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Ocean of delights in sub-tropical gem


by Norman Smith

What's black, incredibly ugly and a joy to savour?

It's an espada, or scabbard fish, a very odd and fierce-looking creature found in the waters around Madeira. Cooked in batter and served with fried local banana, it's just one of the many delights to be found in this sub-tropical gem set in the Atlantic, 500 miles west of Africa.

The island has the appearance of a mountain range condensed into an area only 35 miles long and 13 miles wide, small, but extremely deceptive.

In February this year, freak weather claimed lives, caused enormous damage and cast a blight on the tourism that is so important to the economy in this semi-autonomous region of Portugal.

I went a few weeks afterwards and, unless someone pointed it out, there was little sign of devastation.

The islanders got together to deal with the mess. In short, it's business as usual in Madeira.

It has a (usually) pleasant year-round climate with temperatures ranging from about 15 to 25 degrees C. The people are friendly and there is rarely a language problem.

The volcanic origins of Madeira have left rich soil that produces all sorts of fruit, and flowers seem to grow everywhere, a kaleidoscope of colours that has inspired magnificent gardens and an annual festival attracting visitors from all over the world.

You won't find wild nightclub life and lager-fuelled beach parties here. In fact, there are no beaches to write home about - an artificial one with sand imported from Morocco and a small natural stretch of black sand. Having said that, there are other places to take a dip in the sea, particularly along the north coast.

A man-made beach in Madeira
A man-made beach in Madeira

For the dedicated beach-goer, the other inhabited island, Porto Santo, offers more than five miles of sand. You can get 15-minute flights there or take a ferry for a crossing of just over two hours. Madeira is not entirely without nightlife, mainly in Funchal, which even has a casino, but eating out seems to be a leading pastime.

There are plenty of eating places, from village cafes to something grand, and in balmy weather, which is a large part of the time, you can dine alfresco. While most of Madeira's landscape varies from a few gentle slopes to the precipitous, there are a some more level areas and even room for two top golf courses. Horse riding, tennis and deep sea game fishing are among other sport choices although the main attraction for many visitors is walking - exploring the rugged, lush beauty of the island.

But if you fancy a more extreme form of transport, try one of the wood and wicker sledges that clatter down from the town of Monte, with its superb gardens, to the old part of Funchal. Two 'drivers' control the contraption, using rubber soles on their boots as brakes. A relic of the island's history, it's now a holiday thing.

Funchal is a bustling, big town in a tiny space, with busy shops, cafes, restaurants, a colourful market and a wealth of historical sites.

If you are shopping, wicker work, lace and embroidery are among traditional things to go for.

There is holiday accommodation all over Madeira, but much of it is in Funchal, ranging from small bed and breakfast places to luxury hotels and rather splendid quintas - former mansions and villas that have been converted to cater for discerning visitors.


I treated myself to a bit of pampering in the spa at the Quinta das Vistas - sheer indulgence. What's to beat this, I thought - then we were off to something else.

There is just so much to see and do in a beautiful part of the world that has attracted the likes of Christopher Columbus, who was so taken that he married the grand-daughter of the first governor of Porto Santo.

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