September 2009 Madeira by Gerry O’Hare

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The island of Madeira has acquired a slightly snooty reputation, very unfairly.  Perhaps because one of the world’s really top hotels, Reid’s Palace, sits in magnificent isolation on top of one of its high cliffs.

Or perhaps because, for generations, it’s been a closely-kept secret in Scandinavia, Britain and Germany – whose better-heeled residents have been wintering here for years and simply not bothering to tell the rest of us

A century or so ago, the island was the preserve of the rich and indolent (and there’s no law against going there if that’s “you darling”) but it’s far from  compulsory …

It’s amazing Agatha Christie never set a murder mystery there – “Murder on the Floating Garden” (old colonel; murdered with an antique blade in a hotel restaurant; relatives all suspects).

These days it attracts a far younger and less formal clientele.  Anyone, in fact, who fancies a high-class holiday in the sun, even in deepest winter, at a safe distance from the lager lout syndrome.

The island is three hours from Dublin by air with reliable sun all year round (average daily winter temperatures of 24 degrees Celsius and similar water temperatures for the swimmers amongst you).

Or you can instead relax at your hotel.  Most have gone down the “spa and pampering” route so when lounging beside the pool simply gets too, too boring – there’s another way in which you can self-indulge.

 

One reason more Irish will be holidaying there in future are new direct flights from Dublin starting this October 25th and continuing until April next year.

Madeira is unlike its near neighbours, the Canary Islands because – although it’s also geologically volcanic – it’s as green as our own Emerald Isle, thanks to the fertile soil and mist that sometimes wraps itself around its highest peaks.

Nearer to Africa than Europe, Portuguese Madeira sits in the middle of the Atlantic and was discovered accidentally by Henry the Navigator who was swept off-course in a storm.

Nearly 60 kms at its widest point, the island is just over 20 kms long with a population of roughly 250,000 – mostly gathered in the capital, Funchal, and coastal villages.

Two thirds of the island is a designated national park because of its rich variety of flowers and woods.  You could tour the island in a day (but why would you?) Madeira is rich in incredible scenery, plants and the remnants of centuries of human habitation.

Because it’s topography is so unusual – some would say unique – it holds botanical gems (leading to the “floating garden” epithet).  It’s also covered in fruit trees and neat farms, surrounded by deep seas and an agricultural gem.

Now, that can only mean one thing to me.  And that’s loads of fresh food, meat and fish for tourists to enjoy – and enjoy it they do.  After all, half the fun of a holiday, is eating out.

Madeira is perfect for those who love exotic food.  It’s good too for those who like the basic meat-and-two-veg (and one the good old potato).  For those who want to eat sensibly, the fish and salads will also keep you on the straight and narrow.

 

You might also like to taste the local brandy and it would be a sin not to taste the local Madeira wine (either the darker, sweeter, ones or the lighter, dryer varieties).

Prices are reasonable – you’ll pay less than at home – and there’s better value if you search out restaurants where the locals eat which cost far less than those in the tourist spots (having said that, the tourist spots are the most picturesque).

Life being what it is, if you’re travelling with a football nut, you will also be able to watch nearly all important matches on widescreen in the island’s bars near the main hotels.

The “in” place to eat is in the marina in the capital, Funchal, and the dozens of restaurants stretched out along the quayside where you can watch the world go by in comfort, either outside or under cover if it’s too hot.

The menus are huge, and because of the competition the prices don’t really vary very much so just pick the one you fancy and sit down before ordering what your favourite dish is back at home (it’s probably on the list).

If, however, you want to eat local – especially if you like fish – then you’re in for a treat.  I particularly recommend the “scabbard fish” (available everywhere and cooked in everything).

The simple reason for this is that Madeira is surrounded by some very, very deep water and far down near the bottom lives the scabbard fish (in Portuguese “espada”, as it’s shaped like a sword scabbard).

Fishermen put down lines and pull them up to the surface.  They’re not a pretty fish – long, black with large eyes and teeth – but are light and non-oily – a bit like cod actually, although less dense.

 

 

To get an idea of the history behind the island’s most famous export, Madeira wine, don’t miss a visit to Blandy’s (yep, that’s how you spell it) Wine Lodge in central Funchal.

They’ll take you through the old wooden rooms that house hundreds of thousands of gallons of Madeira, a quick trip through a small museum, a 12-minute film and then, it’s tasting time!

No one island can have everything.  No-one could say it has great beaches.  But it makes up for that in so many ways you wouldn’t really notice the absence of sand.

The island has been welcoming up-market tourists for centuries so, as you might expect, most of the hotels are quite grand and four or five star.  Many have undergone recent multi-million face lifts. You can choose B&B or half board.

If you are interested in gardening and walking then you have come to the right place.  The “levadas” are unique to Madeira, paths along aqueducts, surrounded by fantastic flowers that you don’t see anywhere else.

If you feel like a day out, the main botanical garden contains over 2,000 different species of plants and has become a focus of preserving endangered plants.

And little Madeira even has a Presidential Palace where the gardens are a

profusion of plants and flowers. There is herbarium, as well as well-kept

terraces and lawns.

Bring your camera, for as well as capturing the plants, the views are spectacular. You could always find the President himself dandering around. No security here. Just a relaxing atmosphere

 

For swimmers and divers, the spot to go is the bathing complex at Garajau,

Canico where you can descend in a cable car for just one Euro or take the

steep path down. Down below, there is a sun-terrace and a restaurant.

The clear, warm waters here are full of colourful (toothless) fish who swim along side you, and maybe a dolphin or two.

Another day out is to take a boat trip from Funchal harbour, aboard a replica of the “Santa Maria”, the ship on which Christopher Columbus “discovered” America.

Called the “Nau de Santa Maria de Colombo”, she was built on the island bu a Dutch ship-builder and local craftsmen.  On our trip, once we were 100 meters from the beach, many dived overboard and swam lazily around.

Columbus often called into Madeira and married the daughter of its first Portuguese governor. Sailing along the coast of Madeira in the Santa Maria will take you back to the 15th century.

Another experience not to be missed is to take a drive along the island’s deeply indented coastline.  Stop in the harbour of Camaara de Lobos – a spot where Winston Churchill loved to paint (he came to the island for his health after WW2).

Here you’ll find a “Churchill Bar” where you can enjoy the same peaceful and colourful views.  Happily, it’s a real “local bar” so you can meet and chat with the locals.

There are two golf courses on the island, at Palheiro (par 72) and at Santo

da Serra (par 71) – and one on the nearby island of Porto Santo.  With great year-round weather, and the established Portuguese excellence when it comes to golf, you can be sure of a great round

 

 

 

There are so many gardens that it would take you a week to visit them all but one you cannot miss is the cable car up to Monte, giving you panoramic views of the island.

Come back down on wooden toboggan.  This is a wonderful experience with two drivers pushing you down the steep hill back down towards to Funchal.

If you’re a bit fed up of the cheap’n’cheerful holiday resorts with their high-rise and cheap beer and want to indulge in something a little more luxurious and lavish, then Madeira’s for you.

 

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