Clear blue waters and bountiful home-grown produce attract visitors to the Madeiran capital of Funchal all year round, but the city is in full colourful bloom during the spring months
Wedged between sea and mountains, Funchal sits sweetly soaking up the sun on the lush green island of Madeira. A mini Portuguese paradise, its position in the Atlantic is closer to Africa than it is to Europe and subtropical temperatures means the Funchalese table is full; feast on avocado, kiwi fruits, papaya, custard apples and passion fruit, accompanied by a glass of poncha (a liquor made from fresh citrus juices, honey and local cane rum) or Madeiran wine. The sea is seldom out of sight so make the most of it and hire a boat or dive, surf and swim. The capital comes into its own during April when exotic blooms are on display at the colourful Flower Festival – watch as locals parade through the streets on decorated floats.
What to do
Stroll to the old town with its cafés and historic buildings and stop for a peek inside the gothic cathedral, the Sé. The ceiling is an intricate work of wood and ivory with Mudéjar-style patterns weaved through in red, gold and blue. Off Rua de Carreira is Museu de Fotografias Vicentes; a beautiful 19th-century building, it is one of the oldest photographic studios in Portugal and houses thousands of pictures of Madeira through the ages. Stop for shade in the nearby São Francisco Gardens, a small tangle of exotic flowers with a pond and open-air theatre. Across the gardens is the São Francisco Wine Lodge: take a tour of the cellars and enjoy a wine tasting (tours run weekdays at 10:30am and 3:30pm, 11am on Saturdays).
Hitch a ride on the cable car to Monte (www.madeiracablecar.com) 600 metres above the city for a blast of fresh mountain air. At the top, Monte’s impressive church, palace and colourful botanical gardens beg to be explored. Let the wind whistle through your hair as you speed along the road back to Funchal on a two-seater sled with wooden runners, which first appeared here in 1860; fear not, a pair of traditionally dressed men will do the steering.
Just outside the city is the modern Centro das Artes (00 351 291 820 900; www.centrodasartes.com). Carved from black lava, the building hovers on a cliff edge, and inside white spaces are filled with works by local and international artists.
Explore the island by walking along the 140km-network of levadas, a series of mini-canals built to keep the steep landscape irrigated. There are varying degrees of difficulty; choose one at Madeira Levada Walks (www.madeira-levada-walks.com).
Where to stay
The Vine gets top marks for design with its clean lines, muted tones and rooms that manage to be modern and minimalist but still warm and welcoming. The rooftop pool, gourmet restaurant and spa put this hotel firmly on the map. Set in a forest overlooking the Atlantic, Choupana Hills is all Asian elegance and Zen-style surroundings. Sleep in a wooden cabana and dine on delicious fusion cuisine. Or opt to bed down in one of the city’s charming quintas: Bela São Tiago is a beautiful colonial-style building with pretty garden and pool.
Where to eat and drink
High on a hilltop, Riso (00 351 291 280 360; Rua Santa Maria 274) is a chic lunchtime spot with bay views. Try imaginative risottos cooked Madeiran-style with lime, black scabbard fish and roasted banana. Snap up fish dishes at Vila do Peixe (00 351 291 099 909), perched above the fishing village of Cãmara de Lobos. Start with limpets simmering in garlic and butter then select your favoured fish – including fresh tuna, red mullet and swordfish – to be grilled with herbs and olive oil. Or head to family-run O Jango (00 351 291 221 280; www.ojango.net) and share a cataplana (seafood platter). For decadent dining, The Vine hotel’s restaurant is the place to go. Overseen by Michelin-starred chef Antoine Westermann, it blends French cuisine and island ingredients with spectacular results.
Time running out?
Head to Funchal’s Mercado dos Lavradores (farmers’ market), where a riot of colours, smells and sounds offer a final taste of the island’s rich local produce.
The Atlantic waters surrounding the island are great for turtle, dolphin and whale watching. Book a trip and set sail with Madeira Wind Birds (www.madeirawindbirds.com).
Currency is the euro. Funchal is within GMT and a three-hour 30-minute flight from London.
EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) has regular flights from Bristol, Gatwick and Stansted to Funchal. TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.flytap.com) flies direct once a day from Heathrow to Funchal.
Madeira Islands Tourism: 00 351 291 211 900; www.madeiratourism.org. Visit the website for opening hours.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.