Madeira: Peace in the land of Ronaldo
Hurtling down the side of a mountain in a wicker basket supported by wooden slats and steered by two slightly tipsy gentlemen who don’t speak English may seem a rather peculiar way to spend a supposedly relaxing break. But in Madeira this is about as exciting as it gets. And that’s the whole point.
The birthplace of World Footballer of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo does not pretend to share his pace and flamboyance, but is instead, a quiet retreat for those enjoying their golden years and for those who want a restful break from the stress of city life.
One suspects that life in 21st-century Madeira is almost as sedate as when the Portuguese first landed in 1419.
We spent our first night in Monte, a quiet village high in the hills above the capital, Funchal. One rather suspects civil war could break out in the capital two miles away, and Monte’s residents would take a fortnight to realise. Our hotel was Quinta do Monte, a historic manor house which is one of four on the island run by the Charming Hotels chain.
Next to it are the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. The gardens, and the manor house which they surround, were bought in the late 1980s by Portuguese entrepreneur Jose Manuel Rodrigues Berardo who has invested heavily in restoring the area to its original splendour.
The gardens, which spread across 70,000 sq metres, are filled with flowers and trees imported from around the world.
A museum and tourist centre exhibits collections of African sculptures and a fascinating array of more than 1,000 mineral specimens and gems. Even on an island renowned for its tranquillity, the gardens offer a haven of peace and fresh air, with only the trickle of streams and soft gush of waterfalls to break the silence.
Unfortunately, there is little else with which to occupy the time in Monte, and so the following morning we checked out.
Although our hotel was comfortable and spacious, when I visited in January, it could have done with some more effective heating. It also posed difficulties if guests wish to visit Funchal, a 15-minute drive away.
The hotel runs a complimentary shuttle bus, but the service runs too infrequently, and stops too early — at 4.30 when we visited — to be useful. Alternatively, you can take a taxi, but expect to pay around 15 euros (£14) each way.
There is also a cable car — the entrance to the cable car station is adjacent to the hotel — but rides cost around 10 euros (£9.35) each way. The alternative mode of transport for descending the mountain is the aforementioned wicker basket.
Although publicised by my companions as something of a white-knuckle ride, it was a surprisingly relaxed trip. The baskets are sufficiently comfortable for a five-minute ride, and only when going round corners (of which there are many), could you possibly fear falling out.
The price is similar to the two options noted before, but the toboggan provides a novel alternative as well as numerous opportunities to take a few snaps of Funchal’s marina area on the descent. But be warned, the baskets do not travel directly into central Funchal, leaving you stuck two-thirds of the way down the hill and at the whim of a variety of shopkeepers and taxi drivers preying on stranded tourists.
Our basket “driver” also quietly enquired whether I wanted to offer him “money for a drink”. Given the nature of his work, I decided it would be in everyone’s best interests to politely decline.
Funchal is the centre of activity on the island, with around three-quarters of Madeira’s 250,000 inhabitants living or working there.
It boasts a number of attractions to keep visitors occupied. We chose the Old Blandy Wine Lodge as our first stop. Our guide, Rita, explained the history behind fortified Madeiran wine, and led us through the dark, compact rooms in which it is made.
The different grapes, barrels and optimal room temperatures were discussed in great detail. When it came to the taste test at the end, however, my unrefined palate failed to distinguish between the five-year-old Bual variety (apparently aimed at “younger drinkers”), and the 15-year-old Malmsey. Both were incredibly sweet and go well, I am told, with either dark chocolate or cheese. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste.
For those who fancy it, the oldest bottle dates back to 1908 and can be yours for just 950 euros (£889).
The Madeira Story Centre is a more family-friendly pursuit, offering a brisk gallop through the island’s history, complete with hands-on interactive attractions for young and old.
The nearby town-centre market is more attractive than most seen elsewhere in Europe, and its large fruit and flower sections offer a chance to pick up produce and seeds unavailable in less tropical climes.
In Funchal we stayed at Quinta das Vistas, a five-star resort with views of the ocean and mountains. Its Chandra spa offers a wide range of treatments including massage, tropical rain showers and hot stone therapies.
All are highly relaxing, and the men’s special facial, tailored to the rugged needs of daily shavers, is highly recommended. The prices, however, are not as relaxing, reaching a remarkable 215 euros (£201) for the two-hour Swedish massage.
The undoubted highlight of our trip, however, came with the chance to get off the beaten track.
A 125-mile minibus tour may sound dull, but provides a fantastic opportunity to cover the island quickly and see its microclimates close up.
Travelling clockwise from Funchal in the south, we drove high into the mountains, looking back down over dozens of picture postcard villages and the miles of EU-subsidised tunnels and motorways which criss-cross the forests and valleys like a model railway.
Lunch was eaten overlooking the Atlantic at gorgeous Porto Moniz on the north-west corner of the island, before an ascent further up onto Madeira’s central plateau, where the weather changed so remarkably fast — thick fog and a sharp downpour — that we were forced to return to the hotel.
A more active pursuit came the following day with a three-mile levada walk. The levadas were built before a road network on the island, providing an irrigation system to channel the rain which fell over the mountains in the north, to the warmer south.
There are now more than 1,250 miles of levadas weaving their way down the mountains, each providing a walk of differing difficulty. Such are the sheer drops at every corner that vertigo sufferers are advised not to attempt a walk. But holidaymakers with hiking experience should take advantage of the opportunity to see the island’s tropical scenery close up.
The Madeiran tourist board would also do well to hire our guide, Alvaro, as its chief spokesman. His passion for the island was evident throughout our three-hour hike. He described his days of wandering through the hills and cracked a few Ronaldo gags while adjusting the pace to suit the different ages and abilities within our small group.
Only once, he told us, had a tourist fallen down the side of the mountain and broken a leg.
On that reassuring note our short trip, admittedly quiet but with a hint of hidden excitement and guaranteed warm sunshine, was at an end.
Classic Collection Holidays (www.classiccollection.co.uk; 0800 294 9315) offers all four Charming Hotels on Madeira (www.charminghotels.com; 00351 291 750 000). Seven nights atthe Quinta das Vistas from £637 per person (based on two sharing) and from £385 for three nights; Quinta do Monte from £467 for seven nights and from £332 for three nights, including breakfast, flights and transfers,
● Jews are believed to have first moved to Madeira from Morocco in the early 19th century, working in the cloth trade
● A synagogue was built in 1836. It now houses a laundry and a café. There is a Jewish cemetery in the hills east of Funchal. Now dilapidated, its last burial was in the 1970s.
● Three crypto-Jewish families are believed to live on the island, buying kosher meat from Lisbon, the Portuguese capital which has the closest community (www.cilisboa.org; 00 351 213 931 130)