The perfect place to stay is one of the quintas, the traditional villas now converted into charming boutique hotels, that dot the island. They offer the perfect base from which to take a rental car on a journey of discovery and explore every corner of this island with its air of wild garden set atop dizzying cliffs. The steep mountains are a delight for walkers who can set out each morning and make their way alongside the ancient irrigation channels known as levadas, through countryside that is at one time both rugged and elegant, unspoilt by the depredations of mass tourism.
Many of the quintas were built thanks to the fortunes amassed by the island elite. Fortunes first made from the cultivation of sugar cane and, later, when the Brazilian colony took over that business, from the grapes that gave the world the sweet wine for which the island is justly famous. There was wealth to be made, too, from the cultivation of the orchids, proteas, aloes and other tropical flowers that grow wild here, sprouting even in the gutters of the roads as if they want to reclaim them for the natural island terrain.
Just a few rooms, individual decoration and high quality personal service are the key elements that define the quintas and the luxurious gardens that tumble around them. Perhaps the most spectacular gardens are those where the Quinta do Monte nestles, erstwhile home of the island's deputy governor on the heights of Funchal. Close to the cable car that is the best way to deal with the city's tremendous gradient, and the wicker baskets in which all first-time visitors to Madeira set sail for the lower part of the capital driven by the burly carreiros who guide the fast-paced journey along the four-mile route, a journey quite unsuited to those with heart problems.
Equally aristocratic are the Quinta Bela Vista, brimming with antiques and frequented by celebrities in search of a little calm, Casa Velha do Palheiro, a former hunting lodge dating from the early nineteenth century and now part of the Relais & Châteaux group, the Quinta Mirabela and Quintinha de São João. In a totally different style, there's the stunning Quinta da Casa Branca, a boutique designer hotel where glass is ubiquitous giving the impression that the vast gardens, where the hotel was built just over ten years ago, reach into the interior.
Between vineyards and impressive views, by way of Câmara de Lobos, a stone's throw from Funchal, are scattered other, equally tempting, options such as Quinta do Estreito and la Jardim da Serra, owned at one time by the British Consul Henry Veitch. A little farther on, set at the top of a cliff, is the unconventional Quinta da Rochinha, with its minimalist design, offering itself as a secret hiding place from which to explore the lonely northwest side of the island en route to the natural swimming pools at Porto Moniz. A spectacular road, literally carved from the cliffs, leads to the agricultural village of São Vincent and the characteristic triangular houses that have survived to this day in Santana.
Tips & suggestions:
Flights to Madeira are very reasonable, and a car can be rented for a week from Last Minute for about £185. On the web sites www.charminghotelsmadeira.com and www.quintas-madeira.com accommodation can be found and booked at many of the island's quintas. Many travel agencies will also arrange complete packages.