Its funny how things go; around Christmas time 2011, I decided over dinner with some friends, to run a Barefoot 10K. Conveniently there was one being held in Battersea Park the following autumn, appropriately raising funds for Trees for Cities. It was all falling beautifully into place.
Hearing about my fund raising, Lynette and Arturo of the beautiful Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel kindly offered me a room for the night before the 10K. The Pestana Group is Portugal’s largest chain of luxury Hotels and the Chelsea Bridge Hotel is their first Hotel in the UK.
Lynette and Arturo are fabulous people – forward thinking, pro-active, positive and very respectful and appreciative of nature and her beauty; we got on well. We chatted about how to promote the hotel during the next Chelsea Flower Show, which I was involved in, and consequently I was invited to a drinks reception on the weekend of the RHS Show to meet the Mayor of Funchal, Miguel Albuquerque and other visiting Madeiran dignitaries. It was a wonderful evening, meeting more forward-thinking people who obviously loved nature. That evening I was invited to visit their beautiful island, and promised to do so.
Fast forward about 16 months and I am standing in a queue at Bristol Airport waiting to board the plane to Funchal. Like I said, ‘Funny how things go’.
The EasyJet flight from Bristol is just £88.00 return and the flight only just over 3 hours; marginally more expensive and longer than it takes for me to get to London. I am catching the early Monday morning flight but there is also a flight that leaves on Saturday afternoons.
The in-flight magazine has an interesting article about canyonning, one of Madeira’s new extreme sports. I believe in ‘signs’; things that are ‘meant to be’. This is already unfolding beautifully.
My first sight of the ‘floating garden’ reveals a rather short runway perched on concrete stilts above the ocean. A very tight right hand turn lines us up with the runway; the right wing dips sharply and evokes audible gasps. It reminds me of approaching some of the smaller Caribbean islands, expect most of those are also littered with light aircraft wreckage. This runway is clean.
The temperature is a welcoming 16 degrees and the skies are blue. I have traded snow filled, grey skies and cutting high winds for this; it’s a good trade.
I decide to catch the airport bus rather than a cab, it’ll be more atmospheric and travels to Funchal every half hour. The road system is immediately impressive; tunnels and elevated sections have been created to accommodate the main highway. I later learn it’s only 12 year old. Young, in road years!
My base for the week is the very grand Pestana Casino Park Hotel, a impressive building designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer; I’m sure I hear a light ripple of envy from the fellow travellers as I disembark. My welcome is warmer than the climate; the staff are naturally hospitable and good humoured.
It soon becomes apparent that the Madeiran people are amongst the most welcoming and friendly I have ever met. They explain that as a nation, they have a very long history of receiving guests, and more recently, of tourism. They genuinely like people and it shows.
I am greeted at the Hotel by José Pedro Tojal, the senior sales manager , who is both charming and extremely welcoming and whom I also met in London. He is pleased to see the article on canyonning, which I liberated from the plane, and admits that he would love to try it. He asks if I would I like to try it during my stay. I politely decline. I don’t feel prepared, practically or mentally. He is politely understanding and accepting of my ‘cop-out’.
After quickly settling into my luxurious room and admiring the beautiful view over Funchal harbour (and three of the most enormous cruise ships), I wander down the hill into Funchal in a t-shirt and shorts. I notice everyone else is dressed in winter coats and scarves. Its 17 degrees. Cold for them, warm for me – obviously.
Funchal is fabulously clean, uncrowded and has the feel of a small town rather than a capital city. I decide the market place (Mercado dos Lavradores) will be a good place to find and use as a reference point. I find it easily and it is indeed a great central point. Although late in the day, the fish market still offers monumental slabs of tuna and other huge fish that I don’t recognise. It’s worth a visit. The rest of the market hosts fresh fruit displayed more like art than food and I am quickly engaged and shown 6 different types, or flavours, of passion fruit – banana, peach, tomato, orange, pineapple, melon and the original passion fruit. A brief tasting session proves they are delicious (apart from the tomato one, give that a miss) but I have to haggle hard to get my little bag full for a reasonable price. I manage to barter down to less than half of the original quote. I don’t speak Portuguese but I know the value of fruit and I also understand, ‘Not a tourist?’ as the vendor puzzles his defeat.
Further exploration reveals the bustling sea front, popular with clusters of tourists from the cruise ships, the cable car station and numerous inviting places to eat. I immediately like the feel of Funchal; people are respectful and polite and I am very comfortable exploring it all on my own.
I am absorbing the sights and sounds like a proverbial sponge; the roads remind me of Italy, the cable car of Switzerland, the tiny white houses with their red roof hats are Caribbean-esque, the steep terraced gardens that are little more than ledges, remind me of parts of India, the narrow cobbled streets of Venice, and the green mountains of Wales. Madeira seems to have handpicked all the best aspects of other countries and islands and croqueted them all together in the beautiful tapestry that is the ‘floating island. It’s clever: Madeira strikes me as being smart.
I head back to the hotel via two public parks; they are beautiful. Some of the plants I recognise, others I make a mental note of to ask about or look up. I sit and watch a gardener plant out a bed of Tradescantia and think how much happier they must be in a flowerbed in Madeira than in a bathroom in the UK!
Back at the hotel I decide to explore it a little more and check out the spa and gym. I’m not a big spa lover but I have to say I can appreciate its appeal for most. It’s luxurious, indulgent and relaxing but none of those three is what I’m looking for so I have a quick blast in the gym, change and wander back down into Funchal, heading for my reference point that is the market place.
I have arranged to meet a friend there. He has been coming to Madeira for the winter sunshine for a couple of years and is a real ‘character’. I look forward to the evening, to catching up with Psychic Dave and being introduced to the real Funchal.
I meet Dave successfully and he guides me through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter to the art gallery of a friend of his. The streets themselves are like open air galleries, with the large, double wooden doors having been painted and decorated by visiting artists. www.ap-madeira.pt/madeira
It’s something that is quite unique to Madeira and which was instigated by the creative João Carlos Abreu. Appropriately, the government have dedicated a museum to his life and works. www.cultura.madeira-edu.
Nestled amongst the cafes, restaurants and bars sits the gallery Dave is heading for; it’s a beautiful space – www.youtube.com. Wolfgang greets us; he came to Madeira to paint doors several years ago; he hasn’t left, he’s still painting doors, creating art and teaching kids to paint. He has fallen under the Madeiran spell and seems more than content to stay there. A magical night is had by all; there appears to be a copious amount of room under the Madeiran spell.
As I wander back to the hotel later, I pass the cable car station and realise just how close to the well-trodden tourist track I am; yet I suspect many must miss this magical area – it is literally like walking through the back of a wardrobe into Narnia. If you are lucky enough to visit Madeira, make sure the fabulous Old Town, or Old Quarter, area is high on your list of things to see and experience. There is a lovely saying, “Always take one more step than you think you are capable of, for that is where the magic lies.” It is particularly pertinent here.
The next morning, José introduces me to Marta from the Madeira Promotion Board, www.visitmadeira.pt, who will help organise some Madeiran experiences during my stay. We meet in a pavement cafe and she is wrapped up against the elements – the elements being 18 degrees with a light breeze. Marta is friendly and good humoured, commenting on my bare arms and legs. “We always know which country the visitors are from,” she smiles. I explain what I do at home and she nods, having already explored my website. Ideally, I would like to promote the aspects of Madeira that emulate my home life; that way I can do it congruently, authentically and with passion. I explain that I’m sure there are people who are better qualified to comment about Madeira wine and embroidery and she nods understandingly and suggests horse riding through the laurel forests and bird watching along the levadas; I suggest meeting a bee keeper (and visiting an apiary) and a maybe even a small holding with chickens and pigs. She is completely unphased; “I have never been asked about the pigs and bees,” she laughs, “but I will see what I can do.”
With the outline of an itinerary just needing to be coloured in, I thank Marta and head to the cable car to visit Monte’s Tropical Gardens and the Botanical Gardens. The views from the swaying carriage are stunning; it is without a doubt an ideal way to see Madeira as well as an ingenious way to reach the gardens.
Monte has a magic all of its own; the gardens are everything they promised to be and more. Leafy green canopies provide dappled shade and good company as I explore the pathways, cheerfully identifying swathes of plants that we are more familiar with seeing on windowsills at home. Monte Palace Museum hosts an impressive collection of Zimbabwean sculptures but downstairs is an exhibition which quite honestly raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Called Mother Nature’s Secrets, it is a breath-taking collection of about 1,000 crystals and mineral species amassed over 15 years by José Berardo. As is often the case in nature, words cannot do it justice. I am transfixed. www.berardocollection.com
Back out in the gardens I spot a young bird stuck in a water trough in the large bird cage. After much gesticulating I eventually lead a poor Portuguese gardener, who can’t speak a word of English, to the cage and point out the bird’s dilemma. The gardener’s own frustration gives way to pleasure as he receives a round of applause from the small inquisitive crowd. Nature speaks a Universal language.
Full of ‘big tree energy’ and happy to have saved a life, I walk a short distance to catch the cable car from Monte to the Botanical Gardens, just 10 minutes ‘sway’ away. It’s a great transport system. A kestrel hovers regally alongside my car, high above the huge eucalyptus, agaves and aloes in the ravines below. I wonder how on earth they keep the cable cars and lines free of trees and vegetation, as the cliffs are sheer in places. I assume tree surgeons are highly revered in Madeira.
The Botanical Gardens have a completely different atmosphere and energy to the Tropical Gardens of Monte; they are vibrant and enthusiastic with a childlike charm and naivety, compared to the steadiness, maturity and wisdom of Monte. I enjoy them very much and am completely in awe of the pink pom poms of the Oriental Madagasar (also known as the Tropical Hydrangea Tree) and the boastful yellow parrot-shaped blooms of the Acacia. The views from the Lover’s Cave are as rewarding as promised and the exhibits at the museum, thought provoking and humbling. Every sense is stimulated; I am haemorrhaging new experiences.
Returning to Monte in search of the famous toboggan ride back that promises an exhilarating ride back to Funchal, I stop off at Monte’s Church. It is peaceful and serene, perched high on the hill. (Monte translates as ‘mount’) At the base of its famous steps, there are groups of neatly dressed men, of all ages, in white shirts, some playing cards and some gathered around a bar; their numbered straw boaters and small rucksacks hang up nearby. It looks as though there are several generations of families here – I wonder if it is a family tradition. I have to muster a little courage to walk though the testosterone to the toboggans and am grateful to be following another couple. The traditional wicker basket toboggan resembles a large dog bed on wooden skis, with a cushioned seat. Two men laugh and joke behind me as they push the toboggan (and yours truly) off down the steep tarmaced hill. They jump on the back and are still obviously enjoying a private joke. I am less than confident. The toboggan zips quickly over the shiny well-worn tarmac, and suddenly amid much laughter, my toboggan is spun around 180 degrees – several times. I notice, with interest, that the people in front aren’t being spun. A few hair pin bends, passing cars (honestly), full spins and silent prayers later, we skid sideways into a small car park at the end of the run. It was fun; Ernest Hemingway described it as the most exhilarating experience of his life – I wonder if he got spun!. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnYCzfho6rI
Me, and my mind, wander down the steep street into Funchal though streets of cascading bougainvillea and Orange Trumpet Vine, it’s a longer walk than I expected but all downhill and the sun is beautifully warm. There are taxis if your knees are still knocking from the toboggan ride.
I mull over the nuggets of information that Marta gave me earlier – she had been patient with my often unconventional questions. The dead were buried on Madeira (she had seemed surprised by the question but I always wonder if an Island will eventually run out of room) but people have to go to Porto Santa ( paradoxically, the ‘Golden Island’ which lies 27 miles off of Madeira) if they want to be cremated; they are then brought back for burial. Recycling is ‘big’ on Madeira but (as a rather unnerving continuation from the cremation conversation), Marta explains “a lot of rubbish is still incinerated in Funchal”. People have to have a permit if they want to have bonfires or garden fires and most green waste is composted. There are ‘street dogs’ in Funchal but the local Animal Protection Society tends to sterilise the females and re-homes as many dogs as possible. Cats can also be seen in the streets and are fondly referred to as ‘fat cats’ as they have perfected the art of scrounging from tourists. I avoid the obvious ‘fat cat’ jokes.
Rats were imported into Madeira, bats are endemic and there are also rabbits in the forests. Apparently they don’t pose a problem to gardeners as they have enough to eat in the forest. There are no squirrels or hedgehogs. Most of Madeira’s wildlife consists of birds, most of which are migratory. There are still endemic tarantulas on the Desertas and when I ask, “Are birds the natural predators of tarantulas?” Marta had laughed, “no, it’s the other way around.” It had been great conversation stopper.
Contrary to the outdated beliefs that Madeira is for the elite, exclusive and elderly, the Island is also attracting younger visitor who are coming to experience ‘extreme sports’ like mountain biking, paragliding, co-steering, and canyoning. Whale and dolphin watching, swimming with dolphins, golf, bird watching and horse riding are amongst the more traditional pursuits which are also enjoyed.
Christmas and New Year are popular times with tourists and remarkably Funchal is in the Guinness Book of Records for its New Year’s Eve Fireworks display, of which they are understandably very proud. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUZlCjAUnKk Other annual highlights include the Flower Festival in May and the Atlantic Festival in June, where amongst other delights, fireworks are synchronised to music.
Apparently, July and August are popular with families enjoying Madeira’s safe streets and temperate climate.
My mind and I eventually arrive in Funchal via the University Quarter. The pavements are full of young people enjoying their coffee in the sun. They are all thumbing mobile phones as they chat. Maybe it’s being suddenly feeling swamped by wave of technology that evokes the ‘desire for a Church’; ever accommodating, Funchal’s Cathedral is just around the corner. The architecture, and knot work ceilings are incredible and the ambiance easily satisfies my need but I will respectfully leave any other reviews to better qualified Church-esque columnists.
I have an early supper in one of the numerous friendly pavement cafes before heading back to my peaceful balcony to watch Funchal and the surrounding mountainside, twinkle mischievously against early night sky.
It’s already my third day and the ever-helpful José Pedro Tojal has arranged for me to visit the beautiful gardens of Pestana Village and Miramar Hotel http://www.pestana.com/en/pestana-miramar-madeira/pages/home.aspx and to meet the Head Gardener. Susana Jesus looks after the nine Pestana Hotel gardens in Funchal and their 25 gardeners. She is bright, efficient and enthusiastic about her plants. She is younger than I am.
I never tire of witnessing what we perceive as houseplants, filling their potential by swamping flowerbeds and climbing huge host trees. Susana points out the striking White Bird of Paradise, explaining that the more familiar orange Bird of Paradise is referred to as the Queen whilst the larger white on is known as the King. Her knowledge is impressive and yet delivered in the wonderfully unassuming and down-to-earth manner of someone who is also used to getting their hands dirty.
Despite differences in location and climate it seems gardeners have the same ‘challenges’; “the more we water and feed the plants, the more weeds we grow too; weeds are a problem the world over.” Susana explains, waving a hand toward a green carpet of chickweed and groundsel.
At the rear of the Hotel is a small nursery where plants are propagated and raised for use in all of the other Pestana gardens. It’s an impressive set up, with just one woman working at the helm or potting bench. “One woman does the work of three men,” laughs Susana. “Same the world over.”
I get dropped off for a meeting with Marta and to meet the bee keeper she has found, Antonio Reis. She explains he doesn’t speak much English so she will stay to translate. I can guarantee he speaks better English than I speak Portuguese.
It transpires that Antonio’s father taught him to keep bees, there is no ‘formal’ training on the Island, people learn from friends and family. About 10 years ago Antonio had 150 hives now he has just 8. Varroa and American Foul Brood have hit the Island hard and destroyed many of the colonies. He explains, shaking his head, that there are no longer any honey bees at all on Porto Santa. It’s hard to comprehend. I ask about wild bees and again he shakes his head. “If people see a swarm of bees, they kill them; most people are afraid of bees.” The odd thing is that mutual empathy and head shaking seems to have broken down our language barrier and I realise that in the last ten minutes Antonio and I have communicated without Marta, mainly by hand gestures and facial expressions but nonetheless we have understood each other and more importantly how bloody awful it is that the bees are not better understood. Antonio tells me that ironically when he had 150 hives it was actually less work because there was no disease so the hives were just checked occasionally and when the honey was removed. Now they have to be checked frequently for disease. No one on the island is keeping bees full time. If anyone wants to sell honey commercially they have to be registered, but not if its just for home use. I suggest that surely Madeiran Honey could be amongst the best in the world, considering the islands flora. He agrees.
As the temperature rarely falls below 3 or 4 degrees and flowers bloom all year round, the bees are seldom fed sugar syrup and honey is harvested regularly. It is very different to our UK system where the bees and bee keepers have a long and often challenging winter to cope with. I think about my own hives which will now be under a thick blanket of Welsh snow.
Antonio says his bees are very good natured, “because they are Madeiran bees.” He grins. I ask him what he does as a job – he looks an outdoors type. It turns out that he works in a laboratory which processes the results of woman’s cervical smears. Now, not only was that not what I was expecting – but spare a thought for the translation process – based purely on hand gestures and facial expressions. I will say no more but it did make me think twice about the relevance of my future questions.
Because of the language issue, and the fact that she didn’t have time to come along, Marta had suggested it was probably too difficult for me to go and see the hives alone with Antonio. Of course she didn’t know him either, he was a friend of a relative. But during our half hour together, much had changed.
Marta told me, “Antonio would like to invite you to go and see his bees. You may not understand much of each other’s language but it seems you both understand language of the bees.”
I was delighted.
Driving up the steep, hair pin bends cut into the mountain side, Antonio suddenly pointed out a row of three hives perched on an almost vertical cliff face above the road. I asked how on Earth anyone managed to get to them. He mimed someone scrabbling up the bank and then falling onto the road with a cartoon ‘splat’ , as he hit the palms of this hands together. It appeared the bee keeper often fell whilst tending his bees, and often with a hive or frames of collected honey.
We eventually turned off onto a rough forest track. He patted the dashboard of his 4×4 and as I suspected, it was a necessary vehicle for our destination. We lurched through eucalyptus and dead pine trees (he explained that a nematodes was killing the trees) and huge swathes of burnt scrub land – a result of the forest fires that swept Madeira mountains in 2010, ironically the same year as the flash floods which were so severe they even claimed lives. We eventually parked alongside a steep ravine; the views were breathtaking and just around the corner, were his row of hives, sitting like a row of workmen on a break, also enjoying the view. It was about 4 o’ clock and the bees were coming back to the hive; they were small and dark, and very quiet. It was idyllic. We sat in silence watching the bees come back with little bags of pollen on their legs. It was warm and still and no words were necessary – in that delicious little exclusive bee keeping world that is the same the world over.
Leaving the bees, Antonio asked if I had been to the Islands highest cliff, Cabo Girao, also the second highest cliff in Europe. I shook my head. “You must. It’s very close; we’ll go.” His kindness was humbling.
I wasn’t ready for the glass bottomed balcony that canter-levered out over the cliff to create a very impressive viewpoint. It took my breath away and literally stopped me in my tracks. Antonio roared with laughter, he had been watching and waiting. He was right – it’s a must when you visit Madeira. http://www.madeira-live.com/en/newsflash/cabo-girao.html
On the way back to Funchal, he took a detour to the edge of another cliff to show me a seafood restaurant, called Doco do Cavas which sat in its own little cove at the bottom of a rock face. It could only be accessed by an elevator on the side of the cliff. A little way over was a second elevator but much more rustic. Antonio explained the ‘nice’ one was to take people up and down, the other one to take tools down and bring the veg and produce up. Unfortunately the restaurant was closed until March.
We continually discovered more and more things which we had in common which kept the conversation flowing relatively smoothly; any frustration was as a result of the total extent of my Portuguese being ‘Obrigada’ – thank you. Although, ironically, it was the only one word I really needed.
Antonio was the perfect guide, pointing out various plants, areas of interest and describing different aspects of the Madeiran way of life. His kindness was unexpected, incredible and infinitely indicative of the Madeiran people. I am very grateful to him.
As I wandered back into Funchal for supper, I reflected on how good things turn out when you just go with the flow; it is maybe a phrase that is overused and not fully engaged with but so very powerful. Vowing to stay in the flow, I looked at the menu of one open air cafe and felt an arm around my shoulder. A familiar voice said, “Hello lovely Lynne, how is your stay in Madeira?” It was Wolf, the artist I had met with Dave. You can see his art at www.wolf.fineartprint.de
My fourth day dawns as another sunny day with beautiful blue skies; I capture the most amazing sunrise from the balcony of the Hotel as I do my daily Tai Chi and Shiva Nata work out. It’s a great start.
I am fortunate enough, and admittedly excited, to be going horse riding this morning. The stables are run by a young, vibrant and passionate couple Paulo and Paula. http://quintadoriacho.com/ They greet me cheerfully at their yard on the edge of a laurel forest at Santo da Serra. They are surrounded by their 15 rescue dogs, it’s all wonderfully reassuring. Paula tells me that I am their first visitor for two weeks as they have been through a really tough time with the horses. They fed them all organic grass and they all got sick, some were worse than others and one horse died from colic. Paula explained they been sleeping at the stables and despite doing everything they could, had felt so very helpless. Things were slowly returning to normal and all the horses were back in good health and eating normally. The atmosphere was relaxed and chatty, they are both animal mad and I have to laugh when Paulo tells me that in most businesses people say the Client is always right but, “here we say the horse is always right .. and they come first too.”
We are soon tacked up and out on horseback alongside the lavadas in the laurel forests; we are accompanied my 7 or 8 of the dogs and I can feel the City energy of Funchal dissolve into the forest floor. It is idyllic; Paula is naturally friendly and informative, we have a lot in common and chat comfortably. We pass a beekeeper tending his bee hives; we can’t actually see the hives but Paulo knows they are there and we smell the smoke from his smoker. The couple describe their stables as being dedicated to leisure riding and I can’t think of a better description. A far cry from the often disappointing nose-to-tail treks that I have been on in foreign countries, my time in the saddle in the laurissilva forests with Paula discussing everything under the Madeiran sun, made for a magical and memorable morning. We get back and have to have a quick count of dog heads, all present and correct. The horses are fed, the dogs stretch out and doze in the warm sun and all is well with the World, very well indeed.
That afternoon I am taken to see some Madeiran pigs. Marta at Madeira’s Promotion Board has been working her socks off. She is amused but unperturbed by my sight-seeing requests. I’m a little surprised when we get to the Pig farm as I expect to be meeting a family who are raising their own pigs and chickens in an idyllic countryside setting. Instead I meet a breeder who raises the pigs for the families to bring on themselves. At any one time he may have over 500 pigs. Despite there obviously having been something lost in translation this time, he is very accommodating and the pigs are healthy and happy. The smell, however does not evoke either of those emotions; it kind of punches you in the stomach and although I cope with it, my driver Marco, who has also kindly offered to translate, isn’t doing so well. Obviously regretting his rash offer; he is struggling not to vomit. He acclimatises well and we are both soon learning about pig keeping Madeiran style. Despite the ease of translation, he apologises that he cannot get our host to comprehend that I keep pigs as pets. I don’t think its a language issue – more a lifestyle one!
There are pigs of all sizes, ages and stages and almost by way of acknowledging my own pet piggy preferences, the breeder suddenly picks up a little piglet and passes him over for me to hold. Perhaps he does understand the word ‘pet’ after all. My smile says it all – Obrigada! He tells me his father kept pigs and horses but there is no money in horses any more. The people of Madeira prize their pork and it is traditionally eaten on Christmas Day. There is a celebration held to kill the family pig and the abundance of little piglets here now will supply families with this year’s Christmas lunch. He proudly shows me a healthy flock of chickens and explains that these are also food, not pets. Marco translates that my own chickens are also pets and the breeder nods; he’s pre-empted that.
Back in the vehicle all I can smell is ‘pig’. It seems even stronger than outside; I apologise to Marco. He shrugs, “I’m ok now. But I wasn’t expecting it to be so strong. The guy said his own children won’t visit the pigs because of the smell.”
As he drops me off in Funchal, I thank him profusely for his company and help and apologise again about the smell. He replies, “It has been a pleasure, you are an unusual visitor; your stay will remain one of my most memorable experiences.” I choose to take it as a compliment.
Although it’s a bit cooler (about 13 degrees) this evening, I decide to eat outdoors to spare diners and waiters the pungent piggy pong and figure that I may as well make tonight the night I try the limpets. Cooked with copious amounts of garlic, they are a Madeiran speciality, known as Lapas. I hope the smell of garlic will override the lingering odour-d’-pig. I explain to the waiters that they are my first limpets; he grins and tells me to enjoy them. When he returns to collect my plate, I tell him they will also be my last limpets, he doesn’t look overly surprised …. or bothered, for that matter. Full of fresh air and food, and highly fragranced, I make the familiar and enjoyable walk back to the hotel. I smell like Shrek.
After a crucial bath, a great night’s sleep, more Tai Chi and Shiva Nata on the balcony, I join Pestana’s director, Paulo Prada, for breakfast. He is charismatic and sharp; I have such high regard for the people who are making my Madeiran experience so memorable. He tells me that they are keen to share the magic of the island with a younger and new clientele. “We are appreciative and respectful of the visitors we have and the fact that they are often regular and loyal guests”, he shares, “but we also want to welcome the independent traveller who books online and arranges their own vacations.”
It makes sense. Madeira is the perfect winter destination for those who have busy summer workloads. Ironically, I suspect this would largely include the more active ‘outdoorists’, like stable owners and gardeners, for example – people who would instantly connect with the Island’s natural charm. There is also much being written and discussed currently about the need and importance of reconnecting with Nature; Madeira is the perfect destination to facilitate that connection and/or reconnection organically. In a nutshell, if you are already ‘in bed’ with Nature, Madeira is for you and if you are looking to ‘date’ Nature, Madeira is also for you.
Paulo shares more detail about the Pestana Group of Hotels – it’s impressive. The flawless attitude and integrity of those involved in the Group inevitably ensures the Hotels they offer are an obvious choice for very comfortable, competent and hospitable accommodation in many countries.
After my though provoking breakfast, I am picked up by Hugo and Catarina of Wind Birds http://www.madeirawindbirds.com to go bird watching along the levadas. Another young, vibrant and passionate couple, I note. Hugo asks where I am from and I tell him Wales, “You mean Cymru,” he replies quickly. He’s not been to Wales but intends to visit Skomer Island one day. That’s set the bar then; they remind me of Paulo and Paula and I am impressed by their professionalism and enthusiasm. They have run their own business for nearly ten years, starting with land-based tours. In 2010 they started Wind Birds, and now also host their own sea trips. “It has been hard,” Hugo admits, “we bought the mini bus ourselves and managed to pay off the final instalment with money from the Joao Borges Award, which we won for the good practices in tourism, nature conservation and nautical activities. We both believe in fate.” He adds. “Friends loaned us money to buy our boat and they had shares in the business until we could afford to buy them out – we own it completely now.”
I ask if there are grants available for new or small business.
“No and we don’t want one anyway. We believe the customers should pay our wages, not the Government.”
They are incredibly sharp and focussed. Madeira should be very proud of its young entrepreneurs.
Our walk begins high in the mountains and it is two fleeces colder than Funchal, I’m glad I am prepared. Within 10 minutes, we spot a cheeky little redstart and Hugo curses as he doesn’t have his camera. It seems the main goal of the trek is to spot one of the very rare Trocaz pigeons which is endemic to Madeira ; it too has completely disappeared from neighbouring Porto Santo, along with the honey bees.
“Sometimes we spot one,” shrugs Catorina, “sometimes we don’t see anything.” The couple are great company, informative, interesting and organically inspirational. I adore their attitude and passion for life itself, let alone their environment. Their humour, knowledge and enthusiasm makes them the ideal guides; they deliver gems of information far and beyond the guidelines of a Nature Tour and are another Madeiran Must.
Catarina quietly sets up the telescope on the viewpoint we have reached and casually points down to a Trocaz pigeon resting in a eucalyptus tree in the laurissilva forest below. Both she and Hugo are such a part of Nature, they make it feel like it is just the most natural event. There is no drama, just pure appreciation of the bird itself. Squinting through the telescope, I note that the Trocaz pigeon is actually quite similar to our own wood pigeon but decide to keep my opinion to myself. It does have a rather lovely silver collar and of course, a rather grand following.
Returning to the mini bus, we head further into the mountains toward Pico do Arieiro, which at 1818 m high (5965 feet), is Madeira’s third highest peak.. It is the coldest I have been since being on the Island but the stunning views do take my mind off the biting winds. Catarina points out Nun’s Valley, and I marvel at the most incredibly precarious dirt tracks that lead along mountain ridges and down into huge fluffy white clouds. We are above the clouds in a way that I have only ever experienced in an aeroplane. It is all very Tolkein-esque. I am in my element.
Back at the Hotel I take advantage of the infinity pool and lunchtime menu, in that order, before walking to the Town Hall to meet up with Miguel Albuquerque, Funchal’s highly respected President, Nature lover and talented rose grower.
Miguel sweeps in, with his inimitable fast-paced flourish, grins broadly, kisses me on both cheeks and steers me into his office. He manages to make it all one, single movement. I sit in on a highly-charged, controversial interview he conducts for the local media and then he steers me to meet Henrique Miguel de Figueiredo da Silva da Costa Neves, the Minister for the Environment. Despite Henrique’s excellent English, the conversation is initially a little stilted – until we find our common ground – horses. He is a dressage rider and is currently training his stallion, ‘Brilliant’, to compete. Suddenly we are both animated and engaged, discussing Welsh cobs, the Deserta’s, renewable energy and some of Madeira’s new and ambitious projects, all with passion and enthusiasm.
I accept his generous offer to come back to Madeira to ride his stallion and promise to send him more details about the Zoopharmacognosy that I do. I am sure that Rose Hip Shells will benefit Brilliant.
Joining Miguel again, I share my adoration for the Old Town. He tells me of his recent meeting with the President of Lisbon explaining, “the problem we have in Cities, is that we develop them to encourage affluent, and inevitably older, people into them but then the younger people are pushed out into the suburbs, taking their energy and creativity with them. So you end up with bustling and vibrant areas outside the City, while the City is left sterile and stagnant. I have suggested they run a competition, to encourage he youngsters to come up with creative ideas for the City Centre to create a buzz and energy. It’s simple.” He shrugs with an enigmatic grin. It is indeed simple. Another example of the Madeiran magic and attitudes I adore. He randomly asks if I have visited the Market. I tell him about dealing hard for my passion fruit. He roars with laughter. “Of course you are a very clever woman; most tourists get caught out there!” He is delighted with my victory.
We arrange to meet up again in London in May.
I decide to spend the last evening back in the Old Town and wander, with Dave and Wolfgang, along the sea front. Strangely a jaquaranda is partly out in blossom; it’s very early. The intense blue blooms are breathtaking. Wolf discovers that I haven’t yet tried the local Poncha and insists on remedying the situation. We pop into the friendly 113 Bar for my informal introduction to the traditional alcoholic drink which is made with distilled alcohol from sugar cane juice, honey, sugar, lemon rind and mixed with different fruit juices according to the version of Poncha. The introduction is a great success I think Poncha and I have a great future together!
The area is becoming more and more energised as the night goes on; it’s 10 o clock and we move on to the Revolucion Bar where Wolf has an evening art exhibition. Every week the exhibition theme is changed and he and other local artists display appropriate artwork. It is another simple but great idea and another great evening.
All too quickly, it’s my last official day on Madeira but heavy snowfall at Bristol Airport suggests I may be staying a day or two longer. José comes to the Hotel and checks all the flight details and conditions for me. He is incredibly kind. “I think it will all be well, although of course we’d love you to stay.” He adds. Over coffee he shares that coincidentally he met up with the Company that were organising the Canyonning, as discussed upon my arrival. “I told them about you,” he admits, “and they would love you to join them sometime. I said you were a bit apprehensive!”
Buoyed up by the magic of Madeira, I spontaneously suggest that we both go Canyonning the next time I visit Madeira. “That way, we are both committed to stretching our boundaries!” He laughed, agreeing wholeheartedly. “Yes, it’s a deal.” We shake on it. It is another reason to return to the Island that I have fallen for. I have fallen head over heels in love with the island, its wildlife, flora and its people and am looking forward to my next visit before my first one has ended.
Later that evening, I am digging out my truck out from a snow drift in the Winter Wonderland that is Bristol Airport. It is minus 8 degrees, my fingers are numb and my toes are tingling but I am still warmed to the core by my magical Madeiran memories.
I extend the most sincere gratitude to all the wonderful people I met for their warmth and kindness and I very much look forward to more Madeiran magic in the future. Obrigada x