Julia Hunt goes in search of old-style glamour in Funchal, the recently reinvigorated Madeiran capital
‘Authentic Fado tonight!’ the waiter announced, as I peeped inside his restaurant on my first night in the city. I was pulled in and fed with espedatas, huge fish kebabs, just off the chargrill, while serenaded gravely by folk ballads. ‘The Fado songs are so sad,’ my taxi driver told me later, ‘it is better you do not speak Portugese.’ It transmitted even through the language barrier, so when the musician’s wife began hawking CDs, I realised it was time to escape and find the, er, fun side of Funchal (sorry).
More than 300 miles off the west coast of Africa, Madeira is geographically close to the Canaries, but in terms of language, culture and clientele it is on another latitude. The name still conjures up old-style glamour – the island was a playground for international It-girls and boys of the last century – but it has, over the past 20 years, ceded to a more sedate crowd of cruise ships and older travellers. Recently, however, low-cost flights and a range of new developments have begun to lure a younger crowd, and Funchal, the Madeiran capital, is enjoying a new lease of life.
Madeira is actually the top of an underwater mountain range, and rises abruptly from the sea. Space is tight, and every inch counts here: terraces are crammed with bananas and vines; walls are covered with bougainvillea and camellias; and the air is filled with the smell of orchids and frangipani. The island’s irrigation channels, or levadas, provide a network of delightful walks across the hillsides between farms (quintas) while the dramatic mountain gorges offer even greater challenges. Thanks to the mild climate, the sea is warm enough for swimming or diving all year round, or you can visit a lido such as Porto Moniz on the north coast, where the natural rock pools form Madeira’s own sunny Blue Lagoon.
I decided to drive around the island, an adventure in itself. Roads are twisting and narrow, affording marvellous views of verdant valleys and a shimmering littoral before disappearing into the mountains through a tunnel. Early tourists were carried around in hammocks as roads were too bad for carriages; nowadays pedestrians take the cable car up to Monte, a small village high above Funchal, and toboggan down the cobbled streets in sleds resembling large laundry baskets.
Back in the capital, you can eat and drink your way across the bay. Start off in the Old Town, where the pavement cafes teem with twenty-somethings sipping coffee and trying to resemble Funchal’s current It-boy, Cristiano Ronaldo. Sober up with a stroll along the Avenida do Mar and the bustling harbour, where the star attraction is a pleasure yacht formerly owned by the Beatles, to Reid’s Palace Hotel, the legendary, century-old resort for the rich and famous of the early 20th century. Despite its stylish new spa, the Palace is still a bastion of traditional grandeur, perfect for afternoon tea on the veranda just as Winston Churchill and Grace Kelly must have taken it.
If you want to splurge, check out the Choupana Hills Hotel, where the chic Asian-style bungalows and vast terrace allow you to enjoy the twinkling lights of the island glamour below.
Easyjet fly from Gatwick and Stansted to Funchal from £60 return. See www.easyjet.co.uk. Flyglobespan fly from Edinburgh to Funchal from £160 return. See www.globespan.com.
Famed as the place in which Winston Churchill wrote his memoirs, Reid’s Palace Hotel and spa resort has been a Madeira staple for over a century, and comes highly recommended, situated as it is on ten acres of subtropical gardens, and within easy walking distance of the local shops, restaurants and nightlife. See www.reidspalace.com. Choupana Hills Hotel is also a good shout with its incredible views and spa facilities see www.choupanahills.com.
For stunning views as you eat and drink, check out the Doca do Cavacas, a cliff top taverna serving the local tipples, as well as Madeiran specialities like octopus stew. For late-night drinks, check out Dó Fá Sol, which stays open until 4am and is often a good call for live music. Elsewhere, The Golden Gate sets its stall until 2am.
There’s plenty to keep the unsuspecting tourist busy for a day or two’s sightseeing in Madeira. Check out the cathedral (Sé) and the nearby Cidade do Açúcar museum.