This month saw me take my first non-paddling holiday overseas for a long while. Liz and I had booked onto Explore Worldwide’s Lavada Trails of Madeira holiday and we were really looking forward to it. Moderate walking in stunning settings, flights, transfers and accommodation all sorted by someone else, a walking leader to make all the decisions, it sounded like the perfect chance to relax. And it was. Yet it wasn’t!
Let me explain.
We’d travelled out a couple days earlier than the trip was due to start. The flights were cheaper and it gave us some time to explore the main city, Funchal, on our own. As we were checking into our hotel we were greeted by a man who introduced himself as Filipe Gomes, our guide, who took a few minutes with us before he set off for dinner with that week’s group. Great customer service and an opportunity to put us at our ease before the adventures ahead.
After two days of exploring Funchal’s wealth of churches and gardens we were back in the hotel reception on Saturday evening to meet the remainder of the group. Filipe was there to facilitate the introductions and brief us on the plan for the week, he encouraged us to dine together on that first evening and introduced us to a good local restaurant serving a range of traditional Madeiran dishes – the Black Scabbard fish is good! – rounded off with a glass of Madeira wine. A great ice-breaker.
We set off the next morning eager for our first day’s walking – in the rain. Yes, it could have been anywhere in the UK, but when the cloud lifted it clearly was not! Filipe chatted to us as we walked, stopping regularly to point out things of interest and give us the chance to take a drink and take in our surroundings. It was a good introduction to walking on Madeira – well maintained but narrow paths, often following the island’s levadas irrigation channels contouring across steep ground, with steps and handrails on the steeper and more exposed sections. We finished walking mid-afternoon and Filipe took us to a café to sample more fish and more Madeira wine. More bonding!
That very much was the pattern for the week. Walking in the morning, seeing something of the local culture later in the afternoon and, after one or two nights, moving on to our next hotel to explore another part of the island. We were eight in our group plus Filipe and Paulo our driver – Liz and me from the Thames valley, three other Brits, an Australian, a Canadian and a Columbian – and we ate with Filipe as a group each evening, sharing thoughts on the day and something of our lives.
Throughout the week Filipe had shown why he is such a good guide. He’d made the time to get to know us individually, to work out our interests, to accommodate our different walking paces, hydration and photography needs, and ensure we had plenty of fun along the way. He shared his knowledge of the local flora – so many of the plants were familiar but growing so much larger and more abundantly – with a particular focus on those that were good to eat, infuse or with medicinal properties. He’d given us an insight into life on the island and its history, farming practice and food. He’d shared his enthusiasm for Madeira wine, the local beer (Coral) and the island speciality Ponchas – equal parts of citrus juice, honey and sugar cane rum. He found an appropriate balance between his interests and personality and ours, and the landscape and environment around us each day.
And much as I relaxed, I couldn’t help but think about how the leadership qualities Filipe was demonstrating throughout the trip were exactly the same as we employ when leading people on the water. Filipe undoubtedly had all the navigation, weather and technical skills required for leading a walking group, but he also had the soft skills and knowledge required to ensure a great client experience – just what we’re looking for in our paddlesport leaders.