Those unfamiliar with Madeira, and adherents of architecture, botany and cheap booze’n’fags might want to read on. I originally visited ‘The Floating Garden’ with my husband fifteen years ago, but when I returned this spring, it was like I hadn’t been away.
The plane journey is only three and a half hours (barely time to get drunk.) There’s no time difference, but it was another world from the grim British weather we left behind. Even in the winter months, the Madeira sea is warm enough to swim in.
On our first day, just before Easter, my best friend ‘The Botanist’ remarked on how pleasantly mild the weather was. On the second day she had the worst case of sunburn I’ve seen, her face swollen up like a tomato. Good look, Botanist! Maybe wear a hat in future?
All the more reason to explore the multitude of pools linking the modernist Vidamar Hotel to the ocean. Here, whales and dolphins are so up-close and tame that many boat trips offer you another free go if they should evade you.
Approaching Funchal, the island’s capital, we were greeted by white houses, black shutters and terracotta roofs. Funchal is built on a volcanic crater that towers over the sea. This, along with the colourful array of flowers, gives Madeira its fairytale look, heightened by our trip to Blandy’s Wine Lodge where I sampled the local blend. It was to die for.
Funchal is very walkable, with paths, benches and buildings all sculpted from the same volcanic rock. Be a cliché tourist and have lunch on the balcony of the Cafe Ritz while aeroplaning 20-euro notes to the buskers below. Be polite to your taxi driver and he’ll whiz you to the sort of restaurant so local that it has no name on the bill, literally hewn from the mountain.
The fish in Madeira is so fresh that one expects it to get up and perform a medley from a Disney film. I even sampled limpets here – something I thought I would never say. When the bill arrived, I thought it too cheap and queried it – and they took 10 euros off!
Don’t forget to check out the tropical lushness of the Monte Palace estate (you can go up by cable car and come down by toboggan), recently voted 13th Best Botanical Garden In The World by Conde Nast Traveller. You could almost get drunk on the sights you’ll see from the top.
There’s also lovely little cafe right by the entrance where you can drink poncha, watch the cable cars glide by and say to The Botanist, ‘The cab’ll be at least another ten minutes – go on, hon, get me another one!’
My trip was full of firsts – the limpets, of course, and someone was sick on the tour bus. Madeira is both beautiful and dignified and though it’s quite a while since I’ve been either, I can certainly appreciate it in others.
Hotel rooms start from 155 euros for a double side sea view room, half board
British Airways flights from London Gatwick to Funchal Madeira, starting £270 return