BEST to have an open mind before you land in Madeira – because all your senses will be engaged on this quirky little island. If, like me, you arrive from snow-kissed Scotland, it is the warmth which will first envelope you, then you’ll notice the flowers – the exotic fruits and vegetables will come later. The drive from the airport might alert you to the heights you are going to experience, but the road to Funchal – where most tourists head – is smooth and steady.
Funchal nestles – and clings – round a bay on the south coast of the Portuguese island which has long been an important stop for ships crossing the Atlantic. Today it is busy with cruise liners making the most of its dramatic day trips – sledge rides, afternoon tea at Reid’s, a glass skywalk – and its location only 320 miles from Africa.
It’s not surprising that Madeira was a strategic prize for the Portuguese explorers and was settled in the 1420s, becoming an important trading post.
The island is shaped by its history of inhabitation. The levadas – which make such popular modern-day walks – were made to irrigate the drier land by slaves laying the foundations of Madeira’s rich agricultural tradition. The tall wine lodges are where grapes were matured into madeira, the fortified wine.
Trade fashioned an elegant capital, with gracious town buildings and country quintas for the wealthy. Churches come in all shapes – the grand Baroque cathedral, the intimate ornate San Pedro, the dusty simplicity of the Santa Clara convent, noisy with its nursery school and, right in the heart of the city, the Scots kirk.
A place of curiosity on my previous visit to Funchal 19 years ago, this time I was determined to find out more. It is now used by Portuguese Protestants, Ukrainian Orthodox and German Lutherans but was founded by a Glaswegian, Robert Reid Kalley. A medical doctor, Kalley had arrived on the island in 1838 in preparation for travelling to China, but his wife had health problems and they stayed.
Jorge Gameiro, the modern day pastor, told me how Kalley founded a hospital and 17 schools. To teach the children to read, he bought 2,000 Bibles. Today just one of those Bibles survives on the island, the rest were burned in 1846 by Catholics or taken to America by Madeiran Protestants who fled vicious persecution. Kalley fled the island disguised as a woman.
The last of his Bibles is on display inside the beautiful Kirk, which Gameiro explained was established with the help of the Free Church of Scotland. Not as plain as its roots would suggest – there is an organ and stained glass – the kirk’s simple interior is in contrast to its ornate Catholic counterparts. Unfortunately it is not open to the public.
Funchal itself is idiosyncratic: there’s a gritty working heart beneath the riot of colours, tourist temptations and colonial elegance. It’s at its most noticeable where the waterfront is being restructured, but turn many a corner and there’s an old-fashioned shop or traditional business.
The Mercado de Lavradores, the workers’ market, illustrates this well. Every morning the azulejo-tiled hall is busy enough, but it’s on a Friday that it’s a frenzy with colourful produce piled high. Fruit-spotting becomes addictive: the Madeirans have five types of banana – one’s like passion fruit with seeds. Then, there is the fish market with its mesmerising display of the day’s catch. Sadly nowadays, buying up the exotic blooms from the women in their colourful skirts is not an option for plane travellers.
Close to the market is Rua de Santa Maria. Narrow and apparently home to bars and a few shops, on closer inspection it’s an open-air art gallery. Almost every door has an original design: the interpretations cover an array of artistic styles – 3D, mosaic, paint, homage, childlike, graphic. I doubt I’ll be the only person to try to photograph each one.
This Old Town area is popular with tourists as it’s the terminus of the cable car to Monte where the sledge rides take place. There’s the Madeira Story museum and plenty of restaurants. Taking refuge from rain here was not the plan but it turned into a delightful evening. First, No 2 bar sheltered us for a Poncha, the lemon, honey and local rum drink which instantly lifted our spirits. Then, lured by a silver-tongued waiter, it was the Estrela do Mar, one of Madeira’s oldest restaurants. A three-course 14 euro set menu introduced us to some Madeiran specialities – espada (black scabbard fish trawled up from deep waters) with banana and espetada (skewers of grilled meat) – and Luis Gonzaga and his guitar. His beguiling music – from fado to vaguely familiar international tunes – comforted us as the night crept down.
Madeira is only 14 miles wide and 35 miles long. It also rises dramatically from sea level to 6,109ft, so there are lush tropical gardens, vineyards, banana palms and sugar cane, as well as gorse-clad moorland. Its mid-Atlantic location means weather forecasting is a mug’s game where a glum sky can crack a smile and become perfect blue.
At Cabo Girao – the third highest sea cliff in Europe – you experience the drama of the island from the glass-floored viewing platform opened last year. It’s easily accessible by car, and can be done by public bus – just make sure you read the timetable correctly and take the Ribeira Brava bus (not the local Cabo Girao service unless you really relish jolting round hairpin bends and admiring houses perched above precipitous drops).
I remember visiting Cabo Girao before and inching to the edge to take a photo: the glass “skywalk” is nothing like as daunting now – although some vertigoed friends find this year’s photos looking 1,800 feet down at the beach-side fields, once tended only by boat-borne farmers (now there is cable car access), rather challenging.
After my public-bus adventure, some luxury was in order. The Estrada Monumental is the closest Funchal comes to the Costas: this wide road has several holiday complexes and there are tourist shops and a couple of British bars. It’s also home to two of Madeira’s iconic hotels: Reid’s Palace and the Cliff Bay (with its Michelin-starred restaurant). They were built a century apart, both for the top-end traveller.
I headed for the old-world charm of Reid’s where I knew a coffee would allow me a look through that day’s British newspapers. Reid’s was built by an intrepid Scot, William Reid from Kilmarnock, who went from Funchal bakery worker aged 14 to wine trader and hotelier before commissioning Reid’s on the dramatic cliff-top site known as Horse’s Leap. He died three years before the hotel opened in 1891.
Madeira is a conundrum. The perception is that it is the perfect destination for the older traveller. Yes, it has warm winters and is a price bracket above the Costas, but it’s got so much more. It’s breathtakingly hilly, has stunning landscapes demanding you get out and about, retains a quirkiness you need energy to explore, and, although there are plenty of five-star treats to dip into, it doesn’t have to break the bank.
• Thomson flies direct from Glasgow from £455 return including taxes and charges in July, £367 in September and £308 in November (www.thomson.co.uk)
Thomas Cook flies direct from Glasgow from £352 in September and £293 in November (www.flythomascook.com)
Reid’s Palace, Estrada Monumental 139, Funchal (+351 291 717 171, www.reidspalace.com)
Cliff Bay, Estrada Monumental 147, Funchal (+351 291 707 700, www.portobay.com)
Madeira Tourism (www.visitmadeira.pt)