Written for The Handbook.
When I told a friend that I was off to Madeira, she laughed “you’ll just be hanging out with people like my grandparents!”. Well, it turns out it’s the grannies who are having the last laugh; clearly when you retire, you’re given your bus pass, pension and a secret guide to some of the best holiday spots. And anyway, you don’t have the be a baby-boomer to enjoy the delights of Madeira, you just need to hop on a low-cost airline and speed South. It’s as quick to get to as the Canaries, just as warm, and it is seriously stunning. With fun activities from off-road jeep tours to wine festivals, this island certainly isn’t the preserve of the old. This is what you’re missing out on…
1. Zip through the forest in an open-top jeep
20% of Madeira is covered in lush forest, so it made sense to spend at least a fifth of my time on the island checking it out. Ducking overhanging branches and clinging on for dear life as we zipped round forests glades and passes in safari jeeps. Standing in the moving 4×4, I liked to imagine I was entering the Love Island villa but, with the wind sending my hair flying in all directions, I probably looked more like Cousin Itt than Caroline Flack. Either way, it was definitely a lot of fun and no doubt downing the traditional (and seemingly lethal) Madeiran drink of poncha along the way added to the sense of adventure…
We not only earned a great tan (who needs the Love Island villa anyway?) but we also got to see the island in all its natural beauty, from divine alpine to subtropical paradise.
2. Have a grape time at the wine festival
Some Madiera, m’dear? The Atlantic island is well known for its sweet wine, and from the end of August until early September, Madeirans celebrate the grape harvest with a festival that is quite literally a ‘knees up’. This is your chance to get stuck into grape-treading, the traditional method of crushing the fruit. Stamp, crush, dance and, of course, a drink or two (thankfully, not the stuff your feet have just been in, unless you’re especially brave).
We were lucky enough to tread grapes in the sunshine at Quinta do Furao in the north of the island, bringing together young and old with local OAPs getting involved too, only adding to the fun. And, once sufficiently drunk, we danced, not-at-all-embarrassingly, with the local community to celebrate the harvest. We then went to Blandy’s Wine Lodge in the south of the island for yet more treading, drinking and dancing (what a chore).
The festival takes place annually in downtown Funchal from the end of August until early September.
3. Taste the best linguine in Europe
Belmond Reid’s Palace offers stunning sunset views over Funchal’s harbour, set within gorgeous gardens and, most importantly, they have an exquisite menu. Now I consider myself something of a pasta connoisseur (i.e. I eat nothing else) but with so many pasta dishes on offer, it really is a tough choice. I ponder: could pasta for both starter and main course be the dream?
Sheepishly I whispered to the waiter “Is that too carb heavy?”, “Certainly not, it’s the best linguine in Europe”, so with a stamp of approval I laughingly ordered pasta followed by pasta.
And he wasn’t kidding. At the end of the night, I admitted to him that it really was the best linguine in Europe. Maybe it was the white wine, maybe it was true. Either way he ambitiously upped his bid “no, it’s the best in the world”. And he might be right…
4. Mingle in the market
Discover the best of old town Funchal with a trip to the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers’ Market). Serving up fish, fruit and veg, its vibrant colours make it picture-perfect and, obviously, I had to try everything on offer. Literally. I’d recommend the pineapple banana (which, surprisingly enough, tastes like a mixture of pineapple and banana) and the English tomato passionfruit (a passionfruit that tastes like… oh, you get it).
You can also check out the world’s ugliest fish: the black scabbard. Appetising… (Quite seriously, if there’s one dish you have to try while you’re there – other than the world’s best linguine, of course – it is black scabbard. Waaay better than it looks.)
5. Explore the enchanting wood
Brush off the cobwebs (AKA Christmas dinner, your work do, 10,000 mince pies and that stocking full of chocolate) with a hike through one of the island’s luscious forests, like the Laurissilva Forest. Or work your way along a levada, the irrigation channels that run all over the island. The rich, green, foliage is truly breathtaking and teaming with nature.
If you’re really wanting to get away from it all, you can even stay in an “abrigo de montanha” (a mountain shelter) in the forest – bookable through Airbnb. I’ll definitely add this to my to-do list for when I return.
6. Stay in the quintessential quinta
Perhaps it’s to be expected when you’re travelling from non-stop London, but our first hotel, Quinta Jardins do Lago in Funchal, felt so peaceful I could honestly have stayed forever. Take a leaf out of Colombo’s book, the resident giant tortoise, who probably arrived on an easyJet 47 years ago and forgot to check-out. Follow his lead and hibernate in the quinta’s sub-tropical gardens, which thrive in Madeira’s many microclimates.
Or pop over to Quinta da Casa Branca where they serve the best beef carpaccio imaginable (I know I’m making big claims here but if anyone can suggest a better carpaccio: bring it on).
If quintas aren’t quite your thing, the Vine Hotel boasts luxurious spa facilities, including a Madeiran wine treatment, and a restaurant that looks out over the sea and up into the mountains. This is your chance to try the black scabbard, which they do particularly well – you won’t regret it.
7. Have a whale of a time…
Madeira is ideal for dolphin and whale watching, especially from April to October when they’re especially about. Rota dos Cetáceos also offer the opportunity to swim with dolphins. Head to the coast, book a trip and dive in.
8. ‘Tis the season…
Already missing the festive season? You can start planning for the next one even before the supermarkets start stocking mince pies and everyone starts complaining about it… Madeira is supposed to be especially magical (and still warm) at Christmas time. The island sparkles as lights are strung across its capital. Having never expected to go to Madeira, I’m already raring to return. Is linguine an acceptable Christmas dinner…?
Make sure you get in on the secret and book your flight to Madeira. Oh, and you definitely don’t have to wait until you retire.