Friday 9 December 2016

Madeira: A holiday island that embraces body and soul

Holidays in Europe

Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30

The pretty little harbour village of Camara de Lobos, noted for its fishing.
The pretty little harbour village of Camara de Lobos, noted for its fishing.
A waiter serves afternoon tea on the terrace at Reid's Palace Hotel, Funchal. Churchill and George Bernard Show were both guests here.
Jerome takes time out to enjoy the splendour of this island paradise.
Electrically powered scooters are a fantastic way to see Funchal.
The cable car takes tourists speedily from Funchal to Monte.
You can travel at 45km per hour toboggans or wicker sledges in Funchal.

From local markets to outdoor adventures and cetacean-spotting, this Portuguese island offers a holiday with a difference.

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If you want a snapshot of a new holiday destination then take a trip to the local market. It sounds like advice peddled by Rick Stein or one of those other foodies who like to rub our noses in it as they swan around the Med or South East Asia sampling "abundant"  local cuisine.

They gabble on about how to make sure your fish is "sea fresh" (look inside the gills for a healthy pink colour, look for a bright eye and all that old guff) and wax lyrical about "street food." None of the travelling foodies ever gets a dicky tum from eating a kebab made by a guy with a grill on the handlebars of his bike.

But the wisdom of seeing what the locals eat and how they buy it, is always illuminating. And it's always a great opportunity for people-watching.

So the day after we arrived in Madeira, I headed down to the old town in the main city of Funchal.

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The fish market was located towards the rear of the bustling indoor market in a cool, spacious ante-room and surrounded by a high balcony which added to the sense of theatre.

Tables were of stout ivory-coloured marble and shards of ice flew as the burly fishmonger flourished a lethal machete-style knife and, in a mesmerising blur, set about a Blue Fin Tuna the size of a pig.

Within seconds huge steaks, the colour of old ruby port, fell on to the slab and the local women were lining up to buy.

But there was an even bigger queue for Black Scabbard fish (locally known as Espada Preta). It's the Madeirans favourite fish (delicate and delicious) and a fierce looking creature it is - long, jet black, with a coppery iridescence, and teeth as long as but even sharper than cocktail sticks.

It's a creature from the deep dark ocean, hence the saucer-like eyes, and prefers to hang around at least half a mile down.

Later in the holiday, we pitched up in Camara de Lobos, the pretty little harbour village where fishing for the Black Scabbard fish remains an important part of the local economy - though now augmented strongly by tourism.

It is achingly pretty, but the fishermen's life is tough; and while we were there, the annual Mass to bless those who put themselves in peril at sea was taking place in the open air just yards from the shore. The sweet voices of local schoolgirls as they sang hymns bounced around the working harbour, and sunlight bounced off a turning tide as an old priest completed the benison.

That Black Scabbard is something of a staple on this wonderful island, which is as much about geology as anything else.

Madeira is the emergent top of a massive shield volcano that rises about 6 km from the floor of the Atlantic. As such, most of the "island" is actually below the ocean and so Madeira is surrounded by very deep waters a relatively short distance from shore.

The volcanic past is also responsible for the astonishingly fertile soil - rich, dark ochre and very deep. Madeirans can, and do, grow almost everything. Bananas are small but incredibly sweet, sugar cane grows side by side with oranges and all types of citrus.

They also produce those big, irregular and fragrant tomatoes that, with a little onion, oil and good vinegar, is much more than a wonderful accompaniment to meat or fish.

Despite the wonderful natural advantages of soil and climate, growing abundant crops is not easy on often vertiginous terrain. There's lots of terracing which means harvesting and planting must be by hand rather than machine. It's no wonder that many of the younger generation are eschewing farm life for tourism.

This autonomous region of Portugal (they discovered the uninhabited Madeira early in the 15th century) takes tourism seriously and all working in the sector appeared exceptionally well trained, proficient in several languages and all with third level qualifications in hospitality.

As it happened, I enjoyed an almost exclusively fish diet during the trip. Sea bream, red snapper, juicy prawns as well as scabbard fish were just too good to miss and excellent value for money. Budget €40 to €50 for dinner for two including a decent bottle of Vinho Verde.

The only "meat" I ate was bacon at the wonderfully eclectic breakfast buffet at the Hotel Four Views Monumental. The hotel in the high-end seaside enclave of Lido is a 20 minute walk from the atmospheric old Cathedral in the centre of Funchal.

The hotel is recommended. Well appointed with two heated outdoor swimming pools, there are uninterrupted views to the ocean and the other main island on the archipelago, Porto Santos, as well as the mountains. The bar is busy with nightly entertainment and good cocktails.

It was my first time in Madeira and I had been expecting a rather fusty and perhaps overly genteel little island populated by retired couples from Sussex.

In fact, there is still a slightly English feel to some parts, and, of course, British names still adorn the bottles of Madeira, one of the island's great exports.

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Reid's Palace (hotel), above, where George Bernard Shaw and Churchill were once guests, still celebrates afternoon tea on the terrace, and there is a fairly strict dress code.

But Madeira has tried very successfully to broaden its appeal. Now it's becoming a haven for those who want to enjoy an outdoor, activity-based holiday.

A far younger demographic, among the French, Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians and now the Irish too, are enjoying the walking holidays among the levadas, the mini canals that bring the gift of fresh, sparkling waters from the high parts of the island to irrigate the drier lowlands.

Of course the island is known for its astonishingly varied flora. There are many spectacular gardens but even a short levada walk brings hikers up close and personal with floral show-stoppers and the local finches, a unique and cheeky sub-species, that will fly to the hand. They love cheese! Who knew?

There was also a fair scatter of intrepid mountain bikers, cliff-climbers and para-gliders making the most of a wonderful climate and infinitely varied terrain. Lots of runners were making the most of the hills for a spot of Spring training.

We boarded a catamaran for a four-hour dolphin- and whale-watching trip that hugged the coast of the island. Cetaceans were in relatively short supply that day, but we got fairly close to a pod of bottle-nose dolphins.

It didn't matter a jot. The boat had a bar and we sipped Madeira as we looked back at Funchal and marvelled at some of the highest sea cliffs in the world.

For those who want to experience the high lands of Madeira, a Jeep safari is a hugely enjoyable alternative to an arduous trek which will bring you to the top of the island's second highest peak.

Within minutes of leaving the mist, whipping gales and cold of the high plain, we had descended to the tranquil Quia do Fuao, a wonderfully smart hotel near Santano, set among rolling organic vineyards and boasting spectacular views of the coastline.

As well as a top-class spa, the hotel boasts an outstanding restaurant, with a heavy emphasis on organic fruit and veg grown in their own lush gardens, which you can also visit.

The following day we decided to get a better grip on the main city of Funchal.

We took, embarrassingly early, a glass of Poncha - the local cocktail which has at its heart strong sugar cane rum and a local honey. Traditionally fishermen take the drink with fresh lemons mashed to a pulp but there are variations which include passion fruit. Be warned, it's stronger than it tastes.

So fortified we took the cable car from near the marina in downtown Funchal and hovered over the city enjoying red grouse as they flew beneath our canopy.

We looked at the places where Madeirans live high above the commercial heart of the city, each house perched on a tight mountainside site and all with a small garden which appeared to be producing a market garden of fresh produce for the family table.

At the upper station we stepped off and visited the Monte Palace tropical gardens put together by José Berardo and includes one of the most important tile collections in Portugal.

The tiles exhibited amid the tropical vegetation represent several ages, coming from palaces, churches, chapels and private houses throughout the former Portuguese empire.

It was a labour of love for Berardo, a noted businessman, stock investor, speculator, and art collector said to be worth more than half a billion euro. He once bid unsucessfully for overall control of Benfica football club, and remains a strong supporter of Maritimo FC, which plays in the Portugese first division and is based on Madeira.

He has also been an inveterate collector all his life; and while he made his fortune in South Africa, he also amassed a remarkable collection of precious and semi-precious stones, which are on display in the museum in the heart of the tropical garden as well as another museum of African tribal art of exquisite quality. Well worth a ramble.

We came down from the mountaintop on board a toboggan sled. Yes it's something of a Madeiran cliche, but great fun nonetheless.

Originally designed as a fast means of transport down to Funchal for people living in the high area of Monte, these toboggan sledges first appeared around 1850.

They attract thousands of tourists every year who want to have this exciting experience of sliding at high speed on narrow, winding streets down to Funchal, which have been worn to glass like smoothness over the years.

These two-seater wicker sledges glide on wooden runners, pushed and steered by two men traditionally dressed in white cotton clothes and a straw hat, using their rubber-soled boots as brakes.

The downhill journey to Funchal is made in about 10 minutes on a total course of 2 km, reaching at times a speed of 48 km/hour. Great fun.

I would also highly recommend a Tukxi tour - a whistle-stop jaunt around Funchal and its main tourist sites in the back of an electrically powered scooter. There's room for three, the driver and two passengers, and it's better fun than any magic bus as you whizz through the back streets of Funchal, visit the hillside forts and the wonderfully pretty churches.

Of course, all that sightseeing is hungry work and part of the fun of any holiday is searching the city looking for the perfect place to eat.

It's an easy task in Madeira, an island that embraces visitors body and soul.

Getting there

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Jerome Reilly

Jerome travelled to Madeira with Topflight staying seven nights at the four-star Four Views Monumental Hotel in Funchal on a bed & breakfast basis. Topflight offer a weekly programme to Madeira throughout the summer season  until October.

Prices for the four-star Four Views Monumental Lido Hotel are from €689 per person sharing (based on travelling August 25) and include return flights from Dublin, accommodation for seen nights on a bed & breakfast basis, 20kg baggage allowance, taxes and a Topflight representative in resort.

Further details and to discuss Madeira holiday options call 01 240 1700. Visit www.topflight.ie to see the wide range of holidays that Topflight offer to Madeira - from self-catering to five-star luxury. Topflight holidays can also be booked through local travel agents.

TAKE THREE: Top attractions

Tukxi eco-tour

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Apparently these electrically powered scooters cost over €20,000 but they are a fantastic way to see Funchal and its atmospheric back streets far from the usual tourist crowd. You can be guaranteed that your guide will always know the best  places to eat and drink and they will drop you back to that interesting bar or  cafe you spotted at the end of the tour if you ask them nicely.

Madeira cable car

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The Teleferico do Funchal boasts that it is a “journey between heaven and earth” and this cable car ride from the lower station in the marina district of Funchal to the high ground of Monte is wonderfully atmospheric and gives unrivalled  views of the city, the mountains and the wild atlantic ocean. Good value for money and there’s plenty to do at both ends, including the Monte Palace Tropical gardens.

Toboggan ride

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Yes everybody does it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not great fun to be powered down the narrow and steep city streets of Funchal at 45kmh in a wicker toboggan controlled by two burly blokes wearing rather fey straw boaters and thick-soled shoes of the type last seen in the Zhivago discotheque circa 1977. A photo will be taken, but you will be charged a tenner if you buy.

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