Destination guide: Madeira

What to do in this gardener's paradise, from morning coffee to evening meal, via massages, mountains and markets

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Southwest of Portugal, you’ll find this mountainous volcanic island surrounded by the Atlantic’s deep blue waters. Just 35 miles long and 13 miles wide, it has an impressive 99 miles of coastline – yet not one single beach. However, it has flora by the greenhouse-load and gardeners flock here to see, smell and eat the variety of weird tropical flowers and fruit that flourishes in the island’s mineral-rich soil. Follow our quick guide to this colourful archipelago’s best bits…

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MORNING COFFEE

There’s a lot of British influence on the island so you’re never too far from bacon and scrambled eggs (hooray for homebodies!). That said, a continental breakfast – think fresh croissants, cheeses and ham – is a good gamble too. Whatever you do, just make sure you take advantage of the island’s tropical fresh mango, pineapple and banana, the list could go on and on. Believe us, fruit has never tasted so good.

Madeiran’s love their coffee too so remember to get caffeine-d up before you head out.

VISIT FUNCHAL

Funchal is the island’s busiest city and boasts an abundance of cafes (for topping up your caffeine levels), shops (traditional stores as well as ones you’ll recognise – a newly opened H&M was causing something of a stir while we were there…) and lush green spaces perfect for hitching up your hem and getting some rays.

The best way to soak up the atmosphere is to wander the streets in the middle of the town which, if you’re lucky enough to visit between March and the end of May, will be lined with blooming Jacaranda trees, giving the centre a ceiling of blue and purple blooms.

If you manage to coincide your visit with the annual flower festival, the main parades will be an even more floral affair. During this celebration of the island’s lush and abundant flora, the pavements are turned into flower carpets. Not for walking on mind. That would not go down well with the locals…


Visit Madeira with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


LOCAL MARKET

Madeira might have its fair share of fancy dining establishments, but you can’t beat a nibble at Funchal’s daily market, where the stalls are stacked high with strange and unrecognisable fruit. Forget Braeburns and boring old pears (sorry, Britain), in this fruit market, nothing is what it seems…

Make sure you hunt down: a custard apple – looks (a bit) like an apple, feels like mango, tastes like custard. A banana passion fruit – looks like a banana, is a passion fruit. Lemon passionfruit – looks like a lemon, tastes like a lemon, is a passion fruit. Philodendron fruit – looks a bit like a pineapple, tastes like a banana. Something they call an English Tomato which looks like a tomato but isn’t… Seriously, everything you thought you knew about fruit? Forget it.


 Visit Madeira with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


As well as fruit, the bustling market sells flowers, fish and a smattering of souvenirs to tempt the visitors. The market traders are welcoming and friendly to tourists, who they rely on for their livelihood, but that’s not to say they don’t hike up the prices in the markets as soon as they hear a British accent…  Our advice? Keep your cockney rhyming slang under wraps.

CABLE CAR

Who doesn’t love a cable car, eh? (Other than those with vertigo?) From Funchal you can hitch a lift up to the hills that surround the town.

You get some pretty spectacular views of the town and the coastline – and it’s also perfect if you can’t resist a bit of a nose. The cable car gives you a great position from which to have a look at how the real Madeirans live. By spying into their back gardens.

The higher up you go, the more you notice just how resourceful and in touch with the land Madeirans are. Half way to Monte, the cable car sails past a motorway where the central reservation has been transformed into allotments for city dwellers with limited outdoor space.

GARDENS

Maderians love their green spaces, and it’s easy to see why. The city of Funchal is full of beautifully cared-for public gardens – and the council even holds an annual award ceremony for the best private garden, communal space, window box, etc – but one of the best has to be Monte Palace Tropical Gardens.

The hilltop gardens are high above Funchal, with amazing views down to the sea – handily reached by the cable car we were on about earlier. The Tropical Gardens boast exotic plants and artefacts from all over the world, as well as an extensive collection of greenery native to Portugal and Madeira.

Monte Palace itself is also worth gazing at for a while, the imposing white house was used to treat Europeans suffering from lung conditions.


Visit Madeira with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


TOBOGGAN

Tobogganing? On a Portuguese island? Yes, that’s right. But you can put all thoughts of snow and snuggly furs to the back of your mind.

If you’ve ever fancied yourself as something of a reincarnated Cleopatra now’s your chance to live the dream. Let’s face it, this is probably the closest you’re going to get.

Settle yourself down in a wicker basket while two men in white suits with boater hats steer and swing you down a steep hill, using the rubber soles of their shoes as brakes. To add an element of danger there’s no seatbelt. 

LUNCHTIME

For lunch, it’d be wise to take advantage of the island’s fresh fish. With views of fishing boats and octopus drying in the sun, Vila do Peixe in fishing village Camara de Lobos is a great place to head to.

You can select your fish from an exotic array in a counter before it’s barbequed to perfection. Black scabbard fish are an absolute must. The dark, eel-like fish are only caught in Madeira and Japan. They live deep in the sea and have never been seen alive, as the pressure of the ascent kills them before they reach the surface. (yum, right?!) Gruesome death aside, it’s pretty tasty.


 Visit Madeira with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


If fish isn’t your thing, Adega de Quinta, a restaurant sat miles above Camara de Lobos with views good enough to distract you from your lunch, is the place to go. Here you can sample a Madeiran classic: Espetada, which is beef on a Laurel skewer that swings from a hatstand-esque contraption in the centre of your table. Eat with sweet potato cooked in molasses and the beetroot and carrot salad. Heaven.

DIZZYING HEIGHTS

Madeira is an island of opposites. One minute you can be in a fishing village, the waves lapping against the rocks, the sun beating down on you, and fifteen minutes later you could be a chilly 1,000 metres above sea level watching as clouds sail over your head.

Not one for those afraid of heights, Cabo Girao is one of the highest cliffs in the world. They’ve even installed a glass viewing platform, which will make even the most steely of knees wobble. From the viewing platform, peer down at the fields and the tiny strip of coastline below (if you dare) or look straight ahead to try and determine the moment the sea meets the sky.

TRY A TIPPLE

After scaling those heights, you’ll probably be in need of a stiff tipple – try the island’s namesake, the famous sweet and sticky wine.

Funchal offers guided tour of Blandy’s – Madeira’s most famous producer – where you can spy the wine aging in barrels and learn about the grapes and the processes involved in the production of Madeira… or you could just fast track to the bar. 

RELAX

Maderia prides itself on being an island which pampers both body and mind. And after such an action-packed day, no one could blame you for succumbing to a little indulgence.

Most of the hotels offer something in the way of treatment, be it a gym and swimming pool or a beauty centre. But we visited Quintinha Sao Joao’s quiet and peaceful spa, where there is a much-welcome focus on wellbeing, whether you plump for a full body massage or a treatment using the island’s natural products. Deep breath out. And relaaaax.

DINE IN STYLE

It might not be the most Madeiran choice, attracting mainly British diners, but the Restaurant O Forte, in Funchal’s old fort is a pretty special way to spend an evening. Two diners got down on bended knee while we were there, so it’s obviously a tried and tested location for popping the question (both propositioned lovers said yes, by the way).

Sit out on the battlements and enjoy a tasting menu with wines to match each course. Don’t scrimp on the pudding either. That special final course is done especially well in Maderia. Perhaps because they’ve invented an entire wine industry to go with it.

ZZZZZ

Madeira’s main city, Funchal, climbs up the hills that surround it away from the sea. So where better to stay than a hotel with a bit of perspective?

The Quinta de Bela Vista (which literally means beautiful view) is sat high above the town in quiet gardens. The tastefully traditional hotel offers luxurious rooms, in-hotel dining, a piano bar and a pool, as well as staff who are happy to satisfy your every whim.


Visit Madeira with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


Getting there

TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932, Flytap.com) flies from London Gatwick to Funchal, Madeira seven days a week, with return fares starting at £169 including all taxes and surcharges

Hotel

Quinta da Bela Vista offer double rooms including breakfast from €149 

Spa

Quintinha São João offer various spa treatments starting from €35 

Tourist board

Visitmadeira.pt

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