A volcanic island that juts majestically out of the ocean, the geographical tapestry of Madeira is amazing; sheer cliffs, ancient laurel forests, a jagged and rocky coastline and mountain tops cloaked in mist. Best of all, it’s cheap and easy to reach. Ankita Mahabir checks out the scenic isle.
For outdoor lovers:
Madeira is full of contradictions; you could be sitting on a sunny beach one moment and driving through rain and rainbows the next. Its high mountains and low valleys make it a great destination for hikers. Few man-made creations can rival nature’s work but the levadas (water channels) of Madeira might just be one of them. Built almost 400 years ago, this 2,000km-long (1,242 miles) network also substitutes as a walking path.
Madeira Islands Tourism
Madeira Adventure Kingdom organises some fantastic walks. My guide, Samuel knows the island, its history and ecosystem intimately. All through the walk, we drink water straight from the streams, pluck fresh herbs and eat naturally ripened fruit. My hike was a pleasant 15km (9 miles) walk along Levada Do Rei in the valleys of São Jorge all the while enjoying beautiful views of the São Jorge village, the laurel-covered mountains and the ocean.
Another way to explore the levadas is on horseback. Quinta Do Riacho, run by animal lovers Paolo and Paula, offer small group tours (four people maximum) on horses that are all well groomed and full of personality, so you get the most out of your experience and are able to enjoy the stunning vistas with minimum intrusion.
The island also has amazing canyoning, which involves swimming, jumping and rappelling down waterfalls. Madeira Adventure Kingdom provides the wetsuits along with all of the equipment and moral support you might need. I was canyoning in Ribeira des Cales and I’ll admit it’s a little scary in the beginning but after negotiating a couple of waterfalls, I began to feel like a pro. At some point, the fear is eased out and you begin to focus on the fun (the natural water slide we went on might have had something to do with this).
For those who can’t get enough of Madeiran nature, why not stay in the lovely Quinta Jardim do Lago. The property is a colonial home located just on the outskirts of Funchal and is set within 2.5 hectares (6 acres) of botanical gardens. The breakfast on the veranda overlooking the gardens is lovely and then there is the communal outdoor Jacuzzi with a view. Throw in the impeccable service and you’ll never want to leave.
Everyone knows about Madeiran wine but if there is one thing the Madeirans love, it’s their poncha. A mix of sugarcane rum, honey and lime, this sweet and seemingly innocent drink is potent. For some traditional homemade stuff, head to “Taberna de
Poncha” near Serra Agua en route to Sao Vicente from Ribeira Brava. I am travelling with a self proclaimed cocktail connoisseur and am assured that the cocktails in Madeira are top notch. Not only are they delicious but at €3 a cocktail they are also an absolute bargain. The best mojitos we had were in a lovely surfers bar right at the end of a the Paul do Mar beach stretch called Maktub run by Fabio Afonso, who can also provide surfing tips if you want to catch some waves on the island.
The colouful Maktub pub and Armazem Do Sal
Carlos Santo Silva / Armazem Do Sal
A dining experience not to miss when in Madeira is Restaurant Armazem Do Sal. Dining under the 400-year-old wooden beams of this former salt warehouse, the restaurant specialises in fresh, organic ingredients. From my fig and serrano ham ravioli served in a melon sauce to my white chocolate panna cotta and wild berries dessert, I am pleased through and through. What’s more, it doesn’t even burn a Michelin star sized hole in my pocket. A three-course meal for two, plus two glasses of wine, sets us back only €75 (£60). The owner Carlos Caires wanted to make fine dining accessible to everyone and he has well and truly succeeded.
For culture vultures:
When in Funchal, don’t forget to visit the cobbled streets of the Old Town, which has undergone a renaissance thanks to a project called “Painted Doors” in which all the doors on Rua Santa Maria have been given a lick of paint by artists from the island.
Fireworks in Funchal
Creative Commons / Porto Bay Hotels
For those heading to Madeira in December don’t miss the all-night market on the 23rd. This is an event loved by locals where they take in a couple of ponchas, mingle, dance and get ready for Christmas and a truly happy New Year (remember the world famous fireworks?). You can find more information about the cultural agenda at www.visitmadeira.pt.
If you want a truly culturally-rich experience, Madeira Rural offers hand-picked accommodation. I found Quinta Das Vinhas, a charming property surrounded by vineyards with marvellous ocean views. The Main House features original tiles and furniture and even a chapel from the 17th century.
For spa aficiandos:
At first glance, the Reid’s Palace in Funchal doesn’t look imposing at all, but the moment you step out of the car everything changes. We were met by the lovely head concierge Rui Azevedo, who led us through the Afternoon Tea Rooms featuring exquisitely colonial décor, complete with grand chandeliers and Victorian furniture, to our rooms.
Reid Palace Hotel
In our rooms we were welcomed with traditional Madeiran cakes and a decanter of Madeiran Port Wine. All rooms, like the rest of the hotel, reflect the Reid’s Anglo-Portuguese heritage. We were in the Superior Room which is not only incredibly spacious but also offers magnificent ocean views from its covered balconies. The hotel has been graced by many European royals whose photos adorn its walls. Winston Churchill stayed and painted here, too, while George Bernard Shaw learnt the tango (there is a suite named after each of them).
I also managed to make a pit stop at the Reid Spa. I opted for the Regional Spa Treatment that uses balsam from the island and it did wonders for my aches and pains; my therapist was exceptionally good. With the end of my spa treatment, my stay at the Reid ended too and I felt a tinge of sadness because I didn’t quite know when I’d ever feel so pampered again.
Best time to visit: Madeira is a year-round destination. But visit between April and July for flora, fauna and sunshine; December for record breaking fireworks and August to November for balmy pleasant weather.
24 December 2012