Escape from London to Madeira for a holiday in the sun in Europe

A haven for food and wine lovers, and for those who love nature, Madeira is an easy holiday that offers a great reward …

Photo: Simon Zino / Visit Madeira

As we pass through yet another new Madeira landscape – this above cloud level somewhere high up in a mountain – I comment that the landscape reminds me of Australia, flat with low-lying scrub freckled around.

“People often say that Madeira reminds them of home,” says Geronimo, our guide. The French, he uses as an example, usually compare the island to Corsica.

True, as we explored the small Atlantic island, my traveling companions and I made comparisons between it and places we’ve been before; the heather-filled Scottish Highlands, banana plantations and terraced farmland in the tropics of Southeast Asia and the charm of the old town on the European mainland.

Even Hawaii and Switzerland got a mention when we tried to capture the drama in the mountains near Ribeira Brava in the southwestern part of the island with our iPhones.

So why travel to a place that might remind you of where you just came from or have been before?

For of course Madeira is its own thing, and its chameleon-like natural beauty is all part of the island’s delight.

Discover Madeira

The Madeira archipelago, a sheltered spot on the Atlantic map, is off the west coast of Africa.

When you land, you are hit by a mild hot humidity, the kind of weather that says: Hello! You are on vacation! Life is great!

The subtropical island is a well-known destination for retirees fleeing Blimey to get some winter sun, but the island has far more to offer than just warming up retirees’ queues.

Home to numerous microclimates, which is perhaps what gives the island such diversity in vegetation and landscape, Madeira goes a long way in charm and warm hospitality and has oh-so-many sublime and spectacular landscapes.

You have mountains to walk over, sea views to swim in and local produce to enjoy. Madeira is a small island that packs a lot. Even if we were not delayed by one night getting here, the time on the island would still have felt too short.

What to do and see

Eat and drink your way through Madeira, combining this with exploring nature.

A wine tasting and vineyard tour will take you on a scenic drive to amazing places as well as feed you a homemade Madeira-style meal, excellent wine and treats from the winemaking process that will make you feel like you are some kind of expert.

An all-day guided tour (around € 130) will take you past four wineries – Blandy’s, BarbusanoTerras do Avo, Barbeito’s – and includes more food than you could possibly eat and enough wine to make you need a nap when you’re done.

There are also endless tours to take of varying degrees of difficulty. About 2,500 kilometers of levadas – centuries-old irrigation canals – cross the island. Many of these still carry water to banana and sugar crops and are used by locals as part of their route home. Levadas are also used as hiking trails that will take you through hillsides and mountains.

A fairly easy, well-paved walk, and one of the most popular is the 25 Fontes levada, which starts high in the mountains and takes you through the Laurissilva forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a dense, lush forest area that goes millions of years back. .

You will also encounter a few waterfalls, including the inviting 25 Frontes, which got its name from the number of smaller trickles and peasants gathering for a perfect picture. You do not get rid of the crowds here, but you can on other walks.

On my bucket list for next time, the lava pools by the sea in Porto Moniz, surfing on various beaches around the island and a ferry ride over to Porto Santo for a stretch of sandy beach.

FUNCHAL

Even if you do not stay here, you will most likely pass through the capital at some point. It is a friendly town with relaxed tropical vibes that are both quaint and modern.

Take the cable car from the esplanade to the hills of Funchal, to get a bird’s eye view of the city.

ISLANDWhen you’re up there, take a toboggan down, for where else are you going to find two men dressed as if they’re taking you bundling in Cambridge, guiding you down tired, bald slippery and windy streets in a wicker basket- as-sled?

Although these toboggan rides are now a pretty niche tourist experience, they were downhill transportation for wealthy residents who lived on mountain slopes at the time.

Be sure to have a drink or at least a squiz at the Design Center Nini Andrade – it’s an elegant building with a terrace bar by the sea.

What to eat and drink

Due to its location in the middle of the sea, peasonal deep sea fish like tuna and scallop fish are the ticket here. Try Peixaria no Mercado, a new and inviting restaurant at the entrance to Funchal’s farmers market, for a pescatarian feast.

Espetada are traditional, hefty meat skewers cooked over charcoal and then hung up over the table so that meat juices run down into the pieces of meat while diners pick pieces off. I saw meat eaters stuck in several bars of things as part of a lunch at Quinta Do Barbusanoand I was jealous.

For modern meaty (and non-meaty) dining, try Kampo in Funchal, where you can sit at the bar and watch the chefs cook sardines like eggplant and passion fruit, beef and mushroom tartare or several pieces of steak. My highlight here was the streaks of dehydrated tuna dancing on top of my soup bowl of rice, seaweed and market fish due to the heat of the dishes. It was pretty cool.

Madeira is known for its fortified wine, having made it for centuries. It is imbued with tradition, heritage and national pride, and if you like things, there is a lot to get acquainted with. Beware of Blandy’s and Barbeito’s, two of the island’s most important wine producers.

As a side note, Blandy’s has a convenient agreement with the airport where you can buy bottles at their museum in Funchal and pick them up at the airport once you have cleared customs. Save yourself the risk of staining all your clothes wine and take yourself a few extra bottles to be an adult.

Since 1992, Madeira has also been producing table wine. Most of these are dry and mineral and delicious, and trying them on a guided tasting is a lesson on how a wine can capture the taste of the island depending on where the grapes are grown.

Also try aguadente, but maybe only in moderation. This drinking gasoline, which is native to both Madeira and Portugal, translates to fire water and has all the grace that the name suggests. It is a violent and bubbling fuel that has the potential to give you the worst hangovers in your recent life.

Where to stay in Madeira

Although there is a splash of inland stays, most are along the coast.

Funchal offers an abundance of accommodation with hotels, resorts and serviced apartments along the city coastline.

I lived at Vida Mar; a huge complex with sea views from my balcony on the 10th floor and all the services and facilities you would expect from a hotel with two towers of rooms.

There are also traditional mansions converted into boutique hotels – quintas – scattered around the island. Usually tucked away in gardens and rural surroundings, I am told that they are a small piece of madeira from before.

I did not manage to stay on a quinta this trip, but next time – and it will be a next time – I will.

Are you considering going? Ryanair has direct connections to Funchal from Stansted Monday to Saturday.

For more information on Madeira visit visitmadeira.com visitportugal.com

This trip was sponsored by Visit Madeira and Visit Portugal in collaboration with Ryanair.


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