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A ride at dawn in the Unesco-listed Laurisilva forest. Photo: Oliver Martin
A ride at dawn in the Unesco-listed Laurisilva forest. Photo: Oliver Martin

Beyond the bloom – marvellous Madeira

A new breed of traveler is ¬discovering the paradise island of Madeira. We touch down at this new SAS destination to find out why.

The otherworldliness of Madeira hits you even before you’ve set foot on its volcanic soil. Approaching from above, something that looks like the tail of a prehistoric animal juts out from the Atlantic, after which the inhabited part of this subtropical archipelago ­appears – a mountainous island scattered with Lego-like houses in shades of saffron yellow, pink and white. The view is quaint and thrilling at the same time, which is quite an accurate description of the adventures you’re likely to have when exploring “the pearl of the Atlantic.” 

No longer a draw for mature visitors only, there’s more to modern-day Madeira than spectacular flora and idyllic walks. “A new type of traveler has fallen in love with Madeira,” says Heike Becker, who runs and manages Quinta B, a stylish B&B near Funchal’s old town. “There are so many activities for younger people now. I watch them from our terrace doing all sorts of action sports in the ocean, like paragliding and waterskiing. The ‘garden island’ has a new fan base for sure, and the fact that it’s safe only adds to its appeal.” 

Central Funchal is awash with street art these days. Photo: Oliver MartinMany of Funchal’s young creative types hang out at Armazém do Mercado, a historic building and former embroidery factory that’s been transformed into a cultural hub, offering pop-up spaces for local businesses, as well as cafés and a wonderful toy museum, Museu do Brinquedo. Its curator, Liliana Barata, has witnessed her hometown change dramatically over the past ten years. “So much has happened here lately,” she says. “Incentives from City Hall have reinvigorated everything – Funchal is suddenly considered an ‘in’ place.”

The 2015 opening of the Design Centre Nini Andrade Silva is another testament to Funchal’s newfound contemporary cool. The brainchild of interior design star, Nini Andrade Silva, this multi-function space is set in the fascinating Nossa Senhora da Conceição fortress – the place where the man who discovered Madeira, João Gonçalves Zarco, once lived. In its modern incarnation, it houses a permanent exhibition of Andrade Silva’s work and private artifacts, as well as a café and one of Funchal’s top restaurants, replete with 360° views over ocean and cityscape. 

Funchal is suddenly considered an “in” place’

Even the cobblestoned Old Town (Zona Velha), has had a facelift in recent years, courtesy of Arte de Portas Abertas – a public arts program, striving to turn this historic quarter into an outdoor gallery by inviting artists from around the globe to leave their colorful mark on the doors along Rua de Santa Maria.  

Going on walks along Madeira’s famed levadas is a must for any nature-lover. These mini-canals with maintenance paths beside them provide over 2,170km of walking trails across the islands’ surprisingly diverse terrain. We decide to acquaint ourselves with the Unesco-listed Laurisilva forest, within Madeira Natural Park, hitting the paths on horseback, courtesy of Quinta do Riacho stables. This trail-riding specialist currently has seven well-kept horses, most of which are rescue animals. We set off into the dewy, mountain-lined forest at the crack of dawn – stable co-owner and guide Paula Exposto in the lead riding Tornado, me atop Venus behind them, and Apollo with photographer Oliver Martin in the saddle last in line, camera at the ready. 

Photo: Oliver Martin

Riding along the levadas and up the mountains (at full gallop – the only gear that will get the horses up to the top), each turn presents us with a new breathtaking view. At one plateau, we stop to gaze at Madeira’s three highest peaks, with the sun rising slowly behind them. Pico Ruivo trumps them all at 1,861m. Descending carefully, Paula points toa tree, telling us that it is, quite unbelievably, a giant heather. Next, we pass a colony of eucalyptus (considered by locals to be a non-native weed, but smelling heavenly), followed by an enchanting expanse of tanged laurel forest, the indigenous sort, unique to Madeira. Its beauty brings to mind a subtropical John Bauer painting.

 Paula is lucky to have this piece of natural wonder as her back garden, in which she gets to ride daily. “I love riding in mist,” she enthuses. “It gives the forest an air of mystery and it’s nice to get views that are different from the typical sunny blue skies you might expect. The mist provides 75% of Madeira’s water, so there’s a lot of it all year around.” Each of the region’s seasons has its own charm, and although most of the trees and bushes in the Laurisilva forest are evergreen, some species do shed their leaves, covering the levada paths in a thick carpet of color. Like a piece of art – Madeira’s famous botanical garden. Photo: Oliver Martin

Back in Funchal, we embark on the next ride – this time hitching a vertiginous lift with a cable car, taking us first to the village of Monte and then on to the renowned botanical garden. It’s surreal to see enormous versions of the potted plants you’ve been trying to keep alive at home. An Elephant’s Foot tree towers several meters above me, its mop of long, curly foliage swaying in the breeze. You can easily spend a day ambling around the garden, taking in the flora as well as the stunning view – or the creatures on display in the resident Natural History Museum near the entrance. 

Madeira’s fishing tradition is ingrained in daily life, so don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy fish and seafood while on the island. Most Funchal restaurants are located in the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town. We found one of the best spots off the main drag, nestled at the top of Travessa de João Caetano (no.16). Opened in 2012, Taberna Madeira is designed by ex-­architect and co-owner Ana Rita Macedo in a contemporary way, with walls and ceilings partially covered in hand-tied wickerwork. So what about the food? “We’re all about rustic Madeiran cooking,” Macedo says.  “You’ll get the type of food our grannies used to cook for us here, but with an added twist.” Tuna belly and the delicious, but rather frightening-looking, black scabbard fish (also called Espada) are island classics. The latter is traditionally served with banana but don’t expect to find this staple on Madeira Tavern’s menu. Head chef John Leça likes to replace the banana with finely chopped onion and an olive oil sauce, infused with lemon and ginger. His tuna belly recipe, meanwhile, involves red pepper topping and marinade. 

Photo: Oliver Martin

Each morning, the team heads to the famous farmers market, Mercado dos Lavradores, in central Funchal, to buy fresh produce. Aside from fish of every imaginable size and shape, you’ll find flowers and quirky-looking fruit native to Madeira there. We fill our basket with knobbly, green Pimpinelas, little Maracuja bananas, and Filodendro, which looks like an unusually pretty gherkin. The best time to visit is on the weekend, when every stall is occupied with traders. 

No trip to these shores is complete without at least one glass of Madeira wine. We combine a visit to the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos (forever associated with Winston Churchill, who came to the spot to paint its picturesque bay) with a visit to the lodges and vineyards of Henriques & Henriques. Established in 1850, it’s the second oldest producer of Madeira wine. 

 

‘The “garden ­island” has a new fan base for sure, and the fact that it’s safe only adds to its appeal’

 

Vineyards on the island aren’t typically open for visits, possibly due to their steep locations, but we’re free to venture far enough to witness the harvest-time activity, watching men carrying buckets brimming with tinta negra grapes up the narrow paths before loading them onto open vans. The red grape, which accounts for 80–85% of Madeira’s wine production is the only red variety from which Madeira wine is made, despite the fact that up until 2015, it was considered a second rate variety. “The tinta negra grape is very high-yielding and versatile,” says Graça Gouveia, who manages the store and tasting sessions at the Henriques & Henriques lodges. “We use it to make wine at all sweetness levels and we’re pleased that its quality has finally been recognized.” 

As for Madeira the island, it’s steadily moving up in the world, too – and quite ­deservedly so. 

Text: Emma Holmqvist Deacon

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