Madeira – Pearl of the Atlantic

By Christa

We were lucky to have a few spare days at the end of June and that chance to visit Madeira so it seemed to good an opportunity to miss. Are the flowers are beautiful as they say and is it really only suitable so senior members of society?

Canico, the Botanical Gardens, food and wine

Our base was the Quinta Splendida Wellness and Botanical Garden. As the name implies the wellness and spa were central to the hotel however it was the Botanical Garden that won the day – simply beautiful tropical gardens which were so varied and extensive they offer garden tours. It abounded with exotic flowers and fruit with stunning sea views from almost everywhere. Based around the old quinta, or manor house, the low rise property had a variety of different room types, with either terraces or balconies either tucked away or with gorgeous views of the gardens and sea.  There are a choice of restaurants, a really good sized pool with attractive bar areas plus a huge spa with treatment rooms. Sitting out in the gardens for breakfast was very special and the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff second to none.

The Quinta was in the village of Canico about 10 km to the east of Funchal. The old village was up on a hillside while the resort and beach area was well below. We were a short walk from the main village square, a lively place with restaurants, the main church, kids playing and adults passing the time of day or night – plenty of cards were being played. We had a good choice of shops, cafes and restaurants and made the most of the chance to discover the Madeiran cuisine.

Wherever we went (Canico, Funchal or North Coast) we were so impressed by the food. Stars were the Limpets in garlic, octopus stew, garlic bread (the most delicious I have ever tasted) and everywhere the espada or scary looking scabbard fish – in a variety of sauces including banana & passion fruit! We ate a seafood or rather fish platter, with 5 types of local fish at La Trainera in Caniço after an appetiser of the freshest fresh cheese (ricotta like) eaten with vinegarette and salt and pepper which the waiter came round delivering to each table. The sweet potato is the king of vegetables here served at most meals with honey sauce. As well as the most delicious fried cabbage, our other staple was fried corn, think polenta chips which are subtly flavoured and melt in your mouth. Up in the hills we ate hearty chicken stew and soup served in hollowed out loaves of bread all for 10 euros a head. Most of the time it was washed down with vino verde (local table wine production is small) and a complimentary poncha. We first had this after dinner but soon realised we could have before dinner or during the day with a coffee. It is a made on the spot drink with rum base, orange juice, lemon or passion fruit and honey. Wherever you go the recipe is different and equally delicious.

A tasting of Madeira wine is essential – fascinating to try the different sweet wines including delicious malmsey and to learn about the different grape varieties, the system for government ensuring authenticity of Madeira wine and how the different levels of sweetness are obtained. We tried the relatively rare Madeira white wine, which is very particular due to the acidity of its soil and pairs perfectly with fish and shell fish which is ubiquitous. 90% of wine production goes into the classic Madeira sweet wines with limited being kept for table wine – hence the difficulty in finding it in a lot of restaurants.

Madeira even has its own brand of fizzy drinks called ‘Brisa’ which comes in many flavours including passion fruit and orange.

Exploring Funchal

One day we headed 20 minutes into the capital Funchal. This was a delightful & elegant city and easy to get around the old parts on foot. The small Cathedral had an austere front and imposing tower and knot wood ceiling. There was plenty to see in terms of galleries and museums however much of the charm was in the narrow streets with their black and white mosaic pavements and the cafes bursting out everywhere. Right in the centre is Blandy’s Wine Lodge, the most famous of the wine houses, with regular tours around the premises and tasting. Part of the complex includes the oldest Funchal street where they used to roll the barrels down to the harbour.

We got the cable car up to Monte which was an exclusive hilltop residential area with spectacular views over the city and a completely different vibe. (Cross between The Peak in Hong Kong and a Swiss village) We wandered round the tropical gardens with a surprise round every corner and we ate lunch amidst the greenery. The route home had to be the 160 year old traditional toboggan which was exhilarating and terrifying as our toboggan handlers managed us down the hill whilst immersed in a constant banter in Portuguese. The toboggan ride took us half way back into Funchal and we eschewed the offer of a taxi or a bus and walked the rest of the way through areas of houses surrounded by market gardens, into pretty suburbs, back into an increasingly populated city.

The area we came back into was the Zona Velha (Old Town). Within the vibrant old market stall owners tempt you to taste their 6 different types of passion fruit, guavas and the most stunning displays of fruit I have seen ever. The other part of the market is the fish mongers area, where you can watch them deboning the ubiquitous espada/scabbard fish and slicing massive tuna as well as countless other locally caught fish such as limpits and dorado. We wandered through that part of the old town, along the narrow Rua da Santa Maria famous for its street art and crammed with inviting restaurants. Cafes were spilling out onto the pavement, pasteis (custard tarts were abundant) and we enjoyed a passion fruit Brisa under the walls of the old castle (Sao Tiago).

Into the Hills

We hired a car another day and headed up to the Pico Arreiro one of the highest peaks on the island. The views were stunning and a completely different lansdscape to the lush forest we traversed on our way there, it was completely barren. We descended to the small village of Ribeiro Frio where we took a walk along one of the many levadas (water channels) for which Madeira is famous – these water channels were constructed by hand in the mountains/hills to bring water down to the terraces and fields. There are a couple of dozen in total that you can walk along and some run for miles through remote landscapes or through tunnels. It was so peaceful as we walked through the lush forest, through cuttings and over bridges before we burst onto a view point high above the villages and coast below- the views were breathtaking.

Our journey took us on and down to the northern coast, the whole way we were marvelling at the wild flowers: blue and white agapanthus grew on every verge and wall we drove past, sometimes joined by stunning hydrangea, sometimes we passed banks of red or banks of white and yellow margaritas. I have never seen such beautiful wild flowers anywhere in the world.

We drove through many sleepy villages on the northern coast and we stopped at the hilltop village of Santana famous for its traditional A framed houses. My favourite spot was probably on our drive back down the east coast, the little village of Santa Cruz, with its palm lined sea front and Art Deco lido. The little squares were filled with local Madeirans beginning to unwind in the cafes and bars at 5 pm on a Friday evening. They were playing live folk music on the seafront and the poncha stall and garlic bread stall were doing good business. It had all the ingredients of a perfect summer evening.

We left Madeira sad that we had not had time to do it justice- 4 days was simply not enough. There was so much still of Funchal to explore, we had not even made it to the city’s renowned botanical gardens. We had not ventured to the west of the island, and there were still many more levadas to walk.

Speak to us about holidays to Madeira. It is a year round destination with daily direct flights from London.

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