Travel: I told them: 'Have fun'. And they did: Hunter Davies, self-appointed tour leader for the over-fifties, finds Madeira the ideal place to take his wife and sister for some pre-Christmas sun

Hunter Davies
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:55

We spend the most money, we over-fifties, so the latest Mintel report tells us, and we take the most holidays. We have the most experience about the world, so we tell ourselves. Oh yes, we know a thing or three. So where to go for maximum winter sun, fun and satisfaction, with the minimum of noise, ugliness and aggravation? No question, I said, when the subject was brought up in our house. By me, as it happened. I fancied a tan for Christmas but did not want to go alone. Come with me, I told my wife and sister, I will be your tour leader. I have been around. Trust me.

The Canaries is, or are, out, crap place, full of crap people. You won't like it. The Caribbean, great, but too far for just a week's holiday. The Med is useless, bloody perishing in winter. The only possible place is Madeira. Leave it all to me.

I went five years ago, doing research on a book, never thinking I would return. I hate repeat visits at my age, when there are so many places still to see, but as a tour leader it is best to know what to expect. What I did not expect was that it might be full. I contacted Thomson, Sovereign and Cadogan, which all do packages to Madeira, but they had sold out for what I wanted.

I ran my eye down the bucket shop ads, using my best specs, and saw the cheapest return to Madeira was pounds 139. Heh, I could probably do this hol cheaper than the package boyos. That price turned out to be Monday morning, charter flight, leaving at some hellish hour from Luton. We wanted Saturday to Saturday. To get that I bought direct from GB Airways, a service flight, my dears, pounds 185, no cheapo job for me. It was worth it for the bliss of checking in at the BA place at Victoria station. GB is 49 per cent owned by British Airways, so you don't have to lug stuff on the train or round Gatwick's hellish cross-country run. We over-fifties tour leaders have to take care of our reproductive organs.

I also booked the hotel direct, an amusing little place I stayed at last time, the Quinta Penha de Franca. I honestly do not think you will be comfortable in Reid's, one of the top hotel wonders of the world, I said. My place is half the price, I mean equally lovely, and much smaller. So small I could not find the phone number. Travel agents keep such things secret, wanting you to book concrete horrors. I eventually got through, in my best kitchen Portuguese. And they did not even ask for a deposit.

I had lovely memories of the Quinta. Small, family-run albergaria in the middle of Funchal, behind a high wall, marvellous garden, delightful rooms. He was a distinguished doctor of about 60, floated round the gardens in his groovy white suit like Tom Wolfe, going off to see his patients. His wife, Muriel, ran their little hotel. They were still there, ditto the gardens, but we found ourselves in a new wing that had not existed before. Overlooking the sea, which was good, with a much bigger pool, even better, but, oh horrors, right beside a road. Did my wife moan, did she whine, till we got a slightly quieter room.

Then there had been a violent storm the week before, five people killed, floods everywhere, worst for 50 years. The lift in the new wing was still out of order: we had to climb 140 steps to get into the nicer, older part. Did I moan. Well, I do have a dodgy knee. But all the other things I promised them came true. They loved Funchal, the Portuguese colonial architecture, the market, the little museums, the harbour, the ships, the shops, the front - brilliant in December with 400,000 Christmas lights. Much busier than five years ago, and the locals complain about the traffic, but for a city of more than 100,000 it is still remarkably dignified, clean, efficient, civilised, quiet and safe. Just what we oldies want.

We ate out somewhere different every night, mainly in downtown Funchal, spoilt for choice, either dead classy at moderate London prices or dead friendly at bargain prices. As in mainland Portugal, prices in Madeira have gone up, but it is still easy to get a good three-course meal, with drink, for pounds 10. We wealthy oldies do like a bargain.

We ate once at Reid's, to see how the quality lives. There was an ambulance at the front door. Nothing changes. Easier at Reid's to call an ambulance than a taxi. They do not care for that sort of remark, naturally enough, but it is one of the penalties they pay for having cornered a world market in affluent oldies. They get 60 per cent returns, which is phenomenal. Would be even more if guests didn't die. A cheap remark: actually, the average age of the residents had plummeted that week to forty-nine- and-a-half.

I stayed there last time and enjoyed it, except I do not like big hotels and it took for ever to walk to my morning swim. We went on a conducted tour of the garden and lounges and dining rooms - and the old girls loved it. Why didn't I book them in here, they asked. You mean thing.

One day we went up a mountain and down again. It was too misty to see anything, but they loved the lavada walks - along old irrigation channels that follow the contours, perfect for oldies, with or without poorly knees. The whole island is green and lush, full of tropical flowers and manicured terraces. Even the cows have their own individual houses. They would fall down a terrace, should they venture out.

I told them they would love the people, and they did. So calm, contained, unpushy, ungrasping. Ignore any horrid timeshare pushers, they are bound to be Brits or Scandinavians. The island lives on tourism - has done for more than 200 years - which provides 30 per cent of its income. But Madeira has managed not to be destroyed by package holidays. The airport is too small for jumbos and the facilities are not geared to teenagers. There is no McDonald's.

Guess the second source of income. They suggested wine, and were wrong, then orchids, wrong again. No, after tourism, most money comes from Madeirans abroad - folks in Venezuela or South Africa, sending money home. Strange about South Africa, with no linguistic connections. It's to do with trade routes. For several hundred years, the big liners have put in at Madeira on the way to Cape Town.

You won't love Madeira wine, I said, as it's yucky. I was right. But you will be amused by the English-language newspaper, the Madeira Bulletin, for its misprints and archaic English. Look at this advert for a restaurant where 'a very nice man would take his wife for a romantic candlelight dinner'. They did not think the wording archaic. Or amusing.

Our biggest outing was to the little sister island of Porto Santo, some 50 kilometres away. We went by boat, on the Independencia; and, if you get the chance, don't. The loudest noise we heard all week was the sound of passengers spewing up. Coming back is OK, but going there, thanks to the currents, can be horrendous. It is only slightly more expensive to fly there and sail back. (Boat return is pounds 26, the plane pounds 36.)

The big attraction of Porto Santo is a five-mile golden sandy beach. Madeira itself has not got one. At the far end, so I promised, there is this brilliant fisherman's caff, you'll love it. We seemed to walk for days and I feared it had gone, but it was there - rebuilt, tarted up, frightfully clean and modern, and full of flies. Bad marks for the tour leader.

The other attraction is Columbus's house, opened in 1992, still with little inside to see but very atmospheric. Mrs Columbus was from Porto Santo, where her dad had been governor, and it was while Columbus was stuck on the island in the 1480s that he first thought of his Grand Design - to reach the east by sailing west. Stuck on Porto Santo in the 1480s you would be bound to think up some scheme to get off. Being stuck there today would not be a lot of fun, either. On the quay at Porto Santo, as we waited for the boat back, we admired the murals painted by visiting sailors, mainly of their own ships, with a few words thrown in. I took a photo of one slogan, as I thought at first it was a bit of Sixties feminism and would amuse my daughters. Save me buying them a present: Existem 3 tipos de homens] / Os vivos / Os mortos / E os homens do mar. It is in praise of sailors (there are three types of men: the living, the dead, and men of the sea).

In the end I got top marks. Madeira was the quality resort I'd predicted, perfect for the middle-aged and over, peaceful, yet with lots of things to do, see and guzzle. The weather was good, some clouds, but with enough sun and heat to sunbathe and swim or walk in comfort. Their only complaint was the new wing of the Quinta, which they found too noisy and brutal. Next time, they want to be booked into the old Quinta. Or Reid's.

It was also pretty reasonable. All in, including lunch and dinner out every day, flight and hotel, trips and treats, it came to pounds 2,000 for the three of us. I have not worked out if I saved by going independent or not. Rather vulgar, I always think, to go on about money when one is over 50.

Getting there: GB Airways flies from Gatwick to Funchal on Wednesdays and Saturdays, plus Friday 24 December, from pounds 169. Book through BA (081-897 4000). TAP flies from Heathrow on Thursdays and Sundays.

Accommodation: Quinta Penha de Franca, Funchal (351 91 229087); B&B for two from pounds 60. Reid's hotel, Funchal (351 91 223001); B&B for two from pounds 140.

Restaurants: Casa Velha, Rua Imperatriz D Amelia (351 91 225749) is classy. Doca do Cavacos, Ponta da Cruz (351 91 762057) is simple.

(Photograph omitted)

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