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WHY GO NOW?
On a spectacular rocky outcrop in the mid-Atlantic, nature, history and culture converge to form a fascinating destination. This month, Madeira joins the "no-frills" map, with easyJet flights from Stansted and Bristol to the island's spectacular airport for as little as £45 return. November temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius make this a good time to explore the island or walk the levadas (irrigation channels taking water from the wet north to the drier south). And at any time of year, the capital, Funchal, is well worth a visit.
On 29 October easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) launches daily flights from Stansted and flights from Bristol on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Existing "with-frills" services are operated by GB Airways on behalf of BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which flies up to five times a week from Gatwick to Funchal, from £59 one way; and TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.tap.pt) from Heathrow.
The airport is about 10 miles east of Funchal. An Aerobus service runs between the airport, Funchal city centre and the Lido area every 90 minutes or so for a fare of €4 (£2.80). Passengers on TAP Portugal travel free from the airport, on production of a boarding pass for an inbound flight. A taxi costs about ¿25 (£18).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Located to the west of North Africa, Madeira ("island of timber") was discovered in the early 15th century by the Portuguese navigator, Joao Zarco, who gave the capital, Funchal, its name from the fennel (funcho), which can be found growing in abundance. The 21st-century city is arranged along steep hillsides and deep ravines on the drier south coast. The main hotel district, known as Lido, is on the western side of town. The tourist office (1) is at Avenida Arriaga 16 (00 351 291 211 902; www.madeiratourism.com).
Centrally located at Rua dos Netos 69-71 is Hotel Orquidea (2) (00 351 291 200 120; www.hotelorquidea.com), which features bright, cheerful design and offers free Wi-Fi. Doubles from ¿70 (£50) including breakfast. Behind the old fort (3) in Rua Bela de Sao Tiago is the 1894 Quinta Bela de Sao Tiago (4) (00 351 291 204 500; www.solpuro.pt), in a colonial-style mansion; ¿159 (£114) double incl breakfast.
The grande dame of Funchal's hotels is Reid's Palace (5) at Estrada Monumental 139 (00 351 291 71 71 71; www.reidspalace.com), built by the son of a Kilmarnock farmer and opened in 1891. It combines modern facilities with traditional elegance. To stay in the room George Bernard Shaw occupied in 1925, ask for number 770. Doubles from ¿355 (£253), including breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE
Wherever you walk, wear flat-soled shoes with good grips, as the white stones of the characteristic black and white mosaic pavements can be slippery after rain. Starting in the old town, the Madeira Story Centre (6) (00 351 291 000 770; www.storycentre.com) offers an interactive introduction to the island's past and culture. Open 10am-6pm daily, admission €10 (£7). Rua de Santa Maria is typical of the narrow streets of the old town and leads to the two-storey Art Deco Workers' Market (7) on Rua Brigadeiro Oudinot. It's best visited on Friday morning when displays of local produce are most numerous and colourful. Walking through the city centre is always a pleasure, because of the intricate decoration of so much of it. Some of the best and most complex patterns of tiling in Funchal can be seen in the church of the Convent of Santa Clara (8), reached by heading north-west between the balconied upper windows along Calcada de Santa Clara. Founded in the late 15th century, it has a tranquil cloister. You have to pull the brass bell to gain entry. It opens daily 10am-noon and 3-5pm, ¿2 (£1.40).
Most unusually, the Cathedral (9) on Rua do Aljube has a wooden floor throughout, which was completed in 1514. Equally unusual is the elaborate cedarwood ceiling of the nave with narrowly spaced beams and inset ivory decoration.
To appreciate the unique production methods and history of Madeira wine, take a tour of the historic Blandy wine lodge and museum (10) at Avenida Arriaga 28 (00 351 291 740 110; www.blandys.com), followed by a tasting. Tours on Saturdays at 11am, or from Monday to Friday at 10.30am and 3.30pm; ¿4.20 (£3).
Products from another island industry, hand-made embroidery, can be found at Bordal (11) at Rua Doutor Fernao Ornelas 77 (00 351 291 222 965; www.bordal.pt). As characteristic of Madeira as its wine is the molasses-based bolo de mel (honey cake); one of the oldest and best makers is Fabrica St Antonio (12) (00 351 291 220 255) at Travessa do Forno 27.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Tables under an awning line the pavement outside O Leque (13) at Praca do Municipio 7, where you can have freshly caught tuna in home-made bread sandwiches (¿2.30/£1.65) to the sound of bells from the nearby Jesuit church. Exotic juices such as red papaya, Barbados cherry and passion fruit cost ¿2.10 (£1.50).
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the supply of sugar from Madeira to the Low Countries through Bruges and Antwerp made the producers so rich it was called "white gold". Some of this money was used to commission religious paintings. Many of these, along with other religious objects such as silverware and bishop's vestments, can be seen in the Museum of Sacred Art (14) at Rua do Bispo 21 (00 351 291 228 900). It opens 10am-12.30pm and 2.30-6pm from Tuesday to Saturday; admission ¿3 (£2.20).
For secular artefacts, visit the Frederico de Freitas Museum (15) at Calcada de Santa Clara 7 (00 351 291 220 578) for the eclectic decorative arts collection created by the eponymous lawyer who bequeathed it to the city. Most of the rooms in the former palace have been kept as he used them. A museum has been built for the outstanding collection of tiles assembled by de Freitas, including work by William De Morgan. It opens 10am-12.30pm and 2.30-6pm from Tuesday to Saturday; admission ¿2 (£1.40).
Madeira isn't big on bars. Locals tend to drink digestifs at restaurants after dinner – so most places double as cafés and bars. One of the most popular is Café Teatro at the municipal theatre (16) on Avenida Arriaga, where there is an attractive garden area at the side.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Behind the garden opposite the theatre at Rua de Sao Francisco 3 is Restaurante Combatentes (17) (00 351 291 221 388). The local staple of ugly but tasty scabbard fish is ¿9.50 (£6.80). Don't miss the delicious Madeira wine demi-froid dessert (¿3/£2.20).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Seventy years' restoration work on the 17th-century Jesuit church of St John the Evangelist (18) on Praca do Municipio has recently been completed. Its decoration is a bizarre amalgam of azulejos tiles, trompe l'oeil, frescos, inset paintings and altars flanked by barley-twist columns so encrusted with cherubs, birds and luxuriant vines that their shape is barely visible. It's open 9am-1pm and 6-9pm on Sundays (Mon-Fri 3-6pm, Sat 4-6pm).
The domed neo-classical English Church (19) in Rua do Quebra Costas was designed by the British Consul, Henry Veitch, to look secular, in deference to Catholic Portuguese law. The first services were held in 1822, and take place on Sundays at 8am and 11am. The church is open daily, 8.45am-6pm. In the garden is a statue of Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt, who married the Portuguese King John I in 1387 and gave issue to seven kings of Portugal.
OUT TO BRUNCH
The Golden Gate Café (20), which claims to be one of the "corners of the world", stands in its 1841 finery on the principal crossroads at Avenida Arriaga 27 (00 352 291 234 383). You can sit in wicker chairs sipping a pre-prandial glass of Madeira or Coral (the local beer), or just indulge in pastries and cakes in its two-storeyed tearoom or at pavement tables under jacaranda trees.
WRITE A POSTCARD
Sit under oleanders and date palms in the city centre's prettiest public garden (21), filled with majestic, labelled trees from Africa and South America, and write about the beautiful pink and white flowers on the kapok or silk cotton tree from Brazil and Argentina, whose fluffy floss is found in life jackets and pillows.
TAKE A VIEW
Arguably the best view of Funchal is from the headland on which Reid's Palace Hotel (5) is situated. Non-residents can enjoy this by taking afternoon tea on the loggia, served from 3-5.30pm (¿26/£19). Reservations are advisable. A free view from the opposite end of the bay may be had from the battlements of the city's first fort (3) of 1614, its walls a bright yellow ochre and its stonework unmistakeably taken from the island's volcanic rock.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Beneath the Regional Governor's Palace is Santa Caterina Park (22), formerly part of the house gardens. Fountains play in the large ponds.
TAKE A RIDE
You can ascend quickly and easily to the hills around Funchal. The cable car from the lower station on Almirante Reis (23) to Monte provides a panoramic view over the red-tiled roofs of the city, terraces of bananas and wooded hillside. Operating from 9.30am-6pm, it costs ¿10 (£7) one-way and ¿14.50 (£10.40) return but the return portion is only sold at the top so keep your ticket. At the top, turn left to the white twin-towered Chapel of Our Lady of Conception where Charles, the last Austrian emperor and Habsburg monarch, is buried. Also to the left is the Monte Palace Tropical Garden (00 351 291 784 756; www.montepalace.com), open daily 9.30am-6pm (¿10/£7); within the grounds are old and contemporary sculptures and a strikingly designed museum (10am-4.30pm; included in garden admission).
ICING ON THE CAKE
A quintessential Madeiran experience for over a century has been the descent from Monte by wickerwork basket on runners, steered and braked by a pair of boatered and white-flannelled drivers, for about ¿12 (£8.50). Best not tried straight after lunch.
Additional research by Sundari SankaReuse content