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jMadeira: a jewel in Portugal’s crown


Spend a brief time in Madeira and it is easy to see why the island is one of the jewels in Portugal’s crown. The famous fortified wine with which it shares its name is, in tourism terms, fortified still further with great seafood, great weather and a rich cultural history.
It is upon this backdrop that Jet2holidays is hoping to capitalise with its upcoming Indulgent Escapes package, offering luxury short stays on the island from next June. So my three nights sampling the five-star treatment was something of a sneak preview.
Now, there is a certain impression many people have of holidaying in Madeira. I know because I had it myself. I’m pretty sure that during my grandparents jet-setting days of mobile retirement many years ago, they holidayed in Madeira. And that image of shall we say the more mature tourist visiting by the truckload is precisely what the tourism industry is trying to dispel.
The Portuguese archipelago is well-established as a stopping off point for cruise-liners. You see them regularly easing into the capital Funchal on their way across the Atlantic to North America or the Caribbean.
But that wasn’t what my trip was about. Instead I got to sample Madeira’s range – fine dining yes, but also plenty to keep the backpacker in me occupied. So we enjoyed a whale and dolphin watching trip offering gorgeous views of the island.
We were accompanied much of the way by a pod of some 100 dolphins. They appeared to be checking us out as much as vice versa, with the little ones happily leaping into the air.
At least six species of dolphins can be seen around the island at various times of the year and even more whales – sadly it wasn’t our day for whales. I’ve been dolphin and whale watching before but that was in New Zealand – in the cold – and I didn’t much enjoy it. But with friendly guides in a nippy little boat on a sunny day, I can recommend it in Madeira.
Next there came an elegant take on extreme sports – tobogganing down the steep, winding streets on the outskirts of Funchal in a kind of whicker cradle for two – on skis. It wasn’t very fast I have to say, but for sheer weirdness, it was one of my highlights.
You are aided in your descent by two men dressed in smart white trousers and shirt topped off with a straw hat – in my head they look much like Venetian gondoliers. They stand on the back of your toboggan and helpfully offer speed and direction as you go down.
In thick rubber soles they can push you along with one foot, while using walls and bouts of running to steer. The soles are particularly important for slowing down, when wisps of dark smoke start rising from the concrete.
You can take the cable car up offering stunning views and then toboggan back down. The island sits atop a volcano – all be it one that hasn’t erupted for at least 6,500 years.
And the next day saw us take a four-hour jeep safari high into the hills of the ancient rock. The word safari doesn’t mean the same thing as in say Kenya, mind you.
It’s more of a flora and fauna tour – there are next to no wild animals in Madeira, not even squirrels or rabbits – and few birds. But the 4x4 still took us up some rugged terrain and afforded us fabulous photo opportunities from some of the island’s highest points.
There are also many miles of popular trails in the hills known as Levada Walks, which snake alongside a sort of mini canal system of running water (Levadas).
Madeirans are desperate for their home to be seen as a year-round destination for young European holidaymakers.
And Christmas and New Year are among their busiest times. New Year celebration fireworks over the harbour are famous and arguably unrivalled in the region I’ve since found out.
Good celebration needs good food and we sampled plenty on our visit. Reid’s Palace is probably the island’s most famous five-star attraction and a favourite hotel of Sir Winston Churchill among others. The ground floor Churchill suite costs more than 2,000 euros a night.
On our visit, we were treated very well, with superb beef and wine in a restaurant that overlooks the sea. A highlight was traditional espetada a little out of town. This is basically meat on a stick Portuguese style and in this case was huge meat skewers hanging from the ceiling.
We also enjoyed a fascinating tour around the famous Madeira Wine Lodge, which is more than 200 years old and was once a prison. Now it stores and ages oceans of Madeira, the sweet, fortified wine that differs from port in that it is oxidised by being deliberately exposed to air, and is heated in its fermentation stage.
Madeira can happily be kept in warm attics rather than cool cellars.
The lodge contains a small museum with expert guides, and a shop offering the numerous varieties produced nearby on the island. It has six grapes, producing four types of Madeira; dry, medium dry, medium sweet and sweet.
If sweet wine isn’t your thing, the other authentic favourite is Poncha, a cocktail of white rum, lemon and honey that, be warned, is more potent than it tastes. Variations worth a try include passionfruit instead of lemon, though the alcoholic effect is the same.
Jet2holidays Indulgent Escapes holidays to Madeira begin in June and I recommend a visit for anyone wanting a relaxing – five-star – break with activities at your fingertips.

By Ben Turner

Ben stayed at The Cliff Bay Hotel, a five-star, with excellent room views and good breakfast.
He ate at: Reid’s Palace – five star hotel, excellent main course, dessert, service and wine.
Cafe do Museu – good choice of lunches in a cobbled square at the heart of the old town.
CS Madeira – five star hotel, lovely buffet lunch, ultra modern and light with excellent gym and spa facilities.
Vila da Carne – traditional Portuguese restaurant, a short drive from Funchal town centre, excellent espetada (meat on a stick) with friendly staff and generous quantities.
Quintinha de Sao Joao – five star hotel, friendly relaxed atmosphere and good food.
Ben went whale watching with Rota dos Cetaceos
He flew with: Jet2 from Manchester direct to Funchal. Prices start from £30 return.
 

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