by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, May 21, 2018
It is not just in its scope for active escapes that Madeira transcends its occasionally fusty image. You may also be unaware of the following facts about Portugal’s sunshine outpost.
1. It’s an archipelago, not an island
The popular perception is that Madeira is a lone outcrop, adrift off the coast of Morocco – but, in fact, this volcano-born fragment of the eastern Atlantic is merely the biggest segment of a broader archipelago. The “second” island, Porto Santo, hides 44 miles (71km) to the north-east of Funchal – and is so off the beaten track that Christopher Columbus once lived here. His former house is now a museum (porto-santo.com/en/cristopher-columbus.html).
2. Festival season never ends
Madeira doesn’t only put on a show in February. It will be aflame in June with its Atlantic Festival – four consecutive Saturday evenings (June 9-30) of fireworks above the Bay of Funchal (festivaldoatlantico.visitmadeira.pt). And while it’s too late to enjoy the 2018 Madeira Film Festival, which ends today, the Funchal International Film Festival will bring a cinematic frisson to the capital later in the year (Nov 14-20; funchalfilmfest.com).
3. Flower power is a thing
Madeira is known for the fertility of its soil, but it proves particularly in tune with Mother Nature at the Quinta da Boa Vista (see visitmadeira.pt/en-gb/explore) – a 19th-century estate on the slopes of Funchal, renowned for its orchid collection. Visitors can catch a glimpse of cattleyas, cymbidiums and paphiopedilums. These grand blooms are visible throughout the year, but have an extra shimmer during the Madeira Flower Festival – which includes parades and exhibitions. It will return next May (festadaflor.visitmadeira.pt).
4. You can visit a ‘mini Galapagos’
Comparisons to Ecuador’s wildlife havens are not wholly far-fetched in the case of the Desertas Islands – three narrow slivers in the sea, the biggest of which, Deserta Grande, lurks 16 miles (26km) south-east of Madeira. Largely uninhabited, they are home to eight species of seabird, the Madeiran wall lizard – and a colony of Mediterranean monk seals. Ventura Nature Emotion (venturadomar.com) offers day trips from Funchal for €80 (£70) per person.
5. February tends to be fun
Madeira is not the sole Atlantic island to throw itself into feather headdresses and general flamboyance when the second month of the year appears (Tenerife throws an epic party). But its annual carnival is one of Europe’s best cases of Mardi Gras mayhem – revolving around a parade, held on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. Find details of the 2019 event (Feb 27-March 6) at visitmadeira.pt .
6. You can sleep on the edge
While Funchal has some of Madeira’s most feted hotels, there is much to recommend a 15-mile (24km) drive west along the south coast to the Estalagem da Ponta do Sol – a fine retreat set on a clifftop above a village of the same name. Its chief appeal, perhaps, is the infinity pool which achieves the idea of a never-ending watery vista with aplomb. Doubles from £91 (with breakfast).
7. Seven is a magic number
Madeira has a very famous son, and Cristiano Ronaldo wants you to know this. Not only is the island’s airport named in honour of the Real Madrid superstar, but he was one of the founding forces behind Museu CR7 (museucr7.com), which opened in Funchal in 2013 as a not entirely hubris-free tribute to his achievements. It houses replicas of his (many) trophies, such as the European Championship he won as Portugal captain in 2016.
8. Seve was here
Columbus is not the only celebrated European to have left his mark on Porto Santo. The great Spanish golfer Severiano Ballesteros was the designing force behind the island’s most fabled course (portosantogolfe.com) – an 18-hole affair neatly divided between par-threes, par-fours and par-fives (six of each). However, this symmetry may be the only neat thing about playing here. The ocean winds are likely to wreak havoc with your drive.
9. The capital is colourful
Funchal catches the eye at the heart of the Zona Velha (Old Town) with its Painted Doors Project (arteportasabertas.com) – a swirl of public creativity, which has seen the entrances to buildings along the Rua de Santa Maria adorned with bright paintings and imaginative scenes. Images include everything from a fisherman sitting by his boat in the moonlight to a dislocated eye peering from behind a cracked “window” of yellow glass.
10. You can plunge to the depths
The Madeiran archipelago’s Atlantic location makes it an obvious – and yet less-heralded – destination for scuba tourism. Accessible dive sites include the Madeirense – a ferry that was sunk off Porto Santo in 2000 to create an artificial reef. Entombed 100ft below the surface, the wreck can be reached with the help of Rhea Dive (rheadive.com) – an operator, based on the island, which also runs training courses.