Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Madeira: An island of flowers

I’m a firm believer in the time-honoured adage that every cloud has a silver lining. Anyway, that’s how my own life has always panned out.

Here’s an example of how it works. I was driving home from a public speaking engagement late one evening when I got caught out by one of those dreaded Gatzo speed cameras.

When the fixed penalty notice landed on my doormat it offered me the alternative of opting to attend a speed awareness course and thus avoid incurring points on my driving licence.

On the day, one of my fellow miscreants on the naughty step turned out to be a marketing consultant for Holiday Property Bond (www.hpb.co.uk) When he discovered I’m a travel writer he asked me: “How would you like to sample one of our properties and write a review on it?”

So it was that just a few weeks later my partner and I were on a Monarch flight to the sunshine. And what a silver lining it proved to be: if it hadn’t been for getting a spending ticket I would not have got to enjoy one of the best trips of my life, to the exquisite flower-bedecked Atlantic island of Madeira.

Not to be confused with timeshare, HPB is a solidly established whole of life assurance bond that provides investors with a financial interest in more than 1,300 superb de luxe villas, cottages and apartments situated in 30 sought-after holiday destinations in 13 countries across the UK and Europe. The portfolio also includes two hotels, one in the Lake District, the other in the Yorkshire Dales, as well as a fishing beat in Perthshire with planning permission for a fishing lodge. It is the largest co-ownership operation of its kind in Europe.

Bondholders have the right to holiday in any of these properties rent free, year after year for their lifetime and can then pass the benefits on to their children and grandchildren.

The fund currently has more than 41,000 investors and net assets in excess of £265-million, with no borrowings.

Our choice of accommodation was the charming modern but characterful Encosta Cabo Girão, an estate set seven miles from Madeira’s bustling capital city, Funchal, right at the top of Europe’s highest sea cliffs – a dizzying 1,932 ft above the waves.

Our first drive there was an adventure in itself, first off a rollercoaster stretch of the motorway that now encircles the island, calling at times for second gear in our little Renault Clio rental car – so steep are some of the pitches – then the finale, slogging sinuously round endless bends, encompassing ever more spectacular landscapes as we climbed higher and higher, until we reached the site, which boasts 120 properties, all with sea views and ranging from studio flats to four-bedroom villas with private pools.

There are also large heated pools shared by all guests, as well as three tennis courts, a games room, and a children’s play area.

There’s a mini market for self-catering while a large, comfortable restaurant offers traditional Madeiran and international cuisine.

You can eat well here. Not surprisingly, fish and seafood – especially tuna, swordfish, shrimp. Octopus and limpets – features heavily but there are also rich meat stews, beef grilled on a laurel spit and the delicious bolo do caco bread made from sweet potatoes and mouth-watering pastéis de nata custard tarts.

A range of outings are available from the property, including an off-road tour we took with Mountain Expeditions (www.mountainexpeditions.pt) to explore the remote little villages of the south coast.

Just 57 kms long by 22 km wide, Madeira is jam packed with sights to see and things to do. Get yourself to the cable car station (www.telefericojardimbotanico/cpm) on the waterfront close to Funchal’s fascinating indoor food market and take the spectacular 11-minute ride up, up and away over the city rooftops to the suburb of Monte then, after a visit to the magical Botanical Garden (www.madeira-web.com), hurtle back down to Livramento by wicker basket sledge, gliding down steeply pitched lanes and alleyways at breakneck speed with only the skills of two fast running ’carreiros’ – sledge drivers garbed in traditional white trousers, white shirts and straw boater hats – to ward off impending disaster. It’s been a major attraction since the 1850s.

You can get an even more spectacular view of Madeira’s dramatic mountain landscape by taking one of the helicopter flight itineraries offered by Helibravo Atlantic (www.helibravo.com).

With feet back on terra firma, walks through the unique and vast UNESCO World Natural Heritage classified Laurissilva Forest, whose leafy laurel trees occupy more than 20 per cent of the mountainous island’s surface, and alongside the ‘Levada’ irrigation channels that score the hillsides, are a must.

Madeira is justly renowned worldwide for its flora and fauna, ­ from the proliferation of colourful wildflowers encountered on those enchanting spring and summertime walks to the magnificent formal gardens cultivated so lovingly by the island’s most powerful families.

Enjoy a Madeira wine tasting experience at the atmosphere laden Blandy’s Wine Cellar (www.blandys.com) then visit the amazing Palheiro Gardens (www.palheiroestate.com) that the wealthy and well connected Blandy family established 1,500-ft above Funchal Bay. Here five-star country house style accommodation is available in Casa Velha do Palheilro, formerly the Blandy’s family home. Close by, the steeply terraced Monte Palace Tropical Gardens (www.montepalce.com) have been cited by Condé Nast Traveller as among the 13 most beautiful tropical gardens in the world.

Thousands of varieties of orchids and other tropical plants are on display at Quinta Boa Vista (www.madeira-tourist.com/gardens) while smaller but no less beautiful public and private gardens await discovery across the island.

We took a breathtakingly beautiful drive on deserted roads up through the laurel and eucalyptus forests and above the tree line to the 1,818-metre summit of the mighty Pico do Ariero, the peak that dominates the eastern end of the island, then plunged back down to meet the north coast and enjoy a wonderful traditional lunch on the terrace at the cliff-top Quinta do Furão (www.quintadofurao.com), host venue every September for the village of Santana’s joyous annual wine festival.  Should you yield to the temptation to stay for a night or more, there are 39 doubles, four junior suites and two villas, most with beamed ceilings, wooden floors and antique furnishings. Here you’ll also find one of the few remaining examples of a traditional brightly painted and thatch roofed Madeiran cottage.

There’s a lot of new as well as old. No longer the geriatric capital of the western world, Funchal is still a great place to retire to but is also now a strong magnet for the younger set, with stylish shopping, nightlife aplenty, sporting attractions that include all manner of watersports, world-class championship golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr and Seve Balesteros and an exciting year-round programme of sporting, cultural and fun-time events.

You couldn’t get more contemporary and sophisticated than the slick new The Vine (ww.hotelthevine.com) restaurant and boutique hotel, right next door to the busy Dolce Vita shopping centre and close by the 15th Century cathedral.

In contrast, there’s the world renowned Reid’s Palace Hotel (www.reidspalace.com) – which was Sir Winston Churchill’s much favoured holiday retreat.

Today part of the Orient Express Hotels group, this illustrious establishment was opened in 1891 by William Reid who first off strewed the site with many tons of rich soil, creating the foundation for the lush, sub-tropical gardens of bougainvillaea, geraniums, orchids and palms that envelop the property today.

An instant magnet for the rich and famous, Reid’s welcomed Empress Elisabeth I as one of its first guests as it did George Bernard Shaw and several members of the British royal family. Today, its plush corridors are lined with photographs of its multitude of honoured guests. As we sat enjoying the iconic Reid’s high tea on the sun-kissed terrace one afternoon, Gordon Ramsey was sat at the adjacent table enjoying the endless supply of finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and speciality brews of tea.

The 163 guest rooms feature relaxing dark wood furnishings, oriental rugs and luxurious tiled baths while leisure facilities include two heated seawater pools, a tidal seawater pool, two all-weather tennis courts and an array of watersports.

Reid’s Edwardian ambience is at its zenith in the magnificent main dining room while Les Faunes, open during the winter months, is renowned for its French haute cuisine, collection of Picasso lithographs and panoramic views over Funchal harbour and its array of pleasure craft and visiting cruise ships. Ristoranti Villa Cipriani serves regional Italian dishes in an outdoor setting while in summer, Reid’s guests can also dine under the stars at the Brisa do Mar restaurant

You can fly from Madeira to the neighbouring little island of Porto Santo – it takes just 20-minutes. We chose though to take the two-and-a-half hour car ferry sailing. As barren and rocky as Madeira is lush and green, this remote Atlantic speck boasts mile after mile of fine, soft golden sand, consisting mainly of calcium carbonate and renowned for its therapeutic qualities.

It takes just five minutes to walk from end to end of Cidade Vlla Baleira, the island’s tiny capital, so don’t miss out on the museum – a building in which Christopher Columbus lived for some years before the setting sun lured him westwards.

Rent a bike or a 4x4 to explore the island. It’s also a great place for all manner of water sports or for simply lazing on the beach for time has no meaning on this uncrowded away-from-it-all gem. Just 11 km long by 6 km wide and with few roads – most of which are dead-ends – you can explore it all in an afternoon drive but may well end up wishing you had all the time in the world.

Then, to complete the archipelago, there are the two peaceful unoccupied islands of Desertas and Selvagens.

The big town buzz of increasingly cosmopolitan Funchal, the bask in the sun tranquillity of Porto Santo; beaches with sand black as night or near white; friendly, accommodating people; no graffiti, no litter and precious little crime; a warm climate tempered by ocean breezes for a summer average of 24ºC – what more could you ask for?

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