THERE was only one thing wrong with my short trip to Madeira. It was short. I flew a day later than my companions, and arrived to find them buzzing after an afternoon at sea watching whales and dolphins. They had the photos to prove it, and I knew I had missed a great outing. Spring is particularly good, as whales pass the island regularly.
My disappointment was lessened when I arrived at the five-star Cliff Bay Hotel (www.portobay.com). My room had the best sea view I have seen in a while, and the hotel has direct private sea access. I had everything I could need, including surround-sound TV and DVD with several channels in English. To welcome me was a delightful plate of prawns, squid -- which I love -- melon wrapped with ham and various canapés. Plus a bottle of champagne.
Il Gallo d'Oro at The Cliff Bay is the only restaurant on the island with a Michelin star. As I sipped a glass on the balcony, a man flew past on his microlite, but, frankly, I think I had the better view.
The trip from the airport to Funchal (Portuguese for the plentiful herb Fennel) gives a good idea of the island. It is 57km by 22km and has a population of about 250,000, most of whom live on the south side either near the sea, or on the mountain slopes looking out to sea. While sea views may be special to us, Madeirans take them for granted!
You can get around the island quickly because of the amazing system of tunnels cutting through the mountains. Every slope seems to be cultivated. You see a lot of bananas. The Madeiran ones are small and sweet. There are vines and just about every vegetable under the sun. Such has been the effort put into repairs to the damage caused by the recent dreadful floods it's almost impossible to see where they took place.
On my first night, we ate in Vila do Peixe (viladopeixe@ sato.pt), a top-notch fish restaurant. People tend to come out to eat around nine, and by ten the place was buzzing. I had four firsts. To begin with, a plate of limpets. Next, scabbard fish, which I had also never eaten before. It's long, black and ugly when you see it at the market but white, fleshy and delicious cooked -- and perfect with sweet potatoes in honey and black-eyed beans. Then I had parrot fish, which was equally good. We finished the meal with cassata and a Portuguese secret weapon, Poncha, an orange drink mixed with firewater in the form of local sugar-cane brandy. It hit the spot. Hard.
Madeira has developed a reputation for walking holidays. On the plane, I spotted about 10 travellers who already had their boots and gear on to keep their baggage weight down. The north coast is the main walking area where, as well as lush forests (Madeira means wood), there are trails beside the Levadas. These are the 1,500km of irrigation channels that have been build over the years to collect water and bring it to the seaside towns.
We went for an interesting three-hour walk in the Laurissilva Forest , in which there are lots of picturesque waterfalls, good scenery, and tame finches who were quick to grab what was left of our sandwiches. We stopped by a hostel-type house at Rabacal where walkers can stay overnight by arrangement. The facilities are simple but if you want to get away from it all this is a good spot. Our guide, Jaime, was a font of information (www.bynature.eu), and like most Madeirans, had good English.
I also had a chance to sample the delights of another five-star hotel, the Jardins do Lago (www.jardins-lago.pt).
Situated about 1km above Funchal, the sea view is less striking, but the gardens with their cobbled paths are what you are looking at. They are justifiably proud of them. They also have a herbicide-free vegetable patch which supplies 30 per cent of what they use in the restaurant, and all their herbs. There is a fabulous pool with hot tub, and a good gym if you are so inclined. Or you can play tennis or croquet under the mango trees.
It is a more 'olde-world' style of hotel, having been a grand house on a small farm in the 1750s so, while having all the mod-cons in its 40 rooms, it preserves that air of grandeur. I felt at home sipping a 10-year-old Verdelho with Adalberto Dinis, a local who has become one of the managers, and adores the place. The extensive drink list was very reasonable, particularly for a five-star establishment. Adalberto gave me an important piece of advice as I thanked him for his hospitality: "If someone offers you less than a 10-year-old they are not your friend!"
The Spanish know Madeira as the Caribbean of Europe and it is seen as a prime honeymoon destination. There is no shortage of nightlife. I stepped into the casino. and stepped out again rapidly. On arrival I had been presented with €5, which I promptly lost, and as I am not a gambler I took my leave. Happy revellers were enjoying a meal and a stage show. This is the sort of thing you love or hate, and you know which type of person you are. I adjourned with a few companions to a local bar where we sat outside and drank Coral, the local brew. One of them had been to the Santo de Serra golf club, a Robert Trent Jones course which is home to the Madeira Open. I resolved to play next trip. Another had been to the botanical gardens. And two had been to the Madeira Wine Lodges and bought plenty.
It was a great few days. Good for the body and good for the head.