There’s a common misconception that Madeira is a destination for old people. That’s wrong. I first visited the island in my mid-thirties and was bowled over by the place. A decade later I’ve just returned to this small, green and verdant volcanic rock 300 miles off the North African coast. It’s retained all its charm and sense of calm. There’s a great holiday waiting to be had here if you prefer natural beauty to nightlife. There are walks, wine, flowers everywhere you look and superb food. And they really take care of tourists.
Jaqueline Freitas of Madeira Food On Foot Tours explained, “The way we treat foreigners is special. We are known for that. Hotel service is normally great and people feel like they are at home – very welcome. Everyone speaks English in Madeira because we learn it at school. It’s compulsory from the age of six.”
The capital, Funchal, is a pleasant, strolling sort of town. It’s like a huge garden, surrounded by high, green mountain peaks. With year-round temperatures ranging between 16° and 23°C, you’ll be happy to wander along the wide, white-tiled pavements lined with trees. The old town features winding, tight-packed, cobbled lanes, filled with small bars and family-run restaurants.
Madeira is Portuguese, but it’s been a sub-tropical retreat for Britons for centuries. And the British influence can be seen everywhere – particularly the number of tearooms. The finest and most famous is at Reid’s Palace – Churchill’s hotel of choice. The traditional English tea is a must-do for many visitors, who can be seen making their way there every afternoon. You’re encouraged to dress nicely for the finger sandwiches, scones and petite fours served in the lounge or on the terrace. “They have a magical moment each afternoon when they serve tea on a beautiful balcony,” former tour guide and businessman Rui Pestana told me. “It’s worth taking out an afternoon to visit.” It’s a special treat, as the price of €33 per person would suggest!
Britain’s connection with Madeira is long. The UK has occupied the island twice and we’ve traded with Madeira for centuries. Many Brits have settled since the 1800s – most coming to work in the wine trade. The Blandy’s were one of the first families to relocate. In 1808 John Blandy started shipping Madeira wine, which still remains the island’s number one export. “Many ships stopped in Funchal to take water on and they began stocking up with wine,” explained Ana Viera Soares from Blandy’s Wine Lodge – a museum, wine store and tasting room in the heart of Funchal. “In order to preserve it for long journeys they added brandy. Most of the ships were going to the West or East Indies so they crossed the tropics in high temperatures. The wine ended up being heated, almost caramelised.” Madeira wine has a long history – Ana told me it was even mentioned by Shakespeare!
Their ancient building on the leafy main street of Funchal was once a Franciscan monastery, and has also been used as a hospital, a prison and a workhouse. Today, they’ve added a restaurant and visitor centre to this wine warehouse. Inside, the tasting room has stunning, art-deco murals depicting wine production in the 1920s and 1930s. German artist Max Romer painted the islanders carrying the grape juice to Funchal inside sacks made of goatskin, where it would be processed.
I took my place at one of the long benches inside the dark and cosy wood-lined tasting room as Ana opened the wine bottles, offering a running commentary on the wine’s history and food pairing ideas as she poured. “Here is the medium dry Verdelho. It’s a very Portuguese name and it is the name of the grape. It’s a lighter amber colour. It’s a great one to have before a meal or with salad or salmon. It’s also good to have by itself or with roasted almonds. It’s fantastic with creamy avocado,” she added.
Next we moved on to the Alvada. “It is rich but has a dry finish and it’s great with dark chocolate. Traditionally we have Madeira before or after a meal,” Ana advised. And, like all wine, you should pay attention to the serving temperature. “Traditionally, depending on the age of the wine, we serve it at different temperatures. If you serve Madeira at 18°C, that’s great but if it’s a younger one, you should serve it slightly chilled, especially for the dry styles. It’s more refreshing.” The wines were delicious, but you need to be careful – Madeira wine is fortified and the alcohol content is around 19%!
Since the millennium, Blandy’s has offered guests a taste of Madeira wine made in the year of their birth. The walls of the vintage tasting room are lined with hundreds of traditional, dark glass bottles, each with a different year in white lettering. They have bottles available from each year since 1920. Ana opened up the 1969 and offered me a taste. I enjoyed it. They’ll probably have your year, too!
Now you should never drink and drive, so I chose a very British way to see the island – in a 1935 open-top Austin Ten Tourer. They were used as cabs in Madeira and the Pernetta brothers, Joao and Paulo, have the only surviving one on the island. It uses one litres of fuel for every 5km travelled! They can take you on an island tour in this vehicle, or other classic models, if you book a trip at Two Ten Classic Tours.
Their granddad owned this vehicle and he was teased about it after it became unfashionable to be seen in one in the 1950s. Luckily the family preserved it in a garage. You get the sense that the brothers feel that they are custodians of this heirloom for the next generation. Joao told me, “It’s a very important car to us, because it’s been in the family since 1949.” Later, he told me it still officially belongs to his elderly mother, who loves it and checks on its condition every time it’s been out!
We set off on a tour – but not before half a dozen people had stopped to take photographs. This is not the vehicle to ride in if you don’t want to attraction attention. Touring the shaded lanes of Funchal in a classic car, passing mansions set within beautiful gardens and with glimpses of the blue Atlantic sea, seems the perfect pace for Madeira. The brothers have uncovered some of the old tour routes around the area, which were suggested by the tourist board for visitors decades ago. “The old roads are very picturesque.” said Joao.
The men prefer driving to the eastern side of the capital where there are some superb photography spots overlooking the villas and the red tiled roofs of the capital’s homes, which sweep down the mountainside from 3,000 feet to sea level. In fact, Madeira’s volcanic hills rise sharply, so most roads are quite steep roads and many feature tight turns and switchbacks. Driving a vehicle with cable brakes, which requires double clutching between first and second gears, means the men have learned specials skills. “You always try to guess what will happen. You have to concentrate when you drive a car like this!” says Joao. Paulo, who had been busy answering a list of questions about the car from British tourists, chipped in. “We tour Funchal, and the places around, that we can reach easily without going up very steep climbs.”
It was a treat, driving into town past the massive cruise ships in the harbour, as the warm air blew in our faces. Tours last between 90 minutes and three hours and the brothers say that their passengers sometimes dress up! I’d recommend going on a trip. It’s a wonderful experience.
Madeira is often described as ‘a garden in the Atlantic’ and is said to be one of the best locations in the world for flower lovers. Jaqueline told me that visiting sailors would offer plants as payment for harbour fees, which is why it has specimens from all over the world. They’ve thrived in the sub-tropical climate. We toured the flower section of Funchal’s market as part of her food tour. She explained where and when you could see belladonnas and agapanthus in bloom. And we admired the vibrant bunches of exotic flowers grown locally. You can buy cut flowers and bulbs at the market from women who wear traditional dress.
The island’s emblem is the stunning Bird of Paradise flower. It hails from South Africa but has taken to Madeira’s climate and rich volcanic soil. “Madeira is also known for orchids,” Jaqueline told me. I am not an expert in flowers but I know that being able to grow these temperamental plants is impressive. “There are five types which grow wild. If you come in the spring – April and May – you will see them in bloom along the irrigation channels or levadas. You will also see them inside the primitive forest.” This laurel forest covers 15,000 square hectares and most of Madeira would have been forested when settlers arrived in 1419. The woodland was recently listed by UNESCO.
I caught a taxi from town to reach one of Madeira’s famous botanic gardens. The car climbed continually throughout the 20-minute journey, traversing the switchbacks as it rose almost 3,000 feet. I asked to be dropped off at the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. Their collection of 100,000 plants began in the 18th century. The gardens are landscaped – with 1,000 Zimbabwean sculptures and water features including fishponds. Some of the walkways are paved with 15th century tiles and the site includes a rock and gemstone museum.
This area – Monte – was established as a cooler, hilltop health resort taking in the incredible views. Today, thousands of tourists climb up this hill not only to see the impressive twin-towered church, which you reach by climbing the top of steep stone steps, but to catch a bizarre form of transport back down into the town. The famous Monte Toboggan Ride is fun but, unlike most Madeiran activities, it’s not exactly relaxing! You join the long queue to climb into a two-seater wicker sled, which is pushed along at 25km an hour, 1,500 feet down the steep road. The sledge operators all wear traditional white trousers, white shirts and straw boaters. And they wear boots with soles made from car tyres – they use their feet as brakes!
Ugo, one of the carrieros told me that they were originally used to take rich people down the slope. Luckily the men no longer have to haul the sledges back up the mountain. They load them onto a van and drive them back up. There used to be a rack railway that brought people from town to Monte. That was removed during the war. But more recently, in the year 2000, a 3.3km long cable car opened. I climbed into one of the 39 cable car cabins for the breath-taking 15-minute ride down the mountain to the town centre.
You can peer down on local life as you pass over the homes, allotments and gardens clinging to the steep mountainside. As you approach the end of the journey, you follow the concrete encased course of the river. There are so many spectacular views to be enjoyed in Madeira because there are so many high peaks.
I stayed at the Quinta de Bela Vista Hotel, which offers superb panoramic views overlooking Funchal Bay. Head Receptionist Fernando Viera told me you can watch the cruise ships coming and going as you lie in the pool. The hotel also offers one of the best places to view the New Year’s Eve fireworks. “Even for locals who see this view every day, it’s very special,” he told me. Quinta means ‘farm’ and the 89-room Bela Vista was the island’s first five-star villa to be opened as part of the refurbishment of an original house.
The interior of the newer Garden Wing building features craftsmanship from a different era in the wooden floors and grand lounges. You would easily think that it was original. The architect has done an excellent job. Fernando took me to view the original house. The relaxing library is decorated with British antiques. The hotel is set within a beautiful 20,000 square meter garden, lovingly tended to by a team of four full-time gardeners.
You could spend your entire break here – relaxing around this beautiful property. In the evening a pianist plays during dinner in the restaurant and later, at the pool bar, as you look out over the city’s twinkling lights below. The hotel offers a complimentary shuttle bus down to town. It’s fairly easy walking down, but the return journey would not be fun on foot!
Madeira’s walking is best enjoyed in the countryside. Islander Rui Pestana told me that any Madeiran break should include a hike along two or three levadas. They are old irrigation channels, with paths one to two metres wide running alongside. “The north of the island has more water than the south. Building the levadas was a major engineering project a few centuries after the discovery of the island. They designed the water channels to irrigate the fields. If you have a small piece of land in the south, you can buy an hour of water. A guy will move stones from one side to the other to let the water flow through.”
There are more than a thousand kilometres of levadas criss-crossing Madeira and a number of online and paper guides are available. “There are many that go next to the sea,” said Rui. “Some others are deep inside the island.”
I caught the bus to one of Madeira’s most attractive communities. Five kilometres from Funchal lies the quaint fishing village of Camara de Lobos, which was named after the sea lions that once lived there. As the bus drives in on the top road you can look down across whitewashed houses with red tile roofs, nestled in a horseshoe bay between the hills. I clambered over the pebbles of the foreshore, between the colourfully painted fishing boats, to watch locals drying their fish in the sun. Alongside the seafront are pretty churches, bars and cafés. Apparently Churchill enjoyed painting the view here and there’s a café named in his honour.
At the top of the strand I could see my next mode of transport – a bus made to look like a steam train. I caught this bizarre vehicle, complete with its synthesised whistle, for the steep climb to the highest sea cliff in Europe and second highest in the world. The ‘train’ swung around hairpin bends and passed sheer cliff top drops during the 20-minute journey.
Each day, almost 2,000 people come to Cabo Girão. If you’re brave enough, you can walk onto the glass-bottomed skywalk protruding over the edge of the cliff, which drops a dizzying 580m to the ocean below. The view of the sheer rock face from above, with Funchal in the distance, was superb.
I could clearly see the community of Camara de Lobos. Two hours later, I would be sampling this village’s invention. Fishermen from the community created a potent local drink called poncha. I got to taste it in Funchal at Bar Number 2, on Jaqueline’s Food On Foot Tour. “When they used to go out fishing during the night they used to take rum, lemon and honey and mix up the ingredients to create the drink,” she explained. “They used to say it was to warm them up inside or to prevent colds or flu. We don’t say it is a medicinal drink,” she laughed, although it did taste like a boozy Lemsip to me.
At the bar we experienced another local snack. There are no crisps or peanuts here. You’re offered a small bowl of boiled lupin seeds, known locally as tremoços. They look a bit like butter beans and you eat them by making a small tear in the skin with your teeth and popping the seed out into your mouth. They’re cooked in parsley and garlic and are quite addictive.
Jacqueline started her Funchal food tours after being impressed by a food walk she’d been on when visiting Reykjavík. “I love to eat and to drink – like most locals,” she laughed. “I enjoy sitting back, relaxing and having a glass of wine. We have good wines and they are not expensive. All the wines that we will have on the tour today are Portuguese.” We had plenty of tastings as we walked around Funchal’s old town, the area settled by fishermen soon after a Portuguese navigator discovered the island in 1491. The venues were varied, from a trendy restaurant designed by its chef who was a trained architect, to a fast food restaurant and a bakery.
You’ll sample espada, the traditional local black scabbard fish, which is delicious – apparently because its diet consists of squid and shrimps. Jacqueline warned us that it wasn’t pretty and when we toured the fish market and saw what we’d just eaten, it was quite a shock. “It’s the really ugly one, that looks like an eel. It’s long and thin and has big eyes and sharp teeth,” she said, pointing to the hideous fish. They cook it with local bananas for a unique mix of sweet and sour tastes.
We also viewed the colourful fruit and vegetable market, tasting island-grown passion fruit, custard apples, mango and papaya. Meat eaters in our group raved about the traditional Madeiran Christmas snack of a sandwich of pork marinated in wine and garlic. It is served on special bread cooked on a stone – a Moorish influence.
Don’t expect to find the traditional British Madeira cake on sale here. You can’t get it! Instead there are other sweet treats on offer, like local honey cake, Portuguese egg tarts and cheesecake made with a type of cottage cheese. Believe me – you won’t want lunch before, or dinner after, this tour, which was one of the best food walks that I have been on. You can book at Madeira Food On Foot Tours.
There was more to the tour than just tastings. We also learned about Funchal’s history. Jaqueline shared tales of pirate attacks to explain why settlers built the forts around the town and which still stand today. We also heard how the mayor had tried to regenerate the town by inviting artists to paint every door along Rua Santa Maria, a narrow street filled with restaurants. There are now 65 painted doors, all labelled with the artists’ names. Madeira then entered a contest to find Portugal’s best-decorated door and Funchal’s entry won.
Madeirans have another success that they are proud of – their most famous son, the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. Rui once worked as a sports journalist and smiled when I mentioned the famous footballer’s name. “We have a Ronaldo Museum. We have a Ronaldo Square – there’s a statue. And our airport is now known as Cristiano Ronaldo airport. There’s even a Cristiano Ronaldo Hotel. They will find something else, I’m sure!” he laughed, before adding, “They are gluing Ronaldo to Madeira but it is a good thing. He likes his town and when it’s needed he promotes Madeira. It is a good relationship.”
If you want to talk football – a Portuguese and Madeiran obsession – head to Riccardo de Souza’s Bar O Avo. The South African moved to Madeira in 1995 and when he saw football scarves on display in a London pub following a Millwall match, he decided to start his own collection in Funchal. Sadly Ricardo lost his original collection of 1,200 scarves when severe floods hit the town in 2010, but he’s been slowly replacing them, largely thanks to kind customers who bring their team’s scarf for him. “Today I have 831 scarves,” he told me, as I surveyed the walls and ceiling, which were covered with logos from the world’s biggest and smallest teams. “I am not trying to create a world record. I just want people to come in and see them. You get to meet people who love football. The supporters of the smaller teams are often more passionate. When you show them their club scarf, sometimes they go crazy, take pictures or want to go on Skype to talk to the club about it,” he told me.
Just driving around this impressive island gives visitors a sense of excitement. The perfectly maintained motorway cuts across the deep valleys and spans ravines on high bridges, which are incredible feats of engineering. You’ll dart in and out of tunnels as you skirt across the hillside above Funchal. It’s like being on a car commercial! You’re never more than a few minutes way from a view that you’ll want on capture – just remember to bring an extra memory card!
Monarch and BA are amongst the airlines offering the 4-hour flight from Madeira to London. Prices are around £100 return in June. Easyjet also link Funchal with Gatwick and Edinburgh for a similar price.