Take a bite out of the island paradise of Madeira
Many famous figures were fond of Madeira. The beautiful but troubled glamorous young Austrian Empress Elizabeth came here to hide away when life became too much, Winston Churchill visited regularly to paint, residing in the famous colonial relic that is Reid's Palace Hotel, and Margaret Thatcher came for her honeymoon and returned often.
For us lesser mortals, it also proved a wonderful retreat, subtropically warm and floral with a flourishing food and wine culture.
We were lucky enough, as foodies, to arrive in the middle of the food festival of the year.
Madeira's resident Michelin-starred chef, Benoit Sinthon, had brought together 16 other mainly Michelin peers, a selection of the top names from top restaurants in Britain, France and Spain as well as Portugal for the Madeiran leg of the Rota das Estrelas, or the Stars Route. This unique culinary event kicks off each year on the island with follow-on festivals taking place all over Portugal between now and November that are well worth keeping an eye out for.
We rubbed shoulders with some of Europe's most stellar Michelin names and got to see them in action, giving demos, seeing their food matched with the best national wines and showing off for us and for each other.
Among them was Diego Guerrero, a two-starred Michelin innovator, who has been wowing Madrid with his deconstructed haute cuisine concepts.
Things had been underway for a few days before we arrived, but we landed in time for the highlight, a spectacular feast hosted at Sinthon's restaurant, Il Gallo d'Oro, where some of these gastronomic rock stars collaborate to deliver a six-course work of art, combined with incredible Portuguese wines, champagnes and of course local Madeira. If you're heading for Portugal in future months you can check out future events at cargocollective.com/ thestarsroute
You can also eat extremely well in a less ritzy way on the island. Fish and seafood are typically simply done and sensationally fresh in many places, particularly near the port. Trying scabbard fish, a local deep-sea white fish caught off the coast, is a must, as is the local bread, bolo de caco, usually served with meals, sliced in two and mouthwateringly lavished with garlic butter. Lapas or limpets cooked simply are an island speciality, tasting exactly of the sea, and there isn't a better place for a fresh tuna steak.
Must tries on the meat front are the famous espetada marinated beef, barbecued on bay tree branch skewers, or traditional pork marinated in wine and garlic.
In the old port part of Funchal, the capital of the island (named for the fennel that once grew with abandon here), many of the ingredients for the incredible things that appeared on our plates are displayed at the city market, or Mercado dos Lavradores. It is a riot of colour, with stalls laden with exotic fruits and vegetables and flowers. Market sellers will let you taste the several local varieties of passion fruit, and there's particular joy in savouring exotic fruits charged with zinging taste, when what we get at home is often just a bland imitation.
Adjacent is the fish market, open at daybreak, which seems to share Wrights of Howth's motto, 'If it swims, we have it', from octopus to gigantic tuna fish to the fierce looking jagged-teeth scabbard fish, while fishmongers expertly wield machetes to gut and bone.
Nearby are the cobbled streets of the old town with artisan shops, cafes and restaurants. Doorways of sometimes slightly run-down buildings have been converted into vivid works of art by local artists, with each one featuring a distinctive creative display.
Madeira is famous for producing cork, and among the little shops around here is Dona Nita, which sells novel accessories like cork iPhone cases and handbags and even cork umbrellas. There are also plenty of places around Funchal to buy traditional delicate hand-embroidered tablecloths.
Having an afternoon coffee and pastry or a glass of sweetly sharp Madeira while watching the world go by is a cherished local pastime and the old town is a great place to indulge it. Or you can stroll to the other side of Funchal, past a fragrant flower scented park along Avenida Arriaga to one of Madeira's oldest establishments, the Golden Gate cafe, with its colonial era wicker chairs and ceiling fans and perfect people-watching terrace.
The island's most famous homegrown son is soccer sensation Cristiano Ronaldo.
A stroll down from the Golden Gate is the CR7 Museum (named for the shirt number Ronaldo wore at Manchester United and now sports at Real Madrid). The highest paid footballer in the world is seldom seen here these days, we were told, but at this place of homage, run by his brother Hugo, you can get photographed with his fairly uncanny wax likeness and see his European Golden Boot trophy, which is on display along with all his other medals, trophies and prizes.
There are several fragrant parks and gardens around Funchal but a cable car from the port will whizz you 1,000 metres skywards to take your pick or visit both of two special ones, the Botanical Gardens and the nearby Palace Gardens. The cable car transports you over a breath-catching view of the island and the sea to the top of Monte, where we whiled away hours at the Palace Gardens with its beautiful oriental themed spaces, artworks and 1000 year old Roman olive trees.
Portuguese wine has enjoyed a bit of renewed attention and investment in recent years and over the last decade a significant shift in quality has occurred. Its regeneration is helped by the profile of what the local press have dubbed the Portuguese wine princesses, 12 young female winemakers who are making a name for themselves and their wines. It's well worth sampling some while you are in Madeira as well as tippling on the famous eponymous fortified wine. We particularly enjoyed two whites, a Soalheiro 2013 Alvarinho and a Redoma Niepoort 2012 (Niepoort is a pioneering developer of Portuguese wine), and a Quinta Da Leda 2010 cherry and blackcurrant nosed red.
There's also Poncha, the local Madeiran drink made from local fruits like mango or passion fruit, sugarcane rum and honey. Sweet but potent – watch out!
Water is plentiful in Madeira, flowing from rainfall trafficked down from the mountains by an ancient system of little canals called levadas to vineyards, banana plantations, orchards and vegetable plots below. One of the best days out is a mountain walk in the interior of the island on the trails that run beside these historic little waterways.
On a hike in the Rabacal Valley we breathed the purest mountain air ever. We picnicked beside the Risco waterfall with sparkling water cascading down into rock pools and then continued on a tree decked trail past the 25 fountains, a series of glittering natural springs, surrounded by rich flora and plant life, including varieties of orchids, lily of the valley, heathers and laurels.
Given its proximity to Africa, Madeira is warm all year round but doesn't typically get extreme heat. Summer temperatures hover around a fairly perfect 24 degrees.
With its attractive climate and in a timezone that matches Ireland and Britain, and with English spoken everywhere and flights taking just four hours, it's perhaps not surprising that the tourist demographic tends to be retiree age.
You will see cruise ships arriving with their hoards of septuagenarian-plus travellers gamely ambling through the port to cable up the mountain. But a gang of younger people will find lively enough bars and plenty of active pursuits, from mountain hikes to diving to surfing.
Flights direct from Dublin to Madeira are through packages only.
The island can be reached by flying to Lisbon and then onwards with Ryanair or TAP Airlines, or from London or many regional UK airports with Ryanair, Easyjet or TAP.
WHERE TO STAY
For a five-star spoiling try the Cliff Bay Hotel, not far outside Funchal. Built, as the name suggests, into a cliff, rooms look out onto dazzling bay panoramas.
The same group has a more family orientated property just up the road, the Vila Porto Mare, a set of three complexes set in a former banana plantation with stunning gardens including an orchid plot.
For a more urban feel there's the Porto Santa Maria Hotel in the old port quarter of Funchal. See www.portobay.com
For tourist information: www.madeirapromotionbureau.com
Visit a winery
Many of us associate the sweet fortified wine with an elderly relative's choice of Christmas tipple, but a Madeira tasting is well worth doing to discover its surprising citrusy sweet depth and texture and learn its fascinating history, which dates back to the 15th Century. A visit to the St Francis cellars and museum is enlightening. In this former monastry,the Blandy family have been producing Madeira here for 150 years. www.blandyswinelodge.com
When someone mentioned tobogganing in Madeira, I thought I'd misheard. After taking the cable car to the top of Monte, Madeira's highest point, take this exhilarating way of hurtling back down – it's so much fun. Wicker toboggans on runners are pushed along by nattily attired men, dressed in white and wearing straw hats. Using their thick rubber boots as brakes, they take you flying down the steep streets back towards the town below. This is an absolute must.
Stunning and laden with history (Christopher Columbus lived there and you can visit his house), this island is a short air trip or a longer, pleasant boat trip (two and a half hours) from Madeira. It boasts nine kilometres of sandy beach and gulf stream warmed shimmering sea to enjoy. There's the option to horse ride, play golf or go scuba diving. There are several spa retreats on the island if you want to stay longer.
Sunday Indo Living