New Year on the Garden Isle

8 Jan

In that no man’s land between Christmas and New Year the best thing to do is go on holiday. The weather in the UK is invariably rubbish, everyone is comatose and intending to stay that way until forced back to work the following week.

To avoid a coma this year, my two travel companions and I chose to visit the small Atlantic island of Madeira, owned by Portugal and part of the archipelago that includes the Canaries, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura and several other small islands I never knew existed, off the west coast of Africa. Without any preconceptions I went with an open mind and was really pleasantly surprised.

It is larger than I expected (about the size of east and west Sussex together) and green. Mostly hilly, a touch mountainous, the inhabitants cling to the edges wherever there is a bit of flat land, or indeed just build a house precariously into the rock face.  It is pleasantly warm even in winter, although there is a persistent strong wind. Huge surging waves crash dramatically against craggy cliffs. I suppose it is quite exposed sitting there off the African coast. Because of this location it is classed as sub-tropical.

Bananas and sugar cane grow in abundance; the sugar once providing the island’s main source of income, and was considered the finest and sweetest in the world back in the 18th and  19th centuries, its real hey day.


Also back then the island’s Madeira wine was considered a prize product, shipped all over the world it was used to toast the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence. What an impressive provenance. The wine is still revered.  Sipped at any given opportunity during the day, we found it goes well with their honey cake and avocado, but then again what doesn’t these days! Then there’s the 50% proof rum – or rather, their traditional rum-based drink – Poncha. It is a lethal mix of rum, sugar, honey and orange and/or lemon. Made to order by the specialist little roadside bar (?!) in Sao Vicente it is delicious, sweet and punchy.


This is the capital which means “fennel” in Portuguese, a throw back to its past. It’s a pretty city to spend a day.  Starting at the harbour side, check out Madeira’s most famous son, Christiano Ronaldo’s museum, nightclub and hotel. And pose next to his statue with all the enthralled kids, big and small. The cruise ships flock to this island and there is always a behemoth moored in port. The cable car starts here and will whisk you sedately to Monte, where you can spend a very pleasurable hour or so wandering through the Tropical Gardens where there are thousand year old olive trees planted by the Romans and examples of garden design and plants from all over the world. Then check out the impressive church up here before jumping into a wicker basket and careering down the super-steep hills, guided by two old drunk men who ply you for an extra tip after you have parted with 45 euros for the 5 minute pleasure. It’s a thrilling experience that, like the gondolas in Venice, just has to be given a go. Then if you don’t want to get a taxi from the touts at the toboggan stop be intrepid (or foolish) and give your quads a workout back down to the city centre.  Time for more Poncha to aid recovery.

Try to visit the Madeira Story Centre, one of the best museums I have visited, it gives an interesting and well presented insight into the history of the island from its violent volcanic start millions of years ago, up to the present day tourist industry. Winston Churchill and other world leaders and celebrities of their time stayed at Reid’s Palace Hotel and you can see their signatures in the guest book.  It’s all very ‘Raffles’.

If you get seriously peckish, head away from the main harbour area into the winding narrow alleyways  behind it, paved with marble and basalt, and try a local taverna. And try out their famed fish dishes. Black Scabbard and Amberjack, preferably on a barbecue, they are delicious, as are tuna and lobster. Seafood pasta or seafood rice are served in huge casseroles and resemble a tasty stew stuffed with fresh tender sea life of all kinds. Mop it up with Bolo da caco, the local garlic bread and some crisp white wine. Food in Madeira is always delicious and well made. There seem to be a great many talented chefs on the island. They must be being held hostage or something. They could easily win prizes in London or New York if they ventured outside their island but thankfully for us tourists they don’t and so we eat extremely well!


Another detour can be made to Cabo Girao, a 580m high skywalk over the edge of a sheer cliff it is the second highest in the world and my sweaty palms and increased heart rate attested to that. Fantastic views.

But do make sure to get away from the coast and head inland. It is truly spectacular in there, with the mountains rising jagged and imposing all around you as your vehicle roars up those steep hills, over rocky, bumpy off-road tracks higher and higher, 1,500m into the clouds. The views are amazing. The villagers appear unfazed by the steepness and narrowness of every road. The island is volcanic in origin and so is very fertile, and they grow every vegetable and fruit you can imagine, here and there having built terraces to create every opportunity to make some flat land on which to grow stuff.


Funchal is on the south side of the island, which is hot and dry. The north is completely different, cold and wet. Very dense and green with indigenous laurel trees, and with an enviable bio-diversity, it is truly beautiful, a bit reminiscent of England in fact. The Romans wanted to harness the natural rainfall and cloud cover in the north and direct it to the habitations in the south and so they built the “lavada” system. It is really just a network of irrigation channels that one can now use to walk along beside in order to enjoy the countryside of the island, they provide a natural pathway to follow that can last a few minutes to over 19km if you’re fit and adventurous. They are still maintained by an army of workers and are a real benefit to the island. They still work perfectly well and are constantly full of clean, fresh water, a testament to their ancient inventors’ harnessing of the island’s natural resources.


Back to Funchal for the new year’s celebrations. The town puts on a huge firework display in the harbour and from the hills surrounding it, that it is a true 360 degree spectacular. The nine cruise ships that stopped to enjoy the show all blasted their horns on the stroke of midnight and we happily toasted in 2017 with a convivial and the good natured crowd including families all around us. It was gentle and colourful and for that, one of the most pleasant ways to say good bye to the old and to welcome the new.

HAPPY NEW YEAR – and obrigado Madeira!


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