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Starting the New Year with a bang on the island of Madeira.

IN centuries gone by, Madeira, an island in the Atlantic Ocean, 350 miles away from Morocco, was subject to violent attacks by pirates. Unlucky residents who didn’t manage to conceal themselves in secret basements in their house, or flee to a cave in the hills, might be abducted to Algeria; in 1566 the notorious French pirate Bertrand de Montluc plundered  the city of Funchal, holding it hostage for 15 days. Eventually, fortresses were built to defend the population, port and city. 

Today, Madeira is one of the safest holiday destinations to visit. During our five week visit over the festive season, we could stroll down the steep, cobbled road from the Casa de Pico in the parish of Sao Pedro, to the Jardim Municipal, a beautiful park in the heart of Funchal, at any time of the day or night, without any fear of being mugged or ‘banged up abroad’. At this time of the year, small speciality coffee shops are open until late on every third street corner, and the Jardim Municipal, with its Dragon trees and tropical shrubs, is transformed every evening into a wonderland of Christmas lights.

White chocolate, black olive reduction and passion fruit dessert at Akua.

Not far from the park, in the Avenida Zarco, is the iconic Golden Gate Grand Cafe, a landmark restaurant in business for over 100 years. Once a meeting place for the elite of Funchal and international visitors, it was described by novelist Ferreira Castro as ‘The Corner of the World’. Open daily from 8.30 am to 10.30 pm, this elegant sidewalk cafe is the place to start the day with a chocolate croissant and a cup of coffee. There’s no such thing as a bad coffee in Madeira, and whether your favourite is a Bica (espresso) or a Chinesa (large espresso with milk) it will be hot, flavoursome and rich in taste.

Golden Gate Grand Cafe also serves light lunches and a variety of local specialities. The delicious tapas platter of smoked salmon, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and cucumber that George and I shared, was satisfying and beautifully presented. The wicker chairs on the veranda are comfortable, staff are friendly, service is good, and the Avenida Zarco is a great place to people watch at any time of the day or evening.

Tapas at Golden Gate Grand Cafe

The Madeiran government comes out with all guns blazing during the month of December, spending 3.9 million euros last year on lighting for Christmas and New Year celebrations, and winning Madeira the title ‘Best New Year’s Eve Destination in Europe’. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air as we tried to decide on the best place in Funchal to view the midnight firework display, and to usher in the New Year. George, who needs to embrace humanity in its entirety when the clock strikes midnight, was adamant that we should go down to Funchal’s bustling waterfront and mingle with hordes of tourists and revellers.

Finally, an executive decision was made by the rest of our family to view the spectacle from the garden of the Casa de Pico, a location overlooking the amphitheatre created by the mountains surrounding Funchal, where 59 firework stations over 6 kilometres  would erupt at midnight. In the past we’ve seen spectacular firework displays at the Agricultural Show in Harare, but in 2024 the multicoloured pyrotechnics lighting up the sky in Funchal were glorious.

Fresh sardine starter at Akua Restaurant.

Having started the New Year with a bang, celebrations continued the next day with a braai of large, juicy Mozambican prawns bought at Pinga Doce, the local supermarket, and a bottle of Madeira wine. The next gastronomic adventure would be at Akua, a seafood restaurant with an enviable reputation in Funchal’s Zona Velha (Old Town).

Homemade bread with black olives and fresh butter sprinkled with chorizo dust was delicious and could have satisfied as a meal on its own. But it was followed by tiny sardine fillets fresh from the sea, garnished with egg plant and passion fruit. George and I shared a luscious main course of grouper with seafood rice cooked to perfection. Chef Julio Pereira’s creative skills came to the fore in an unusual dessert of white chocolate with a sweet black olive reduction, surrounded by soft meringue nests with passion fruit.

A visit to Funchal is rewarding at any time of the year, offering a safe environment easy to navigate on foot. Pedestrians are treated like royal game, and zebra crossings make it possible to explore the city with ease. Car hire is available (if you’re not averse to driving on the wrong side of the road), and distinctive yellow taxis are always on hand to drive you from one end of the island to the other at reasonable rates. Regardless of whichever month you plan to visit Madeira, be assured of a warm welcome and a really good cup of coffee.    A Matter of Taste by Charlotte Malakoff