Madeira

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The landscape of the lush, volcanic island of Madeira is a true feast for the eyes. Part of Portugal, it is a destination that possesses a host of qualities for visitors of any age to enjoy.

Madeira
When I learned I was going to Madeira I was very excited, just as I'm sure the first settlers on the island were when they realised the treasure they had discovered. After a three-and-a-half-hour flight, we began our descent. Flagging passengers were abruptly awoken as the plane made a swift 180-degree turn to meet the runway, which was recently extended to include a platform on giant stilts. For keen flyers, such as myself, this is a great deal of fun; for the rest of you, hold tight! After a 20-minute drive on Madeira's newly completed highway we arrived at the five-star Savoy hotel. The views were to die for, with the sea to the left and spectacularly rugged mountains to the right. The island is the result of a series of volcanic erruptions, which occurred more than 20 million years ago. Evidence of these origins can be seen in the dark-pebble and occasional black sand beaches. Beaches are a scarcity here, but that's more than made up for by the intriguing and beautiful landscape, with peaks that reach up to 1800 metres and a sub-tropical climate that nourishes the exotic plants and flowers, and as the temperature never drops below 12°C it is a great destination when those chilly winter nights hit in December and January. Funchal

Madeira is 35 miles long, 13 miles wide and houses a population of 300,000 people. We stayed in Funchal, the main city in the south, which is the main port of call for most holidaymakers, due to its exclusive four- and five-star hotels. The town's main promenade and elegant tree-lined roads house a range of shops from major high-street names to traditional Portuguese embroidery shops, a 14th-century fortress, the farmers market, lively cafés and much, much more. To get a good overview of the city a bus tour will cost 7 euros 50. Mountain mayhem!

Unless your athletic abilities are comparable to those of Paula Radcliff, trying to hike up the mountains will be nigh on impossible so, understandably, everyone has a car. As you drive along the roads you'll be amazed by the array of vineyards, banana and papaya trees; in fact, the island's extensive vegetation creates a landscape so varied and colourful, that combined with its sub-tropical climate you would be forgiven for mistaking the island for Colombia! The South American feel is reinforced by the colonial style architecture of some of the town houses in Funchal and the surrounding areas. For adventurous types there's such an abundance of things to do that it's difficult to know where to start, but the most obvious place is with the 'levadas' - a network of channels that carry rainwater from the mountains down to the towns. Conveniently, the 14,000 miles of levadas were constructed with footpaths running alongside (so they could be cleaned) and along the flat lines of the mountains so climbing is not necessary. A walk along these canals is the ideal way of taking in the breathtaking views safely - so long as you keep your eyes open - without having to put on a set of hiking boots). One tip: 40 percent of the levadas are in tunnels, so make sure you take a torch! If you fancy being blown away - literally - take a trip to the peak of Paúl da Serra in the central part of the island, where the scenery is to die for. At 1,500 metres high, with a valley on either side, be careful not to stand too close to the edge as the blustering winds might push you over! Walking around the area you can take a good look at the heather, laurels and Erica plants that are growing absolutely everywhere. Its central location makes it a good spot for travelling to the various towns, such as Ribeira Brava, which has a small pebble beach (a hot spot for fishermen), a 15th-century cathedral, Sao Bento, a market and many cafés. Food and drink

Madeiran food is simple and tasty. Take, for example, their local fish delicacy - espada. This is made from the scabbard fish, which lives 1800m deep in the Atlantic ocean and as a result it isn't the prettiest of creatures, with bog eyes and black skin - but don't let that put you off. Once it's been marinated in lemon juice or vinegar and then grilled or fried, the scabbard is delicious. Another local dish is the similarly named espetada - cubed beef marinated with garlic and skewered on a bay twig. Finish off your meal with a dessert wine, the only possible option being, of course, Madeira. A fortified wine it is always between 16 and 22 per cent proof. A good, sweet wine is Bual & Malmsey, but you can also find drier varieties that make a great aperitif, such as Alvada, which uses a combination of two grapes (a recently developed technique - it's more usual to use only one type). Be careful not to knock it back, as you would a regular dinner wine, or you'll end up with the worst hangover of your life - I know, I've been there! If you're heading out for a night on the town, or even fancy an afternoon tipple, the local liquor is Poncha, which gives you quite a kick after a long day of levada walking! Just ask for the bar da Meia Légua, in Serra de Àgua - where not only will you get a shot or two of Poncha at one euro per shot, but a handful of monkey nuts whose shells you discard on the floor. It's well worth a visit. Sports

Madeira is great for sports, whether you fancy a leisurely game of golf or prefer something that will get your adrenaline pumping, such as paragliding, rock and mountain climbing, canoeing, horse-riding or scuba diving. Madeira is also famed for having good surfing areas (Jardim do Mar). Other places of interest

Câmara de Lobos. Translated this means 'wolf chamber', named so because the first settlers on the island saw monk seals or 'sea wolves'. This fishermen's community was a regular haunt of Winston Churchill, who would go there to paint. Monte - Take a cable car up to Monte (8 euros 50), and travel down again by a toboggan (10 euros) - a wicker basket made out of local willow. In Monte you'll also find a wonderful botanical garden, one of several scattered around the island, where you can see more than 150 of Madeira's native tropical plant species. Nightlife

Funchal town is small enough to walk around but large enough to accommodate a selection of bars and clubs. Good bars include Number Two and Chameleon - the latter having a 'ladies' night' on Sundays, which means women not only get in free, but they get four free drinks to boot - and they certainly don't skimp on the alcohol content! Clubs include Vespas and Copacabana. Remember, this is the Mediterranean, so bars don't really get going 'til about 11pm and clubs, 2am. We travelled with award-winning Cadogan Holidays using the scheduled services of British Airways, which fly daily from Gatwick to Funchal. A three-night stay at the five-star Savoy costs from £457 per person (children under 12 cost from £229). Prices include scheduled flights from Gatwick with British Airways, private taxi transfers and bed & breakfast accommodation. Tours of the island can all be booked through Cadogan's handling agents at the resort and for more information and reservations, contact Cadogan Holidays on 023 80 828313 or visit the website at www.cadoganholidays.com. For more information on Madeira, contact the Portuguese Tourist Office on 09063 640610 (calls cost 60p per minute) or visit www.portugalinsite.com or www.madeiratourism.org. Alternatively email tourism.london@icep.pt.
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