A luxury travel guide to Madeira
Words by Adam Jacot de Boinod
What a blessed, fertile, cultured and cultivated island Madeira is. This ‘island of eternal spring’ was a ‘paradise of naturalists’ with its exoticism attracting Thomas Cook and Joseph Banks.
It’s immensely fertile, everything seems to grow here, having been colonised by Henry the Navigator who introduced the sugar cane from Sicily and the Malvesia (Malmsey) vine, mentioned by Shakespeare’s Falstaff, from Crete. And it’s a big enough island to house different dialects with some pronouncing the second syllable of Madeira with an ‘E’ and others with an ‘I’.
I took myself off as a dutiful tourist to the capital Funchal and her Old Town, the ‘zona velha’. It’s lined with photographs of menus but thankfully it’s decked with little tat in the adjoining shops.
I stumbled across the famous market, the ‘Mercado dos Lavradores’. It’s bustling and fragrant and acts as an active market for the locals who display with pride and joy their produce in pyramidic piles amid the tiled walls and mosaic flooring. What a riot of colour! Ideal for a cheery souvenir photo. Even better for a jigsaw puzzle box as I looked down from the first floor below upon the patchwork of produce.
The flower sellers are obliged by law to wear their distinctive red and yellow striped skirts along with a red bolero and a red cape. They certainly stand out in their famous ‘Festa da Flor’ Flower Festival in May. It’s a highlight of the Madeira calendar and includes a children’s parade in which each child carries a single flower to put in a ‘Wall of Hope’ in order to call for peace in the world.
Beyond Funchal’s main promenade is the magnificent salmon pink edifice, known as Belmond Reid’s Palace where I was lucky enough to stay. As my car rattled over the cobbled stones of the narrow driveway I simply passed the keys to the doorman and got extremely comfortable in no time. The staff were open and approachable and it was clear that this top hotel knew how to do luxury living as all was thoroughly thought through!
Along the pink walls and chequered flooring are the grey grills of the balconies that reflect the stripes of the palm trees’ fronds. The hotel’s leafy motif is likewise suggestive of the Churchill Suite’s wallpaper. Style is everywhere with signature Prussian blue towels provided by the full white uniformed pool attendants presiding over two spacious pools that are swimmable even in February.
Down a higgly-piggly route, past the tennis court once converted into a dance floor, is the spa. It boasts ‘signature indulgences’, ‘body rituals’ and ‘facial therapies’ as guests undo their white dressing gowns to surrender to unashamed, luxurious pampering.
And it cleverly utilises the view out over the ocean as well as the sound of the pounding waves adding to the overall impact. All in refreshing contrast to the photos and sound recordings of nature I come across at most spas.
Extending from the foyer is a narrow walkway down to the hotel’s Ristorante Villa Cipriani. It has a rustic, traditional feel with red gingham tablecloths and the seafood on the menu couldn’t be fresher coming straight up so it seemed from the ocean beneath. The view prompted me to order a wonderful crab Venetian style with lime sauce and horseradish on avocado, before my fillet of beef ‘Rossini’ style accompanied by Boneca de Canudo Tinto wine.
On another evening I enjoyed the Michelin-starred restaurant ‘William’ is where Chef Luís Pestana’s innovative creations graced my taste buds. It has panoramic views of Funchal’s sparkling lights that reflect in the windows to resemble a starlit sky full of magic and wonder.
After two rounds of amuse bouches, I struggled to decide for my starter between the carrot cream soup with ginger and granola and honey and the curry ravioli with yellow pumpkin and hazelnut. My main course was sea bass with barley and spinach followed by an eclectic selection from the cheese trolley. The sommelier recommended a glass of Pelmeira e Voltas, a local, light and low-acidic white wine.
All the service had a synchronised theatricality offering surprises to be revealed like presents at every course. What a magical journey of tasting treasures and topped by my parting gift: a handmade box of exquisite chocolates. Such was the abundance of ‘William’s’ delight upon delight.
I boarded a catamaran with Atlantic Pearl partly to ’dream, explore, discover’ as their website suggested, but more in the hope of seeing the whales, dolphins and turtles out to sea. How fabulous to see them and I could finally tick them off my bucket list.
I came next to the Design Centre Nini Andrade Silva. Set high up on a second floor it’s now a panoramic restaurant, both stylish and contemporary and acting as a cool backdrop to its warm staff.
My starter was a sea bream carpaccio with brown crab and virgin sauce, followed by the catch of the day, mustard crust, potato terrine and creamed leeks and, for dessert, a ‘ramekin’ of chocolate with passion fruit ice cream. All completed by a glass or two of the recommended Catarina 2017 Bacalhoa wine. My favorite treat though was their charcoal butter which they enjoyed telling me you can’t buy anywhere!
A handily short drive from the airport and set beneath the city’s western escarpment, was my next place to stay, the Quinta Jardins do Lago. The charm of this 18th century boutique hotel of 40 rooms is in its civilised pace and tranquil ambiance, the studied attention of the staff and the locally sourced vegetables from its garden. Not to mention the 550 different tropical species in the 6½ acres of garden that’s unusually flat for Madeira.
And I loved the Beresford restaurant. I started with fresh cheese in crispy filo pastry, pineapple salad, yoghurt and sugar cane honey before enjoying a roast chicken breast with sugar cane honey, lemon and thyme, watercress gnocchi and cherry tomato.
As for dessert I tried the delicious Madeira wine mousse with forest fruit surprise and brownie of chocolate and coconut all enjoyed with Pomares Douro 2017 wine. The clientele is small enough for the service to appear really personal and the delivery of courses resembled a dance so smooth and flowing was its rhythm. How leisurely and edifying. Like my whole experience of Madeira.
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064 ) offers 3 nights at Quinta Jardins do Lago and 3 nights at Belmond Reid’s Palace from £1398 per person. Price based on 2 sharing on a bed & breakfast basis, all private transfers, or car hire, and return flights from London Gatwick. Departs 10 May.