Madeira… Yep, we couldn’t believe it either. But forget your preconceptions as these destinations shake off their package-holiday reputations and reinvent themselves as cool and luxurious places to visit

Trendy, Exotic Downtime In Funchal, Madeira

The funchal Municipal Gardens are a cool oasis in the summer heat


The pool at the Choupana

My grandma used to holiday in Madeira. Not to knock her taste, but it’s the kind of place I’d expect to see grey-haired golfers and a lot of Jesus sandals worn with socks. But it seems I was wrong: increasing numbers of young Lisbonites from Portugal weekend in Funchal. They eat at beaches and attend the annual digital-music festival. Their influence is changing Madeira’s reputation and it now has serious cool appeal. The island sits just off the north-west coast of Africa, with plunging sea cliffs and lush forests of palm and banana trees. Check out the surfing scene along the north coast – the Atlantic breakers are the island’s best-kept secret among wave-chasers. In the capital, Funchal, everything resolves around the bustling marina. Diving schools offer trips to swim with manta rays and dolphins. Or spend a few hours exploring the bright montage of fruit and flower market stalls. Contemporary seafront restaurant Rioso serves up local delicacies like espadarte (swordfish). But forget shuffling to bed early – the town comes alive at night. Head to Café do Teatro, which turns into a club after eating hours, or sip Champagne cocktails as the Vagrant, a super-chic yacht that once belonged to The Beatles. My grandma wouldn’t like it, but I did. Stay Choupana Hills Resort & Spa, set in the hills overlooking Funchal, is an exotic Asian-inspired retreat decked out in natural stone and dark wood. The villa-style rooms have four-posters beds, wraparound balconies and comfy loungers – or for extra luxury (and a private hot tub), book one of the suites. Laze by the pool among eucalyptus trees, slope off for a hot-stone massage and tuck into locally sourced, fusion-style dishes at the hotel’s restaurant with its amphitheatre-like views.

Romantic hideaways in Valletta, Malta

A place that has never crossed my mind for a romantic break is Malta. I pictured outmoded beach bars selling 1980’s ‘cuisine’ to portly men with knotted hankies on their heads. But, in fact, I discovered a tiny island with intricate medieval palaces, sophisticated candlelit restaurants and cobbled streets perfect for strolling hand in hand. Our evenings were spent pottering around Mdina (a tiny, walled, car-free city), while our days were spent in Malta’s capital Valletta, where every street throws up something new – from renaissance frescos to kitsch shops with vintage signs. A water taxi-ride across the bay is a fun way to reach the bars and restaurants. Head to the cosy Trabuxu for a pre-dinner glass of local red wine and nearby Palazzo Preca – a refurbished 15th-century palace – for incredible food. Malta is small enough that, by bus or car, it’s easy to enjoy charms beyond Valletta. Sip tea in the opulent Palazzo Parisio, stroll along Golden Sands beach and people-watch at the chi-chi café of St Julian’s Bay, with not a knotted hankie in sight.

Description: Valletta’s architecture is influenced by both Europe and the Middle East

Valletta’s architecture is influenced by both Europe and the Middle East

Stay The perfect base is the Xara Palace, a 17th-century aristocratic residence in Mdina. Our deluxe suite had a cavernous living room filled with beautiful paintings, antique rugs and furniture, plus a spiral staircase leading to a cosy mezzanine, where a luxurious duck-down duvet covered our king-sized bed. Breakfast is served on crisp, white tablecloths on the hotel’s terrace, and we finished our evenings sipping prosecco in the central atrium bar.

The treehouses at Center Parcs in Longleat Forest are surprisingly luxurious

Family fun in Center Pares Longleat Forest

Designer interiors, five-star accommodation and breathtaking views are probably not what spring to mind when you think of Center Parcs. But this is what greeted ma and two other families on our arrival at our treehouse in Longleat Forest. My previous experience of Center Parcs was more than 12 years earlier, when I’d traipsed there with six girls and a crate of cheap wine for a hen do. Memories of shabby accommodation, a cheesy disco and snotty kids in the swimming pool remained with me long after my hangover faded. And yet my curiosity had been piqued recently by friends who described Center Parcs as “amazing” and their “favourite family holiday”’

Description: Family fun in Center Pares Longleat Forest

Family fun in Center Pares Longleat Forest

They were right. Having undergone extensive renovations over the last few years, and with the building of these treehouses, the Center Parcs of old is long gone. Of course, you get what you pay for, and there are eight different types of accommodation, each with varying levels of luxury and comfort. But for those looking for the quality of top class spa accommodation, the treehouse is up there with the best.

Center Parcs’ strength lies in the fact there’s something for everyone: the water rapids, horse-riding, soccer academy and face-painting are great for kids, while a football bar, archery and badminton appeal to the men. For the women, there’s a fantastic spa with an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, a huge range of treatments and delicious, healthy food. And for parents who want some me-time, there’s a great kids club. My problem? The treehouse was so incredible, with four bedrooms, an en-suite games room, private sauna, outdoor hot-tub and enough space to comfortably accommodate three young families, we could barely drag ourselves away. There’s always next year.

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