ADvertorial • September 2015
Sun, sweeping shorelines and street names to make you smile – travel journalist Simon Calder explores Portugal’s ‘natural playground’
Mild and wild: that sums up Madeira – a fragment of Portugal beautifully adrift in the Atlantic. The mildness stems from the island’s agreeable climate: even in the coolest month, January, the average low is a benign 14°C, with seven hours of sunshine a day. And the wildness? Well, practically everything else.
This natural playground rises from the ocean 600 miles south-west of Lisbon (and 1,545 miles from London, making it under four hours’ flight from Gatwick). Madeira comprises the top of a 20,000ft volcano, and is one of the few visible parts of the world’s greatest mountain range. It is an island of beautiful contortions – some that end abruptly in mid-air, with cliffs that plunge vertically into the sea. “Sculpted by the gods,” claim the locals, but humanity has helped shape Madeira around the edges since the first settlers arrived from Portugal 600 years ago.
How, for instance, on an island that is a delicious crumple of rock, forest and flowers, do you build an international airport? In Madeira, the answer is to extend the runway on stilts out into the Atlantic. The drive from the airport to Funchal, the capital, swerves and swoops along a breathtaking shore.
When you reach the island’s only city, you find it draped across an amphitheatre that tumbles down to the harbour – and the ideal place to base yourself for exploring Portugal’s precious oceanic possession.
When Funchal was first settled in the early 15th century, it was the edge of the known world – a kind of prototype America. The city also has some wonderful street names, such as Street of Difficulties and Alley of Wistfulness. But in the 21st century, the capital has gained new energy.
The curve of the bay is emulated by the dazzling sweep of The Vine, a much-lauded boutique hotel at Rua dos Aranhas 27A. The sleek lines continue inside. The vinetherapy spa offers help to de-stress in the ideal atmosphere, and the whole indulgent creation is topped by a rooftop pool. The typical nightly rate is €541 for a double (including a buffet breakfast the size of a small island).
Yet you can find rates at a fraction of this. At the Residencial Santa Clara, a fabulous 1937 property in the centre of Funchal at Calcada do Pico 16b, I paid €27.50 for a single room including breakfast.
Begin your exploration with a quick bica (espresso) at the Saudade Madeira, which opened on Rua João Gago (just behind the city’s cathedral) in 2014. The name means ‘longing for Madeira’, and the concept brings together the work of avant-garde local artists, designers and performers in a location that includes one of the city’s most alluring cafes. Close by, the Art Deco produce market is a concoction of noise, colour and aroma.
For lunch or dinner, the 200-year-old former salt warehouse that has become the Armazem do Sal reflects the excellent value on offer everywhere in Madeira. The exposed-stone dining room is the setting for superb, locally sourced flavours - with lunch less than €8 and heavenly main courses at dinner under €20. Swordfish, herb-crusted tuna and espetada (succulent beef, doused in garlic and salt, skewered and grilled) are favourites.
Working up an appetite is easy. Madeira is very slightly larger than the Welsh island of Anglesey or the Spanish island of Menorca, but exploring it is much more of an adventure because of the mountainous terrain.
Two wheels? Freeride Madeira was started by three mountain-biking enthusiasts in 2006 to capitalise on the island’s potential for challenging descents on well-managed trails. On the way down, you could encounter a unique feature of the island: the levada – an irrigation channel that hugs the contours of the hills. Because they almost always have a path alongside, levadas provide reliable, rewarding walking.
You can construct hiking itineraries yourself with the help of a good map and the bus timetable or contact a specialist such as Nature Meetings, which has itineraries from two hours to two weeks.
The same firm also offers whale- and dolphin-watching tours with a marine biologist who provides an expert insight into the two dozen species of cetaceans that cruise by.
The first dive base in Madeira, Manta Diving, opened in 1982 and today provides quick access to an underwater nature reserve full of marine life. But if mile after mile of golden sands is your definition of an ideal holiday, then you need to change island. Handily, Madeira has a little sister just 40 miles away. Porto Santo has a broad, sandy beach, as well as strong historical credentials as former home of Christopher Columbus.
Madeira and Porto Santo may look like the merest dots in the ocean, but this Portuguese pair should feature on your map of the world – as the location where nature, culture and adventure converge.
British Airways flies direct from London Gatwick to Madeira Airport five times a week. Why not book a trip?