Madeira is a potential holiday destination that is often greeted by mirth and cries of 'my granny went there'. But away from the ever expanding tourist zone is a rocky, rugged volcanic island, with a temperate climate, rare plants, a luscious interior, and a certain charm that makes you want to go back and where the fish tastes divine

What is it about Madeira? The mere mention is enough to produce an indulgent smile, or at least a line or two ending in "Madeira, m'dear?" There can't be many other places certain to produce this reaction. It must be that, in sum total, this is all most people know about Madeira; these few lines and a faint suspicion that there's a drink involved too.

For example, where exactly is Madeira? (Of course you know, but, believe me, there are many who think it's somewhere in Spain.) Madeira lies in the northern half of the Atlantic Ocean, 300 miles west of Morocco and 600 miles south west of Portugal, the country that discovered, colonised, developed; and still calls the shots. So it's owned by Portugal, not by the estates of Noel Coward or George Bernard Shaw, or even by Horace and Doris Morris Inc, although evidence to the contrary in Madeira is sometimes hard to come by. But we're going too fast, way too fast for Madeira which, not for nothing, boasts of being Europe's oldest tourist spot. Having booked our passage and braved the jeers -"my granny went to Madeira!" - we set off.

History is involved. It was discovered in the very early 15th century by Portuguese seamen with unpronounceable names. Columbus evidently studied the trade winds in the tiny neighbouring island Porto Santo before going on to make his name. (Christopher Columbus for those of you at the back who've already started to nod off.) Then the Jesuits got a hold of things and spotted a niche in the wine market, which, until the arrival of the Victorian Great Tour was probably what Madeira was exclusively known for. End of history.

Portuguese tend to talk not about going to Madeira but about going to Funchal, the capital, which is on the bottom right-hand side of the island and is home to half of Madeira's population of quarter of a million. In the plane, we swooped passed Funchal. It is a pretty port with its red-roofed, white-walled houses spreading up into the green hills above it. There are no beaches on Madeira, this is a volcanic island, a 35-mile long, 14- mile wide stalagmite. Which is why the airport runway is about the size of the deck on an aircraft carrier. Whoooomph! Welcome to Madeira.

I must now make an admission - upon which many readers may snap shut their Sunday Review and vow to go no further: we did not stay at Reid's. If you're still here, Reid's to many people is Madeira. It is a wonderfully located hotel on a unique bluff of rock outside Funchal, which makes it so exclusive. It is where Winnie and Clemmie and Lloyd George and GBS stayed (not together) and today it is still full of sleek-looking coves in silk cravats who might well have been cloned from one of Noel Coward's insouciant eye-lashes. If you're someone who rates nothing higher than eating dinner in a monkey suit, then Reid's is the place for you.

Reid's is bang in the centre of Funchal's "Hotel Zone", an ominous Orwellian designation, and the deeper into the zone you go the less there is to like about it. You can almost hear the panting of out-of-breath developers as they dash to cash in on their shoulder-to-shoulder, blindingly white apartment blocks and neon sprouting hotels. This is the territory of breakneck tourism expansion, where Madeira is a "tourist destination" and progress is measured in terms of "bed-nights". The rush to the trough of EU benevolence also results in highways slung over pretty gorges and Herculean pillars sprouting from the very ocean to enable the airport to take the jumbo jets which will transform spreadsheet projections into reality.

We stayed in the Savoy, a very large but very decent, "old" hotel. Like most, the Savoy sits high on the cliffs above the sea and transport down to its "lido" on the ocean is by means of lifts and steps and paths that meander through gardens of riotous colour. Madeira's climate hovers in the blessed low 20s all year round which takes more than the sting out of the north Atlantic. But "lido"? A word from the past, like "gusset", it conjures up images of blokes bathing in long-johns, and sure enough when the Savoy's lido - two swimming pools and a long pier running out to an island in the sea - was built in the early Sixties they also saw fit to put up a four-storey changing-room block housing some 350 changing cubicles. Not even Ignatius Loyola's most fervent supporters were that paranoid about flesh in the 1960s. Ah well, that's Madeira for you.

Or is it? The centre of Funchal itself, small, compact, busy with the cleanest taxis in the world - all in shining yellow and blue livery - is one block back from the seafront. There is an exquisite early 19th- century theatre: stalls where you'd expect them to be, but instead of a circle four levels all of private boxes. (Again, this passion for privacy.) Opposite Funchal's theatre are magnificent municipal gardens whose trees tower with a charming, Gauguin-like disproportion over the town. Because lava makes earth absurdly fecund, hydrangeas, agapanthus and birds of paradise burst everywhere around you. Jacaranda trees are as common here as ash and oak at home. Dross from mimosa carpets the paths in egg-yolk yellow while scarlet butterflies glide drowsily beneath wisteria. Leading down from the cathedral to the marina there's a broad, pedestrianised street with lots of busy cafes where Funchal's young set meet over Brazilian coffees and discuss what's going on in Lisbon.

We hired a car. The sight of the towering mountains and their houses above Funchal had become irresistible. In what would later be seen as a defining moment, we left Funchal. So high above the city that the car for most of the journey was pointed like a rocket, the Palheiro Golf Club is so dramatically located and so, damn it, perfect in every respect that it was and remains an abiding mystery as to why the course was almost empty. June is, they said, low season, and the locals tend to play, they assured us, in the later afternoons, and this was morning: but the explanation took some digesting as we buggied up and down green hills and sat amid deserted fairways beside lakes where a thousand frogs also lounged and called out to one another in high pitched tones of lily-pad love.

Encouraged by our discoveries out of the zone, we ate a lunch of espada (swordfish) and drank little glasses of Madeira wine (19 per cent by volume, sweet) and nosed up another cliff face to the Botanical Gardens. Why does Byron always come to mind in such places? In order to preserve tranquility the grass up here is still cut by men with hedge clippers. Quite. But the scents! Even if you're botanically illiterate, you could wander round half smashed on the scented air. For gothic lovers there's a cactus garden: spiders love cacti and construct enormous curtain-like webs between them in which the sucked-out remains of flies are dotted like tiny, burnt-out Spitfires.

Emboldened now, we struck into the interior, headed for a settlement on the north-west coast of Madeira called Porto Moniz. Small islands impose their own logic and proportion. Although Funchal to Porto Moniz as the crow flies is no further than 15 miles, everyone said that, if we had to go, then a good day should be set aside for the expedition.

Madeira today is tunnelled like a gigantic Gruyere. Maps of the old road system, particularly on the coasts, resemble many hairpins laid down side by side. But today, thanks to Brussels, you buzz under the foothills of mountains. We buzzed west from Funchal to Ribeira Brava - a sort of mysteriously conceived holiday destination consisting almost entirely of ugly apartment blocks - then struck north, tightening our seat belts.

The road from Ribeira Brava to the highland way-station of Encumeada climbs from sea level to almost 4,000 ft in a few kilometers. In 30 minutes we had cast off the south coast and its often cruise-liner atmosphere. The valleys we rose through were intensely terraced - bananas, then vegetables, then vines - in the way in which the Portuguese, particularly the northern Portuguese in and around the valley of the River Duoro, have developed with such mastery. This terracing imposes a wonderful symmetry, the wise and knowing hand of man on terrains of rampant jungle.

Most notable in this utter change of place - more notable even than the unforgettable sight of hydrangeas growing wild, and of cliffs of bougainvillea - was the absence of traffic and of noise. It may, again, be to do with the low season, but the road to Encumeada was virtually empty. It gets cooler, obviously, the higher you go. Pulling over on bends and getting out to gaze vertically down at hidden villages in lost valleys thousands of feet in the distance brings a Pyrenean sense of remoteness.

After Encumeada (we never actually discovered a town of this name, just a roadsign) we slipped down through lusciousness for 10 kilometers or so, lured on by glimpses of the sea. The north coast of Madeira is rugged and the sea churns and soughs and has made ragged work of the rocks. The road from Sao Vicente clings to the coast and is so narrow that meeting the occasional car travelling in the opposite direction is certain to crop up again in your dreams. The tunnels up here are grandparents to the sleek EU constructions of the south coast: porous and dark and all but collapsing under their mountains. The dash through them is breath- holding, echoing and wet. Back out, and from heights too lofty to calculate, waterfalls cascade directly on to the narrow road daring you to drive through them.

We reached Porto Moniz at two. On the map the words "Piscinas Naturais" appear and refer to the retaining walls built along the coastal rocks so that you can swim, thrillingly, as if in the midst of the raging, north coast Atlantic, but safely, within the calm waters of natural pools. We stayed in the only inn, in a room so near the sea that we could taste the spray. Porto Moniz is a place on the brink of discovery: our inn and the local few shops, cafes, restaurant and residential housing are no more than 10 years established. We met Germans on walking holidays and the odd couple who, like ourselves, could scarcely believe their luck.

There's relatively little local life on the shore here - it's too narrow and too infertile - all the action is a couple of thousand feet up, in the mountains, where they grow vegetables and orchids and to where most of the people working down in Porto Moniz return every night on the ubiquitous Portuguese buses that grumble mightily uphill in basso profundo.

The coast is too rough for much fishing: that takes place out of Calheta and Pal do Mar on the south-west coast. But fish is still a specialty in Porto Moniz and no one can cook it like the Portuguese. The caldeirada, a local, deeply aromatic fish stew which needed a powerful red Dao to do it justice, is something for which, m'dears, I would unhesitatingly return to Madeira.


TAP (Portuguese Airlines) (0171 828 0262) fly direct from London to Madeira twice a week. Fares cost from pounds 316 return.


Prices per night at Reid's Hotel (00351 91 763001) for a double room, with breakfast, start from pounds 169. At the Savoy (00351 91 222 031), a double room, with breakfast, starts from pounds 100 per night.


Contact the Portuguese tourist office in London (0171 494 1441). The main tourist office on the island is in Funchal (00351 91 229057).

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