In November 2017 I travelled for the first time to Madeira for a week’s holiday.
This was an experiment on several counts: a first solitary ‘winter getaway’, a first all-inclusive experience and a first encounter with Saga.
I wanted to reconnoitre, to see as much as possible of the Island, so getting a sense of the ‘best bits’ with a view to returning for a full-on levada walking trip.
Unfortunately my plans were curtailed by poor weather, the cancellation of several excursions (owing to zero demand) and my limited motivation to undertake extensive alternative independent travel.
So this post is more restricted in scope than I originally intended.
The voyage out
I flew from Gatwick with British Airways, taking off at 07:30, so an early start but promising an almost full first day in Madeira.
The scheduled arrival time was 11.25, Madeira being in the same time zone as London, but our expected flight time was given as only 3 hours 15 minutes.
I had been vaguely aware that Funchal’s Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport has an unenviable reputation.
The 2.78km runway is flanked by sheer mountains and extends on stilts over the sea. It is one of a handful of ‘Category C’ airports in Europe for which pilots require special training.
This Independent article quotes a summary intended for Easyjet pilots:
‘Proximity of the airfield to high terrain leads to potentially severe turbulence and wind shear up to and including the final stages of the approach. Complex wind limitations. Critical, non-standard visual approaches due to proximity of terrain. Critical missed approach procedures due to proximity of terrain. Critical, non-standard departure procedures due to the proximity of terrain.’
According to the Association of Portuguese Airline Pilots, as reported here, the maximum limits for crosswinds should be 29mph or 35mph, depending on wind direction.
I understand that sometimes take-off from England is delayed if the Funchal forecast is problematic. On this occasion we departed on time, the pilot informing us that winds at Funchal were ‘just within acceptable limits’.
Unfortunately they deteriorated. One hour before arrival we were told that these limits were now exceeded.
I am forever grateful that the pilot did not entertain the possibility of an extended holding pattern. Nor did he countenance diverting to far-away Tenerife or Lisbon, two of the standard alternatives.
Here we landed at 11.41, remaining for approximately two hours alongside two Easyjet services.
We were kept on the plane, though the front door was opened. BA did not relax its policy of charging economy passengers for all food and drink. Water and biscuits all round might reasonably have been expected.
Fortunately I had invested in two sandwiches at Gatwick – and had consumed only one of them before we landed at Porto Santo.
Finally we managed to ‘hop across’ to Funchal, where we landed at 14:01, with much relief all-round. If there were still crosswinds, the pilot negotiated them very skilfully, for the landing was almost perfect.
Where I stayed
Following our delayed arrival, clearance through the airport was relatively speedy, although I had the misfortune to queue behind a woman who got herself trapped in the automated passport gates.
We duly completed the minibus transfers to our Funchal locations. I alone had opted for the Vidamar Resort Hotel, a massive glass palace perched on the clifftop, just off the Estrada Monumental, in the heart of the tourist district of West Funchal.
What was wrong with the place?
Absolutely nothing, it turned out. Indeed this ranks amongst the very best hotels I’ve ever experienced.
Check-in was virtually instant (though they forgot to give me the wristband used to identify the handful of guests – all with Saga – equipped with an all-inclusive package).
Most of the rooms, all with sea-facing balconies, are located in two towers stretching several floors above reception, which is located at street level on the fourth floor. But Saga is allocated rooms on the first to third floors, with either a lower direct or side sea view.
These are strategically placed between reception and the twin ‘infinity’ swimming pools at sea level, in helpfully close proximity to the main restaurant, the bars and hotel spa.
Mine was on the first floor, level with a garden area laid mainly to lawn, but sporting some impressive flowers that I recognised from Kew Gardens.
I could see the sea glinting between the foliage, and hear the waves crashing against the rocky foreshore below.
The room itself was palatial, incorporating a large mirrored bathroom equipped with twin sinks, a bidet and bath with overhead shower.
The sleeping area featured twin double beds and ample storage space. There was also a sitting area with a full-sized sofa plus armchair – and outside a substantial balcony with tables and chairs.
What a relief not to be stuck in the pokey half-sized box so commonly allocated to single travellers.
Unusually for a hotel outside the UK there were even tea and coffee-making facilities. Fresh fruit lay on the table. An energetic cleaner also delivered a fresh litre bottle of mineral water every day.
I had only two tiny gripes.
First, the bedclothes were too heavy, selected presumably for those using the air conditioning overnight. But I preferred to sleep without air-conditioning, not least because I wanted the balcony door open, and that prevents the air-conditioning from operating.
I chose to sleep to the sound of the waves thundering onto the rocks below, sometimes augmented by the strains of BBC World Service emanating from my tablet.
This was mostly fine, although on a couple of the rainiest nights the humidity in the small hours increased to the point where I woke in a sweat.
Second, the selection and variety of television channels left something to be desired, I assume because the Hotel prefers its guests to be spending money in its cafes and bars, but then my all-inclusive package rendered that justification redundant.
Otherwise I couldn’t fault the hotel or its services.
Food was plentiful, diverse and often extremely tasty. Even though avoiding cooked breakfasts, I struggled to spend my 15 Euro lunchtime budget and still maintain sufficient appetite for dinner.
I breakfasted every morning on the open-air terrace, watching the sun rise (or, more often, the rain clouds roll in). Only once was I placed on table 13.
Dining solo remained problematic, but on this occasion I opted to people watch inside the restaurant rather than read a book.
Occasionally I took Proust with me to the bar after dinner, and with precisely the same effect he had in Slovenia. On other evenings I opted for online scrabble on my tablet, which seemed to render me far more approachable!
The English abroad are a source of endless amusement. I noticed the constant recurrence of the same limited conversational topics at dinner – and was amused to observe that some married couples conversed with each other even less than I conversed with myself!
One night I went with a group to the hotel’s Madeiran restaurant. The meaty skewers I ate were good. With the aid of flowing red wine I even enjoyed the accompanying folk dance.
This was undertaken in stripy costumes with strange black pointy hats, the direction of the point allegedly indicating one’s marital status.
One of the musicians beat time with a shaky stick decorated with bells and cymbals. Many of the dances featured curiously clumsy-graceful steps, like something out of Asterisk.
My favourites were those involving exaggerated arm movements, much like swimming, which I think is supposed to represent spinning, or was it sowing seed, I can’t quite remember.
Most guests staying in the hotel zone opt to catch the bus into central Funchal since there is a frequent service costing only 1.95 Euros.
I alternated between this and walking.
There are two pedestrian routes, either down the steep hill to the harbour where the cruise-ships moor and then along the promenade, or via the boulevard-like Avenue do Infante and, if the mood takes you, through the adjacent Parque de Santa Catarina perched above the city and the harbour.
I spent some time in this park, enjoying the views and observing other visitors.
The second route is far preferable for the return journey, unless you want a serious workout. When descending, one encounters far too many foolhardy punters struggling upwards in the opposite direction, several of them old enough to know better.
Touristic West Funchal gives way to the ‘city centre’, clustered around the Jardim Municipal and the bijou Cathedral with a squat, crenellated tower surmounted by a spire and a clock.
Further on, one drifts into the slightly more authentic experience of East Funchal. The ‘old town’ – the Zonha Velha – stretches back behind the Mercado dos Lavradores.
The residential area of Monte and the famed Botanical Gardens sit thousands of feet overhead, puncturing the clouds.
You can, if you wish, take one of the cable cars (12 euros one way), rising steeply from the seafront and skimming the rooftops before disappearing into the murk.
On a rainy day it’s much colder and even wetter up there, but when the weather’s fine the journey is rather more tempting.
The Zonha Velha culminates in the bright yellow Fortaleza de Santiago and, behind it, the clifftop church, Igreja do Socorro.
Descending again past the fort, a left turn emerges at the far end of the promenade. Strolling past the ‘electricity museum’ (!), the cable car and bus station, one reaches the marina again.
Funchal is one of those places – much like Ljubljana – which abounds in statuary and whimsical architectural detail. Careful observation is required to appreciate its multifarious frills and furbelows, since they often escape an initial, cursory glance.
I was much taken by a giant naked footballer, adjacent to someone taking a drunken snooze. There’s also an anchor on the other side of the footballer, but that doesn’t feature in this photograph.
Or, if you prefer, there’s this blindfold woman, with a yellow Funchal bus as background.
Or maybe you appreciate this mural, with accompanying scooter.
Wandering the streets is fun, but far better in dry weather and, to be frank, the limited stock of true highlights is quickly exhausted.
Sooner or later most hotel guests take a stroll along the seafront in the opposite direction. I was no exception.
Just up the road a side-street descends steeply past several cafes towards the lido. Turn right at the bottom and you begin to skirt the hotels along a clifftop path, heavily patronised by joggers in the first half of the morning.
I encountered one woman performing repetitions up an immensely steep incline, under the guidance of a suitably sadistic personal trainer. But most are elderly couples out for a gentle stroll. Some even say ‘good morning’!
Take care to avoid the dead end which culminates in a concrete breakwater and several pieces of heavily rusted machinery.
Proceed instead past the Jardim Panoramico, still colourful, even in November, and then on beyond the Naval Club and Ponta Gorda bathing area.
Eventually one reaches a rocky promontory, jutting out into the sea, but there is a tunnel set slightly further back. It is gated and open only in good conditions, perhaps one hundred metres in length.
You can hear the waves crashing thunderously against the side – even feel the shock as they strike the walls. Halfway there is a viewing window on to the maelstrom below.
It is a relief to emerge on to the beach, Praia Formosa. From here one can continue several kilometres further, much of it along raised walkways, passing an incongruous cement factory and, behind it, a striking bridge spanning the inland ravine.
I remarked a kind of floorplan, marked out with pebbles on the beach, a stick like a small flagpole poking out of the sand. A man with naked torso sat dead centre, staring fixedly out to sea, while two dogs lay prone in their own discrete sections.
Climbing the hill beyond the cement factory, one arrives in the outskirts of Camara de Lobos, its small horseshoe beach covered with fishing boats and sundry other vessels. A large crane protrudes from a construction site on the other side.
Descending towards the harbour one passes a cat kennel perching precariously on the wall alongside the path, as if gently mocking the human dwellings that appear almost to topple from the vertiginous heights inland.
I stopped for a drink at a harbour-side bar and eventually retraced my steps back to Funchal. The man and his dogs had disappeared from the pebble pattern on the sands.
Someone was hawking tiny boats carved from banana skins, seated on the rocks beside the tunnel entrance. Inside two men with brooms were sweeping away the puddles caused by the seawater seeping through the walls.
Further afield in the East
The single excursion I managed was a tour of Eastern Madeira.
Our minibus climbed the steep incline to Monte, halting first at Terreiro da Luta which offers panoramic views of Funchal, spread out like a model village below.
Here there is a hefty statue of Mary and Jesus, alongside a chapel dedicated to peace. It was built in the 1920s and features a giant rosary, manufactured from the anchor chains of three ships torpedoed by a U-Boat in Funchal harbour in December 1916.
We pushed onwards and upwards, through laurel forest and into pine forest, reaching a height of about 1,400m. Occasional birds of prey – buzzards or kestrels, we were told – could be seen circling in the sky.
We passed through Poiso and thence on to Ribeiro Frio. Here there is a trout hatchery with layered ponds for fish of different sizes and then, further down the road, a short levada walk, just 1.5km in length, to Balcoes.
This offers spectacular views of some of Madeira’s tallest mountains and the knobbly terrain stretching out towards the Island’s northeast coast.
And so on to Santana, adjacent to the northern coast, where we perused half a dozen traditional, thatched A-frame houses, most of them operating as souvenir shops, clustered around the municipal hall. A farmer’s market across the road had two open stalls selling fruit and vegetables.
More interestingly, a couple of local men were singeing with a blowtorch the newly-constructed wooden surround for the nativity scene, presumably to make it look ‘distressed’.
Then along the northern coast in an easterly direction to Faial, which huddles beneath the threatening 600m tall cliff-face of Penha d’Aguia (Eagle’s Rock).
Here we took lunch, featuring the ubiquitous scabbard fish (which are prominent in every tour guide’s patter, so I’ll say no more about them here). Anyway, I opted for chicken instead.
We obtained a still better view of Eagle’s Rock from a viewpoint at Portela, a little further along the coast. Here it is, with accompanying telegraph pole.
We continued on to Caniçal, which hosts the new container ship harbour, where many Madeirans have relocated in recent years, as Funchal is now reserved for cruise ships.
A steady stream of tourists was struggling through the persistent drizzle along the narrow peninsula at the Island’s eastern extremity.
Instead of joining them, we stopped at an adjacent spot to appreciate these amazing striated rock formations and the view back up the north coast to the west.
And so back round to the south coast, past the airport, until we were back in Funchal.
I’m glad I chose to visit Madeira. It has a relaxed, laid-back vibe, doesn’t take itself too seriously and cheerfully accommodates a superabundance of mostly British tourists while also preserving its unique character and singular charm.
I completely understand why so many older holidaymakers cannot break the habit of returning like clockwork, year after year.
That is perhaps a little too obsessive, for repetition breeds complacency and there are many equally fascinating alternatives: the opportunity cost increases with every visit.
But I would like to revisit before too long, preferably in springtime, to stroll through a riot of sub-tropical bloom, walk some spectacular levadas and this time – fingers crossed – avoid the downpours and those pesky airport crosswinds!