It’s a truth universally acknowledged that people think Madeira – Portugal’s very own Atlantic island, a hop and a short flight from its more (in)famous Canary neighbours – is basically a Saga cruise on dry land.
When I told my mother I was going she quipped, ‘Oh, Mary and David over the road have just come back from there. They go every year.’ Mary and David are 85 if a day and live in a pastel-coloured bungalow with hanging baskets. Then I remembered Jane Eyre – the plainest of all the Janes – having a vague connection to Madeira, in between fending off bonkers Bertha and coming over all coy on the Yorkshire Moors. Fair dos to Charlotte Brontë, though, that was a cracking book. So, Madeira… don’t know about you, but I was expecting a lot of Clarks comfy sandals.
But what’s this? Madeira’s airport’s named after Cristiano Ronaldo, its most famous son, and one of the coolest footballers on the planet if you don’t mind the eyebrows? And when you land, they’ve got the whole Corona thing down to a breeze, hip to the fact that they need to test everyone upon arrival to salvage their tourist industry (we could totally point fingers right now), which they do, what’s this, stylishly? Who knew? There are no heavyset matrons in transition lenses here; instead it’s a flotilla of young things in matching sneakers/bleached jeans/white Ts, and kicky face masks in the colours of Madeira to pull it all together. And it all takes a smiley half-hour, roughly. This is a very welcome, er, welcome during a relentless period of stop, in the name of Covid!
And it’s this relentless ‘Rona – the scourge of our times, taking its toll on our bodies, our sanities, our hair, our taste in mid-morning TV – that is the major motivation behind this, the first time I’ve ever been to Madeira. Hence the clichés ringing off the hook.
So then there’s the actually getting here bit, which is easier than your average breeze; flight from London, three hours, which is nothing these days, and no time difference, which is nothing these days. And Cristiano’s airport is then only ten minutes from the capital, Funchal, seriously. More of that place later. It’s also a mind-blowing landing, cliff-edge, literally, on a leviathan runway basically in the sea that is all saturnine and broody and brutalist, if that’s your architectural bag. It soon becomes clear that ye engineers of old Madeira had their work cut out for them.
Because Madeira is basically a slab of rock-hard archipelago surrounded by bugger all (it’s all very Jurassic Park. Lazy analogy but it helps with gists) and there are 150 man-made tunnels slicing through the place. Which is a lot for an island of 801km². And they’re quite something. Just don’t do the hold-your-breath game. The whole geology of the place is generally quite something, which gives chufties even to the chilliest of hearts. It’s a place where ‘awesome’ is totally appropriate, the right reaction to what is basically an old, old, old volcano peeking out of the ocean that the Portuguese decided to make their very own in 1420, give or take a year.
It’s your geography text book come to life, with verdant peaks plunging into the ocean, mountain-top plateaux that could be Mars or Pluto or any other planet that isn’t ours, laurel forests and sheer sea-cliffs and valleys and ravines and marine life for watching and waters for sailing and rafting and whatnot-ing and a whole-other-world interior that is seemingly inaccessible. Unless you know people.
Speaking of which, first on your Madeira nepotism list is a guide for your very own Lavada Trail. The Lavadas are irrigation channels, begun in the 15th century to bring rain-water from the wetter north to the gasping south. Simples, until you think how hard it was to install that bubbling boulder fountain in your back yard… then you realise the sheer sweat, blood, tears and actual death involved in creating the well over 2,000km of these things, back when there was no such thing as waterproof mascara and a Chilly’s bottle for your Lavazza coffee.
The poor sods who built these Lavadas had to live in holes in mountains – literally – for weeks on end, and not so much as a Skin So Soft wet wipe. Split-screen hundreds of years later, though, and they’ve sliced the handiest of walking trails for both the intrepid and the timid, across landscapes that are otherwise crazy-hard to penetrate. We did the Lavada do Rei, which winds us through the forest-thick Ribeiro Bonito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, taking in the 300-year-old São Jorge water mill and a whole bunch of mimosa trees along the way (whose flowers, pop pickers, provide the seeds used in Chanel No.5, which is handy for that turn on Tipping Point if nothing else).
Or take a Jeep Safari, why don’t you. Which is like the above, but sitting on your backside, and taking in the macrocosm of the Madeiran landscape. Leave it to your highly qualified (and highly hilarious, if you get ours) driver to choose the route, which in our case was the whole gamut from rolling pastoral loveliness way up into the mountains (we’re talking 2000m at their peak), across those plateaux we mentioned, peppered with proper professional athletes with abs you can bounce quarters off lapping the island on their fancy BMXs, then back down, rollercoaster-style, into the relative calm of the ocean and its unruffled seaside towns.
If Madeira had a tattoo, it would probably read ‘four seasons in one day’, and there’s nothing so true as a cliché. Across our safari we went from scorcio to bobble hat in a matter of minutes, and the views from rolling bucolic to Deliverance-style forests – the latter of which, incidentally, the dense, silver woods of Fanal, are just crying out for fashion shoots.
Turns out off-roading in a scuzzed-up Land Rover, down mountains and through valleys, past nonchalant cows and slightly miffed bulls, sheer drops to your left, waterfalls and rockfalls to your right, kicking up Outback-style dust clouds, through microclimates and seasons, past burnt eucalyptus trees and their bright young saplings all dewy with oil, is *checks notes* amazing.
Oh, and we mentioned getting to the other side, didn’t we, to those pretty seaside towns. If you’re partial to a stylish denouement, best get thee to lunch at Hotel Ponta do Sol, on the south of the island, which does good chic, great food, even better cocktails, and views over the pitch-perfect town and onward to the never-ending ocean. This is sedate, sophisticated, sun-drenched Madeira, washed down with vodka martinis with all the twists. Oh, but if it’s drama you want with your lunch – we’re talking views, not the staff – head to Quinta do Furao on the north of the island, which is worth it for the photo ops alone.
Hotels, too, run another gamut, from the simple, covers all your bases, penny price-wise like Pestana Quinta do Arco, to the ones that make their own wine. Guess which one I’m going to harp on about? Quinta das Vinhas is right there, on a slope in the balmy south-west, gazing down at the ocean, defying gravity, its inclines covered in OCD-pleasing vines, churning out the good stuff. And you get to try the very good stuff of their labour, in a flight (it’s a wine-y term!) going from the just-squished (there is also a word for this but I was already several sheets to the Atlantic wind) to the refined, even better stuff, which is fortified for your pleasure. It’s this oomph that gives Madeira wine its USP, and who are we to argue. Shakespeare was fond of it, apparently, and he wasn’t exactly an under-achiever.
And we barely got to Funchal, the capital of our fabled isle, did we? And Funchal Old Town really is a funky ol’ town, worthy of a long weekend – or a shorter one, what with the door-to-door stats being one of the myriad attractions of this island – with its overflowing markets, cobbled streets paved with cafes and cute boutiques, restaurants that range from local and dinky to international and hip, and a cluster of very cool indeed hotels; the just-opened Savoy Palace is your go-to for mega-glam, Reid’s Palace for old-school ritz, while Quinta da Casa Branca, Castanheiro and The Vine are more boutique, more intimate, perhaps more you. But we’ll leave that for another time. Christmas, maybe, when all the pretty lights make the old place pop. And the temperature hovers around 20 Celsius, so you can get those lovely Lindas out and everything, no matter what Santa says.
Because that’s Madeira. Some people go to do glorious nothing, some people to do it all. From Mary and David to the bright young things, from mindfulness in the clouds to bouncing up and down mountains in a four-wheel drive, to lunches with views to rocking the Old Town in all the right sunglasses and-who-gives-a-damn… what was once the reserve of sun-seeking snow birds in Lorraine Kelly’s autumn/winter collection spending the supper of their lives watching Highway to Heaven marathons is now vibrant terrain for anyone/everyone/even us. Madeira is a revelation. Tell all your friends.