I HAVE never been to Portugal so when the option of choosing Madeira as a one-week vacation destination was suggested, at relatively short notice, the novelty of visiting somewhere that was new to me prompted this choice. I was there from 21 to 28 June.
The landmass of Madeira is about the same size as that of Singapore, 741 km2 kilometres. It is smaller County Louth, Ireland’s wee county - 821 km2
But unlike Singapore and County Louth, the largest piece of real estate on level ground is the airport runway! The 1,100 extension to it is built on 180 vertical concrete stilts over the Atlantic Ocean! It is actually closer to the coast of Africa than it is to Lisbon.
The flight from Dublin takes 3½ hours and takes a route over Waterford and Tramore, to the west of the Scilly Isles, along the Bay of Biscay towards La Coruna Spain, Porto Portugal before reaching Funchal Airport. SATA Airlines provided a modern, comfortable Airbus A 320 and the airport is modern and efficient offering machine-reading passport recognition facilities to expedite a visitor’s arrival.
The population of the island is of the order of 280,000 people, most of whom work and live near the capital, Funchal. It was nice to be close to a city that has a substantial indigenous population because so many resorts seem like transitory centres of human migration.
The climate was warm and pleasant with temperatures in the mid-twenties unlike the arid Mediterranean coast in summer . But the island enjoys many micro climates. The mountain peaks frequently attract cloud cover which, in Ireland, would augur very wet weather, but that is not the case there. The tourist zone is built around a very attractive eco-marine mark that incorporates many attractive features, including a lido with the blue EU flag. Madeira does not have sandy beaches although this is the principal feature of neighbouring Porto Santo.
There are several excellent hotels in the vicinity, including the Pestana Grand, which has a beautiful garden, sea views, pools, sauna, Jacuzzi, steam room and library. It was built in 2004 and has 177 rooms. I was impressed by the architects use of curves in the design, both inside and out and the very ample amount of daylight inside. I was fascinated by the butterflies in the garden. They were as large as little birds!
The vegetation is lush and colourful with many exotic species growing wild and much of this is of African origin – the coast of Africa being only 360 kilometres distant. The mountains and valleys are quite spectacular and the presence of levadas, miniature canal-like structures that skirt the mountains and collect water for both irrigation and drinking purposes provide excellent walking routes.
I had the opportunity of joining a group that walked along Levada do Rei for a 10-km trek. The scenery along the route was awesome although concentration underfoot is necessary because of sheer drops at some stages.
There are several cable car systems on the island one of which links the old town on the shore with Monte Palace and its spectacular tropical gardens. The 15-minute journey offers unrivalled views of the city of Funchal and the southern coast. It is also possible to take a toboggan ride down the hill from Monte.
Madeira’s comfortable climate encouraged many to visit the island for therapeutic reasons. Former British PM, Winston Churchill, was a regular post-war visitor and relaxed in the coastal village of Câmara de Lobos.
The island seems to cater especially for middle-class people aged 50 and above. I met a mature English couple at a bus stop in Câmara de Lobos one afternoon who have vacationed in Madeira 8 times. When I enquired what the special appeal was the woman responded, with a tone of unmistakeable conviction “no lager louts” and there are none!
There is an abundance of restaurants and I would recommend a local fish delicacy called scabbard. This is typically grilled or fried but sometimes boiled. I’m told that fish is quite ugly in appearance but it is really tender and tasty when it reaches the plate!