History books say the flower-filled Atlantic island of Madeira was discovered around 600 years ago by the Portuguese explorer, Zarco.
A rather more romatic story says that it was first visited by an eloping British couple, Robert Machim and Anne D’Arset, who ran away to sea when Anne’s father, a Bristol merchant, decided Robert was not good enough for his daughter. A storm swept them 1,500 miles off course and on to a beach in the south-east corner of the 50-mile-long island of Madeira.
If you are going to be shipwrecked, Madeira is the place. It has the perfect climate: plenty of sunshine and a temperature of between 20 and 25 decrees centigrade every day of the year. Add the fact that you can dine in the old town very cheaply even in these expensive times, and you’ll understand its popularity.
Madeira is a spectacularly mountainous island of deep valleys and soaring sea cliffs, with something of London’s Kew Gardens thrown in thanks to the flowers that run riot on Madeira. The island’s famed botanical gardens – in the grounds of a former stately home high above Funchal – are unmissable. There are flower markets in every town, and a flower festival in April that equals the February carnival for colour, atmosphere, and fun.
By a strange twist of fate, a huge forest fire was responsible for this riot of flora. It produced the potash vital for fertile soil.
The problem of uneven water distribution was solved when a network of narrow irrigation canals was built across the island. Footpaths run beside them, and it’s fun to explore these on a guided walk.
Special spots to visit include the Ribeira da Janela valley, which contains many flowers and shrubs unique to the island; the village of Santana, with its strangely shaped A-frame cottages covered in thatch; and of course the village of Monte high above Funchal.
Farm produce used to be dispatched down to the city from Monte on two-man wickerwork sledges. Today it is the tourists who take the sledges into town, zooming down the steep, cobbled roads in a creaking conveyance without wheels or brakes –but the ride is safer and less alarming than it sounds.
Below, Funchal offers a sunny welcome. A pretty town, full of mosaics, restaurants and tempting shops, it is a bargain-hunter’s paradise. Wickerwork, though sold at silly prices, may be hard to get home. More portable are chunky woollens, traditional embroidery, lacework, shoes, spices, flowers packed for your flight home and fine Portuguese wines like port and local Madeira.
And do try afternoon tea on the balcony of Reid’s, Madeira’s oldest and oh- so-British hotel. On an otherwise inexpensive island, the price is pretty steep. But cucumber sandwiches, pastries, a slice of Madeira cake and a pot of Earl Grey on a balcony overlooking Funchal harbour? It’s just too good to pass up.