Madeira is surprisingly easy to get to from the UK. In just over three hours you can fly from London into Funchal the capital, they also keep the same time zone as the UK so there is no jet lag. Madeira is one of those tiny islands that offer a tremendous amount in relation to its size. Only 13 by 37 miles it sits 250 miles north of The Canary Islands. An Autonomous Region of Portugal it has a calm laidback feel to it. With a diverse landscape that allows snow on the mountaintops, bananas growing on the hillsides and swimming in the sea, this is an island full of suprises.
With daily flights through TAP Portugal from London you really can choose exactly when you want to go. The hotels are rather special too.
Madeira is probably most famous for its wine. Produced there for centuries it is a mainstay of the economy. There is also Madeira cake made using the molasses refined from sugar cane grown on the island. But their biggest export is fruit specifically bananas. You will also find some extraordinary fruit on this island such as the guava, oranges, mango, passion fruit, medlar and many more.
Mercado Dos Lavradores or the Worker’s Market every Friday and Saturday in Funchal is where to head. The stalls are packed with perfect specimens; many stallholders will let you try before you buy. It’s great fun to taste a Custard Apple fruit (they really do taste of apples and custard) or a Delicious fruit, a cross between a banana and a pineapple (elongated in form with hexagons on the skin like a pineapple).
Next-door is the fish market. There you will typically find large tuna being cut to size or the ubiquitous scabbard fish, a long ugly eel-like creature with razor sharp teeth that tastes wonderful when cooked. It has white flesh not unlike cod. This is only the beginning of the journey of exploration I discovered so many new experiences unique to Madeira.
The scenery has to one of the strongest features of Madeira. From steep mountains that climb into the clouds to gorgeous bays with the sun bouncing off the lapping waves. It is a beautiful island with such friendly people. I speak no Portuguese but found that everybody had at least a smattering of English. During my trip I was determined to learn at least one word of Portuguese.
The Madeirans are very welcoming, warm people. There is little or no crime on the island so it feels very safe, a perfect family destination. My hotel The Villa Porto Mare is part of the Porto Bay Group, which includes the five-star Cliff Bay Hotel.
The reason I found myself in Madeira was not only to enjoy its wonderful climate and colourful island life but also to attend the fifth ‘Rota das Esrelas’ The Stars Route, a gourmet festival of Michelin Stars. Executive chef Benoit Sinthon runs the Cliff Bay’s Michelin starred restaurant Il Gallo d’Oro. So over the course of a week chefs from all over Europe are invited to cook and demonstrate their skills at different events. A gala evening was held at Il Gallo d’Oro that I am going to review in another article.
One of the most dramatic was a night of twelve chefs and twelve ladies of wine (the ladies were the sommeliers). Set in the 100 year old winery of Blandy’s with so many dishes on offer each with a matched wine it was hard to know where to begin. Highlights included a superb complex and rich fish stew served with cress and crispy bacon on top, outstanding sushi and slow roasted veal shanks with a creamed potato. The choice was amazing and a definite must for any foodie worth their salt. The setting really enhanced the atmosphere with little corners with tall tables to stand and chat with fellow diners.
This ‘walking dinner’ was a new concept to me but I liked it. You get to meet all sorts of people with similar interests. The chefs too are totally accessible, ready and proud to share their secrets, how often does that happen? A pate en cruet was perfectly pitched with a lovely onion marmalade, pork and mustard dressing. Another offering was tiny little wafer cones with mascarpone inside and a few eggs of caviar providing the ‘sprinkles’. It’s this sort of food that excites me, doing something different with quality ingredients that makes you smile and want more.
The evening was long and very enjoyable. Once a group of you has found a spot and start returning with different dishes it’s almost unavoidable not to become competitive. Trying as many as you can with the wine pairings can take its toll though. I’d drink plenty of water as you go.
Driving safaris are very popular here as is walking in the mountains. I took off with my guide Osvaldo to explore the North and Eastern sides of the Island. He took me to the top of mountains off road in his Land Rover the views are amazing from these vantage points. We travelled to São Vicente on the north coast, along to Ponta Delgada and on to Santana for lunch.
I met a few locals along the way, from a family run biscuit factory to a friend who makes homemade wine in his garage that tasted terrific. His knowledge of the plant life and history of Madeira is vast Safari Tours can also drop you off and pick you up later at a designated point. Many serious walkers come to Madeira to walk the Levada trails. These are paths that follow the simple irrigation channels established hundreds of years ago by the first settlers. The Levadas are no more than 20 inches wide and have the paths next to them. With over 1,300 miles of these walking routes in Madeira there is a lot to explore. Due to the hilly terrain much of the island is cultivated by hand with tools and methods unchanged for hundreds of years. This all adds to the unique atmosphere of Madeira.
Using the plentiful and almost empty roads you soon realise how many tunnels there on the island. Osvaldo informed me there are over 50 miles of tunneling through the mountains. The climate varies enormously as well, you can drive into a tunnel from bright sunshine and come out into a thick foggy mist only to carry on a short while and rejoin sunshine. The microclimates are part of what makes this sub-tropical environment work so well. You might choose to spend time on one of the islands many golf courses, it makes for an interesting game with the diverse terrain.
From the Old Town of Funchal it is possible to take a cable car up to the hilltop town of Monte. The ride is a great way of seeing the town and port and takes less than ten minutes. There is something soothing about a cable car ride, no noise and very gentle, definitely one for the kids. There is also a rather unusual means for the return journey, but more of that later.
Monte became popular with the rich merchants of the 19th century looking for cooler air away from Funchal and was a health resort for the rich and famous in 1920’s, now it’s known for Jardim Botânico, the botanical gardens. Established in 1894 they cover 35 thousand square meters and containing over 2500 exotic plants and a multitude of waterfalls and statues. The walk through this peaceful park is a good two hours and worth every minute.
Since about 1850 there has been that ‘other’ system of returning down the hill, in a wicker basket! These toboggan rides are inspired from the days of merchants bringing their goods up the hill pulled by cattle and then riding the toboggans down. Not for the feint hearted but definitely for anyone with a sense of adventure. The ride lasts about four minutes and is conducted by two men who wear straw boaters and push you down the hill at considerable speed while they hang on the back and steer and break as necessary. This is a must do attraction especially for families.
Among the other foodie events of The Stars Route were a caviar tasting session and a Champagne tasting session, both of which were very informative. I have discovered that I like very young caviar of about three-month maturity. As it matures it gets stronger in flavour and the salt more pronounced. One of the biggest surprises for me was the superb selection of indigenous cheeses produced on the island. As an island of plenty they certainly know how to get the best from it.
At another ‘walking dinner’ this time held at The Cliff Bay Hotel I was treated to the same line up of chefs as before but with a different menu. In a more formal setting and with many more in attendance the expectation was high. Chef Benoit even opened his kitchen and was cooking ‘live’ for all to see and taste. The evening was a roaring success with world-class food and copious quality wine.
A visit to a sugar cane factory in Funchal (although there are quite a few scattered around the island) was an eye opener. The system of extraction for the cane unchanged for centuries, making the syrup and molasses that are used to make everything from Madeira cakes to wine and ‘honey’.
Madeira offers the visitor a memorable holiday that will work for all the family. It’s easy to get to; the hotels are wonderful, mine had suites of varying size that could accommodate large families. The Porto Bay had five pools and numerous restaurants, in school they holidays offer supervised children’s clubs to give mum and dad a break. Apart from wine and cake you also might wish to look at wickerwork, they excel at it here. From baskets to toboggans you can find it in Madeira. Another craft is hand embroidery widely considered to be the best in the world while not cheap it is of the highest quality.
There is one last place I visited that is worth a mention, Reid’s Palace Hotel. Perched high on a cliff this building is old charm personified. All the good and the great had been there in the twenties and thirties. You could even catch a seaplane direct from Southampton at one time. Churchill used to go there to paint long before the island became fashionable. The hotel is very exclusive and private, just right for your average film star! The lunch I enjoyed there sitting by the pool looking out to sea is a fond memory of my visit to Madeira. I’d like my next stay be longer.
I did manage to learn one word and used it a lot, ‘obrigado’ it means thank you. So, obrigado Madeira and I am looking forward to seeing you again soon.
To find out more about travelling to Madeira with TAP Portugal and Porto Bay Resort Hotels click below.
TAP Portugal flies from London Gatwick to Madeira daily from £153, return fare including taxes. For further information and to book visit