Give me a break

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am


That hackneyed old phrase 'Europe's answer to Hawaii' has been used for decades to describe one big wave spot after another, but of all of them, the island of Madeira has one of the strongest claims to the title.

Apart from the fact that the waves washing around this verdant rock poking up from the deep blue Atlantic are not as warm as those of Hawaii, it could be argued that Madeira is better as a surfer's winter bolt hole, for despite regular media exposure, the island's world-class giant point breaks rarely get anywhere nearly as busy as those of surfing's spiritual home.

This is perhaps because there's no history of surf culture here, with breaks like Jardim do Mar and Paul do Mar on the southwest coast first being surfed less than 20 years ago, while spots such as Ribeira da Janela on the north coast are even newer discoveries.

What's more, the spectacular coastline of Madeira still holds many more wave-riding secrets and will probably continue to do so for a long time since so much of it is inaccessible, fringed by mighty sea cliffs and beaten by swells that only expert boatmen can expect to negotiate safely.

However, there's little point in visiting the Portuguese enclave of Madeira if your idea of good waves is fun, head-high peaks because the surf here doesn't come alive until the waves are well over head high. Intense winter storms in the North Atlantic propel huge swells onto Madeira's shores and, combined with offshore trade winds blowing from nearby North Africa, present experienced surfers with sun-kissed, monster walls of water.

There are still not that many people surfing here since the sport is such a recent introduction, and if you decide to take on Madeira's demanding waves, you'll be surfing them among a mixed and eclectic bunch of wave riders from Britain, Norway, Germany and the United States, with, as yet, just the occasional local.

Alternative thrills for non-surfers can also be found by hiking along the intricate network of footpaths which run alongside upland drainage channels known as levadas. These thread their way around Madeira's vertiginous hills and offer striking views to the lowlands hundreds of metres below.

The capital of Funchal is renowned for its nightlife, with some clubs staying open until 7am and attracting a cosmopolitan crowd of young Europeans. If you're there over New Year, you'll also catch the annual fireworks festival - one of the world's biggest.

If you prefer to ride more reasonably sized waves, then Lanzarote in the Spanish Canary Islands to the south of Madeira may be more to your liking.

As with Madeira, Lanzarote is part of an Atlantic archipelago made up of volcanic rocks thrusting up from deep ocean waters. In winter, the same swells that roll onto Madeiran shores also run aground here, but they break on a more varied coastline. Sure, there are stacks of shallow reefs where the waves burst forward and explode with the power and grace that bring hardcore surfers from all over Europe flocking to the island every winter; but there are also more mellow beach breaks where the less skilled can try their hand, too.

For instance, the massive crescent of black sand that is Famara Beach on Lanzarote's wave-saturated north coast also attracts consistent winter swells that vary from a foot or two at the south end of the beach to head high and bigger at the north end. This allows beginners to choose the size of wave they feel most comfortable with and is one reason that Famara Beach is probably the most popular destination for European surfers in winter.

Its spectacular setting is another draw, beneath towering cliffs almost 500 metres high and with the small island of La Graciosa (another great surf destination) sitting just offshore.

The consistently sunny conditions and warm waters of Lanzarote are another obvious attraction. It's often very windy, but that also makes the island a first-rate windsurfing and kitesurfing destination.

Beginners can brush up their skills at a rash of surf schools based in or around Famara, one of the best of which is Surf School Lanzarote. Located a spit away from the beach in the old fishing village of Caleta de Famara and run by affable Welsh expat Tim Jones, the school has instructors who have been showered with accolades by everyone from first-timers to pro surfers. I've seen them get people who have never been on a surfboard before up, riding and addicted to surfing in a single day.

The action for more experienced surfers centres on the reef breaks around La Santa, also on the north coast, which work on the biggest of swells and are rarely anything less than fast, hollow and shallow. They're also crowded most of the time, but if you want to avoid the masses, there are some fine waves to be had on the island's southwest and northeast coasts and even occasionally around the island capital - and tourist hot spot - of Arrecife.

And when you need to take a break from the surf, you can't afford to miss taking a tour of Lanzarote's unforgettable volcanic landscapes. Black lava deserts pass up into red, ochre and green crags of volcanic rock that were once molten lava beneath the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

At Timanfaya National Park, named after the island's only active volcano, temperatures are as high as 600 degrees Celsius just 13 metres below the surface, which is demonstrated by park rangers who will pour buckets of water into holes in the ground for it to emerge a few moments later as a geyser of steam.

Another option is to drive to the lookout at Mirador del Rio, above Famara Beach - the expansive views from here saw the Spanish set up a gun battery in 1898 to deter incursions by the US Navy when the two countries went to war over the ownership of Cuba.

Today the site houses a very contemporary restaurant designed by famed local architect Cesar Manrique.

Or simply follow the example of the majority of indolent, sunburnt European visitors and head to the fleshpots of the south coast for beer, clubs and general depravity.

Alf Alderson is author of the award-winning book Ultimate Surfing Adventures

Board and lodging

Where to stay

Madeira - Reid's Palace Hotel and Spa with its famed subtropical gardens is one of the best options in the capital, Funchal, with rooms from Euro250 (HK$2,600) per night.

Lanzarote - the five-star Canarian colonial-style Princesa Yaiza Suite Hotel Resort at Playa Blanca offers double rooms from Euro211.

Surf school

Surf School Lanzarote offers five-day surfing courses including equipment hire and lunch for Euro240.

Tourist information


Madeira or

When to visit

The prime surf season is January to April