Football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo’s home island will be one of the safest holiday destinations in Europe this summer and autumn, thanks to its no-nonsense response to the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of the many attractions visitors can look forward to.
The black scabbard is a metre-long, lance-like predator with a mouth full of terrifying teeth that hunts in the deep Atlantic off Madeira. When a fisherman reels one in, the difference in pressure between a kilometre down and the surface makes its eyes pop out of their sockets. Visitors to this Portuguese island north of the Canaries will experience the same sensation when they see how cheap it is – food and drink cost 40pc less than in Ireland.
Having weathered the coronavirus storm significantly better than many places that rely on tourism, Madeira is being promoted as one of the safest holiday destinations in Europe once the travel traffic light turns green. The authorities are confident their rapid response to Covid and the measures imposed to suppress it will pay dividends with an influx of visitors this summer and autumn.
Since the start of February, the island has been home to hundreds of remote workers who tap at their laptops each day in the Digital Nomads Village in Ponto do Sol in the south of the island. Introduced as a pilot scheme, it’s due to end on June 30, but may be extended because of the demand for places – 4,800 people from 90 countries have so far registered an interest in passing the pandemic safely in the sun.
Madeira has in recent years shed its long-resented reputation as a pensioners-only paradise and become a magnet for outdoor adventurers. When holiday flights resume, they will again carry a complement of hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners, plus daredevils who go canyoning, which involves abseiling down thundering waterfalls. It’s something only a lunatic would try – and I have the selfies to prove it.
I’m standing, trembling, on the edge of a rocky outcrop, wearing a wetsuit I had to be shoehorned into in a situation I desperately want to get out of. Treading water in the river pool eight metres below, guide Nuno Freitas says he’ll count to three and then I should jump. As I prepare for the plunge, I ask him how often he has leapt from this same spot. “Never,” he replies. I shift swiftly into reverse gear, barge into my two companions – who are howling with laughter – and end up in a bush.
They’re still chuckling that evening over a delicious dinner of black scabbard with baked banana and passion fruit in Restaurant Santa Maria in Funchal’s old town.
Later, in Bar Venda Velha, we try poncha, Madeira’s famed firewater, made from distilled sugar cane and mixed with honey, lemon and a choice of freshly-squeezed fruit juices. Poncha packs a punch, but it goes down so well I have four – kiwi, mandarin, strawberry and tomato. A barman suggests a couple of places with music until dawn if we fancy sampling the nightlife. It took a lot of persuading for me to go canyoning, but nothing will get me to go clubbing – at 58, I’m hip replacement, not hip hop, and anyway, I have to be up early for a spot of mountain biking. It’s time for PJs, not DJs.
After breakfast, one of our party boards a boat for a whale spotting safari while the rest of us jump in a 4×4 that takes us high above the clouds to a roadside restaurant where our bikes await.
It’s a decent day for a descent – 10am and already 20C – that involves cycling 25km on dirt tracks and through daisy-dotted meadows, freewheeling down steep, snaking roads you’d have to be towed up and zig-zagging to avoid sunbathing lizards.
Guide Sergio Abreu, a competitive mountain biker, is impressed by my frequent up-on-the-pedals bursts of speed until I confess I could do with a cushion – those skinny saddles are torture, but the scenery goes some way to acting as a balm on my aching bum.
Next morning, we join naturalist Fabio Castro for a rainforest trek along a 6km stretch of Madeira’s levadas, the narrow, 16th century irrigation channels built to bring fresh water from the lush north to the more arid south. The network covers 2,200km, of which 1,400km are accessible to walkers, and the soundtrack to the trek is the cooing of doves and the chirruping of tiny firecrests, the smallest birds in Europe.
Some of the levadas are home to trout that have escaped from mountain lake fish farms, but there’s none on the menu that evening in the seafront Maktub restaurant in Paul do Mar, a 45-minute drive from Funchal.
Reggae-loving owner Fabio Afonso offers only what a local fisherman brings him each morning, and tonight it’s a big bruiser of a red snapper. I throw in the towel after a second helping. There’s loads left despite four of us having tucked in twice, but we’re leaving room for a couple of Fabio’s mojitos – he serves more of these Cuban highballs than anywhere else on the island.
Retiring to the lantern-lit terrace, we listen to the waves and reflect on three action-packed days that blew all our preconceptions about Madeira out of the water. Who knew the World Travel Awards judges recently named it the most beautiful island destination on the planet for the sixth year in a row from a shortlist that included Hawaii, Bali and the Seychelles?
While it will continue to be a favourite with seniors, thanks to its year-round sunny climate, value for money, near-negligible crime rate and Covid controls, the age profile of visitors is slipping as the younger set in search of thrills discover it offers adrenaline – as well as afternoon tea – on tap.
My companion who went out on the boat to see the orcas isn’t the only one who had a whale of a time on Madeira – like the black scabbard, I’m hooked.
STAY I stayed at the bright and modern 4-star Alto Lido Hotel in Funchal, which offers B&B from €67 a night. Facilities include childminding, an indoor heated pool and another outdoors with sun deck, 24-hour fitness centre with sauna and free town centre shuttle bus (10 minutes).
PACK If you’re going to try canyoning, bring along a spare pair of runners (or an old pair you can bin) because they’re going to get soaked through. Canyoning is classed as an extreme sport (along with shark cage diving) and travel insurance comes at a small extra premium, so make sure you’re adequately covered.
EAT The family-run Faja dos Padres beachside restaurant, at the foot of a 300-metre cliff just outside Funchal, is accessible only by cable car, which is part of the fun of having lunch there. I would urge everyone visiting Madeira to book a table – the setting is idyllic, the food is fabulous and the staff are charming.