Sunday 26 March 2017

A slice of Madeira

Frank Coughlan decides to take his student daughter to Madeira for a post-exam break, but can she stand the heat? And is there much more to the island than its cake?

Madeira's
rugged coastline
Madeira's rugged coastline
The Jardim Botânico on the tiny island of Porto Santo
The more sunbather-friendly beaches of Porto Santo

Frank Coughlan

When I asked my 20-year-old daughter Ellen if she'd like a week in the sun, I expected her to say yes. But when I added the caveat that it I would be her travelling companion, I thought she might demur. But she didn't. That could be for one of two reasons. Either I have been an exceptional father, or her social life is so comatose that it sounded like an attractive offer.

The fact that she was a centless, post-exam art student, without a sniff of a summer job, might have had something to do with it, too.

Anyway, she said, Madeira sounded a bit different. And it sounded warm. Its exact whereabouts on her old school atlas were of no interest to her and, to be honest, its precise location in relation to mainland Portugal was a bit of a mystery to me too.

So what did I know? Well, it's the home of the cake, obviously, and those wines (clingy and overly sweet, if I'm right). Then there's that footballing show-pony Ronaldo, who was born and raised in the capital, Funchal.

This sort of ignorance might not sound like bliss, especially as preparation for a travel story, but sometimes too much prepping can compromise your creativity. That's my perverse logic, anyway.

I knew too, of course, that in February, Funchal, and large tracts of this small island, had been deluged by floods and mudslides. But when we arrived in summer, the only legacy I could see was the scars visible from our cable car as we swayed to the roof of the island.

At the time, major shopping streets had been waist-deep in sludge and businesses, which had flourished for generations, were ruined. Worse still, families were made homeless, their houses swept away or obliterated. But by the time we stepped off our plane it was business as usual. And business was good.

We arrived on a sunny but blustery Sunday afternoon and the spectacular approach to Funchal Airport, the runway of which juts out to sea to meet you, made for a dramatic entrance. It's a bit like landing on an aircraft carrier. Ellen enjoyed that, but not so much the advice from the greeting rep, who warned her to stay out of the sun.

Not what porcelain-skinned Ellen had in mind when she dreamed of parking herself by a pool. A bit like going to Oxegen, she said, and sticking in ear plugs.

We stayed in the Suite Eden Mar, which is a 20-minute walk, or 10-minute bus ride, east of central Funchal and in the heart of the shiny hotel district. It is one-third of a three-hotel complex, completed by the Porto Mare and the Residence. The facilities of each are available to all, so we had a choice of four pools, two indoor and two out, one of which was large enough to be mistaken for a modest lake. There was also an under-used gym, too, and Porcelain Girl took to that with the sort of enthusiasm she had originally intended for the great, sweltering outdoors.

Part of me would have been content to dump the bag in the room and flip-flop down to the pool and stay there for the duration. It was tempting. But there was plenty to see and while we were never going to get to it all, we worked out a compromise list of Must Do's. This list, short though it was, included shopping (guess which of us chose that?) and hiking (that would be me).

Porto Santo

A tiny island (it measures 57km by 27km) south of Portugal and immediately west of Morocco, Madeira could be mistaken for a beach destination, but it is no such thing. In fact, the inviting turquoise sea mostly washes up against uninviting stony grey shorelines and craggy rocks.

Serious swimmers may like the challenge, but holidaymakers prefer to take the ferry to nearby little Porto Santo. Its far-as-the-eye-can-see beach is a sun-worshipper's paradise. The ferry, which sails from Funchal every morning at 8am, returning at 10pm, costs €50 return in the low season and €60 at tops. Be warned: it takes its time, so that you have plenty of time to spend your holiday euros onboard.

Cable car

Not recommended for those with vertigo, or scaredy cats of any persuasion. These six-seaters (they take four in comfort) lift you from Zona Velha, at the edge of the old town, up a 1,000 feet to Monte.

It's a stunning ride, out over the suburbs of the capital, with its mix of terracotta villas, with their private pools, and down-at-heel cliff-face apartments with their cramped, mean little balconies.

Ellen waved at one string vest-wearing, rotund gentleman, who was minding his own business on his tiny patio. He didn't wave back. The €14.95 return ticket (it's a long walk down) includes a ticket into the famous gardens ...

Jardim Botânico

Even those of you who think that backyards are primarily for the cultivation of weeds would be impressed. The luxuriant and endlessly colourful flowers, plants, shrubs and tree are visually overpowering and the miniature lakes alive with glittering koi are, well, cute. At the centre is Monte Palace, once the home of a British diplomat, since a hotel and now state-owned. Lots of creepy-crawlies though. But they only bite if they like you, and they liked us.

Levadas walks

Madeira's densely populated coastal towns and its hilly farms are irrigated by levadas. This is a complex and ingenious system of trenches and channels that takes the water from where it rains most to where it is most needed.

Maintenance paths, which run parallel, are now used as hiking trails and we spent a wonderfully enjoyable morning in the company of a half-dozen other hikers, and a well-informed guide, seeing a side of the island that it would be a shame to miss.

Well, I thought it was wonderful. Ellen spent her morning aerosoling the other hikers with anti-bug spray. After Jardim Botânico she had come prepared. Once a girl guide ...

The Beatles Boat

Strictly speaking I shouldn't recommend this at all because it was, well, tacky. But I'm a Beatles junky and the Fab Four did once own this tub, now beached forlornly in Funchal Harbour. So we climbed onboard one balmy evening and had a drink.

Mine, a beer, was unremarkable, but Ellen decided to honour the occasion by having a Beatles Special cocktail. Miniscule, wickedly priced (well, by Madeira's standards) and tasting like a Colgate smoothie, it was not one of Lennon and McCartney's greatest hits.

Shopping

To be honest, don't bother. The narrow cobbled streets around the Cathedral district of the city centre do throw up the usual high-street brands, but you can get up to that sort of retail mischief at home. We'd recommend the excellent Pingo Duce, though, for your groceries, if you're staying in an apartment.

And culture

No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I usually stumble across culture at some point. This time it was at the quirky Museu de Arte Sacra, on Funchal's Rua du Bispo, which houses, among other curiosities, a fabulous 16th-century 'Last Supper' tableau with a very shifty looking Judas. That poor guy never got a good press.

Where to eat... and what to drink

Eating out is wonderful value and the seafood is excellent, if you know where to look. If I could pick one place it would be Doca do Cavacas, an unremarkable-looking ramshackle building at the cliff edge just off Rua da Ponta da Cruz, west of Funchal. The unfortunately named BSE, a chirpy little local white, sat nicely with most fish dishes and I was particularly taken by the local Coral beer, too.

Regrets, we have a few

We never got to visit Reid's Hotel, where they do an excellent, if rather pricey, afternoon tea for €28 a head. Churchill wrote a chunk of his memoirs while staying here, and Margaret and Denis Thatcher honeymooned there. Not that I mean to spoil your breakfast.

And what to avoid

Shake-down taxi men, who have turned over charging into an art form; charm-offensive restaurant touts who don't take 'nao' for an answer, and -- it has to be said -- a disproportionally large percentage of those in the tourist industry who don't seem to like tourists.

The damage

We travelled with Sunway Holidays (01- 231 1888; sunway.ie). They fly with SATA airlines. Seven nights in the Suite Eden Mar, during September and October, start from €799 per person including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation and all taxes. The same holiday on selected dates in November and December starts from €689.

Irish Independent

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