I used to have a cruise logbook with the entry, “Anchored off Madeira today. Took tender ashore to Funchal. Beautiful town, full of flowers and history. Must go back.” Or something like that. The logbook filled up and was put I know not where, but I never forgot Madeira.

Then a friend went to live there, and I did go back, but not before I read up on the islands’ history. If you know your apostrophes you’ll note Madeira is not just one island. There are two – Madeira and the smaller Porto Santo, discovered in 1419 by two Portuguese vessels on a voyage of discovery under the order of Prince Henry the Navigator.


Madeira was quickly settled and sugar cane planted on the volcanic slopes, most of the workers being slaves from Africa. By the end of the century Madeira was the largest producer of sugar in the world, and remained so until Brazil took over.

But by then Madeira was awash in wine, which was carried to foreign shores by vessels which found Madeira a useful stop being some way out in the Atlantic.

Then again, of course, it was America that was on the other side. Enter Christopher Columbus, who first went to Porto Santo in 1478 to buy sugar. He also married the governor’s daughter, not then, but after 1492 when he had stopped in Madeira on his voyages of discovery.

So Madeira became a stepping stone to the new world. But it was more than that, it was a sub-tropical paradise where people put down their own roots and built a delightful little country, which is today an autonomous region of Portugal.


It’s actually quite a bit south of Portugal, in fact on the same latitude as Casablanca. These days, it’s just a short flight from Lisbon where the flight crews of the national airline TAP charm passengers with style and service. The better-dressed passengers, who engage with one another warmly, are mostly Madeirenses, and clearly happy to be going home.

And so they should be, for the fun starts soon after the landing, where the runway is not unlike the challenging strip at St Helena. Here you’ll find one of two statues of footballer and local boy Cristiano Ronaldo (the other of four metres height is near the harbour) and an open-air departure terrace (sign-posted as the smoking area) such as airports used to have. It is complete with bar and superb for watching close-up take-offs and landings. This is not Heathrow.


Ignore the taxi drivers who charge 40 Euros one way into Funchal, and take the bus – 8 Euros return! There’s a bus stop almost across the road from the island’s most famous hotel, Reid’s, and just before that, the Savoy Palace, where I stayed. What a place this is – brand new, with big rooms, spacious balconies and wonderful sea views.

While many visitors rent cars, and deal with the twisting roads and endless tunnels, you can get around very well on local buses. There are also the hop on-hop off variety and those that take you on tours. Many are there to hike the levadas, irrigation channels which bring water down the steep volcanic slopes and are key to the cultivation of grapes and much, much more.


But you must make the short trip to Camara de Lobos, where Winston Churchill painted the dreamy little bay below his easel. It’s a big busier these days but still a delightful place for a stroll among the fishing boats and along alleys lined with bars and restaurants. The fish to go for is the black scabbard, a deep sea dweller with a convenient habit of swimming near the surface at night.

In fact there are many inlets along the coast worth a look, and more, sometimes via a road climbing into the hills where stupendous views appear. If you’ve travelled the volcanic islands from St Helena to the Canaries you will know the scene, and how dramatic it can be, although not always for the faint-hearted.

Another outing not to be missed is to Faja dos Padres. This is on a thin strip of shore below towering cliffs of 300 metres, settled long ago by Jesuits. It was then abandoned, and now a special place for a good lunch, or an overnight escape.


Getting there is by a cable car, a sleek new cabin as used on ski slopes. Below is a collection of nine rustic little villas hanging over the sea. They have a bed, small kitchen and balcony you won’t want to leave. At the back is a communal BBQ, plus well tended plantations of fruit including clusters of grapes. Beyond. there is a fine old wine cellar that could date from Jesuit times. Here you can try a delicious Madeira wine, perhaps an aperitif before lunch nearby.

The restaurant, overlooking the sea, might look like something Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday have just knocked up, but it is served by a kitchen as well equipped as they come.

The cable car makes its last run early in the evening, leaving the Faja dos Padres overnighters with just the sound of the sea and the setting sun.


In Funchal, meanwhile, restaurants are gearing up for another busy night! The Old Town with narrow streets, cobbles and painted doors buzz with places to eat and tourists, some of them in groups from cruise ships. There was a big German vessel in port, which disgorged a bewildering number of dumpy women in tight jean shorts.

We were at the Taberna Ruel, where Ricardo showed off his party trick – opening a bottle of sparkling wine with a big knife, such as Napoleon’s officers used to do with their sabres. Then the food – fantastic! Fish of course, turbot, tuna and succulent, fresh octopus in olive oil, with wine from the Duoro.


Funchal is a pleasant, handsome town. Possibly less so in 1954 when the writer Ernest Hemingway’s ship called here en route to Cuba. The captain had been there 30 times without going ashore. But he did get off this time with Hemingway’s wife, and together they took the famous basket ride from the village of Monte into town.

These days there is a cable car to take you up. Hemingway may have taken a short stroll but either way there is a restaurant in town – a very good one – called after him. I also dined well at Savoy Palaces Galáxia Skyfood rooftop restaurant.


And there’s golf, good enough to have attracted David Whyte. He has played, and photographed, most of the best courses in the world, from Pebble Beach to Turnberry in Scotland. He believes that Madeira’s climate and old world charm make it ideal as a golf retreat, where holistic and golf workshops can replace stress with a relaxing swing. See his website

This is no links golf of course, far from it. But while they fall into the category of sporty with plenty of hill shots, they are the best of this variety I have come across. Good holiday golf, you could say. I took buggies, but many did not. We played at Santo da Serra, which has hosted the Madeira Open, and Palheiro, where we had a delightful lunch. The courses were in excellent condition, offering many enjoyable holes and some challenging shots.

There’s also golf on the Seve Ballesteros course at Porto Santo. This track is popular with visitors from Denmark, who are also attracted by beaches of nine kms of golden sand. It takes two hours to get there on a ferry from Funchal.


Now, the wine, which really put Madeira on the map. Blandy’s Wine Lodge near the port is the place to go. This company has been producing Madeira wine for 200 years! After an excellent tour and tasting, I walked down a passageway used since the very beginning to roll barrels of wine down to the dock, the ships and thirsty sailors.

Much off it went to Britain, and still does, but America has always soaked up barrels of Madeira. It was the toast of choice in the White House on July 4, 1776, when George Washington and company hailed the new America.

Finally, interesting to know that an opened bottle of Madeira will not spoil, unlike port or sherry. It’s all in the process, in which Madeira wine is oxidised. Sounds odd, but I can assure you it still tastes just fine.



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