Adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, some 400 miles off the coast of Morocco, Madeira blossoms forth an oasis of colour and variety celebrated every year in the capital, Funchal. And it’s there I head, travelling effortlessly some 34,000 feet with British Airways.

Our pilot assures us that he has enough fuel and spares to land us on, what appears to many, to be one of the shortest runways in the world. Several years ago, before the runway was extended, every landing was greeted with a round of applause and cheering from the airport’s viewing balcony.

Enjoying a complimentary beverage, I wonder what spares we’re actually carrying on board and which of the cabin crew will volunteer to fix any external problem (outside it’s -53c and we’re flying at 510mph). A meal is served which is actually quite enjoyable. Apart from occupying the passengers, staff have managed to serve up something we all recognise. This time there’s no need for Rolf Harris to appear with his famous catchphrase “Can you tell what it is yet?”

The descent to Madeira takes us over the island of Porto Santo. With its sandy beach and tranquil lifestyle many choose this largely undiscovered island as a retreat. It’s only 7 by 4 miles across.

Landing at Funchal International Airport, I’m guided towards passport control. It’s an informal setup and very soon I’ve located my baggage and enjoying a private taxi ride to the Royal Savoy hotel. It’s perfectly located overlooking the town and Atlantic. With sea views from every room I know the accommodation is going to be ideal. And it is. My junior suite is tastefully decorated and enjoys a wonderful view across the swimming pool to the Atlantic. I can see the cruise ships in port and relax on the balcony in comfortable chairs. With a lounge area and well-equipped kitchen I can opt to cook for myself. There’s even a dishwasher and some rooms offer a personal chef service. The bathroom offers all I would expect from the name “Savoy” and after a shower that invigorates even the weariest of travellers, I set off to explore.

The Royal Savoy has a unique theme. Starting out from the Armada restaurant, East meets West with culinary masterpieces you’d expect at the captain’s table. For those who enjoy a less formal affair the Galley Restaurant offers a beautifully presented buffet style meal. Though more informal, the presentation of food is carefully inspected by the chef. I arrived a little early one evening and watched a team choreograph the meal. It’s at these moments you realise how much effort goes behind the scenes and that you’ve come to a hotel whose staff care about their guests and aim to deliver a memorable experience every day of the year.
This same attitude extends beyond the restaurant to the reception staff and the maids who clean the rooms (enjoy the little chocolate you’ll find in your room each day and admire the artistic way the tissues are folded). The furniture, too, has been carefully selected. Paraded before me in the reception and dining areas are examples of furniture from around the world – France, Portugal, India, South America and China. There’s even a Pigmy bed! Following a theme of adventure and discovery, each piece has been specifically chosen to represent the treasures ships brought back from distant lands.

The hotel boasts four swimming pools including an indoor and a children’s pool, a jacuzzi and extras including a spa, sauna and fitness suite. And, in case I thought I could exhaust all of these, I’m reminded that guests are free to use the facilities of the classic Savoy Hotel across the road. Connected by a convenient private footbridge across the street I took a walk back in time to the original Savoy Hotel. The Noble Room is the heart of this part of the resort and still has the original flooring from 1926. It has a classic and grand theme with stylish curtains and exquisite furniture. Ornate pillars stand on ceremony reminding me of my visit to Buckingham Palace - only here, there are no guide ropes. Across the way lies the magnificent Capula Restaurant with its domed roof and quality cuisine. Outside on the terrace I find a delightful area to sit and enjoy a light meal. Jose, my waiter, has been serving guests at the Savoy for 33 years and he knows a thing or two. He has a gentle nature and I ask him to recommend a desert. A combination of two is his reply and he rallies the team to present me something special. Jose’s long service record says so much about the establishment and it’s not hard to see why the resort was voted the world’s second best foreign resort hotel in the 2003 Daily Telegraph Awards.

A short walk away is the town of Funchal. Cobbled streets pave the way to a town full of charm. With museums, shops and restaurants, gardens and wine tasting there’s no shortage of things to enjoy. The market square is particularly interesting. Here I found sellers of fruit, vegetables, flowers and crafts. Friday morning is the best time to visit the market as the whole square is filled with colour. Next door is the fish market. Displayed along tables are leviathans of the deep that you’ll never catch off the coast of England.

Heading out from the market along the sea front I board a cable car pod over the rooftops of Funchal to the Monte Gardens. The magnificent panoramas from the pod offer an ideal way to relax and view the scenery. Take this trip on a clear day with a pair of strong shoes for walking on all those cobble stones. The gardens offer a stage set for lakes, pools and plants from all over the world and gardeners will love the variety. Back at the entrance to the gardens I took a walk along to the Monte Cathedral to witness what Hemmingway described as one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life. Monte’s toboggan run is probably not going to be the exhilarating experience Hemmingway thought it to be but it is fun to watch. Groups, of what appear to be Morris dancers, push tourists sitting in large wicker baskets on wooden skis down the slopes towards the town. While I was there business was at first quiet. Then, all of a sudden, it was rush hour and money started changing hands. A tour had just arrived from one of the cruise ships in port and soon an endless convoy of baskets sped off down the hill with passengers flashing cameras and holding on for dear life. What a novel way to go.

Afternoon tea has been served at Reid’s Palace Hotel to the famous and distinguished since it opened in 1891. Entering the hotel’s lobby is like entering the set of an Agatha Christie film and I expected Hercule Poirot to turn the corner at any moment. Reid’s Palace is a period piece with modern facilities unobtrusively blended in. The terrace offers wonderful uninterrupted views of the coast line and it’s the place to relax, take tea and sip in the atmosphere. The hotel has attracted luminaries such as Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Roger Moore and opens its doors daily at 3pm to passers by who want a taste of something special. Website

Jardim Botanico is the islands largest public gardens and is a great place to begin familiarising yourself with Madeira’s variety of flora. There is an excellent area devoted to topiary and nearby a section for cacti. Terraces climb from 200 to 350 metres and there is a superb selection of tropical trees and plants. The view points offer spectacular vantage areas for photographing Funchal and the nearby gorge. If gardening is your scene then visit Madeira in April/May when the flowers are in bloom.

Situated near the tourist office in the main street in Funchal is The Madeira Wine Company’s Old Blandy Wine Lodge. It has an “olde world” charm and at the rear entrance you’ll find one of Madeira’s oldest streets and a café serving coffee. Rita, my guide, shows me around the lodge and private museum. She’s worked here for nine years and is just the person to help you choose a bottle of Madeira wine. The Lodge is now a historic monument and incorporates a Franciscan Monastery dating back to the 17th century. The name of each wine just trips off Rita’s tongue and I find it somewhat difficult to remember them all. Like a teacher with a class of students on his first day I do my best to remember the names to no avail. Rita assures me that it all takes practice and that tasting is really the first step for the beginner. She explains that Madeira wine, once bottled, remains constant and neither improves or deteriorates. It’s stored upright, unlike most wines, and, due to the oxidation process, once opened it can last for a year and even longer if it’s a vintage wine. Around us are barrels of American oak where the wine is aged. The finest wines remain here for between 20 to 150 years before being bottled as vintage – a 1908 vintage bottle will set you back £450. Thankfully, there are always the more affordable 5 and 10 year old wines available from the shop downstairs.

The wine tasting is enjoyed by most visitors in the Max Romer tasting room. However I’m taken to the Frasqueira, or Vintage Room, that houses row upon row of vintage wine bottles along every wall. This is a tasting room with a difference and is Rita’s favourite. From behind its barrel shaped counter Rita provides me with four samples from the driest to the sweetest Madeira wine along with some Madeira cake and biscuits. This is the 10 year old Madeira wine tasting experience and the aroma reminds me of a well seasoned Christmas cake. In fact, Madeira wine isn’t like wine at all. It has its own mellow sweet taste unique to the island. It’s the one drink you’ll be offered when entering any restaurant before ordering a meal. That’s the thing about Madeira’s hospitality – you’re made welcome with a tipple of Madeira wine even if you decide not to order.
In the past Madeira wine may have had an image associated with an old-fashioned wine but recent years have seen launches of new products such as “Blandy’s Twist”, “Blandy’s Rush” and “Blandy’s Alvada” appealing to all age groups. Just take a look next time you’re in a supermarket - you’re bound to spot one of the wines I enjoyed at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge. Website

April marks the time of the Flower Festival in Funchal and is definitely the time to plan your first visit to this island. Over one weekend the island comes together for a dazzling event. On the Saturday morning thousands of children from schools all around the island dress up and gather together as part of the children’s parade. Each child helps to build a wall of flowers aptly named the “Wall of Hope”. It all takes place at the Municipal square and flowers symbolise the wish for peace and love, placed in the wall by the next generation. Madeira’s artists transform the centre pavements into a canvas on which they create panels of flower designs using a myriad of exotic plants.
On Sunday afternoon you can witness one of the most colourful parades in the world. Down the main street decorated floats glide by to the sound of music, displaying flowers from around the island. Accompanying the floats are hundreds of people from dance groups, schools and the community dressed in floral and traditional costumes. It’s a wonderfully safe carnival atmosphere and truly is something you’ll enjoy during
your stay.

So there you have it. My first experience of Madeira has been a keyhole view of an island that draws visitors back year after year to enjoy a spectacle of events, fabulous service and a welcome that is second to none. I head off to pack my bags, place a flower in the Savoy’s wall of hope and wish for a return visit very soon.

Recommended Hotels
Royal Savoy
Cliff Bay Hotel

Places to Eat
Besides one of the five restaurants at the Savoy Resort you might like to try a couple of the smaller restaurants serving local dishes. Summertime is a family restaurant and Dinis, the owner, will give you a warm welcome with a glass of his home made Madeira wine. Summertime is situated west along from Reids Palace and the Cliff Bay Hotels overlooking the sea on the main road. Restaurante Dos Combatentes is very affordable and offers friendly service. It is situated on the corner of Rua Ivens and Rua Sao Francisco behind Jardim Municipal (City Gardens) in the main town.

Travel Agent
David Burns travelled to Madeira with Classic Collection Holidays (www.classic-collection.co.uk tel 0870 787 3377) who have been providing luxury hotel and charming Quinta holidays to this beautiful garden island since 1988. With Classic Collection Holidays, 3 night short break prices at Royal Savoy in Funchal are from £621 and 7 night prices from £944 per person. Prices are based on two adults sharing and include bed and breakfast accommodation with balcony and ocean view, scheduled BA flights from Gatwick to Funchal, and private taxi transfers from the airport to the hotel. Alternative durations are available and the operator can also book direct flights from more than 12 UK departure airports. The flying time to Madeira is approximately 4 hours.

 

 

 

 

 

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