A subtropical island paradise, Madeira is a soothing refuge amid the wild waters of the Atlantic.
Just 35 miles long by 13 wide, it is often overlooked in favour of larger mainland resorts such as Lagos, Faro and Albufeira.
The largest of four islands in the Madeira archipelago, this stunning slice of Portugal is as much for the soul searchers as the sun seekers, as we found.
It’s closer to Africa than Europe, 620 miles away, but still has a distinctly European feel. It’s superb for walking, has a diverse array offlora and fauna and there’s a charming capital city, Funchal.
This year-round destination offers an eclectic mix of both natural wonders and local traditions.
We were based at the VidaMar Resort Hotel, stepped down the mountainside on the edge of Funchal.
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With pools, sprawling gardens and superb Atlantic views it was hard to drag ourselves away, but we did, with a trip to the hidden cove of Faja dos Padres.
Faja is the rocky debris which slid down the cliffs and formed a village which was once a summer retreat for Jesuit priests.
It’s also here that the production of the “fortified” Madeira wine began. You can get a glimpse of how the Jesuits lived by visiting reconstructed houses and wandering through the narrow alleyways.
We reached it via cable car (there are no roads here), a journey in itself, if only for the views across the coastline.
A colourful array of kitchen gardens awaits below, teeming with everything from passion fruit for the island’s honey rum“poncha” to the fennel (funcho) which gives Madeira’s capital its name.
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And you’re sure to find yourself dining on this natural chef’s table soon enough, as we discovered at the Faja dos Padres’ seafront restaurant.
Here you can enjoy a local favourite, a creature from the deepest part of the ocean – the black scabbardfish, which comes served with fried or pureed banana grown in the island’s fertile volcanic soil.
We also enjoyed the most understated seafood, fresh limpets (inset right) fried in butter and served in their shells. We headed back into Funchal for another cable car ride, this time up to Monte Palace.
It’s not just a palace, the gardens burst with colour and fragrance, with all sorts of flowers and blooms taking root here.
From birds of paradise to the prehistoric cycads, everything seems to know its place. The pathways are decorated with glazed “azulejos” tiles.
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With influences from neighbouring Africa, garden designs from Asia, plus colourful flowerbeds that resemble tiles, the gardens are simply heavenly.
Descending from Monte is a ride in itself. In a nod to the island’s wicker trade, racing down streets in a toboggan – essentially a giant basket pushed by two boater hat-clad drivers – is wicked fun.
Once we had caught our breath, and let those adrenal glands stop racing, it seemed like the perfect time to enjoy to the quiet solace of our sea-view balcony and the Thalasso spa.
With a number of al fresco restaurants like Chalet Vicente serving up traditional dishes such as roasted piri piri chicken, guests needn’t go far to enjoy a taste of Madeiran life.
Next morning we were up early to meet up with Madeira Experience tours for a guided walk through the levadas – intricate manmade waterways that trickle their way along the walking trails and waterfalls.
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From here, walkers and cyclists can take in stupendous views over the island’s lush forests and enjoy the quiet serenity with just the sweet song of the small firecrest birds to interrupt the peace.
Walks take visitors through ancient woodlands that are fragrant with the bay laurel used in many a kitchen in Madeira. Even its sprigs are used to flavour the traditional espetada beef skewers.
There’s a special bond between the locals and these woods which give the island its clean tropical air – the very thing that first drew tourists blighted with bronchial afflictions here.
We later headed to the bay of Seixal, past unusual rock formations that look like small windows, to the island’s small black-sand beach for a dip in the natural pools.
What you see above is just a small nod to what lies below as the shifting lava has formed intricate channels which explorers can descend through at the São Vicente caves.
Our day ended with a yoga class at the base of the Laurissilva Forest as the sun hit the peaks. We felt totally at one with nature – just like Madeira itself.
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