Belfast Telegraph

TRAVEL GUIDE: Madeira

Whether it's stunning scenery, fine food and drink, exhilarating excursions or thrill-seeking sports adventures you're after — the island birthplace of soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo scores on every front!

On a trip to this geographically small, but tourist giant of a place, old ‘winker' himself seems to be ‘here, there and everywhere’ you look.

The Real Madrid star’s perma-tanned face and body is proudly flaunted on multitudes of teeshirts, grinning from posters exhorting locals to put their money into the island bank, advertising a multitude of products or even giving a leg up to one of his family friend's clothes shops!

While it's not exactly like a tour of Hollywood homes of the rich and famous, the former Red Devil super hero’s rather modest birthplace outside is pointed out to us on one of the many excursions which typify the superb quality and value for money of a holiday to Madeira, courtesy of The Travel Company.

The Dublin specialist holiday operator prides itself on offering fantastic escorted holidays, in the company of a professional tour guide.

Although this arrangement may not be to every traveller's taste, there were no dissenting voices in the wonderfully friendly bunch of people from the north and south of Ireland which me and my brother, Patrick, spent one week with on this beautiful Atlantic island.

Only a three-hour, 10-minute aeroplane journey away from these shores, Madeira's very name conjures up attractive images of rich sweet cake; intoxicating liquor and its history as one of the most important trading islands for English and other European shipping companies.Unfortunately, we were not blessed with blissful weather during our visit last December.

But you can be rest assured that the weather in springtime and early summer virtually always offers clear blue skies and sunny temperatures nestling in the comfortable 20 to 25 degrees zone.

What us Northern Ireland and southern Ireland travellers were definitely blessed with though during our stay was, quite simply, the BEST tour guide it has ever been my pleasure to encounter.

Roberto Loja is not your clipboard-wielding, forever talking, forever selling tour guide. Instead, the man with the Madeiran-Dutch blood is your touchstone for ANY piece of information you may happen to quiz him on — from the politics of the island (it is an autonomous Portuguese region with its own parliament since 1976), to the fortunes of the island's two soccer teams, Nacional Funchal and Maritimo Funchal. And the award-winning tour guide with the encyclopedic knowledge and wit as dry as a good wine can even make a decent stab at speaking Gaelic and banter with the best of our crowd.

Funchal itself, surrounded by trademark steep hills with virtually every patch of land cultivated with flowers, fruit, vegetables and herbs, is a surprisingly big city — inhabited by more than 100,000 of the volcanic island's population of just over 250,000.Our first guided trip took us to the main market in the city, the Mercado dos Lavradores (Worker's Market) — a typically wild and noisy blur of beautiful blooms, amazing tropical fruits and a hustling, bustling fish section, playing home to the truly gruesome blue saucer-eyed but absolutely delicious tasting espada (scabbard) fish.

Prices are keen and you can eat for a fraction of the cost you accept at home. A toasted sandwich and darkly flavoursome coffee, with biscuits on the pavement at the Cafe Teatro, watching the world go by on the main boulevard, Avenida Arriaga costs around £1.50!

A steak sandwich, chips and beer in the functional Funchal Shopping Centre, near the market is less than four euro!

But, if you want to live in the lap of luxury, then look no further than Reid's Hotel. This sumptuous clifftop hotel, opened in 1891 with its Grecian style opulence really is the place to go to for your special holiday treat. My brother and I settled for the stunning view at night, the excellent jazz music entertainment of a slinky dressed, sensual sounding homegrown Norah Jones. Cocktails cost from 12 euro. Daily excursions took us to the beautiful Botanical Gardens above Funchal, an embroidery workshop in the town with one intricate tablecloth setting any purchaser back nearly 4,400 euro, The Old Blandy's Madeiran Wine Lodge to sample the famed local tipple — too sweet for the tastebuds of me and my brother and the beautiful town of Ribeira Brava.

Our trips up through the spectacular clifftop roads brought gasps of awestruck admiration from everyone. Roberto was always on hand to point out how the beauty of Madeira has suffered from the beast of nature, as well. Signs of the atrocious floods of February 2010, which sadly claimed the lives of 58 people were clearly visible in the cascades of soil cut out of the hillsides and fallen dead trees.

Forest fires made worse by high winds scorched parts of the terrain, leaving red brown patches on the landscape.But Madeira's majestic mountain-side splendour and its stunning coastline is a constant reminder that beauty wins through, in spite of nature's occasional whiplash cruelty.

History buffs can enjoy visiting the hill town of Monte, by taking a highly recommended cable car journey (15 euro return). Step inside the Church of Nossa Senora (Our Lady) and you can see the black coffin of Emperor Charles I who died of pneumonia in 1922 and to the bemusement of some locals, has been beatified as a possible future saint. But one word of warning. The much-touted toboggan trip down the Monte hillside in the company of ciggie-puffing locals dressed like gondoliers, seems more of a money-making tourist stunt than a genuine taste of Madeiran culture.

There are also museums aplenty in Madeira, with me and Patrick’s personal pick being theSacredArt Museum withreligious iconography ranging from the stunningly beautiful to the downright bizarre — for only three euro admission.

Locals are always keen to relieve us tourists of the notion that what we think of as Madeira cake is actually nothing of the sort. And they are right, because our super sweet, light coloured concoction bears no resemblance whatsoever to the dark nutty, scrumptious authentic Madeiran cake served there.

Other local delicacies worthy of your tastebuds is poncha — a drink made of sugar cane, with schnapps or whiskey, honey and lemon or orange juice. Boy, does it pack a ‘ponch'! Or treat yourself to a cocktail in one of the best bars for olde worlde splendour and good music entertainment — the Pestana Miramar Hotel. Try the caipirao — beirao liquer, limes and brown sugar. Yummy!

For the shopaholics among you, look no further than the fantastic Forum centre — a cool shopping mall complex just a leisurely 10 minutewalk away from our perfectly located seafront hotel, the Girassol. There’s a total of 86 stores, including 17 eateries and six cinema screens — everything from the chi-chi Italian underwear of Intimissimi to the fondly remembered favourite of our youth, C&A.

Admittedly, Madeira does tend to attract an older holiday maker — the towering presence of huge cruise liners, including the QE2 certainly underlines that.

But Funchal itself is also full of nightlife for the younger traveller. In more recent years, the island has been attracting thrill seekers to its paragliding, mountaintrekking and sea diving facilities.

So, would we recommend Madeira as a hot spot for anyone planning a special holiday, slightly off the beaten track? Of course,we would — ‘a piece of cake'!

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