Homes hang like bird-boxes and ribbonesque roads drape loosely around vertiginous slopes. As the plane flew closer to the island, a structure came into view, a series of massive pillars rising from the sea. Looking like a beachfront Parthenon, I couldn’t make out if it was an artifact from the Lost Continent of Atlantis or perhaps the gateway to a subterranean power station?
“It’s the airport!” I thought! “Naw, it can’t be!” I refuted! The plane banked right and I decided it was! Stilts support a substantial section of Madeira’s main runway high above a rocky beach and restless sea. Madeira, it seems, doesn’t do flat!
As I steered my hire-car towards the city of Funchal, the upright nature of this Atlantean archipelago was further underlined – or possibly undermined! This volcanic pile is cut through like a massive Swiss Cheese with an intricate network of tunnels and sweeping flyovers allowing traffic to traverse parts of this relatively small island in less than an hour whereas, not so long ago it would take a day. You can still explore some of the old roads; twisty, mountainous trails that are fun to drive, especially in a nice little soft-top as I did.
The city of Funchal is a surprise! It’s an elegant little European municipality full of colour and character with excellent amenities. The Old Town presents an appealing balance between tourism and everyday Madeiran life. You can stroll for hours among the narrow streets, a photographer’s dream stopping at the numerous ‘tascas’ or cafes for a ‘garoto’ (small latte – it actually means ‘small boy’ – the locals will know what you mean) or something more refreshing. Down at the marina, there are the ubiquitous boat trips to see whales & dolphins or you can hop aboard the ‘Santa Maria’, a replica of Christopher Columbus’s Spanish galleon upon which he sailed to these islands in 1492 on his way to discover ‘that little ol’ place they call America’.
I just loved strolling round the place. In the warm sunshine, which graces the island most days of the year, Funchal is first and foremost a fascinating Portuguese town with only a thin veneer of tourist trappings.
BELMOND REID’S PALACE
I was staying at the ultra-luxurious Belmond Reid’s Palace! This is the Ritz, Raffles and the Waldorf Astoria all rolled into one with the most magnificent view over the Bay of Funchal. Reid’s has been keeping Europe’s ‘crème de la crème’ happy since it opened its doors in the late 1800s. The ‘Hotel Guest Book’ is impressive; Sir Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, David Lloyd George, Roger Moore (when he wasn’t filming James Bond), Gregory Peck (when he was filming Moby Dick) and dramatist George Bernard Shaw. The place still has an air of genteel tranquillity and restive retreat with age-old traditions such as taking Afternoon Tea on the balcony with panoramic views of Funchal and the harbour.
I was itching for a game of golf but my itinerary was as much about the culture, cuisine and history of this little archipelago. And for my first evening, I was heading downtown in a classic car… Madeira has some 800 vintage motors mostly of a British marque with the likes of an early Morris Cowley or Rolls Royce. These can be summoned to pick you up and parade you through the Old Town and on to Forte de São Tiago where pre-dinner cocktails await on the terrace to the sound of traditional Portuguese guitar. As the city bathed in the last light of the day, Funchal was an amphitheatre with each house and apartment expertly place to enjoy a first-class view of the sunset. I was beginning to warm to this place!
MUCH TO DO!
The kind folks at the Madeira Promotional Association have done much to organise the island’s social events calendar to ensure there’s usually something interesting on at any time of the year.
‘New Year’ here in Funchal has to be one of the best on the planet with a symphony of fireworks orchestrated around the scimitar-like bay with a dozen cruise ships parked by the harbour to enjoy the spectacle. Then around the end of February, there’s ‘Carnival’ that gives Rio a run for its money followed by the ‘Flower Festival’ then the ‘Atlantic Festival’. But a visit here anytime of the year seems to work.
One of the highlights of my visit was a sailing trip on the ‘Pilar de Banger’, an elegant Turkish schooner accompanied by dolphins and whales as we sailed to Fajã dos Padres, an exclusive, secluded hideaway accessible only by cable car or boat where you can relax for an afternoon to enjoy an amazing lunch followed by sunbathing or swimming in the sea. Jesuit priests first populated this narrow strip of land turning it into an agrarian oasis growing bananas, grapes, mangoes and all sorts of exotica. Then there is a 4-wheel drive Jeep Safari trip to the north of the island courtesy of the True Spirit adventure company to do some off-road exploring. It was raining when we set off and it seemed like the day would be a disaster but after a delightfully ‘rustic’ lunch, we were encouraged to take a trek through the rain-soaked forest. The resulting ‘awe’ and sense of nature was one of the highlights of the trip; it was stunningly beautiful and though soaked through, our spirits were never higher.