Escape London: Sensational Food & Wine & Views in Madeira
A food and wine lover’s haven and for those who love the great outdoors, Madeira is an easy holiday that offers a big reward…
Photo: Simon Zino/Visit Madeira
As we pass through yet another new Madeiran landscape – this one above cloud level somewhere high up a mountain – I comment that the scenery reminds me of Australia, flat with low-lying scrub freckled around.
‘People often say Madeira reminds them of home,’ says Geronimo, our guide. The French, he uses as an example, usually compare the island to Corsica.
True, as we explored the small Atlantic island, myself and my travel buddies drew comparisons between it and places we’ve been before; the heather-laden Scottish Highlands, the banana plantations and terraced farmland of south-east Asia’s tropics, and the old-city charm of mainland Europe.
Even Hawaii and Switzerland got a mention as we tried to capture the drama of the mountains near Ribeira Brava in the southwest of the island with our iPhones.
So why travel to a place that might remind you of where you just came from or have been before?
Because of course, Madeira is its own thing, and its chameleon-like natural beauty is all part of the island’s joy.
A balmy speck on the map in the Atlantic, the Madeira archipelago lies off the western coast of Africa.
When you land, you’re hit with a gentle warm humidity, the kind of weather that says: Hey! You’re on holiday! Life is great!
The sub-tropical island is a well-known destination for the retiree-set escaping Blimey for some winter sun, but the island has far more to offer than just warming up pensioners’ chilblains.
Home to multiple micro-climates, which is perhaps what gives the island such diversity in vegetation and scenery, Madeira goes big on charm and warm hospitality, and has oh-so-many sublime and spectacular landscapes.
You’ve got mountains to walk across, ocean views to bathe in, and local produce to feast on. Madeira is a little island that packs a lot in. Even if we weren’t delayed by a night getting here, time on the island still would have felt too short.
What to Do & See
Eat and drink your way through Madeira and couple this with exploring the great outdoors.
A wine tasting and vineyard tour will take you on a scenic drive to stunning locations as well as feed you a home-cooked, Madeiran-style meal, superb wine and tidbits from the wine-making process that will make you feel like you’re some kind of expert.
A for a full-day guided tour (around €130), will take you past four winemakers – Blandy’s, Barbusano, Terras do Avo, Barbeito’s – and includes more food than you could possibly eat and enough wine you’ll need a nap on completion.
There are also endless walks to take of varying degrees of difficulty. Around 2,500 kilometres of levadas – centuries-old irrigation channels – cross the island. Many of these still carry water to banana and sugar crops and are used by locals as part of their route home. Levadas are also used as hiking tracks that will take you through hillside and mountains.
A fairly easy, well paved walk, and one of the most popular is the 25 Fontes levada, which starts high in the mountains and takes you through the Laurissilva Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a dense, verdant woodlands dating back millions of years.
You’ll also come across a few waterfalls, including the inviting 25 Frontes, which takes its name from the number of smaller trickles and rivulets that come together for a picture perfect fall. You won’t escape the crowds here, but you can on other walks.
On my bucket list for next time, the oceanside lava pools in Porto Moniz, surfing at various beaches around the island, and a ferry ride over to Porto Santo for a stretch of sandy beach.
Even if you don’t stay here, most likely you’ll pass through the capital at some point. It’s a friendly city with laid back tropical vibes, that’s both quaint and contemporary.
Take the cable car from the esplanade to the hills of Funchal, for a birds eye view of the town.
Once you’re up there, take a toboggan down, because where else are you going to find two men dressed like they’re about to take you bunting in Cambridge, steer you down tire-bald smooth and windy streets in a wicker basket-like-sleigh?
While a fairly niche tourist experience now, these toboggan rides were the down hill transport for wealthy residents living in hillside estates back in the day.
Make sure you have a drink or at least a squiz at the Design Centre Nini Andrade – it’s a sleek building with an oceanside terrace bar.
What to Eat & Drink
Due to its middle-of-the-ocean locale, seasonal deep-sea fish like tuna and scabbardfish are the ticket here. Try Peixaria no Mercado, a newish and affable restaurant at the entrance of Funchal’s farmers’ market, for a slap-up pescatarian feast.
Espetada are traditional, hefty meat skewers cooked over coals and then hung up over the table so meat juices run down the hunks of meat as diners pick pieces off. I watched meat-eaters get stuck into several rods of the stuff as part of a lunch at Quinta Do Barbusano, and I was envious.
For modern meaty (and non-meaty) eating try Kampo, in Funchal, where you can sit at the bar and watch the chefs prepare the likes of sardines with eggplant and passionfruit, beef and mushroom tartare, or several cuts of steak. My highlight here were the slivers of dehydrated tuna dancing on top of my soupy bowl of rice, seaweed and market fish, due to the dishes heat. It was pretty cool.
Madeira is well known for its fortified wine, having made it for centuries. It is steeped in tradition, heritage and national pride, and if you like the stuff, there’s a lot to get stuck into. Watch out for Blandy’s and Barbeito’s, two of the island’s main fortified wine makers.
As a side note, Blandy’s have a handy deal with the airport where you can purchase bottles at their museum in Funchal, and collect them at the airport once you clear customs. Save yourself the risk of staining all your clothes wine and pick yourself up a couple of extra bottles for being an adult.
Since 1992, Madeira has also produced table wine. Most of these are dry and minerally and delicious, and trying them on a guided tasting is a lesson on how a wine can pick up on the flavours of the island depending where the grapes are grown.
Also try aguadente, but perhaps only in moderation. This drinking petrol native to both Madeira and Portugal translates into firewater, and has all the grace as the name suggests. It is a fierce and boozy fuel that has the potential to give you the worst hangover of your recent life.
Where to Stay in Madeira
Although there is a spattering of inland accommodation, most of it is along the coast.
Funchal has the glut of accommodation, with hotels, resorts and serviced apartments strung along the town’s coastline.
I stayed at Vida Mar; a huge complex with ocean views from my 10th floor balcony and all the services and amenities you would expect from a hotel with two towers of rooms.
There are also traditional manor houses converted into boutique hotels – quintas – scattered around the island. Usually tucked away in gardens and bucolic surrounds, I’m told they’re a little piece of yesteryear madeira.
I didn’t get to stay at a quinta this trip, but next time – and there will be a next time – I will.
Thinking of going? Ryanair has direct connections to Funchal from Stansted Monday to Saturday.
This trip was sponsored by Visit Madeira and Visit Portugal, in conjunction with Ryanair.