When former ‘Times’ journalist Sandra Brind was a teenager, she went on an ‘educational’ school cruise on board a converted hospital ship – and hated it. She endured a cabin crowded with bunk beds, ran into a Force 9 gale in the Bay of Biscay, and ended up in the care of the ship’s doctor. When the ship reached its first port of call, Madeirs…well, we’ll let her take up the story.
It was like stepping ashore on to Paradise, writes Sandra Brind. I remember all the beautiful flowers, the amazing colours and their perfume, the terrace farming and the bananas growing all over the island.
Because of this I didn’t want to return to the island as an adult, in case I spoilt the illusion. But when I finally returned on holiday, in June, I needn’t have worried. Madeira is still Paradise, and it is still full of flowers and colour.
My husband Lee and I stayed at the Pestano Casino Parc Hotel in Funchal, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. It was very conveniently located: close to shops, bus stops, amazing restaurants and overlooking the port where the daily arrival of ferries, cruise liners, naval vessels or fishing boats was a constant interest. From the hotel balconies we could watch the weekly firework displays paid for by different countries during the summer season. The display voted the best is then allowed to organise the spectacular fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The short walk into Funchal took us past the delightful Santa Catarina Park which was full of Strelitzia, Agapanthus and wonderful colourful flowers surrounding a beautiful lake.
The main road from the harbour into town was the place to stop for a coffee or glass of something cold in one of the pavement cafes. with a trio playing in the background. Close by, in the main thoroughfare, there is The Ritz to sit outside for lunch, or one can walk around more gardens, enjoy colourful shops and stalls, and of course a visit to the Blandy cellars for tastings of their Madeira wine.
The main indoor market is definitely worth a visit. Not only is it full to bursting with every flower you could think of, but there are numerous stalls of incredibly fresh fruit and vegetables plus reasonably priced crafts and souvenirs. Even more exciting is a visit to the lower floor which houses the fish market. Every kind of fish was available to buy fresh, including tuna and local black fish with menacing teeth.
Taking a ride on the cable car gives you a bird’s eye view of the island as well as the Monte Palace and Gardens at the very top. If you are braver than me you could try the toboggan run, being pushed down the cobbled streets from Monte by burly men, but maybe I will leave that to another visit.
The sleepy fishing village of Camara de Lobos is a real gem. Winston Churchill stayed there to paint the picturesque harbour. Another must is afternoon tea at Reid’s hotel – pricey but delicious.
We enjoyed an evening at the Casino next to our hotel. The dinner and show were excellent and with our free chips we enjoyed some time in the casino downstairs afterwards. We even managed to show a profit.
We did not have a single bad meal all the time we were on the island. Wherever we stopped for lunch or dinner all the meals were delicious. We particularly liked Casa Velha and Dona Amelia, both on Rua Imperatriz and close to our hotel.
Many of the visitors we spoke to said either that they had been coming to Madeira for many years or, if it was their first time, that they would be returning. I know I certainly will!