Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Madeira, where Europe meet the tropic

Calheta Beach Resort in Madeira
Madeira is a subtropical island in the North Atlantic, a proper subtropical paradise that enjoys mild winters and summers making it the ideal location for a year-round visit. Geography strictly speaking the Madeira archipelagos are part of Africa, in the geo-political way is part of Portugal since they were discover by the early Portuguese sailors in 1419.
Madeira is a floating sub-tropical garden in the Atlantic Ocean, for a far view this volcanic mountains with vertiginous cliff look or resemble to me an old sailor ship waiting to  be aboard for  many adventures like discovering  their many treasures.  All year around have a good climate (average 20ºc) to visit, even now in Christmas and New Year you can enjoy of  fantastic fireworks displays ( Guinness World of Records) and is the perfect spot for have a break for the winter and  the people will let you feel like home, plus is easy to communicate in English, German, Spanish and of course with the local Portuguese language.

Banana plantation around Claheta
Since Madeira  doesn’t have sandy natural beaches, we head to Calheta in the quiet south west part of the island surrounded by banana plantations, the Calheta beach resort have the only beach, even though it is an artificial one is the perfect spot to go to swim in the mild water of the Atlantic sea thanks to the warm gulf current – If you want natural sand beaches you need to take the 2- ½  hours ferry to Porto Santo island.
Calheta is just 30-40 minutes from Funchal following the well-constructed roads with hundreds of tunnels that cross the mountains. Calheta is just not a hotel resort, the area offers beside the beach, a little Marina, and nice walk beside the cliff. I highly recommend  you to be a little adventurous and have a sunset walk from Calheta to Arco da Calheta taking the 101 road for discover the banana plantation and have stunning views of  the ocean and of boats passing on the horizon.

Calheta Art Centre
Also in Calheta is worth to visit the local Church, sincerely almost all the Madeira church worth a visit, most of them build in the Portuguese golden architect age (end of XV century to beginning of XVI century).Impressive Spanish-arabian style ceiling, rich jewellery and of course the always beautiful Portuguese tiles and volcanic floors and sacred peace.  Almost next door is the Engenhos da Calheta, an old cane sugar distillery where you can visit the factory and buy some of the best sugar cane spirits, honey sugar cane biscuits and cakes and the last product the sugar cane juice that really going to revitalize you.
In the Calheta next top hill, you will find the art centre Casa das Mudas , and international awarded new building for the perfect integration with the landscape designed by Paulo David. Inside you can visit one of the most complete and impressive collection of Art Deco in the world!

A day in Funchal
View of Funchal and harbour
A good place to start your Funchal visit is the historical park of Santa Catarina with the 1425 built Santa Catarina Chapel, where you have great views from the Funchal harbour and the frenetic life of the big cruise liners. Then you can choose to walk to the busy and tourist harbour sea-front or just walk in the most interesting Arriaga avenue stopping at the Funchal Garden,  the local Theatre, some interesting bank building and finishing in the Funchal Cathedral with a previous stop in the old colonial restaurant with ceiling fans the Golden Gate Caffe for some pastries.

Santa Catarina Gardens
Funchal have several palaces and museums for visit, but for foodies I recommend the Sugar Cane Museum and the Madeira Wine Museum. Also the local permanent Lavradores fresh food market is a good option, most of all for have a glimpse of all the local fish and colourful tropical fruits that Madeira can offer to you, my  advice to you is to avoid the temptation of buy any fruit that are vigorously sold to the tourist, you can get good quality fruits at very good price in the local supermarkets like Pingo Doce.
After the market is always good idea to stroll around in the Santa Maria street where always  something artistic is happening.

Market of Lavradores
Vegetables display

Then is time to have a ride in the cable railway  for have a complete view of the city, and harbour. In the top you can go to the Tropical Gardens,  where local flora share a place with ceramic tiles, art, palaces, views, pilgrimage church and even a Oriental Garden. Another cable railway  will carry you to the also beautiful and more quite Botanical gardens and the controversial parrot park. Please people with vertigo avoid this last ride.
Funchal Botanic Garden
You way back down only by the fun, still dangerous hill down to the city centre ride in a wicker basket toboggan.
Already in Funchal a good place to have a rest is the coffee bar terrace of the Praça do Carmo, one of the squares chosen by the university students surrounded  by  nice stretch alleys  to discover local shops.

Another Main Visit in Madeira.
Sao Vicente streets
1. Câmara de Lobos. A lovely little fisherman town with colourful boats and vistas as painted by Winston Churchil with a fish market and the São Sebastian fisherman chapel decorated with tiles.
2. Cabo Girao. A view point over the second taller cliff in the world. In your way up you can see high altitude vineyards plantations
3. Parque das Queimadas, visit the only remains of the madeira indigenous forest and their laurel forest.
4. São Vicente. Between the many charming towns in the island Sao Vicente with their White houses with orange roofs and volcanic pebbles streets surrounding the local church is my favourite. Not far to the town are the caves and the amazing cliff waterfall on the way to Seixal. Be aware that in the north of the island the weather can be more rainy.
5. Porto Moniz. In this part of the north coast line the rougher Atlantic ocean has created natural pools in the volcanic rock where you can swim and have a very nice seafood lunch at Cachalote restaurant.
6. The Levadas, once part of the ingenious island irrigation system to bring water for the mountains, today the Levadas are walkways to explore in the heart of the island. Find your trekking level with your local tourist advisor.

What to Eat.
Dry cod to sell in a Funchal Shop
Unfortunately when we landing in Calheta Beach we didn’t realize that was a German tourist spot and the food of the hotel and another places was also german style food. We ask to some local and they can´t either tell us for a good quality local food restaurant in Funchal (even some hotels restaurant serve very well done local dishes).  When we got fed up with German food we drop in some very local and nothing fancy restaurants where the quality of the food wasn’t anything sophisticated but very tasty and good quality and nice local service. You should be try:
Swordfish and tuna steaks  and any  local sea-food like octopus , fresh and tasty served in a simple way to enjoy .
Beef kebab made with the cattle that graze in the high planes of Madeira. Delicious meat.
Bolo-do-caco a local bread with garlic butter, work very well like anti-pasti or side dish.
For dessert any dish that has the local tropical fruits like passion fruit, papaya, guava and mango.
Like the rest of the Portugal the cream tartlet are a must.

Where we Stay (by David Pring)
Calheta Beach Hotel
This was our first time to Madeira and the Calheta Beach hotel was fantastic. The staff friendly and helpful the room clean and comfortable with amazing sea views. The food was above average buffet style but we were able to swap dinner with vouchers for the a la carte restaurant next to the hotel.
The food there was superb. Calheta in November is relatively quiet but the weather was warm and sunny most of the time. The hotel has excellent amenities including both indoor and outdoor pools, a gym, sauna and steam room. Nothing was too much trouble and we would stay here again. There is a sandy beach in front of the hotel and two great local attractions- the cliff top museum which houses an amazing art deco exhibition and a nearby working rum distillery. Getting further afield into Funchal or around the island is also easy as the hotel can organise a variety of trips. There is a well-stocked supermarket across the road for buying anything you might need from fresh fruit to Madeira wines.
I can thoroughly recommend this hotel for a reasonably priced short break on a tranquil and glorious part of the island.