As our boat smacked down on the waves, I turned to check on the elderly couple straddling the seats behind me. They were well into their seventies and had been expecting a gentle pootle around the harbour in search of dolphins and whales on a calm catamaran.
Instead here they were, clinging on for dear life as the Atlantic swells churned and sprayed them with icy needles. But both were grinning madly, and I swear I heard the husband let out a little whoop.
I had expected slightly more reserved behaviour from visitors to Madeira. Let’s be honest… it’s not exactly Ibiza, is it?
Yet the next day, on a bone-shaking jeep safari halfway up one of the island’s jagged mountains, another 70-something with sensible shoes and her hair in a neat bun turned to me and said: “I simply love off- roading… I’ve done loads of it in Africa!”
So, far from being an island full of old people indulging in high tea at Reid’s Palace Hotel and wafting around the botanical gardens, Madeira is full of British retirees blowing their kids’ inheritance on hurtling down mountains in muddy Land Rovers and taking to the high seas to spot wildlife. That’ll teach me to have preconceived ideas about places… and people.
Defenders: Off-roading in 4x4s
It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to engage in the more sedate activities. We spent a wonderful few hours exploring the magnificent Monte Palace Tropical Gardens… reached by the fabulous Monte cable car. You won’t get better views of the capital Funchal than on the ride up or from the gardens themselves.Exquisite floral displays is what Madeira is famous for, so spring is the perfect time to visit. The flower festival runs from May 9 to 15, when the city comes to life with parades and festivities.
My boyfriend James and I spent a week at the couples-only Savoy Gardens hotel, just up from the Lido. From our balcony we had cracking views of the sea, the harbour, the city and the mountains. There’s a great pool, games, a spa, a terrace for lunch, entertainment and sundowners on the roof with panoramic views.
Panoramic views at the Savoy Gardens rooftop bar
The Savoy Gardens is just for Thomson travellers, so everyone is on the same page and superbly looked after by brilliant rep Paula, who books excursions, recommends restaurants and advises on everything from bus times to where to buy the best chocolate brownies.I usually steer clear of restaurants with “tourist menus”, but Paula was so enthusiastic about the food at Solar Da Ajuda, close to the hotel, we signed up for their four-course special, with wine and coffee. For just £20 we feasted on garlic bread, soup and salad, succulent steaks cooked DIY on a sizzling hot stone plus sticky desserts and a decent red.
That set the culinary bar very high on the first night… and I’m delighted to say most of the restaurants we tried were on a par. From the delicious picanha (whole rump steaks served on an enormous sword, sliced straight on to your plate) at Beef & Wines to the delicious local speciality espatada (meat on a slightly smaller skewer) at Cidade Velha in the Old Town, these people know how to cook meat. Fish eaters will also love the tuna smothered in onions and the espada – tender fish served, bizarrely, with fried banana.
The White House pub, also near the hotel, serves superb lunches and great late-night drinking, especially in the form of poncha – a potent cocktail containing local rum (aguardente da cana), fresh lemon juice and honey. Yum.
There is also the island’s most famous export: Madeira wine. Visit Blandy’s Wine Lodge for an informative tour and a tasty taste. The local Coral lager and the home brew at Beerhouse, on the harbour, are also great thirst quenchers.
Madeira may not be a very large island (it’s just 35 miles long and 13 miles wide), but there’s plenty to see, and the best way to do this is to hire a car from Holiday Autos. Driving here is loads of fun… but the island is basically one huge range of volcanic mountains (the highest eight peaks are all taller than Ben Nevis), so don’t try to do it all in one day.
Those tiny squiggles on the map are actually a series of hair-raising hairpins taking you ever higher, across misty plateaus and plunging you (hopefully not literally!) into spectacular valleys, with houses and farming terraces clinging to impossible cliffs that sweep into the sea. One minute you’re driving above the clouds, the next you’re hugging a road seemingly made for donkeys.
But from the lovely town of Sao Vincente in the north, to the spectacular west coast, from the lush central forests to the bleak Ponta de Sao Lourenco jutting out to the east, every inch is worth exploring for dramatic scenery and dizzying views.
If you don’t fancy a DIY driving expedition, let the experts take the wheel on a jeep safari. We did ours on a Sunday to include the food market at Santo de Serra, followed by off-roading and a pit stop for homemade wine and snacks.
A slightly less adrenaline-fuelled way of exploring the island is on a levada walk. These ancient irrigation channels – all 1,300 miles of them – criss-cross the island, perfect for walks ranging from an easy hour to an epic week-long hike.
Enjoying a stroll along a levada
We spent a few hours walking the levadas with a guide from Madeira Adventure Kingdom.
The same firm arranged our dolphin-spotting trip, and is now welcoming an increasing number of younger clients on its canyoning adventures
and 4×4 safaris.
Although it wouldn’t surprise me to find my elderly friend from the boat swinging down a canyon, whooping with joy…
When to go
Madeira is lovely all year round, but is particularly pretty in spring, when the whole island resembles one huge botanical garden.
Where to stay
Thomson offers seven-night half-board couples holidays to Funchal staying at 4 star Hotel Savoy Gardens from £529pp sharing.
Includes Gatwick flights on April 29.
Call: 0871 230 2555
Beef & Wines, Cidade Velha and Solar Da Ajuda.
Car hire from £90 a week for a small two-door compact from Holiday Autos.
Call: 0800 093 3111
Madeira Adventure Kingdom arranges levada walks, whale-watching trips, jeep safaris and canyoning.