travel

We discover sports and spas on the Portuguese island in the middle of the Atlantic.

I’d heard that Madeira was a great walking holiday if you were of a certain age, so I’d always earmarked it for my retirement years. How wrong I’ve been! In fact, the Portuguese island is one of the most youthful, beautiful and tropical places I’ve visited for a wellbeing escape in Europe. Approximately 300 miles north of Spain’s Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, Madeira boasts year-round sunshine, mountainous terrain and lush forest rather than beaches.

Description: Magical Madeira

We spent our first night at The Vine Hotel, a quirky boutique hotel in Madeira’s capital Funchal. My spacious suite featured a raised bath platform, with ultra-hi-tech gadgetry that wouldn’t have been out of place in a sci-fi movie.

The hotel’s Vine Spa was tiny but elegant with a small wet spa area and good massage therapists. The hotel’s USP as its achingly cool L-shaped rooftop infinity pool, 360º Sky bar and Uva restaurant at the foot of the majestic Funchal Castle.

Next morning, we enjoyed an outdoor yoga class in a spiritual spot above us was the mystical and soulful Christ the Redeemer monument, a smaller version of the famous original at Rio de Janeiro. We then took a guided “Mountain Expedition” jeep safari to the hilly north-east of Madeira by Porto de Cruz and trekked for 6kms along the “Levada do Castelejo” waterways that irrigate the island. There are 1,400kms of waterways to walk along. We passed lunch fields, indigenous flowers hidden waterfalls and ponds, even a rural farmer wearing a quirky hat and toothless grin. I was surprised by the diverse beauty of the Madeiran countryside – one moment I was reminded of Indonesia, the next of Provence.

Pampering perfection

SPA in Funchal would have been reason alone to visit Madeira. Its vast wet area and thalassotherapy pool houses a series of muscle-pummeling jets on a state-of-the-art timer system. I felt a zillion dollars when I emerged and the ocean views from the hotel are simply breathtaking.

That night we checked in to the famously old-fashioned Reid’s Palace Hotel in Funchal. I remember my grandmother telling me about her visit to this historic hotel in the days when cruise ships would dock so guests could attend afternoon tea on its ocean-view terrace and ballroom dances. This five-star hotel has peaceful sub-tropical gardens, rocky nooks in which to sunbathe and two seawater pools and a freshwater pool – all on the waterfront. I had an Aromatherapy Associates facial in the bijoux Reid Palace Spa, where treatment rooms have their own private balcony overlooking the crashing ocean.

Description: The swimming pools at Reid’s Palace Hotel

The swimming pools at Reid’s Palace Hotel overlook the crashing ocean

Sporting thrills and ways to chill

For a meditative spot, you can’t top the “Pico do Areeiro” viewpoint at sunset. If you’re lucky with the weather, the sun’s dusky rays poke through the clouds and mountain top. It’s a mind-blowing sight. Adrenaline junkies may prefer canyoning in the mountains, paragliding or hang-gliding over the island, windsurfing, jet-skiing or kite-surfing. Or the unusual thrills and spills of the Monte toboggan ride down the hilly streets above Funchal (accessible by cable car or on foot). Each chariot seats two to three passengers, and is flanked by two Venetian gondola-style attendants, who are adept at racing alongside as your basket hurtles down the hill! It’s safer than it sounds… A gentler thrill was a catamaran trip to watch dolphins. It was a truly soulful experience to see these beautiful creatures leaping up right beside our boat. Whale-watching is also possible, depending on the time of year. I was sorry not to have visited Madeira’s first Ayurvedic Healing Centre at the Hotel Alpino Atlantico. Also on my list next time are the sandy beaches of Porto Santo island (once home to Christopher Columbus) whose Geomedecine Centre offers a unique treatment that involves being “buried” in mineral-rich sand for an half an hour – said to be great for bone and muscular problems. Magical Madeira  is not to be missed for eco- and natural lovers seeking quality R&R and unique adventures.

Description: see whales and dolphins

Take a cruise on board a catamaran to see whales and dolphins

Travel essentials

Getting there: Annabelle flew courtesy of TAP Portugal, which flies daily from Heathrow to Funchal. Prices start at $212 return including taxes, flytap.com or call 0845 601 0932 for more info.

Hotels and spas: hotelthevine.com, reidspalace.com, cs-madeira.com.

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