Pack the bucket and spade, we're off to Porto Santo

New flights have put this Atlantic island on the tourist map, says Oliver Bennett

In the Largo do Pelhourinho – the main square of the principal town on the Portuguese island of Porto Santo – I sat, communing with a charming and ancient one-eyed dog, wondering if the little town would ever wake from its afternoon slumber. Tumbleweed moment. But that's the way in Porto Santo, a sleepy hollow in the middle of the Atlantic, close to Madeira.



Now, things might get busier. PS is currently being lauded as Europe's "best-kept secret", "the Golden Island". The first non-stop flight from the UK goes to the island on 5 May. There's building along its seven-mile beach and room for more.

While Porto Santo is a neighbour of that green plant-pot, Madeira, this island is arid. Recently, in Madeira, I popped over by boat (Porto Santo is 70 kilometres to the north), itself a bracing experience. This was deep ocean, and I looked for whales, breathed the ionised Atlantic air, and enjoyed the ride.

Porto Santo emerged through the haze: a trio of ochre triangles foregrounded by a golden crescent – that seven-mile beach, Porto Santo's chef d'oeuvre. On the concrete pier, a snake of cars drifted through the windy heat, at a slower pace than its sister island. If Madeira was London, then Porto Santo, population 5,000, was Little Snoring. I found Vila Baleira, the main town – the only town – and sat in a café, so enervated by the heat I could barely swat a fly away.

I managed to make it to the new Pestana Santo Porto beach resort and spa. Newly unwrapped, it was a welcome sight. There is a swimming pool, a spa, an outside bar with hammocks, a sand football pitch and a wooden walkway to that beach.

I decamped to an agreeable room in a hacienda-type villa, dressed in international beach-chic: stripey cushions and walls and cheery furnishings, finished in a sea-blue palette. I sat on the balcony and got into holiday mode: would my next move be a swim, a drink, a walk on the beach?

Despite the heat, it was not high season. The island's money months are July and August, when the Portuguese come to vegetate on the beach. Some bury themselves, believing the sands to have healing properties – I never quite found out what these were, but the non-stick particles and hairdryer wind did bring a certain well-being.

I'm unable to stay on a beach all day, and had to explore. So, off I went in a rental car along Porto Santo's main road. There are a few hotels, and a couple of building sites – near the Pestana, some minimalist boxes are being turned into a five-star Sheraton.

At the friendly information centre I picked up a map and set off for the island's western end, where waves crashed on the craggy gothic basalt of Ilheu de Baixo just offshore. I had a coffee in the Calhetas, a stylish restaurant overlooking this splendour. By then, I realised, there wasn't much to do in PS. I nosed into a horse-riding centre with a tropical garden, which, improbably, also offers karaoke. A kilometre or so further, I came to the Quinta das Palmeiras, a "mini-zoo Botanico" and an oasis in the arid island. It has a pair of stroppy emus, a parrot and a macaw called Pavarotti.

Then there are the mountains. None is terribly high, and all can be climbed up to view points.

Back in the capital, Vila Baleira, I dawdled over to the Christopher Columbus museum, a key attraction, which is mercifully small, and viewed a 17th-century painting of Señor Colombo, who lingered here awhile on his journey west. I lingered in the delightful garden of this cultural hub, then went next door to the 17th-century whitewashed church, Vila's other sight.

Such activity had to be rewarded, and Vila Baleira's restaurant and cafe options are rather nice (if a shade pricier than Madeira). The Mercearia has four enormous palms, and an interior in a lovely old warehouse. The Cine Café is a cool, lounge-style hang-out. And the Cantinho do Leao is a model delicatessen. I went for supper at the Baiana restaurant and was delighted to find mutton on the menu, and lashed it down with refreshing Vinho Verde. The cooking on Porto Santo is not piled, drizzled, deconstructed or otherwise deranged, and I was happy about that.

There are restaurants that aim for sophistication, the Pe na Agua being one of them. Off the main drag and in a glass box touching the beach, it betrays its aspirations with square plates, zinc tables and – a rare find – crunchy vegetables. On my last night I walked off my meal on that beach and mused: take off your shoes, accept that you're in the middle of the Atlantic, and you'll find the spirit of Porto Santo.

Compact facts

HOW TO GET THERE

Atlantic Holidays (01452 381888; atlanticholidays.net) is offering seven nights on Porto Santo from £399 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from London Gatwick, transfers, and b&b at the five-star Pestana Porto Santo Hotel.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Madeira Tourist Board (madeiraislands.travel).

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