We know tourist boards are introducing a range of emergency measures. But they’re also coming up with emergency slogans. Madeira’s is ‘Safe to Discover’.
Clever, that. Flatter the visitor that they are the intrepid types, yet reassure them that the island (actually, an archipelago of islands) is as COVID-free as any holiday destination.
Which it is. On Madeira there have only been two deaths from the virus. Days go by without any new cases. No wonder it’s on the UK’s foreign travel corridor list.
Lush: The Daily Mail’s Mark Jones spent an action-packed week in Madeira before the current UK lockdown. Pictured is the fishing village of Camara de Lobos
If there are a handful of new cases, they’re usually incoming tourists. If you test positive at the airport they check you in (at the government’s expense) at a four-star hotel near the hospital until you get the all‑clear a week or 14 days later.
It’s probably wisest to get tested within 72 hours of arrival. But that can be expensive and inconvenient. So I was one of 20 people from my BA flight — shortly before the current lockdown — who opted for the airport test.
After immigration, nice young people in T-shirts and jeans guided us to the testing channel. They gave us a free banana and bottle of water while we waited, the warm ocean breeze wafting tantalisingly into the arrivals hall. But I was free within minutes: my wait for the test was shorter than some I’ve spent at the luggage carousel.
Stunning: Pictured is The Madeira Botanical Gardens overlooking the bay at Funchal
You’re asked to stay in your hotel room while you await the results. I spent a pleasant and not very uneasy night at the spectacular Estalagem Da Ponta do Sol hotel in the south-west of the island. The negative test result arrived by email at 4.52am the following morning.
The same day, I saw that UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had ruled out on‑arrival airport testing in the UK.
As usual, we think we know best. As so often, we don’t.
The health authorities and the tourism people in Madeira work hand-in-hand to make the process as swift and relaxed as possible — and it’s giving the place a headstart in the race to get global tourism going again. And that’s important on an island where tourism is far and away the biggest part of the economy.
But in another sense, ‘Safe to Discover’ is a dangerous slogan for Madeira.
There’s ‘safe’ as in ‘you won’t succumb to a deadly virus’; and ‘safe’ as in ‘bland, unexciting and predictable’. For years, Madeira has been saddled with the second version of the ‘safe’ tag.
It’s a safe place for your elderly relatives to visit. They can wander around botanical gardens, have tea and play a little golf.
The most dangerous thing (apart from one dessert wine too many in the Blandy’s vineyard tasting room) is being ferried down a steep hill in a wicker basket. And even that traditional mode of transport from one of Madeira’s many hill villages is completely safe.
Madeira is desperate to attract a younger crowd. But gardens, dessert wines and ‘safe’ don’t do it — they’re competing with Ibiza and Bali.
So Madeira wants to attract the ‘soft adventure’ crowd: young and young-ish visitors who yearn to climb, surf, hike and go mountain-biking.
Luckily for them, much more of the island (with its fearsome granite cliffs and vertiginous trails) is accessible than it used to be. A lot has changed since my previous experience of Madeira at the end of the last century. But the road tunnels are much the most important. If you have memories of agonisingly slow, if picturesque, drives out of Funchal, you can forget them. The dual carriageways burrowing through the rock now take you anywhere on the island within an hour.
But I was glad to see that the relaxed, friendly charm of the old and — OK — safe Madeira hasn’t disappeared. I didn’t see any sweaty, Lycra-clad adrenaline junkies comparing GoPro footage. That was a relief. So here are some highlights from my action-packed (but not too action-packed) week.
Waiting for sunrise
Worth the wait: Mark enjoyed a sunset hike to the Bica da Cana viewpoint in the centre of the island
A sunrise drive here is less onerous than in many parts of the world; we are a long way west. So when my guide, Hugo, and I hiked in pitch-darkness to the Bica da Cana viewpoint in the centre of the island, we had to wait until 8.10am for the sun to make a reluctant appearance above the mountains.
But what a wait it was. Hundreds of feet below us we could see the lights of Sao Vicente village twinkling though the giant fluffy pillows of fog that lay in the valley.
The sky turned amber, kissing the clouds as the Moon and Venus gazed down and finally faded. Straight into my Top Five Sunrises. hittheroadmadeira.com.
Banana fish dish
I don’t think gastronomy is Madeira’s strong suit. There’s an abundance of tropical fruit grown on the island and a greater abundance of fish in the sea.
Unfortunately, local chefs can’t resist putting the two together. Scabbard fish and banana may be a traditional delicacy.
That doesn’t make it any more appetising. But I do recommend the food tours of Funchal. I did a half‑day one, starting at Blandy’s Wine Lodge. In fact, there was as much booze as food — Madeiran table wine (pretty good, actually), beers and the classic poncha cocktail as well as nibbles.
You’ll get to see the less touristy bars and food producers. You may also need a lie-down afterwards.
Do find time for a visit to Blandy’s. John Blandy arrived on the island for his health in 1808 — and people have been toasting other people’s with his products ever since. You can do a tour if cooperage and satinwood vats are your thing, or just visit the tasting room.
I was surprised by the range of the four styles, from the almost tart Verdelho to the full Falstaffian vigour of the Malmsey. visitmadeira.pt.
Question of balance
I didn’t get a lie-down after my food tour. I went stand-up paddle-boarding off the beach at Machico instead. It’s a lot harder than it looks. But I can confirm that the seas around Madeira are clean: I drank quite a lot of them. madeirasuptours.com.
Come rain or shine
The tunnels also make it easier for your tour company to make last-minute changes. There are seemingly as many micro-climates in Madeira as days in the year. If it’s pouring in the south, you just head above the cloud line to the mountains. If Santana is soaking, chances are Ponto do Sol will be balmy. Be flexible; bring layers.
Gulf stream golfing
The courses in the south of the island are spectacular, the clubs friendly and the green fees low for the standard of the courses. I loved my round at Palheiro Golf — and my golf is terrible. palheironatureestate.com/palheiro-golf.
It’s green up north
It used to take all day to wind your way up from Funchal to Santana in the north-east. Now, thanks to the tunnels, you’re there in 40 minutes. It’s well worth the trip to these impossibly verdant hills with white foam lashing the basalt rocks far, far below. You don’t get Funchal’s mega-hotels here.
Instead, seek out a traditional inn (or quinta) such as Quinta do Furao. The name roughly translates as Ferret Farm. Don’t be put off, though: great views and best food on the trip. quintadofurao.com.
Ronaldo on the wing
There is a Ronaldo Museum, near the seven-storey house he owns on the seafront, should you want to part with five euros and gaze at his sparkly boots and fan letters
My Google search poses the question: ‘Does Cristiano Ronaldo own Madeira?’ You’d almost think so. You can’t avoid the football star, from the time you touch down at the Cristiano Ronaldo international airport to the replica shirts in Duty Free on the way back.
There is a Ronaldo Museum, near the seven-storey house he owns on the seafront, should you want to part with five euros and gaze at his sparkly boots and fan letters. Next door is the hotel (currently closed) with his signature name, CR7, his shirt number.
Madeira is neither a wealthy nor a flashy place and not everyone applauds the galactic sums CR7 earns. But no one begrudges his mother, Dolores Aveiro, a cent: she toiled to support her four children and her youngest’s budding football career.