With scenery in spades, a world-famous flower festival and a seal of approval from Sir Winston Churchill, the dessert wine isn’t the only thing that is sweet about Madeira.
The sub-tropical Portuguese island of Madeira sits just a little over 300 miles from the African coast, meaning year-round sunshine and balmy temperatures that hover in the mid-twenties even in the depths of winter. For those embarking on a repositioning or Transatlantic crossing, the island presses pause on time spent at sea, encouraging cruisers to stretch their legs and soak up some sun before continuing onwards. For others, the island capital of Funchal is the star port on a Canary Islands itinerary, particularly for those who time their visit to coincide with the annual Flower Festival or with welcoming in the New Year with a fireworks display widely regarded as one of the best in the world. However you happen upon time spent in Madeira, a Garden of Eden appearance only hints at everything this unique island has to offer.
Madeira’s rich volcanic soil sees a profusion of flora flourish, earning the largest island in this archipelago the moniker ‘Isle of Flowers’.
Springtime is honoured in spectacular style at the Madeira Flower Festival, an event which continues to occupy a starring role on themed cruise itineraries from the likes of Cunard, Fred Olsen and P&O Cruises. The festival has been held each April since 1979, with highlights including a symbolic floral ‘Wall of Hope’ built by the city’s children on the Praça de Municipio, floral carpets constructed by Madeiran artists along the walkways of Avenida Arriaga and the world-famous flower parade, which sees dozens of elaborate floats decorated with the island’s tropical blooms.
A paradise for the green fingered, Madeira is carpeted with countless gardens, including the botanical ones of Quinta do Bom Sucesso. In addition to views across the Madeiran capital, Funchal, the grounds here also offer an opportunity to discover almost every plant and flower known to call the island home, with over 2,000 exotic species thriving within its 80,000 square metres. Those with a head for heights can also experience one of Madeira’s most famous modes of transport here, the Botanical Gardens Cable Car. Travelling for almost a mile at a height of 220m above ground, the cable car’s gondolas offer incredible views over Funchal Bay and the Valley of Ribeira de João Gomes on their skyward route from Quinta do Bom Sucesso to the Monte Station.
Though it is possible to make the return trip back to Funchal from Monte via cable car, many take an even more adventurous route on the way down. The Monte Toboggan Run has enlivened Madeira’s visitors since the 1850’s, with Ernest Hemingway describing it as ‘the most exhilarating experience of all his years’. The wicker sleds were once the preferred mode of transport for locals traversing the hills of Monte to the town of Funchal below, but now they exist purely for the pleasure of thrill-seekers. Known as ‘carros de cesto’, the two-person wicker sleds on wooden runners are each manned by a team of straw-hatted ‘carreiros’ who use their hefty rubber-soled boots as brakes, something all the more terrifying when you consider that the sleds career at speeds of up to 30mph during the 10-minute journey.
Those more confident on two feet than two wooden runners will no doubt appreciate Madeira’s levada walks. Developed during the 16th century to distribute rain water from the wet regions in the north of the island to the dry regions in the south, these man-made channels have since become walking trails of varying difficulty. There are 800 miles of levadas criss-crossing Madeira, snaking through forests, under tunnels and beneath waterfalls, making the island a haven for avid walkers.
Those who are less keen to exert any real energy on holiday needn’t venture far from the port of Funchal for vertiginous views. The Cabo Girao sea cliffs are just 20 minutes from the city, their glass skywalk offering vertigo-inducing views from 500m above the raging seas below, where the waters are so deep that whales can often be spotted feeding. Equally impressive in terms of views is Nun’s Valley, a tiny village nestled in a lush green valley at the heart of Madeira. This idyllic isolated village was founded in the 16th century by nuns who fled the pirate invasions which blighted the coast and its locals continue to live off the land today. Excursions visit the village at the foot of the vast green basin, but be sure to make sure yours also includes a stop-off at Eira do Serrado for some seriously stunning views into the valley below.
Madeira may be famed for its flora and fauna but to football fans there is only one star of the show. Cristiano Ronaldo was born in the Santo Antonio district and Madeira’s most famous son is worshipped to God-like magnitudes in the city, 10ft-tall bronze statues and all. The CR7 Museum at Praça do Mar in Funchal houses every trophy the footballing hero has ever won, with the ever-growing total amounting to more than 160 trophies at last count. Ballon d’Ors, Golden Boots and the Henri Delaney Cup are just some of those showcased in glimmering glass cabinets, alongside life-size mannequins of the man himself, countless shirts and even letters of gushing appreciation from his fans. With entry costing just €5 and under 10’s free of charge, the museum is a must for those who appreciate the flamboyant footballer’s two-footed technique.
With a slippery black body, bulging eyeballs and long rows of razor sharp teeth, Madeira’s endemic fish and key ingredient in the island’s signature dishes isn’t the most appetising to look at. Fortunately, the black scabbard fish tastes better than it looks. See the fish in all its glory at the Mercado dos Lavradores, the ‘Worker’s Market’ in Funchal, where you will get a real insight into the Madeiran way of life, before sampling black scabbard curried with banana at O Portao restaurant in the Old Town.
The island’s second signature dish is espetada. Showcasing the Madeiran’s love of garlic, the kebab-like dish consists of chunks of tender beef rubbed in garlic salt and skewered on a bay leaf stick. Locals tuck in at Restaurante Dos Combatentes in the heart of Funchal, where the giant skewers arrive at the table hung from hooks and fresh from the hot coals they’re cooked on. Opt for a side of bolo do caco, a traditional Madeiran bread cooked on a stone slab.
The resplendent Belmond Reid’s Palace played host to Churchill when he holidayed in Madeira between his two stints as British Prime Minister and an air of British splendour remains at the 125-year-old pastel pink hotel. Afternoon tea here has become something of an institution, with finger sandwiches, warm scones and local jams tasting even better when enjoyed from a wicker chair on the terrace overlooking the Atlantic and Funchal below.
Madeira certainly isn’t short of signature drinks, the most famous of which is undoubtedly its sweet dessert wine. Sample a tipple or two at Blandy’s Wine Lodge on Avenida Arriaga 28 in Funchal, where the fortified wine has been made for over 200 years. Tours cover everything from the making of barrels in the Cooperage, to the ageing process in the Canteiro and the transformation of five specific grapes into Madeira wine, followed by the all-important tasting part. Our favourite of the several dedicated tastings available is the Vintage 70’s Tasting, which takes you back in time with a selection of wines last sipped in the era of dizzying platforms and mustard cord flares.
Madeira was a major sugar supplier during the 15th century and poncha was the industry’s sweetest by-product. Combining distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice with honey, sugar and lemon juice, the age-old cocktail was traditionally served in ‘vendas’, a neighbourhood grocery store with a bar. Fidy Poncha in the pretty fishing village of Cãmara de Lobos remains one of the most authentic vendas, whilst the venda of Mr Fidelio Figueira is one of the oldest in Madeira having stood for over 100 years.