The slower pace of life touches me almost immediately when I land in Madeira. Surrounded by lush green mountains and blue sea I go into Madeira mode.
The Garden of the Atlantic awaits and I am looking forward to exploring the island. At 35 miles long and 13 miles wide it should be easy to cover.
I take a stroll into Funchal centre on my first afternoon. It’s easy to lose yourself in the beautiful cobbled avenues. Quirky pavement cafés and colonial-style buildings line the streets.
The Ritz Café is my first find, and what a find. Situated on a leafy upscale avenue in Funchal it’s the perfect spot for people watching. The history behind the Ritz Café is a fabulous love story. I can feel the romance. The tables are full with couples and families enjoying the sunshine.
A huge piece of Victoria sponge and a coffee are in order while I listen to the live music and think about Christian and Clara, the couple who fell in love here. According to The Ritz, the story goes like this…
‘In 1904, while pursuing Clara, Christian opened, with a partner, a small cafe in Funchal and named it the Ritz. He eventually won Clara’s heart. Christian relocated the Ritz in 1910 to its current location with a wonderful esplanade and an upstairs terrace overlooking Clara’s favourite garden. Christian and Clara started a family and made Funchal their home. The Ritz was a charming cafe for society types and businessmen, who met for afternoon soirees, dancing and high tea.’
Fabulous cocktails, followed by Madeira wine and a bite to eat on the first floor terrace make a lovely end to my afternoon.
I visit the Lido seafront promenade early evening. It’s a perfect place to watch the sunset with beautiful views over the Atlantic ocean. Try one of the amazing ice creams that are on offer from the restaurants that line the Lido.
Evenings are tranquil but by day the Lido is busy, noisy and fun. This swimming pool complex has two saltwater pools, kids’ pools and access to the sea. The seafront walkway links the Lido and Formosa black sand beach. My jump off the Lido into the Atlantic takes my breath away. The Lido is open from 8.30am–8pm and admission is five euros, plus extra costs for beds and umbrellas.
Next morning I’m up early and looking forward to exploring the island. Hop on hop off bus tours are available at hotels, supermarkets and travel agencies. Prices are set. I decide to take the ‘3 in 1 tour’ at 24 euros. This tour covers Funchal, Camara de Lobos and Cabo Girao.
I spend the day in Camara do Lobos, a pretty working village on the south eastern side of Madeira, five kilometres from Funchal. This place was a special retreat for Winston Churchill. I imagine it was a place for reflection whilst he wrote his war memoirs and painted various images of the village.
I enjoy a drink of the local Poncha. Made from lemon, honey, sugar and Aguardente, it packs quite a punch! My venue of choice is the Churchill Restaurant which overlooks the harbour where the locals night fish for Scabbard. The fish comes to the surface at night to feed and descends to 1,300 metres during the day.
The colourful fishing boats are overlooked by some of the highest cliffs in Europe and I head up by bus to the popular lookout point at Cabo Girao, which has up to 1,800 visitors per day. My fear of heights takes hold as I walk onto the glass-bottomed skywalk, with a 500 metre drop below us, on top of the Cabo Girao cliffs.
I take in the incredible views along the coast to Funchal. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and well worth a visit if you can hold your nerve!
Another glorious day in Funchal. Walking past the Christiano Ronaldo Museum and store (a must for footie fans) near the marina, there are lots of lovely sidewalk cafés to choose from and prices are reasonable. I order an omelette with a glass of Sangria for eight euros and listen to the pan pipe players in the street. This sets me up for my next jaunt by cable car up to Monte.
The gondola lift transports people from the lower section of Funchal to the suburb of Monte. The cable car and toboggans are a must-do in Madeira. There are no queues and I buy my ticket and enjoy a smooth transition up into the clouds. I disembark and take a short walk to the toboggans to head back down.
This tradition started early in the 19th century when the toboggans were first used as a means of transport for residents who wanted to travel quickly from the village of Monte to the city of Funchal.
I jump into the high-speed wicker sledge which glides on a wooden runner, pushed and steered by two men traditionally dressed in white cotton clothes and straw hats using only their rubber soled shoes as brakes. With speeds of up to 48 kilometres per hour it’s full of twists and turns on the way down. I scream with delight all the way! The Carreiros are completely in control of the sleds and it’s a great way to see Funchal Bay and the Valleys from one of the highest points on the island. The views are superb.
Negotiate a taxi before you hop into the sleds. You will need one at the end of the ride to get you back into Funchal. The drivers are happy to strike a deal at the top. Expect to pay around 25 euros for the taxi. The toboggans are 30 euros per couple.
Madeira is truly the garden of the Atlantic. Its visually very pretty with terrace after terrace of banana trees, volcanic beaches, elegant seafront hotels and views everywhere you look.
Don’t miss the workers’ market in old town Funchal with sellers in traditional dress selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, spices and local crafts in the open market. The colours and smells are amazing.
Visit the iconic Reids Hotel in Funchal. This hotel is tinged in nostalgia and was another favourite of Winston Churchill. It has a timeless elegance with a Michelin star restaurant.
Madeira is very safe and friendly with lots of sunny days. A beautiful and fascinating destination with lots of character – look out for the infamous microclimates and spot whales and dolphins all year round.
I expected a relaxing holiday and Madeira delivered.