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Review: Madeira ' Pearl of the Atlantic' explored in style

Specialist Holiday - Sightseeing

Madeira, Portugal

Madeira ' Pearl of the Atlantic' explored in style

  • By SilverTraveller John-Hayden-Halsey

    16 reviews


  • Sep 2014
  • Partner

134 people found this review helpful

I was immensely fortunate to win this wonderfully exciting prize in June 2014 that was offered by Silver Traveller. Brilliantly organized through the Association of Promotion of Madeira by Joana Dias and most generously supported by leading members of the tourist industry in Madiera that offered a week in Madeira at the 5 star hotel Quinta da Bela Vista in Funchal together with complimentary air travel to and from Madeira in reserved seats by the Portuguese National Airline, TAP Aviation, for myself and a travelling companion, my partner of many years, Susie Walwyn.

Madeira is situated some 600 miles southward of Lisbon in Portugal and some 400 miles off Morocco on the Northwest Coast of Africa. The population is predominately of Portuguese origin with a limited number of other nationals actually resident on this amazingly beautiful island which is fortunate in having none of the pressures of mass immigration that mainland Western Europe and the United Kingdom have.experienced.

As the plane descended to make its final approach to Funchal airport over the cobalt blue seas of the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, the plane then appears to be landing upon the flight deck of a vast US Navy aircraft carrier. As the runway is supported upon huge 230ft high columns of concrete that underpin the seaward aspect of the runway along its entire length .

We were met a the airport by Paolo on behalf of the Madeira Promotion Bureau who drove us along the scenic coastal highway, that passes through a number of tunnels through the mountains above the sea to Funchal, the capital of Madeira where 125,000 people, a third of the population of the island reside. Living in houses that are all built on the mountainsides above the ancient Port of Funchal, most of which enjoy stunning views over the Bay of Funchal to the three Islas Desertas that are now uninhabited nature reserves, only visitable by arrangement, by boat to vist the seal sanctuaries.

Following a 20 minute drive along the coast from the airport, Paolo turned into through the wrought iron gates of the old Quinta da Bela Vista and swept up through the trees lining the paved and cobbled drive flanked by massed plantings of Agapanthus plants terminating in a pave rotunda featuring a central fountain that was playing in the sunlight. All amidst what can only best be described as a veritable botanical garden of sub-tropical and tropical established specimen trees, shrubs and flowers brought by ship to Funchal . In the main from Brazil, Africa, Madagascar, India and the East Indies. As the grounds are part of what were once the pleasure gardens of the original quinta that stands within this domain dating back through the centuries that supported very much earlier habitations that were purposely built way up on a mountainside above the Port of Funchal for reasons of expediency by way being out of cannon shot from the sea and some distance uphill behind a series of impregnable heavily gunned fortresses on the Funchal waterfront below, that successfully deterred all comers over the centuries, who coveted this island paradise.

Dr. Carlo Monteiro a connoisseur of fine antique period 17th/18th century English / European furniture, furnishings and works of art had already owned the original 18th century quinta ( manor farm ) that he turned into five suites of bedrooms in the old house during the 1980's Following this being a successful venture, he created a company that built and developed a purpose built hotel, through the construction of a series of buildings in the 'Quinta' style throughout the extensive gardens to the rear of his domain, which he then furnished the public rooms with fine antiques and works of art largely acquired through the leading London auction houses or Sotheby's, Christies and Bonhams, of whom he must have become a highly valued client. Who is continually enlarging his very beautiful collection of antiques that are very much a major feature of this remarkable hotel. Where most of the staff are part of a group of people who started out working at this hotel when it first opened some twenty years ago, with noticeable younger exceptions of course. Hence the staff are effectively part of a family rather than simply hotel staff in the general sense of the word. All of whom are dedicated to this venue within which they have chosen to work. Which is of immeasurable importance and benefit to those who have chosen to stay at this delightful, charming, old world style hotel venue, whose original five room 'quinta' is perhaps best described as being very much akin to a grand 18th century English country house interior within a quintissential Portuguese Quinta . Where the standard of service is simply outstanding, with nothing within in reason being too much trouble, as we found to our delight.

The bedrooms are spacious, well appointed and all share views over the gardens, with certain rooms also having a view across Funchal Bay over the swimming pool and ancillary low level single storey fitness complex building. The food is exceptionally good, imaginatively prepared and served both in the main dining hall, the old Quinta period 18th century dining room and on the poolside terrace or within the two storey 18th century summerhouse. Both of which enjoy glorious views over Funchal and across to the Islas Desertas, some seven miles across the island passage. The buffet style breakfast is a sheer delight, featuring a magnificent assortment of hot and cold food to choose from, allied to the pleasure of making your own Bucks Fizz as a morning 'Pick Me Up' which is particularly popular with those guests of as more 'romantic disposition' honeymooners!

The reception staff are quite exceptionally attentive and helpful way beyond the call of duty, all taking a personal pride in insuring that all guests gain the very utmost from their stay at their hotel and of course the fullest enjoyment of exploring Madeira to the very best advantage in every way possible. Effectively there are endless choices of wonderful and exciting things to do throughout Madeira and her sister island resort of Porto Santo which of course we were anxious to take advantage of although much limited by the very short duration of our stay. Nevertheless, we had a most exciting and interesting time exploring Madeira at our own pace without being part of any tours with the exception of a tour of the fabulous historic Blandy's Madeira Winery at Funchal within a specialised tour for only six international English speaking couples .

The swimming pool at Quinta da Bela Vista is most beautifully maintained. Set within lovely gardens and with excellent poolside services by way of food and drink. However it is by no means a luxurious lido but rather has the feel of a large pool that you might expect to find at a millionaires country house. Of course this is the whole charm of this pool which is generally quiet and a wonderful place to relax the mind, body and soul. Except doubtless in high season during the school holidays. We thought the Poolside Terrace a sheer delight from which to enjoy good food and wine whilst looking out over downtown Funchal and Funchal Bay. At night the entire mountainsides above Funchal are lit up with sparkling lights from the houses of the people of Funchal which is simply magical.

Advice on Conducted Tours in Madeira
There are a wide choice of Island Tours available to choose from and without doubt in general terms this is the best possible way to see the island most effectively and at the most reasonable cost. Hence we would recommend this option to those visiting Madeira in general.

Car Hire
This can be a highly fraught and expensive experience in Madeira, So our advice to travellers, is never to hire a car from an independent car hire operator. Always use the major international companies without exception, as has been the subject of advice in recent articles in the mainstream English newspapers of late.

Early History Discovery And Colonization
The first known recorded chart of the Island of Madeira, her nearby sister islands of Porto Santas and Isla Desertas was created by a Genoese cartographer in 1351 showing the island to be some 400 miles of the coast of Morocco off the coast of Northwest Africa. Clearly mariners had known of the existence of these uninhabited islands since ancient times when doubtless the Phoenecians would have watered their ships here.

Inspite of the bounteous nature of the flora and fauna allied to an extra-ordinarily equatable sub-tropical climate of Madeira remained unclaimed. The great Atlantic depths teemed with then vast unfished shoals of tuna and myriad other varieties of fish which included the fearsome looking, yet excellent tasting Black Scabbard Fish that vaguely resembles a Barracuda.

In 1418 Joao Goncalves Zarco was caught in a a series of heavy Atlantic storms whilst exploring the North West Coast of Africa and driven before the winds far out into the Atlantic Ocean for hundreds of miles before making his landfall upon the small low lying island of Porto Santo. Where he raised the flag of Portugal claiming the island. Upon his return to Lisbon some 620 miles to the North, having acquainted the Royal Court of his discovery, he was subsequently sponsored by the greatest cartographer in Portuguese maritime history, namely Henry the Navigator, Dom Henrique de Avis, Duke of Viseu (Born 4th March 1394 died 13th November 1460) Who was the 5th son of John Ist King of Portugal founder of the House of Aviz. Hence Joao Zarco returned to Porto Santo a year later in 1394 to further explore the neighbouring islands including the mist shrouded nearby Island of Madeira he had seen a short distance off. Zarco discovered an island plentiful in valuable timber hence he named it Madeira as this is Portuguese for wood. After seven years of serious colonisation, the early settlers had brilliantly exploited the highly fertile volcanic, mineral rich soil and highly equatable climate by establishing sugar cane 'White Gold' from which the plantation owners grew hugely rich through employing slave labour imported from nearby Portuguese West Africa,

Our Own Exploration of Madeira
Upon our arrival on a Thursday morning in time for lunch on the Pool Side Terrace, we spent that afternoon swimming and relaxing by the pool within a air of total tranquility. We enjoyed this so much that we also dined at the same venue that evening and delighted at the spectacle of the lights of Funchal .

On Friday Paolo collected us after breakfast and drove us down to visit the famous covered market in Funchal which was a virtual rainbow of the culture of Madeira under the same roof, fun to see. We then walked down the Avenue Saint Maria which features an amazing number of wonderfully painted front doors to what were once ancient fishermens dwellings. A must see walk in Funchal. Walking across to the cable car, we rode up the mountain above Funchal to the Botanical gardens. Descending again on the legendary wicker toboggan ride basket on wooden runners, pulled/braked by two men in white cottons at breathtaking speed over a mile through steep streets in a few minutes. Followed by a tour of Blandy's Winery which was one of the highlights of our stay in Madeira. A truly wonderful experience.

On Saturday morning having pre-booked our car hire with the car being brought to our hotel directly after breakfast, we then drove along the coast road through Camara da Lobos to Ribeira Brava and took the mountain route inland up a steep ravine which reminded us of the mountain roads in the north of Martinique without the tropical rainforest. Entering the longest road tunnel on the island, the road runs under the mountains towards the coastal resort of Sao Vicente on the northern coast of Madeira. We drove along the coast to Porto Moniz famous for natural lava pools amongst the reefs, that are wonderful places to swim, another must do.

We had been recommended to eat at Catchalote Sea Food Restaurant which is built on a promontory upon the site of an old whaling station. We ate magnificent fresh sardines the size of Devon or Cornall caught Mackeral, washed down with delicious chilled Portuguese dry white wine with awesome views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Taking the famous mountain route from Porto Moniz up to Portas da Villa and along the very backbone of Madeira along part of the highest road on the island, was a remarkable experience with drops of thousands of feet affording great views upon either side with little or no habitation for miles. Descending through eucalyptus forests and banks of roadside lilies to the coast by Ponta da Sol and back to Funchal.

We dined out that evening at a the highly recommended and popular Touri Callo Restaurant 5 mins walk up the hill from our hotel on the Carmino de Sao Martihno where we ate wonderful food. Very reasonably priced, drinking dry white Portuguese wine. Be sure to eat here at least once, as many of our fellow guests did.

Sunday: We spent a relaxing day lured by the beautiful hotel pool.

Monday: Our last day, we drove up through Funchal to Peco a Areeiro, the highest place on the island with awesome views over glorious country in every direction. Descending to the Northern coastal resort of Santana famous for 'A' framed thatched Madeira traditional houses. Then drove down the coast to Maita and inland through the mountains and eastwards to Piedade to view some of the highest cliffs in Europe, well worth the drive and walk involved.

Monday evening we dined in style at Restaurante de Forte on the Funchal waterfront in a 15th century fortress as the guests of the Madeira Promotion Bureau. Having changed into our 'Glad Rags' we were chauffeur driven down to Funchal to this iconic restaurant in the stunning waterside Fortress of Sao Tiago. The very charming, lovely young Portuguese directerice, Joelene greeted us warmly, with Champagne on the ramparts, followed by a wonderful fish dinner featuring sea bass.

We absolutely loved Madeira, will definitely return. No wonder the English sought to purchase Madeira from their great Portuguese allies of the Napoleonic Wars.

Our Top Recommendations:
Cable Car:
Toboggan Ride:
Mercados dos Lavradores (Workers' Market) at Funchal.
Explore the museums, galleries, historic buildings & cathedral.
Visit Blandy's winery:
Enjoy eating Black Scabbard fish.
Explore the mountainside lavadas
Join a Jeep expedition:
Whale/Dolphin watching:
Visit Porto Santo for sand beaches:

Researched, written, photographed & compiled by John Hayden Halsey
Winner of the Summer 2014 Silver Traveller Review Competition Prize to visit Madeira.

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  • John-Hayden-Halsey
    about 7 years ago
    A Madeira Review for those in search of tranquility in the style and luxury of a bygone age. Yet with all the advantages of the 21st Century delights available to those who seek to enjoy exploring this 'Island Jewel of the Atlantic' which is a veritable 'Basket of Flowers transplanted from 'The Garden of Eden'. Added to which this is a gourmet's paradise with excellent freshly sourced and wonderfully prepared food throughout Madeira and the Island of Porto Santo.....Where it is summer all the year round, winter simply dos not exist here! John Hayden Halsey