Madeira reborn

by Belinda.Archer

Madeira is known for bath chairs, blue rinses and a sherry-type tipple. But it has plenty to offer younger visitors, from groovy nightclubs to designer hotels and achingly trendy new restaurants

Madeira conjures up images of elderly folk seeking winter sunshine and pull-in-case-of-emergency cords in hotel bathrooms. It has been for many years a pensioner’s paradise, where the most exciting pastime is a naughty sip of some of the island’s famous sherry.
But something is up, because it seems to be reinventing itself as a destination for the younger visitor too. Perhaps important folk in the tourist office have realised that their core market was, well, dying off, but whatever the cause, there is a vibe about this much-maligned Portuguese outpost that is making it increasingly attractive to those on the right side of 40.
Consider the hotels. The all-inclusive package offer, complete with safe swimming pool and eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet, is giving way to a new breed of designer accommodation. The best of these is the Choupana Hills Resort and Spa high in the hills above the capital, Funchal. This cool five-star property is an Asian-inspired luxury retreat with spa, fab views over the city and cutting-edge interiors.
There's also The Vine Hotel, just opened in December 2008, right in the old cobbled centre of Funchal. This luxury five-star hotel is perfect for the weekend car-free stop-over, within walking distance of everything useful in the capital; it's also an impressively slick, modernist design and a member of the Design Hotels group. There’s everything from an open-air heated infinity pool to a rooftop bar and restaurant – all very unMadeira.
Then there is the nightlife. Increasingly, Madeira is beginning to rock, with more and more activity on offer past 10pm. It might not quite be up there with Ibiza yet, but it is surprisingly lively, and its most famous prodigal son, Cristiano Ronaldo, star striker for Manchester United, visits regularly and usually causes a bit of a night-time stir too, surrounded by Madeiran lovelies and filling the clubs with his entourage.
The Café do Teatro, in the heart of Funchal in front of the Municipal Garden, is a really buzzy spot for the young and beautiful, with DJs and cocktails. Then there’s the Cais do Carvão Café or CCC, a hip café-cum-bar with all-day chill-out menu and themed nights with DJs, located on the Lido promenade. Also check out the FX Bar, situated in the centre of Funchal by Avenue do Mar, which rocks from 9am til 4am, no less.
But there is also the food and drink, which is becoming more and more alternative. Stuffy French-run, fancy dining hotel restaurants are being toppled by a selection of trendy new independent eateries. Among these is Riso, a stylishly modern destination jutting out from the Funchal sea-front, with great views of the ocean and the twinkling skies and a novel rice-only menu, including rice-based starters and toasted salty rice nibbles. The Café do Museu, attached to the Museu de Arte Sacra, showcase of some fantastic 15th-19th century paintings and sculptures, is another jazzy, hip venue, especially for lunch, while the Xopana restaurant at the aforementioned Choupana Hills is also among the new breed, offering Asian-Pacific cuisine with a Madeiran twist. The new rooftop restaurant  at The VineHotel is run by the three-Michelin-starred French chef Antoine Westermann and is also already attracting a younger, discerning crowd.
Other newcomers targeting the new generation of visitors include Molhe, a super-sleek sea-front venue, plus Armazem do Sal, another groovy, laid-back haunt, all exposed timbers and squishy sofas, this time located in an old salt factory.
But the traditional family-friendly sea-food restaurants also have an appeal to a younger crowd and should not be monopolised by the older visitor. Don’t miss Doca do Cavacas, a buzzing, blue-painted fish place teetering high over the Atlantic. Order a giant, spanking fresh platter of mixed fish, including dorade, sword fish, king prawns and parrot fish – fun food to share with friends and great value. Vila do Peixe is another great traditional fish restaurant, this time outside Funchal in the small fishing village of Camara do Lobos.
There is other stuff too. The climate, for starters, which holds an appeal for everyone, not just the blue-rinse brigade. Madeira has an extremely pleasant, not-too-sweaty-in-summer, warm-in-winter sub-tropical climate that is no chillier than 18.5º and no more baking than 24.7º Celsius all year. It is also in the same time zone as the UK, making a weekend break effortless and unjetlaggy, and it’s only three hours away – just long enough to catch a good movie on the plane, a bit of nosh and a riffle through some lightweight reading material. The island has some pretty impressive scenery too; lush, dramatic hills inland and steep sea cliffs lining its shores, making it great for inland rambling and scenic walks.
So go soon, with your granny if necessary. It’s surprisingly cool and hip, and in these purse-pinching times it makes a great, cheap destination for the younger budget-conscious long-haul traveller.