Madeira: Walk up the isle
Though Madeira tends to appeal to the older generation, there's nothing flat about it, says Adhamhnan O'Sullivan
IF you decide to make Madeira your holiday destination, be assured you will be following in famous footsteps. One of the more regular trippers was Winston Churchill who first visited in 1899 on his way to cover the Boer War and returned to engage in his passion for painting. At one stage of his life Churchill declared that when he made it to Heaven, "I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject."
Whatever about the next life, anyone with an interest in painting in their present incarnation will find Madeira an oasis, as it is a dramatic and extraordinarily beautiful volcanic mountain, topped by a plateau and surrounded by the light blue waters of the Atlantic.
Landing at Funchal airport immediately indicates that flat land is in short supply as the airstrip, extended in recent times, abuts the sea and the drive to the capital quickly exposes the steep nature of the terrain, as do the many tunnels. Madeira, though, is not a destination that will suit all tourists equally. If St Patrick's Hill in Cork is just a little too steep for your normal walking habits, you could well have a problem. If it's a sandy beach you want to stretch out on, well, there are none. And if you expect your children to make friends with others in a hotel, it is unlikely that they will meet many.
The reality is that the country is a magnet for those of us who can't quite remember how we celebrated our 40th birthday, but think it was only yesterday. That is not to say it is unsuitable for young families, because, beaches apart, it has much to offer. Nevertheless, it is just ideal for people who like to sun themselves by the pool without having to suffer the excesses of raucous or inebriated fellow travellers and it provides a multitude of restaurants that serve good food (I recommend the following: Adega da Quinta, overlooking the city and Forte Sao Tiago, a converted fort in the Old Town) and drink at reasonable prices (the bill for three very generous brandies, a glass of red wine and two excellent coffees was €16.40 in a roadside café). Also, the climate is attractive, ranging from 15c in the winter to 30c in the summer. And it has much more to offer.
The weather on the south side close to Funchal provides sunnier and drier days than the rest of the island, but visitors should avail of a bus or taxi trip, or take a car (if you feel brave enough) to the west and north west and ensure that the journey crosses the plateau that is the roof of Madeira. There are times when you think that you have reached the summit of the winding corniche roads, only to turn a hairpin bend and find that the road goes on, and up, and on. Remember that the cost of hiring a car is not cheap, so you might make a saving if you book in advance as part of the holiday package.
One essential destination on such a trip is the Cabo Girao, close to Camara De Lobos, which has the second-highest cliff in Europe according to the natives, but Achill Islanders might have more legitimate claims with Croaghaun. If you have a head for heights, you can stand at a railing and look down 1,900 feet to the sea, with light clouds drifting in the Atlantic breeze below you.
There is, however, an alternative viewing point, one that is much more attractive, and it just requires a trip from the harbour in Funchal in a catamaran, or the Santa Maria de Colombo, a replica of the boat that took Christopher Columbus to America. It is a three-hour excursion that includes a visit to the Cabo Girao cliffs and provides the opportunity to swim from the boat in a secluded cove and partake of Madeira wine and cake afterwards.
If you say to a taxi driver 'take me up to Monte', you will arrive at a pretty hill-top village (you can alternatively take a cable car) and near the cathedral a group of men dressed in whites and straw boaters will assist you into carros de cesto -- wicker chairs on wooden runners -- and then push them downhill. Gravity does much of the work as you shoot rapidly through narrow streets but your 'minders' jump off from time to time to slow the sled with ropes and prevent it, generally at the last moment, from hitting a wall. Naturally, the run ends at a well-stocked bar.
As you are probably aware, Madeira is a botanical marvel. Plants and flowers thrive in the volcanic soil, with the result that the island is a sea of colour. Blooming jacaranda, bougainvillea, orchids, geraniums, poinsettias, canna lilies, frangipani, birds of paradise; the list is endless. If this is you bag, visit the Botanical Gardens which have 2,000 exotic plants from all over the world, and a list of many more gardens is available from the tourist offices.
For those who 'must have' a sandy beach, head for Porto Santo, a nearby island that has six miles of it. The Lobo Marinho takes passengers and cars daily, the travel time a little over two hours, or you can fly from Funchal Airport in less than half an hour. A few days there would balance the more demanding topography of Madeira.
And if you happen to raise a glass of Madeira wine as the sun sets, it might interest you that Falstaff also fancied the tipple. As Shakespeare wrote, he sold his soul to the devil "on Good Friday last for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon's leg".