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Green gem in the Atlantic

Costa Rica

Madeira is back to its best two years after it was struck by deadly floods. And if anything, this balmy spot is even more popular with British visitors as a short hop to the winter sun - or, frankly, any time sun - destination. Gareth Huw Davies filled his days on this exuberant switchback of an Atlantic island off west Africa visiting formal gardens, taking fabled afternoon tea, riding white- knuckle cable cars and driving under waterfalls. Photo credit - www.madeiraarchipelago.com

Hit the road.

Madeira - 310 miles from the African coast and 620 miles from Europe - is an exuberant switchback of an Atlantic island. But it isn''t remotely daunting, at just 35 miles long. Start in sea-level Funchal, the sedate, comfortably-strolled capital, all spacious parks, the C15th Sé Cathedral, noble 18th century mansions and elegant
pavements of grey basalt and white marble. Much of the rest of the island is high and lavishly green, full of soar and swoop. Why not hire a
car (open top, if you can stretch to it) to taste the island’s civil engineering
triumph, the fabulous autoestradas. These highways lead all over Madeira,
leaping deep ravines, skirting high sea cliffs, even running under tumbling
waterfalls to pierce mountains. The one from Eira do Serrado to
Curral das Freiras offers a pure “Alice down the rabbit hole” drive, in a steep
500 yard long tunnel.

High Rides

This island has conquered its steepest inclines with eagle’s-view cable car
(teleférico) rides to race your pulse. One of
the oldest is the 15 minute climb from Almirante Reis in old Funchal to
Monte. A hilarious add-on is the downhill slide in a sort of converted laundry
basket on wooden runners over the polished cobbles. Two sure-
footed attendants steer you, using their boots as brakes. Or take the (2005)
cable
car from Monte to the Botanical Gardens. Outside Funchal, the Teleférico da
Rocha do Navio on the north coast offers stomach-wrenching views over
steep slopes. (Its main job is to whizz farmers down to coastal fields.) The
cable car at Achadas da Cruz at Porto Moniz offers more epic soaring.

Flower power

Go on: let the scarlet passion flower, the swan’s neck agave and the blood-eyed
chrysanthemum seduce you. Madeira’s profusion of flowers is reason enough to
visit. A good start is to look for the blooms spilling over the walls of private
gardens in Funchal - the city hosts the Madeira Flower festival every April.
The Botanical Gardens on a hillside at Quinta do Bom Sucesso, with
tremendous views back over Funchal, is the easiest to reach out of many fine,
formal gardens. It boasts an example of virtually every tree and plant growing
on the island. The gardens of Quinta da Boa Vista has a renowned orchid
collection. Casa Velha do Palheiro hotel - it won the Garden Trophy at the Relais
& Châteaux World Awards - gives garden tours.

Wildlife win

Madeira is a conservation triumph. Its laurel garland is already in place. While
other islands were busy felling their trees, Madeira protected the world’s
largest original laurel forest, all high peaks and shady, steep-sided valleys.
Some plants, and birds such as the Madeiran long-toed pigeon, live nowhere
else on earth. A time-travelling dinosaur would recognize some parts of the island. This is the ultimate nature reserve for
pedestrians. The levadas, 1350 miles of water channels, with accompanying
footpaths, weave lazily around the contours. Nature Meetings leads
treks into the high interior. Its programme ranges from “serene” half-
day strolls to “dramatic” mountain walks. The path from Pico do Arieiro to
Pico Ruivo, in particular, rewards your exertions with fabulous views.

Seal deal

There are big and wonderful reasons to take to the water around Madeira for a
wildlife-spotting tour with a company such as Wind Birds. Whales pass on
migration. Dolphins play. Birds of all sorts wheel and whirl under the cliffs.
But one species sets the islands apart. Only 500 or so monk seals are left in
the world, and about 40 are found here. Boats take you to see some of
the thriving population on the Desertas Islands, 12 miles SE of Funchal. You can
also spot marine wildlife from the deck of the ferry on a day trip to
the small island of Porto Santo. Make time for a walk along the sandy
beach to Columbus’s old house.

Fine fado

They were serving our coffee in Arsenio's when the lights went down and the melancholy came up. The sun certainly wasn't shining when they invented Fado - intense songs of yearning and unrequited love. But by the time liqueurs arrived we had come to appreciate Alexandra Souza’s precise and ornate laments (the occasional happier number lightens the mood). And how many memorable meals do you recall by listening to the music months later? (Of course we bought her CD: you always do.)
And the food? Never in doubt, once we savoured the open-air grill, strategically placed to seduce passers-by on Rua de Santa Maria in the Old Town. We ordered espada (black scabbard fish with the fearsome teeth) - barracudas are cuddly in comparison. But on the plate they are a tender triumph. We found espada all over the island, served in many guises, including once with banana.

And where to stay? Not so long ago you could list the key ingredients of a top-end Madeira stay under one restful heading: timeless elegance. They keep up the old traditions at Reid’s, where Afternoon Tea is just as Churchill ordered it. Now the island’s accommodation is moving to a new beat. Smart and stylish boutique
hotels are opening in prime spots. In Funchal, the Vine offers
in-room check-in and a bath at the foot of the bed. In Madeira’s north east,
Quinta das Eiras gives guests a taste of the Alps in a cabin on stilts. In
Estalagem Da Ponta Do Sol, on a south coast cliff top, guest can savour an
horizon ablaze with the Atlantic sunset as they relax in the spa.

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