Think of 'Madeira' and it's safe to say a lot of you are considering 'cake' while some are mulling 'wine'. Maybe you're thinking of Cristiano Ronaldo. Now think of Madeira as a travel destination and it's safe to say many will be seeing a nice elderly couple sharing stories and a packet of boiled sweets.
Visit the island this year, however, and you're just as likely to meet the younger crowd emerging after dusk, sipping ponchas and enjoying the capital Funchal's nightlife. Then there's the group of trekkers on the island's burgeoning levada mountain trails. Or the thrill-seekers, paragliding and trying to figure out how they can stick a flag on one of the sheer cliffs, to claim them as their own.
The older folk are also here in their thousands, enjoying all this activity, reminiscing with their 'In my day...' stories of yesteryear. They live cheek by jowl, and it's this amusing mix that is injecting Madeira with a new sense of adventure.
Even landing at the island's airport is an extreme sport of sorts as the landing strip is partially built on stilts on the Atlantic Ocean floor, a fact that can only fully be appreciated by seeing it for yourself on terra firma.
So soon after you land, it'd be sinful not to try a poncha. Served hot or cold, it's made from rum, honey and lemon juice, but beware. One local warned us that one poncha is okay, you'll be dancing after two, but after three, you'll be speaking fluent Portuguese. Boa sorte!
Endearingly, those same locals are as proud as punch of their home. It's heart-warming to hear people talk about what they like about their 'upstairs' – the lush mountainous areas overlooking Funchal, but they're house-proud too, giving out about a couple of high-rise developments 'downstairs', on the eastern outskirts of town.
Funchal derives its name from the Portuguese word funcho (fennel). The herb was in abundance when the first settlers put down their roots, soon after Madeira was officially discovered in the early 15th century by João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, who were under the command of Prince Henry the Navigator.
Fennel is still plentiful, as is almost every herb, fruit, vegetable and flower known to man (well, to this man anyway). There are a lot more than 40 shades of green on the island, with almost every square inch of land pleasingly cultivated in some way. This was a particular highlight, driving up steep hills, bananas just begging to be picked (we didn't, you shouldn't); and Strelitzia (birds of paradise) just looking at you, sizing you up, begging for you to put your finger in their 'mouths' (we did, we had kids to entertain).
And if you can't drive, walk. For miles and miles, alongside the roads on the hills and mountains, there are mini canals called levadas, which in practical terms are used to transport water to the lowlands, but are increasingly becoming known as the non-speaking route guides which showcase the island's most breathtaking scenery.
Back at sea level, Funchal is a captivating nook, full of gardens and parks, proper old churches and buildings, and classy restaurants aplenty. Eating out is good value and the choice is as broad as your palate will allow. Espetada (chunky beef rubbed in garlic and salt and served on a hanging skewer – sounds rough and tough, but tastes delicious) is recommended, and on an island this size, it's not surprising that the fish is served so fresh, after the morning's catch. Espada (scabbard) is the island's speciality fish and is found on most menus.
Like any popular destination, there is a choice of pizza and burger joints (most welcome for a meal on the run), right up to the 'destination' Michelin-starred Il Galo d'Oro restaurant in the Cliff Bay Hotel. Or perhaps you could dress up and take afternoon tea at Reid's Palace Hotel. If, like the queen of England, taking afternoon tea is your thing, good luck to you; we're assured Reid's put on a great spread. George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill were hotel fans. But at ¤28.50 per person, those scones had better be homemade.
Of course, any meal should be toasted with Madeira wine. Blandy's is the most famous of the island's producers, and it has led the march to tempt the world's leading sommeliers for two centuries now. Tours of the Blandy's Wine Lodge in Funchal is a couple of hours well spent.
Our favourite dining experience, however, was in our hotel restaurant. We stayed in the CS Madeira Atlantic Resort & Spa, and it has five stars written all over it. Incredible value, delicious food and impeccable service, the CS is sure to build a fanbase through word of mouth. The view of the Atlantic from the hotel is stunning. It's built into a cliff at the start of the Lido area, a stroll west of Funchal. The Lido promenade is a relaxing place for a family to mosey, with playground cubbyholes, fun restaurants and incredible views.
It is said that Funchal isn't ideal for families with small children, but we found it easy to navigate. Taxis are cheap, and even the smallest ones will love the open-top bus tour, if only for the welcome cool wind blowing in their faces. Open-tops may look naff – it's tourism on wheels – and of course they're only taking you to the parts of the town or city the authorities want you to see, but it's a great way to set out your stall for the rest of your stay. Get your bearings on one of these on the first couple of days, and everything slots into place more easily afterwards.
It could be said that you travel 'through' Madeira, literally. Many of the mountains and hills are pockmarked with handy tunnels, giving some of the landscape the look of a block of Swiss cheese. Madeira's temperate year-round climate is one of the island's main selling points, and it's the reason winters can be busy. We visited in October, and Funchal was doing a brisk trade. The island is traditionally one of the first ports of call for cruiseliners on their maiden voyage, and the refurbished QEII paid a visit while we were there (the afternoon tea staff at Reid's were flat out).
We took to the open seas on a pirate ship, manned by 'real pirates', according to our three-year-old, who was delighted with the parrots cawing her name. Although, in fairness to her, 'Ola, Ella' is quite funny, coming from a bird. On other trips, there's the chance to swim with dolphins and go whale-watching, and if you're a water activities enthusiast, Madeira won't disappoint.
One downside is the absence of natural sandy beaches. There are a couple of manmade ones, with sand imported from Africa, but the otherwise rocky beaches will disappoint some. So if lying by the hotel pool (the CS Madeira has five, including two children's pools) just isn't enough, and you really need to add sand to the mix, a two-hour boat trip to Madeira's little sister island of Porto Santo will satisfy that urge.
Now, Blandy's may be fortifying wine for 200 years, and Reid's have been brewing tea for a few decades short of that. But many still think of Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo as the island's most famous export.
Old and new – Madeira's story.
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