for one didn’t feel like getting up in the morning. Somehow I did anyway, at 8am no less, and started our lazy day. Mia and I wandered old-town Funchal, a much bigger city than I had in my head for some reason (similar to Ponte del Gada in the Azores I suppose) and wound up at a cafe overlooking the ocean to the east of town. We did what we noticed a lot of the local Portuguese were doing. We sat at a two-person round-top table on the sidewalk, chairs facing not each other but the street, and watched the people and cars and mopeds go by while drinking coffee and orange juice. We spent several hours there before returning to the boat to have dinner with the crew.

Next day’s mission was the village. We rented a 125cc scooter, the biggest, baddest I’d ever driven, and quickly discovered why they don’t do the 50cc models here. It’s freakin’ hilly! With two of us on the bike, plus our big helmets, camera and bag of extra clothes, sunscreen and water, we had close to 400 pounds weighing down that thing. Nonetheless, she powered up the steep hills heading out of town with no problems at all. #scootercaptain.

Madeira is HUGE. The tops of the highest mountain in the middle of the island is over 6,100 feet, and is the 3rd highest peak in all of Portugal (and only a slight bit lower than Pico in the Azores). The cliffs and valleys are dramatic and endless. We passed one place, high up in a village on the side of one such cliff, where you could go down to an isolated beach along the coast. The only way down was a ski-lift-type gondola.

We tried the highway first. This was a mistake. With two lanes in either direction and a speed limit of 90 km/hour, even our 125cc scooter couldn’t keep up with traffic and we felt horribly exposed as we got passed by cars and buses. But the highway itself is an impressive feat of engineering. It’s basically just a bunch of tunnels and a bunch of bridges - all the rises and dips in the landscape they just went straight across. Big ravine? No problem, build a 300-foot high bridge. Mountain in the way? Ha! A 3km tunnel will do the trick. At one point, on the smaller one-lane highway further west, we went through a series of seemingly endless tunnels. We’d enter one, drive for a while until daylight appeared around the corner, only to find a little roundabout directing traffic to a local village or side road, then it was right back into another tunnel on the other side.

Finally we started seeing signs for the two seaside villages perched on the cliff’s edge, Jardim do Mar and Paul do Mar, names very familiar to me from the book. My heart rate increased a bit.

The road to Jardim ended in a small village square, patterned with the typical Portuguese paving - alternating black and white polished cobblestones in intricate patterns. In the center of the square two small kids splashed and played in a fountain that shot up from the ground.

Wall painting in Funchal.

The village itself has a population of only just over 200 people. There’s a small guest house, a surfer hangout called Joe’s Bar, and a tiny, boutique hotel. Otherwise it’s residential houses, all nestled on a steep cliff on an epic point break and overlooking the midnight blue Atlantic on three sides. There are no roads through the village, only narrow walking paths also paved with the same black and white polished cobbles. The paths had names, like mini streets, and even these were signaled in the cobbles themselves, each letter formed by one or more white stones set into the black stone background.

We ambled down one of the narrow, steep walkways towards the shoreline, which was several hundred feet below us, stopping to admire the roofs and the flowers on each small apartment. There were a few ‘steps’ paved into the path, but rather than sharp, square edges, they were rounded, almost like the cobbles had formed a sort of waterfall down the path towards the sea.

Mia leaning on the seawall that destroyed the wave.

At the bottom, the path emerged onto a wide concrete seawall that lined the entire peninsula on all three sides creating a promenade along the coast of sorts. On the sea side of the wall, large concrete breakwater bits were strewn about to protect the promenade from the same ferocious winter swell that made this place such a renowned surf spot. This is the same sea wall whose creation [the author] lamented at length in Barbarian Days - it destroyed the wave.

You see, the coast of Madeira is so steep-to, that the big swell that rides up from the south only starts breaking a few hundred feet from shore, and even then, only at high tide. What used to be the surf lineup just offshore, is now the concrete barriers. The seawall itself was only 50-feet out from what used to be the cliffs at the oceans edge, but it’s enough to have killed the once-majestic wave. Now the surf breaks right onto the manmade barriers. According to the locals, it’s still rideable on the perfect swell, but only for an hour or so at low tide, and even then, you better not fall.

The neighboring village of Paul do Mar in the distance.

Besides the forgotten wave, the village seemed just like what I had pictured in my head, which I guess is a testament to the author of the book. To borrow the surfing parlance, I was stoked to have made the pilgrimage there and felt a sense of accomplishment at having done so on that freaking scooter! The visit to Jardim do Mar reinforced why I love ocean sailing so much - the chance to see a place so remote, under our own steam. That was cool.

Rainbow road. Just like Mariokart!

On the way back things got really scary. We tried the big highway again, having gotten pretty good on the scooter, only to find ourselves on the gnarliest bridge of all, and in the wind. The road exited another tunnel straight onto a very high bridge which curved upward and inland. To the right - and you couldn’t help but look - all you saw was the ocean, 1,000-feet down. Buses flew past on our left.

“Don’t move Mia, just hang on!”

It felt like the real-life version of the Rainbow Road track in Super Mario Kart - just a road in the sky, nothing but abyss if you drove off the edge. We took the first exit we could find, exhaled, and resolved yet again NOT to take the highway. The ‘back way,’ of course, was MUCH longer, winding up and down mountains and valleys and in and out of local villages, but we could drive it at a much more reasonable pace and anyway the scenery was spectacular. We ended up an hour late returning the scooter.

Wine in Madeira is abundant and cheap…Cheers!