24 hours to reach Madeira, island of tropical flowers and five-star adventure.
THRUST from the ocean floor 5 million years ago, and now a top tourist destination, with a New Year’s Eve fireworks display said to be the best in the world, Madeira Island was discovered in the 15thC by Portuguese sea captains, who claimed it for Portugal.
This remote holiday spot, surrounded by the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, underwent many transformations over the years, before becoming a favourite holiday resort, now visited annually by over a million tourists, some arriving by plane, and others by cruise ship. With good head winds, the flight from Lisbon to Madeira takes under two hours, while London to Madeira (from various airports) lasts just under four hours.
Consequently, the majority of tourists visiting Madeira are of either Portuguese or British nationality. Perfect weather for most of the year round, gardens of tropical flowers, laurel forests and ancient dragon trees have made the island popular with an older crowd.
But times are changing. Trendy young people in search of a five-star adventure holiday are now flocking to the island, whether to drive through canyons, hike along steeply inclined levadas (mountainous aqueducts), attend surf school in Porto Moniz on the north-west coast, swim in lava pools, or to go whale watching. While neither George or I fit neatly into either category, Madeira was our choice of destination last December, having endured lockdown for several years.
Any flight to this remote island can take almost 24 hours, and involve three to four stops, and various routes requiring a combination of airlines. After much deliberation we decided to fly Qatar Airways, via Lusaka and Doha to London, and thence by BA to Funchal, the capital city of Portugal’s Madeira archipelago. In comparison with the Dakota, Viscount and VC10 passenger aircraft of yore, all of which invited you to ‘feel the noise’, Qatar’s Airbus A380-800 is a revelation. While the four Rolls Royce Trent engines provide speed and power, advanced noise cancellation technology makes it one of the quietest airliners in the skies. After lights out, the faintly musical hum of the engines was so unobtrusive that ear plugs weren’t needed.
Meal times help to pass the time on long haul flights, even though in economy class the food usually resembles an overcooked and tasteless TV dinner. Smartly dressed, well groomed, efficient and polite cabin staff cannot be blamed for this. While Chef Michel Roux Jnr may rave about the moist fish served to him in the business class ‘restaurant in the sky’, he would be less enthusiastic about soggy noodles and flavourless dhal offered in steerage. Yes, airline food is getting better, but only in business and first class.
Hamad International Airport in Doha is a revelation, featuring beautiful curved shapes resembling ocean waves and sand dunes, reminiscent of Qatari cultural heritage. Glass walls and skylights provide natural light and panoramic desert views to passengers, who can also enjoy a world-class duty free shopping experience with brands such as Dolce&Gabbana, Fendi, Gucci, and Bulgari. There was no time for me, however, to check out that special hand bag or perfume, having to hasten to connect with our onward flight to London. Heathrow Airport, many hours later, seemed drab in comparison to the spotless luxury of Hamad, and there was little incentive to linger before boarding a BA flight to Funchal.
Madeira Airport is surrounded by high mountains and the sea, making it a technically difficult landing, even for experienced pilots. Captain Stuart, our young pilot, made a gentle touchdown and a perfect landing, and we had at last arrived at ‘the island of eternal spring’.
Rosa, our taxi driver, was waiting at the airport’s Burger King as arranged, and before long we were installed in her large black SUV, and belting down the express freeway over bridges and through tunnels, towards the Sao Pedro parish of Funchal, with its cobbled streets and old buildings. Rosa dropped us off at the Casa do Pico, a newly-renovated historic old house, surrounded by museums, convents, coffee shops and restaurants. This would be our home for the next five weeks – time enough to explore the island, visit various restaurants and to savour the cuisine of Madeira.
A Matter of Taste with Charlotte Malakoff