Madeira Island - Day 1 - Casa Velha do Palheiro
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The madness of Manchester Airport at 04.00 on a Monday morning
It all sounded so easy according to Thomson: “check in on line … make a beeline for Bag Drop at the airport and take care of more important matters … like picking out that new sarong at Accessorize.” Our hearts sank as, when we arrived at 04.00 for our 06.00 flight, the queue for Thomson’s bag drop was already snaking around Terminal 2. As we slowly shuffled forward, we stopped anticipating our bacon rolls at The Escape Lounge, and started worrying about whether we would even escape!
I was heading, with my partner John, for a week’s break in Madeira as Silver Travel Advisor’s guest blogger. The invitation was for 3 nights B&B plus one dinner in the 5 star Casa Velha do Palheiro hotel and an evening at the Atlantic Festival’s Firework Contest. I checked Skyscanner for flight comparisons. The price of return flights for 3 days was comparatively high. I calculated that for the same price, we could fly out for a week and stay the additional 4 nights in a cheap hotel. Flights booked, Debbie from STA put me in touch with Marta from the Madeira Promotions Bureau who offered to put together a package of additional activities for our stay and negotiated an excellent reduction with the Casa Velha for our extra nights. A few days later and we were off! Or were we?
Manchester airport’s queue supervisor cheerily reassured us that no one had ever missed a flight on his watch but his smile visibly faded as each minute dragged by and every single bag drop point seemed blocked by fraught passengers with interminable last minute problems. Hopes raised as we were whisked off to a newly-opened check-in desk along with other Funchal fliers, only to plummet again as we joined the lengthy queues for security. Fortunately my precautionary “Fast lane” tickets (£3.50 well spent) enabled us to join the shortest queue and we just had time to collect our currency from Travelex before our gate was called. Phew!
Strapped into our seats, we again vowed never to fly at this time of the morning – however tempting the savings. After a cup of coffee and carton of instant porridge, I enjoyed a peaceful and relaxing flight with fellow “silver travellers” - no screaming babies, back-of-seat-kicking toddlers or truculent teens. Our touch down on the notorious Funchal landing strip jutting out into the Atlantic was very smooth and before long we were cruising along the Via Rapida motorway with chatty taxi driver Miguel who was keen to enthuse us with his love for the island of his birth.
Exiting the motorway we started climbing up the impossibly steep, winding roads that led to the grand Palheiro Estate, 500 meters above sea level. The long hotel driveway was lined with stately, startlingly blue agapanthus. On one side we could see Funchal sprawling below us, a cruise ship pulling into port, on the other, the picturesque and challenging Palheiro golf course spreading out and down the hillside in a series of terraces bordered by lofty pine and cedar trees with the sparkling blue Atlantic as its backdrop.
Casa Velha do Palheiro
I immediately felt at home as we entered the Casa Velha do Palheiro and received a warm welcome as though we were guests in a wealthy friend’s country retreat.
The Casa Velha do Palheiro, a 5* hotel and a Relais and Chateau member, was built as a country house over 200 years ago by an eccentric Portuguese gentleman, by name of Carvalhal. Whilst out shooting in the hilly wilderness, he and his friends were struck by the beauty of one particular spot, near the thatched dwelling (palheiro) of a blacksmith. Carvalhal promptly bought out the blacksmith and ordered a house to be built. The following year he returned to find it nearly finished and already named by the local peasantry as `the house of the blacksmith's thatched cottage'. And so it has been called to this day. Early transport from Funchal up the steep hillside to the house was on horseback or inside hammocks and sedan chairs carried on the shoulders of strong locals, as shown in the hotel’s exhibition room.
The entire Palheiro Estate was acquired by the famous Madeira wine producing Blandy family in 1885. It now includes the golf course which opened in 1993, a development of villas, a spa and the Palheiro Gardens.
After a tour of the house - library, bar, restaurant, exhibition room, billiard room - I was fully expecting to be shown to a garden room in the block opposite the main house. Instead we were swept up the flight of stairs from reception to the extremely grand Rei Dom Carlos suite, named after the King of Portugal, Carlos de Braganca, who stayed there in 1901.
Double entrance doors opened onto a vestibule containing a table and chair, large cupboard with safe and space to store our cases, and a chest of drawers.
Our bedroom was tastefully furnished in 19th century style with modern facilities including flat screen TV, a Nespresso machine with choice of pods, tea making facilities and a mini bar. Dark wood wardrobes and chests provided ample storage space. The super-king sized bed was extremely comfortable. Two Juliet balconies accessed by French windows overlooked the terrace, croquet lawns and gardens. A welcome bottle of wine and a bottle of water awaited us on the table.
The spacious bathroom with a shower over the bath, toilet and bidet, offered further storage space in cupboards beneath the double sink. The one thing missing, given the space available, was a stool or bath chair. Bath robes and slipper were a welcome touch and there was an ample supply of toiletries face cloths and fluffy towels. It was treat to receive a nightly “turn down service” from housekeeping who replaced wet floor mats in the bathroom, and closed the seven pairs of curtains! I was pleased to see the hotel’s commitment to its environment exercised in its policies for changing sheets and towels.
Across from the main building is the well-maintained outdoor swimming pool with sunbeds, sun umbrellas and pool towels. Throughout our stay there were rarely more than two or three sun seekers using the sunbeds. We assumed our fellow guests - a mixture of French, German and British - were off playing golf or tennis; taking advantage of the hotel’s big game fishing boat, The Balancal, also used for dolphin and whale watching cruises; taking the hotel shuttle bus into Funchal; swimming or diving in the nearby Marine Reserve of the Lido Galomar Beach in Canico De Baixo; or out touring the island. It was lovely to be able to sit around a pool in perfect peace with no animation team exhorting us to join in fun and games, and no loud Europop: just the song of the birds and the occasional gentle thwack of a tennis racket.
There is a small, well-equipped gym and a table tennis table in the block overlooking the pool. A well-screened all weather tennis court adjoins the pool area. The pool bar did not appear to be manned during our stay but drinks and food could be ordered via the bar’s telephone.
A pathway from the pool led to the Palheiro Spa with its indoor heated hydro pool, Finnish sauna, Turkish steam bath and treatment rooms.
I was sorely tempted to book the Weary Wanderer’s Massage “designed to put back the bounce into weariest, post Levada walks” in which legs are “stretched and pummelled and kneaded to an ancient Goan rhythm!” There were also massages for golfers, a “Blue Marlin” massage after “adrenaline soaked deep sea fishing adventure” and a range of treatments, facials, pedicures and manicures.
One day I will return to this hotel purely to relax in the beautiful surroundings and surrender to being pampered by the lovely staff - all of whom were polite, efficient and keen to ensure that guests’ needs were anticipated and met. But for now I had a busy schedule of adventures ahead of me.
Whilst John spent a quiet afternoon reading by the pool, I set off to visit the neighbouring Palheiro Gardens: hotel guests have free entry into this gardener’s paradise. I then had fun dodging golf balls and carts during an hour long walk along the running track through the fairways to the Club House and back.
Casa Velha do Palheiro Restaurant
Later that evening we relaxed with a glass of cool draught Coral beer (John) and sparkling wine (me) on the terrace, accompanied by warm cheesy pastry snacks served fresh from the oven, before moving indoors for our eagerly anticipated dinner. We enjoy our food and sampling different restaurants is always one of the highlights of any holiday. The hotel’s restaurant, one of the best on the island and open to the public, offers fine dining under executive chefs Francisco Quintal, former intern and chef de partie at Madeira’s famous Reid’s Palace, and Eric Weidman, formerly at the 2 star Michelin restaurant L’Oasis in France. They construct a creative menu combining Portuguese culinary tradition with European and oriental influences. It was difficult to choose between the 3-course carte du jour (42 euros each not including drinks) and the a la carte menu (lobster, golden sea bream, rack of lamb, at various prices) so we vowed to eat there every night to ensure we had the opportunity to work our way around the menus.
We soon realised we had entered Masterchef heaven. After a tasty amuse bouche of “confit of rabbit”, my starter, “Caesar salad with prawn, quail’s egg and tomato confit Casa Velha style”, sprinkled with fresh edible flowers, provided an explosion of flavours and textures to savour with each mouthful.
My main course was a “roll of traditional Madeiran black scabbard fish filet with herb crust, jardinière vegetables and gnocchi with cuttlefish ink and seafood foam” - all cooked to perfection. (The scabbard fish is a scary looking monster as I discovered when I visited the fish market later that week!) John enjoyed melt-in-the-mouth “Iberian black pork confit, stuffed cabbage with chorizo, polenta and red onion marmalade”.
Dessert was a “mandarin parfait with a light lemon cream, raspberry jelly and white and dark chocolate”: pudding heaven, almost too beautiful to eat!
Wine was a crisp yet fruity sauvignon blanc recommended by knowledgeable maitre d, Louis, who also selected a glass of one of Blandy’s famous madeira wines to complement our dessert. During the rest of our stay we found the carte de jour impossible to resist: each menu brought together a delicious combination of flavours. As I had several early morning starts, we did not attempt the seven-course Menu Degustation: comparatively good value at 80 Euros per person including wines. Although I eat very little meat, I did not try the vegetarian menu as there was always a delicious fish dish available. The vegetarian menu I viewed, offered starters such as “Artichoke tartar with vegetable vinaigrette” and main courses of “saffron risotto with grilled red peppers and basil oil” or “selection of grilled vegetables “Casa Velha” and delicious desserts or cheeseboard at a cost 34.90 euros per person including mineral water, coffee and petit fours.
There is a light menu of club sandwiches and other dishes available for lunch and room service. Breakfast is taken in a light and airy room next door to the restaurant. There was a hot buffet of bacon, sausages, fried eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and hash browns. Egg dishes could be cooked to order. A range of cakes, breads and jams was available alongside a stand full of dishes of fresh fruit and yogurt. Generous pots of coffee or tea were served to the table by the cheerful waiting staff.
These magnificent gardens are part of the vast Palheiro Estate. They are open to the public from 09.00 to 17.30 for an entrance fee of 10.50 euros, but hotel guests can access them for free via gates in the hotel’s gardens. Shady paths lined with camellia and bottle brush trees and rustling with green lizards meander past lily ponds where frogs erupt from the grass, diving into the water at the sound footsteps; through beds where traditional British cottage garden plants delphinium, foxgloves and dahlia vie for space with exotic African protea and bird of paradise plants. Delicate fragrances from the English rose garden and trailing sweet pea mingle with the strong scent of jasmine. Spiky palms, dragon trees and aloes contrast sharply with topiary swans and lobsters. Beside the lily ponds a Tea House offers tempting cakes. A visit here is a delightful assault on the senses.
• Read Madeira Island - Day 2 - Walking along the Levada
• Read Madeira Island - Day 3 - Exploring Funchal - Part 1
• Read Madeira Island - Day 3 - Exploring Funchal - Part 2
• Read Madeira Island - Day 3 - Exploring Funchal - Part 3
• Read Madeira Island - Day 4 - Exploring Funchal - Part 4
• Read Madeira Island - Day 5 - Jeep tour into the mountains
• Read Madeira Island - Day 6 - Tasty food, fireworks and rock music
• Read Madeira Island - Day 7 - Vivaldi and Apollo
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