The winding road brings me to the centre of Madeira, where I am absorbing stunning 360-degree panoramas of mists and mountains encasing verdant valleys. This volcanic, subtropical island happily basks in sunny solitude in the Atlantic. Covered with exotic vegetation, two-thirds of the total area is protected reserves.
It was nice to leave behind the throng of tourists in the jacaranda-lined avenues of the capital, Funchal, and head across to the northwestern tip of the island to Porto Moniz, famed for its natural rock pools. The previous day I had joined a tour to the famed Nuns Valley (Curral da Freiras) village, where quaint houses typical of the Madeiran society jostle for position between almost perpendicular mountains in the heart of the island. Locals at this isolated village mainly live off what they cultivate, and I can recommend the chestnuts, which are delicious. Little wonder, then, that they are used in everyday cooking. On the return to Funchal, we stopped at the traditional fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, where Sir Winston Churchill once wiled away his holiday hours with paintbrush in hand.
Enjoy an island holiday, and you will find that the ocean is never too far away. Beach lovers head for the nearby island of Porto Santo, with its miles of golden beaches. Nature lovers head inland to discover Madeira’s myriad walking trails through rare Laurissilva forests. For the island is criss-crossed by old paths and tracks, where water was conveyed round the island in flower-fringed channels called levadas, offering the hiker a range of gentle strolls and exposed cliff walks. Check out Paddy Dillon’s excellent guide Walking in Madeira: 60 Routes on Madeira and Porto Santo (Cicerone, £14.95) for examples of what you can expect. Back in Funchal, I headed to the old town and took the cable car to the Botanical Gardens, where over 2,000 plants jostle for position on their hillside location. You also gain spectacular views of the city from here. Funchal can trace its history over five centuries to the early Portuguese settlers, and today is a city of two halves, the old town comprising narrow cobbled back streets sprinkled with intimate restaurants, and the cosmopolitan, rejuvenated part with its park and top-class hotels. Nestled in a natural amphitheatre with its backdrop of mountains, Funchal points its nose to the Atlantic, basks in sunshine and boasts flowers that bloom year-round. Little wonder then, that it is known as the Pearl of the Atlantic.