One person’s hot spot is often another’s inferno; unlike Madeira. Founded in the 15th century; this Portugese island (just a 90-minute flight from Lisbon) makes good on its heavenly boast.
Dubbed ‘the floating garden’, its verdant landscape, fed by a year-round Mediterranean climate, sets the scene for the perfect getaway. Small and perfectly formed, the main island (and its archipelago Porto Santo, Selvagens and Desertas Islands) belies untold diversity.
Sandy beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, vineyards, golf courses, spa treatments, festivals, historic monuments and scenic scuba dives all await today’s intrepid traveller. The only real trouble is deciding on what to do.
Whether a hill walker, beach comber or simple pleasure seeker, Madeira’s breathtaking scenery is a recommendation in itself. Its unique location (500 km off the African coast and 200 km from Portugal) makes for year-round balmy weather — advantageous for those looking to explore the rare flora and fauna of its renowned nature reserves.
The most popular of these reserves are the ‘levada’ (aqueduct) walks. These open-air water canals, which pass through the waterfalls and hidden parts of the island, were first built by the settlers to carry water to inaccessible farmland. Etched into the basalt rock masses, these 200-strong irrigation canals stream through Madeira’s indigenous ‘laurissilva’ (laurel forest) — a 15,000 hectare Unesco World Natural Heritage Site preserving is pre-Ice Age remains. Here you’ll also find rare species of birds from the long-toed pigeon to the Zino’s petrel and Madeiran chaffinch.
Given the varying degrees of difficulty within its mountainous relief, the levadas are best navigated with a guided 4x4 jeep tour (and a sturdy pair of shoes). Mountains Expedition (00351-969677679; www.mex.pt) provide tailor-made and group programmes which also include an outdoor traditional ‘Espetada’ lunch (grilled skewered garlic pork) complete with wine, salad and ‘Bolo Do Caco’ (sweet potato bread).
A more leisurely pace can be found at the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens (00351-291780800; www.montepalace.com). A 14-minute cable car journey from Funchal to Monte village (€15 pp; www.madeiracablecar.com) sets a scenic prelude to the 18th century palace grounds which hosts an eclectic mix of indigenous and exotic plants. South African cycads and protea, Belgian azaleas, Scottish heather, Himalayan orchids and Madeiran laurissilva span 70,000 square metres of property where peacocks and swans roam freely among the Oriental pagodas and African sculptures.
If you prefer the life aquatic, head south to the Parcial do Garajau Nature Reserve. With year-round water temperatures of 18-23C, thanks to the Gulf Stream, this marine park is one of the most popular areas in Portugal for scuba diving; not least due to its teams of moray eels, sea bream, garden conger and manta rays. Home to the biggest blue marlins in the world (over 450 kg), fishing enthusiasts can take advantage of the catch and release fishing trips; with off-shore whale and dolphin-watching tours also available.
Sun-seekers may be surprised that many of Madeira’s beaches are pebbled with the notable exception of those at Calheta and Machico which boast €3m of imported sand from the Western Sahara. For the jewel in the crown, a two-hour boat trip to the archipelago Porto Santo, promises a 9km golden stretch of unspoiled beach; not to mention a host of spas, thalossotherapy and geomedicine centres.
Thanks to its prime geographical location, most restaurants in Madeira boast fresh regional produce from tuna steaks and scabbard-fish to lush tropical fruits and traditional wines. Funchal’s historic Old Town and Lido offer the best value for money on traditional fare with narrow back streets like Rua da Carreira, Rua das Murças and Rua Queimada de Baixo popular hotspots.
For a taste of local dining, try Vila do Peixe restaurant (00351-291099909; www.viladopeixe.com) — a low key haunt, east of Funchal, overlooking the coastal village of Câmara de Lobos. Order the’ Catch of the Day’ platter — a selection of different barbequed fish served with traditional salads, mango mousse and passion fruit pudding, coffee; and wine or beer. Finish with a glass of ‘poncha’ — a traditional digestif made with sugarcane, honey and lemon.
A must-visit is the ‘Mercado dos Lavradores’ — a municipal fish, fruit and flower market situated in the Old Town.
Founded in 1940, the building is architecturally one the most important in Madeira, not least for its local colour. The bustle of the interior and its buzzing stalls makes for a perfect photo op. Do take care: every tourist attraction has its trap and this is no exception. Watch out for the ‘free’ samples from fruit sellers which are often a pushy sales ruse to get you to buy. If buying, agree on a price beforehand to avoid being overcharged.
No trip to Madeira would be complete without sampling its eponymous wine. Praised in Shakespeare’s plays, celebrated by monarchs, princes, generals and explorers, Madeira wine is most notable for its almost indefinite shelf life. The Old Blandy Wine Lodge (00351-291740110; www.theoldblandywinelodge.com) based in the heart of Funchal also runs daily tours of its winery complete with a history of the varietals and a delicious sampling. Wine connoisseurs should circle September in the calendar for the popular Madeira grape harvest and its Bacchanalian festival.
It’s safe to say that the ‘to do’ factor in Madeira is almost limitless. Simply seek and you shall find your own piece of paradise.
SATA International Airlines operates a direct Dublin to Funchal service from €350 rtn inc. taxes. Flies Sundays only (DUB-FUN-DUB) from Apr 1 — Nov 4 (www.sata.pt; 01-8045102).
Daily flights throughout summer with Aer Lingus and TAP Portugal via Lisbon (www.aerlingus.com; www.flytap.com).
5 Star Luxury: The Cliff Bay Hotel offers seaside balconied suites overlooking the city of Funchal from €345 per night. Expect panoramic views, an outdoor spa and Madeira’s only Michelin-starred restaurant (00351-291707700; www.portobay.com).
Boutique Chic: The Vine’s pared-down sophistication is a sign of the emerging Funchal district. Seasonally-themed rooms and a heated rooftop swimming pool are just some of the special treats available. Deluxe rooms from €210 per night (00351-291009000; www.designhotels.com).
Budget Buster: The central Funchal Design Hotel offers boutique charm for minimalist budgets. Quirky glass-clad monochrome rooms from €80 per night (00351-291780210; www.funchaldesignhotel.com).
Stately Home: Experience the colonial charm of a family ‘quinta’ (stately home). The Quinta de Freitas offers exclusive villa access and B&B accommodation from €65 a day (Apr — Dec) for two adults sharing. (00351-291222667; www.quintafreitas.com).
* Porto Santo Island — its 9kms of sandy beaches and renowned thalassotherapy centre.
* Machico Food Festival Week (Jul 27 to Aug 5) — a 10-day showcase of traditional local delicacies, music and entertainment.
* Any of Madeira’s three scenic 18-hole golf courses: Santo da Serro, Porto Santo and Palheiro.
* The scenic descent from Monte on a traditional wicker toboggan sledge.
* The bird sanctuary at the Selvagens Nature Reserve — two groups of small islands located 180 miles from Madeira.
* Reid’s Palace Hotel where Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Roger Moore all famously stayed.
* Madeiracard.com for information on how to save on meals and other services.
Madeira’s mild temperatures make it a year-round holiday destination. Although Funchal boasts a temperate average temperature of 19.6C (67.3F); microclimates do exist from the humid wet mountains to the arid Porto Santo and Selvagen Islands. Expect 25C in the summer and 17C in the winter.
Madeira Promotions Bureau: www.madeirapromotionbeaureau.com
Visit Maderia: www.visitmadeira.pt
Your Maderia: www.yourmadeira.com
Madeira Wine Company: www.madeirawinecompany.com