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Saturday 14 June 2014

Madeira: A treasure island with a World Cup link

The British have been in on the secret of Madeira since the late 17th century.

The rest of the world has been rather slower to catch on to the appeal of this beautiful and isolated island - the birthplace of Portugal's World Cup star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Much more than just an island in the sun, Madeira is politically Portuguese but geographically African, lying some 550km off the north African coast.
It is south of Casablanca and is also probably the only holiday island in the world without a single sandy beach.
Madeira's beaches are, to put it bluntly, small, pebbled and disappointing particularly to Australians used to expanses of golden sand.
Fortunately, the island has a lot more to offer, including its year-round mild climate and slow pace. And, despite its popularity with the British, it is mercifully free of the tour groups that demand fish and chips, Watney's Red Barrel and all-night techno music.
It may be just 58km long and 23km wide, but Madeira has been described as a floating garden.
Its rich, volcanic soil and sub-tropical climate produce wildly colourful displays of flowers all year round and sprawling plantations of bananas and grapes, many of which are used to make the famous local fortified wines.
The entire island is a walker's heaven, from a plethora of beautiful gardens to the cobblestones and cafes of the Old Town in the capital, Funchal (above).
Outside Funchal, Madeira remains resolutely rural (and quite poor).
Inland, there are inaccessible valleys and waterfalls that tumble from cliffs over roads and pathways and the entire island is criss-crossed by levadas (irrigation channels) which can lead you from barren mountain tops to semi-tropical jungle in just a few hours.
It is well worth taking a day trip around the island, making sure to take in the fishing villages of Camara do Lobos (left) and Ribeira Brava, the second-highest sea cliff in the world at Cabo Girao, the untamed inland regions and the delightful rock pools at Porto Moniz.
I'd advise travellers to take a coach tour to get a taste of the real Madeira, rather than hiring a car. The roads are tiny and twisting and local road rules are less than rigorously enforced.
One must-do trip is the short journey to the delightful village of Monte, in the hills above Funchal, from where you can take a toboggan trip (guided by two sturdy locals in costume) over the cobbles and back down into town.
Funchal, founded in 1451, is a terrific town for taking leisurely strolls. There is always something to discover among the Gothic and Baroque buildings. 

A tiny laneway may lead to a wine lodge (make time to visit at least one or two of the producers of the famous local fortified wine) or a small family workshop producing handmade boots and leather shoes or the island's famous (but pricey) embroidery.
Among its major attractions is the Marcado dos Lavaradores, a lively bustling market featuring local fruits and vegetables you will never have seen before, flower sellers dressed in traditional costume and, naturally, a huge and noisy fish market.
Many guide books to Madeira try to direct you to the Marina area, where a dozen or so restaurants overlook flashy yachts. Ignore this advice and head for the nearby Old Town, where the prices are lower and the food tastier.
The local alternative to a hamburger is a prego, a thin slice of steak inside a bun, served with salad and a hot piri-piri sauce. Cheap and delicious.

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