I hadn’t realised that Madeira is best known as the birthplace of the footballer Christian Ronaldo, nor that he was named after Ronald Reagan, his father’s favourite actor.
The island is next best known, perhaps, for its fortified wine. I developed a liking for it especially Blandy’s 10 Bual. It’s a sweet, aromatic, sensual and complex wine, like port with its inebriating potency. Blandy is a British-Madeiran dynasty like Reid (the 19th century Scotsman William Reid) and a name that appears behind much of the island’s commercial interests.
Meaning ‘fennel plantation’ and very much the dominant centre of the island, Funchal, the capital, is home to flower-sellers obliged by law to wear their distinctive red and yellow striped skirts along with a red bolero and a red cape. They certainly stand out in their famous Festa da Flor in May. It’s a highlight of the Madeira calendar and includes a children’s parade in which each child carries a single flower to put in a Wall of Hope in order to call for peace in the world.
I stayed beyond Funchal’s main promenade at a magnificent salmon pink edifice, Belmond Reid’s Palace. It belongs to an elite list of the world’s glamorous historic grand hotels, alongside London’s Ritz, Istanbul’s Pera Palace and Havana’s Nacional. It is steeped in history and boasts many famous guests including George Bernard Shaw (who signed up for dancing lessons at the ripe old age of 71), Winston Churchill, who stayed in 1950 to write some of his memoirs and by his presence gave the island a much-needed commercial boost, and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In addition, it was the choice of residence for General Batista, Cuba’s long-term ruler after the revolution. He took the entire third floor of the hotel for his family and entourage of six bodyguards for the tidy sum of £750 a week.
The Palace is heaven on earth with a veritable garden of Eden. As I meandered down its seductive cobbled paths full of exotic plants, I was stopped in my tracks by a purple and turquoise jade vine bud cascading from its branch that looked so unreal as to be fanciful. Every inch of space is used to maximum effect with plants bearing fruits such as avocado, banana, papaya and orange.
If you’re the adventurous sort, take a cable car all the way up to Monte from Funchal and then a toboggan ride half the way back down. Toboggan jockeys or sledge runners called carreiros escort tourists on a two-kilometre descent in a greased wicker basket at a cost of £26, reaching speeds of up to 30 mph. They’re dressed in white trousers, sport their straw boaters and wear special shoes to give them traction with rubber soles to act as brakes. They possess an attitude like Venice’s gondoliers which gives off an air of assurance and indifference.
With Atlantic Pearl I boarded a catamaran to see the whales, dolphins and turtles out at sea. What a treat to experience the Atlantic waves before I strolled along the long promenade of the seafront to its winning combination of birds chirping and dogs barking. All generations were enjoying, in respectful harmony, their own preference for recreation be it prams pushed, footballs kicked, lovers ambling, professionals on their mobiles, the retired pottering or the aged rickety on their feet. The seven ages of man in one fell swoop.
Here I came to the Design Centre Nini Andrade Silva. Set high up on a second floor, it’s now a panoramic restaurant, both stylish and contemporary and acting as a cool backdrop to its welcoming staff. The brown, white and black décor was a pattern of monochrome that echoed some of the town’s baroque squares, churches and civic buildings. The lights of the Funchal hills twinkled all around me and, with jazz tickling my ears and plump vast cushions propping me up, all my senses were engaged to prepare me for the taste of dinner to come.
Only 20 minutes from the airport and set beneath the city’s western escarpment, was my next place to stay was the Quinta Jardins do Lago. The gardens have stems of tree ferns with names such as Dwarf Tree, flowers such as Jade Vine, Black-Eyed Susan Vine, Golden Trumpet, Bleeding Glory bower and Corkscrew Flower, as well as succulents numbering Spanish Dagger, Blue Chalksticks and a Mother-in-Law’s Cushion.
The hotel’s heated swimming pool was lined with couples reading large print paperbacks, as is the trend, from the bookshelf by the pool. Chapters were continued after dinner with a nightcap around the piano. Perhaps they had been persuaded to go for the excellent recent novels set on the island, including Chipset by Lior Samson, Tango in Madeira by Jim Williams or The Malady in Madeira by Ann Bridge? I was instantly enamoured with the hotel’s 61-year-old mammoth tortoise called Colombo who has roamed freely ever since being let out of a previous owner’s son’s pocket on his way back from the Galapagos. When I say mammoth, it takes four grown men to lift him.
For general tips about the island I suggest Christopher Catling’s Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Madeira as the best guidebook. Though there are the inevitable imports to such a far-flung island, the food is locally sourced and so the cost of living to locals and tourists alike should prove reasonable. Don’t go expecting beaches or nightclubs, but for an even quieter time of things check the weather before embarking on an ocean boat trip. The climate is a steady 25C in summer and 17C in winter (when there can be up to two more hours of daylight than in Britain).
However, the weather is changeable with clouds scudding by, so I recommend taking a selection of lightweight clothes as it’s all about layers. Don’t drive around Funchal unless you’re fully briefed on directions as the steep narrow lanes can require you to reverse to let a school bus through when even a Smart car would be a squeeze.
By Adam Jacot de Boinod
Images by Emma Ball
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064; classic-collection.co.uk) offers three nights at Quinta Jardins do Lago and three nights at Belmond Reid’s Palace from £1,398 per person. Price based on two sharing on a bed & breakfast basis, all private transfers, or car hire, and return flights from London Gatwick. Departs May 10.