Madeira is back to its best, just two years after it was struck by deadly floods. And if anything, this balmy spot is even more popular with British visitors as a short hop to the winter sun – or, frankly, any time sun. Gareth Huw Davies found plenty to do on this exuberant Atlantic island off west Africa, from formal gardens and fabled afternoon tea, to white-knuckle cable-car rides and driving under waterfalls.
1. TAKE THE HIGH ROAD
Sedate, sea-level Funchal is ideal for comfortable strolling – with spacious parks, the 15th Century Sé Cathedral, noble 18th Century mansions and elegant pavements of grey basalt and white marble. Much of the rest of the 35-mile long island is high and lavishly green. Hire a car to taste the island’s civil engineering triumph, the fabulous autoestradas. These highways leap deep ravines, skirt cliffs and run under tumbling waterfalls. The one from Eira do Serrado to Curral das Freiras offers a pure ‘Alice down the rabbit hole’ drive down a steep 500-yard tunnel.
2. FLOWER POWER
Go on: let the scarlet passion flower, the swan’s neck agave and the sky-blue plumbago seduce you. The island’s profusion of flowers is reason enough to visit and Funchal hosts the Madeira Flower Festival in late April every year. The Botanical Gardens on a hillside at Quinta do Bom Sucesso, with tremendous views back over Funchal, boast an example of virtually every tree and plant on the island. The gardens of Quinta da Boa Vista have a renowned orchid collection. There are tours at Casa Velha do Palheiro hotel, recent winner of the garden trophy at the Relais & Châteaux World Awards.
3. WHERE EAGLES DARE
This island has conquered some of its more extreme elevation switches with a selection of eagle’s-view cable-car rides to race your pulse. One of the oldest is the 15-minute climb from Almirante Reis in old Funchal to Monte. Then return downhill in the Monte Toboggan – a sort of converted laundry basket on wooden runners over the polished cobbles, steered by two surefooted attendants who use their boots as brakes. Or take the cable car from Monte to the Botanical Gardens. Outside Funchal, the Teleférico da Rocha do Navio on the north coast offers stomach-wrenching views above steep slopes. (Its main purpose is to whizz locals down to coastal fields.) The cable car at Achadas da Cruz at Porto Moniz offers more epic soaring.
4. SEAL DEAL
There are big and wonderful reasons to take to the water for a wildlife-spotting tour with a company such as Wind Birds (madeirawindbirds.com). Migrating whales pass by. Dolphins play. Birds of all sorts wheel and whirl under the cliffs. But one species sets the islands apart. Only 500 or so monk seals are left in the world, and about 40 are found here. From the boats you may see some of them on the Desertas Islands, 12 miles south-east of Funchal.
A good place to see marine wildlife is from the deck of the fast ferry on a day trip to the small island of Porto Santo. Make time to see the house where Columbus lived.
5. WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
Madeira is a conservation triumph. While other islands were busy felling their trees, Madeira protected the world’s largest original laurel forest, all high peaks and shady, steep-sided valleys.
Some plants, and birds such as the Madeiran long-toed pigeon, live nowhere else on Earth. Parts of the island resemble a prehistoric landscape a dinosaur would recognise. This is the ultimate nature reserve for pedestrians. The levadas madeira, 1,350 miles of water channels with adjoining footpaths, weave lazily around the mountain contours. Nature Meetings (naturemeetings.com) leads treks into the high interior, from serene half-day strolls to dramatic mountain walks. The path from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo, in particular, has fabulous views.
6. SUNSET AT THE SPA
Not long ago you could list the key ingredients of a top-end Madeira stay under one heading: timeless elegance. They certainly keep up the traditions at Reid’s, where afternoon tea is just as Churchill ordered it. But the island’s accommodation is moving to a new beat. Stylish boutique hotels are opening in some of the best locations.
In Funchal, the Vine offers a bath at the foot of the bed. In the north east, Quinta das Eiras gives a taste of the Alps in a cabin on stilts. In Estalagem Da Ponta Do Sol, on a cliff top, guests can savour the Atlantic sunset from the spa.