Monday 27 March 2017

Madeira: Garden of Eden

With its stunning tropical gardens, rugged mountains and a €1bn post-mudslide facelift, Madeira is getting its magical mojo back, says Thomas Breathnach

Levadas - the island's network of narrow canals running from the mountains
Levadas - the island's network of narrow canals running from the mountains
Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach

Madeira. A florid explosion of volcanic islands, the home of golden boots Cristiano Ronaldo, or simply the yellow sponge cake.

Whatever your association with the Portuguese outpost, the island has tended to teeter off the bucket-list of most Irish holidaymakers.

Last year's annus horriblis of floods and mudslides didn't help matters. But now, following a f1bn facelift, Madeira seems to be regaining its perennial mojo -- and it's closer than the Canaries.

Earlier this summer, I took a package break with Concorde Travel to explore the budding splendour of the 'Floating Garden of the Atlantic'.

Famed for its hair-raising runway -- which juts along the ocean on stilts (yes, stilts) -- landing at Madeira International is a little like swooping on to an aircraft carrier. But there's nothing like palm trees and a cobalt Atlantic to cast you into the vacation zone, and as I descend on to baked Madeiran tarmac, I feel like the Man from Del Monte. Pass me a fedora!

Our transfer to the capital Funchal is a 20-minute scoot along the island's southern coast. Under blitzing sunshine, we plunge through a warren of mountain tunnels and soaring bridges, spanning narrow mountain valleys. It's an impressive infrastructure, all reflecting Madeira's status as Portugal's wealthiest region.

The five-star Pestana Casino Park, which sits upon a ravine overlooking Funchal marina, is our retro-glitzy base. It's a colossal space. A massive mezzanine sweeps past the reception, bars and lounges, until it flows seamlessly on to a swanky infinity pool overlooking the bay.

Designed by one of the world's architectural titans, Oscar Niemeyer, the modernist arced design ensures we open our room doors to both sea and city views. It's the perfect Funchal fusion.

With a cursory 360 around the Pestana, it's safe to say that Madeira doesn't attract the fiesta demographic. The island's predominantly mature target market has been built on its record for safety, affordability and a mild climate, and as I venture out into Funchal, the atmosphere is less a case of Ibiza Uncovered and more one of Last of the (Madeira) Summer Wine.

With a constant waft of saffron infusing its streets, Funchal (meaning Fennel) could easily win kudos as Europe's most fragrant city. Its setting, where mountains wrap around a city bowl and bay, is not unlike a mini Cape Town, and its colonial architecture with fortresses, churches and grand town buildings, harbour a historic charm with a maritime twist.

As I stroll around its jacaranda-lined lanes and alleys, it's not hard to imagine bygone sailors from a Portuguese armada, spilling out of the local taverns. The sound of Johnny Logan bugling from the promenade's loudspeakers somewhat thwarts my Vasco de Gama moment, however.

Funchal's greatest bounty can be found at the city's main market, Mercado dos Lavradores, in the Zona Velha. The heartbeat of the capital itself, the market is brimming with local wares and produce: embroidery, plants and a range of exotic fruit Superquinn could only dream of.

Wily fruit traders offering "free samples" are notorious in the market, but bargains abound nonetheless. I pick up a dozen agapanthus bulbs for a fiver (all of which are flourishing).

And that yellow sponge cake? Well it turns out it's an English invention, named after Madeira wine -- so save your sweet tooth for the bolo de mel honey cake instead.

We leave the market for Funchal's waterfront, where we grab the island's gondola lift, which grinds 1,000m up above the capital's lofty mountain suburbs. It leads us to one of Madeira's dozen private gardens -- and arguably its most loved.

Monte Palace Tropical Garden, established in 1991 to conserve the local flora, is in fact the island's top attraction. The gardens are a lush and serene oasis from the afternoon heat.

We venture inside under a cooling canopy of Madeiran mahogany -- waterfalls cascade into lakes teeming with koi, peacocks parade along a woodland tapestry of ferns.

From there a botanical index of jewels awaits: canary laurel, thickets of red-sapped dragon trees and tubular tulip trees. This is my trippiest arboreal encounter since Enid Blyton's 'Enchanted Forest'.

Following some luscious appetisers from the market, lunch beckons at the hole-in-the-wall find of Restaurant Venda da Donna Maria, on Rua de Santa Maria.

Formerly a grocery store, the restaurant retains a rustic epicurean vibe, with a quirky and whimsical hotch-potch of old-world touches. Mismatched place settings, odd chairs and chunky dressers, all under a lantern-lit setting, this is a homecoming from your long-lost Portuguese grandmother.

Our spread of lemon chicken is served with a scrumptious a  la mode side of deep fried maize (€12) and, after sampling the local grilled sardines (€10), I vow never go back to John West.

Donna Maria's traditional vibe also extends to its soundtrack of traditional Portuguese music, called fado singing. Mournful accounts of lovers lost at sea, after a one-hour compilation of native dirges, the restaurant reaches the melancholy levels of an Adele concert.

It seem's one man's fado is another man's Sean nos -- and it's time to go.

To experience Madeira's magical ruggedness, venturing beyond Funchal is a must.

The island has been reinventing itself as an adventure-sport hotspot (anyone for canyoning?), so we embark on a jeep safari with local pathfinders Madeira Expeditions (mex.pt; €30).

"Fasten your seat-belts and keep your eye out for Ronaldo" is the briefing from our guide Angelo, before his Land Rover defies gravity and winds up the abyss of a mountain dirt-track.

So this is what 4WDs were made for, then. Bordering steep ravines we trail up through Madeira's ancient laurel forests before the spectacular plateau of Paul da Serra rolls out before us. Like a mountain outback, our road plunges into the horizon, where herds of long-horned cattle loll by fertile pastures and blankets of thick cotton clouds smother the valleys below.

I'd gladly park on this agrarian shangri-la for hours, but we descend to the village of Porta da Cruz for one of the island's levada walks. Named after the network of narrow canals which carry water from Madeira's mountains down into the valley's farms, levadas are your yellow brick road to explore deep into rural island life.

Our two-hour blissful amble coils along terraces of banana plantations, maize fields and vineyards, where we're occasionally met with a curious farmer or goat.

That night, we wrap up our island tour in the fishing village of Camara de Lobos. In the panoramic setting of Adega da Quinta, we dine on a traditional Madeiran feast of espetada -- juicy chunks of garlic-rubbed steak, skewered onto branches of bay laurel, and dangled tantalisingly over our table.

Outside in the night sky, a mesmerising lunar eclipse acts as a dimmer switch over the island -- shimmying light on the harbour below and casting shadows on the mountain peaks above us.

With Madeira now exposed at its most spectacular, I think I've just found the lost Atlantis. A zenned escape of hideaway hamlets, coves and forests harmonised with a bossa nova of adventure tourism -- this is one floating garden back in bloom.

GETTING THERE

Thomas went to Madeira with Concorde (01-775 9300; concordetravel.ie). A seven-night B&B package with the operator starts from €560, including flights.

Sata Airlines (0035 129 620 9720; sata.pt) fly from Dubin to Funchal from May to October from €183 each way

STAYING THERE

The massive Pestana Casino Park has tabs on retro glam and some of Funchal's best views. You may wish to pack a segway though.

From €55pps B&B. Tel: 0035 129 172 4231; pestanacasinopark.com.

For a heritage hit, check into a quinta -- one of Madeira's traditional country estates. Colonial chic and landscaping bliss guaranteed.

€50pps B&B see quintas-madeira.com.

Treat yourself to a Lisbon stopover with a room at the exquisite Pestana Palace. The celeb bolthole in town, you may be lucky enough to share the breakfast buffet with Madonna. Or Ronan Keating.

€88pps B&B. Tel: 0035 129 172 4210; pestanapalacelisbon.com.

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