Who says romantic breaks have to cost the earth? Sun-drenched Madeira offers a brilliant compromise on price, along with top-notch food and historical hotels to get you in the mood
Robinson Crusoe, had he been given the choice, surely would have chosen to be shipwrecked on Madeira. Who wouldn’t? Pushing up from the deep blue folds of the Atlantic sea like an emerald-hued Eden, passion fruit vines threading around banana and papaya trees, while tall, forested mountains stand guard in a jagged crown against the skyline... It’s also the perfect choice as a cheap, romantic destination that offers tropical weather without the humidity, sunshine without the long-haul journey, and good hotels minus a crippling credit card bill.
Only a three hour, £70 easyJet flight from London, it’s little wonder Funchal, Madeira’s capital, has become a favourite amongst a wider clientele than its former bread and butter, cruise-ship tourists. The sea is visible from almost every part of the Portuguese island, even when you’re taking part in a levada – the name for the famous walking trails in the hills. That’s not all Madeira is famous for - apart from the wine, it’s also legendary for black scabbard fish, a creature that lurks around the island 1000 metres deep, which is caught using traditional Portuguese fishing methods. When viewed up close – and you can do that at the Funchal fish market - it looks virtually prehistoric, all bulging eyeballs and prickly fangs, but it tastes delicious when cooked with wine and garlic.
While you’re there, make sure you go upstairs to the fruit market. The island has about nine different types of passion fruit, and if you’re crafty, you can taste all of them from the market sellers who place tester samples for passers-by to try. Others offer chunks of plump sugar cane to chew on while moseying through the sunlit arches, peering at the rows of brightly coloured flowers. Another corner offers up fresh herbs, particularly bay leaves (also known as laurel leaves), a key ingredient in another Madeira staple dish, espetada – which is grilled beef marinated in the leaves, with parsley and garlic. Watch out for the samples of Poncha de Madeira, a honey and rum liqueur that colours a fluorescent yellow. It is hefty enough to deliver a burning kick to your gullet, so take it easy. Or not. Because you’ll need a bit of Dutch courage to take part in the next quintessentially Madeiran activity - toboganning.
No one would tell us exactly what it involved apart from smirking:, 'It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced' - so don’t be surprised if blind panic sets in. You need to take the funicular from the bottom of Funchal all the way to the hilltop village of Monte, which is a 10-minute journey and takes your mind off the impending activity. The whole of Madeira falls away beneath your feet. Once you get to the top you’ll be hustled towards a giant wicker chair. What follows next is like something out of The Goonies: as you sit in this portable sofa, two Madeiran men wearing extraordinarily thick boots push you all the way down the steep hill, past traffic, small children who’ve seen it all before and old men on their afternoon walk.
But of course, while activities are all well and good, the most important aspect of the romantic getaway is where you rest your head at night. For our money, there’s only one way to get top-notch luxury and brilliant customer service, as well as feeling like you’re immersed in Madeira’s history and culture. It’s by staying in the quintas
– a group of restored manor houses and converted boutique hotels dotted around the island. Quinta da Bela Vista - Madeira
, with its antique collections and paintings, is the costliest, from £386 per night. Small wonder – the Queen of Sweden and the Countess of Hannover like to stay here.Quinta Jardins do Lago is brilliant for nature lovers, with a 2.5 acre stretch of manicured gardens, a Birds of Paradise nursery, and mango trees around the swimming pool, at a more reasonable £185 per night. If that’s still making your pocket groan, the Quintinha de Sao Joao
starts at £50 per night and has a delicious Portuguese Goan restaurant, if you start hankering for curry.