New hot spot in Madeira.
Luxury writer BRIAN BERKMAN explored Calheta, one of Madeira’s new hot spots.
“Let me get my Rolls Royce for your luggage.” This was the warm welcome we received when our taxi pulled up to the recently opened Savoy Saccharum Hotel and our luggage was placed on those shiny brass trolleys. The South African accent was immediately recognisable and soon we and Joe Jardim, one of the front of house staff at this luxury resort hotel, were on our local “howzit my china” terms.
Madeira is a Portuguese Island but much nearer to Africa then to the European mainland. Calheta, on the southwest coast of this sub-tropical volcanic island, is also a few degrees warmer than the capital Funchal and is one of the hot new destinations.
Originally Calheta was the centre for sugarcane rum production and although rum is still distilled just around the corner from the hotel, tourism which includes big-game fishing from the marina opposite, is what this area is now best known for.
When arriving at Funchal by ship, the Nini Andrade Silva Design Centre is like a lighthouse on top of a rock for the design conscious. Much like footballer Cristiano Renaldo, Madeira’s most famous export, Nini Andrade Silva is a global interior design icon. Silva’s The Vine Hotel in Funchal was the first wine themed hotel on the Island and she brought her designs to the island’s first sugar themed hotel, The Savoy Saccharum.
Inside caramel, copper, fresh greens and other colours in sugar cane and rum production create a warmly elegant atmosphere. As an energy saving idea, areas brighten up as you walk along the usually dimly lit corridors, typically just a few meters from where you are headed at the time and this creates the impression of an airplane approaching the runway.
Architected by RH+ Studio, designs are all about the relationship of the mountainside backdrop and the twinkling Atlantic ahead.
There are 243 rooms with either sea, mountain or views over a verdant internal courtyard.
All rooms are finished to a very high standard with spacious private balconies offering sensational views.
As you’d expert from a five-star resort there’s self-controlled air conditioning, direct-line telephone, flat-screen cable television with a choice of more than 90 channels as well as TV-on-Demand, coffee and tea making facilities, well-stocked mini-bar, safety deposit box and a luxurious marble fitted bathroom with extra large walk-in shower unit and separate oversized-washbasin and toilet, hair dryer and bathroom amenities. Wi-Fi is freely available throughout.
This property was built with relaxation in mind. Not one or two but four swimming pools: one indoor, heated, and three outdoor. On the second floor which is also where the excellent buffet restaurant Engenho is located is a sunny pool for adults only. On the eighth floor, the resort has two pools, one of which is an infinity pool that makes you think you might swim directly into the Atlantic below. There is also a pool for smaller children. The Savoy Saccharum offers a Premium Service bolt-on to your booking which is recommended as it grants you, among other benefits, free and unlimited access to the outstanding wet spa and its indoor pool. This was our favourite place with its gender neutral sauna and steam areas, sensation showers and wonderful relaxation areas. It even has a Halotherapy chamber, the first time we have encountered a “salt cave”.
Calheta is within close proximity to Rabaçal from where we did the 25 Fountains and Risco walks along the ancient Levadas or irrigation channels built into the terraced mountains. The hotel’s spa pools and anti-gravity beds that raise the legs above the torso were just the tonic we needed after the hike.
Although food and drink options at the resort are top notch, there is another Savoy hotel, Calheta Beach, nearby where you are also welcome to bill items to your room account as well as a number of cheap and cheerful restaurants on the marina. There is even a pharmacy and a little shopping complex with a supermarket in easy walking proximity. Black Scabbard with Banana and Espetada are national dishes in Madeira. The former, a delicious fish dish and the latter, cubes of salted beef skewered onto Bay or Laurel twigs and slowly cooked over coals. Rabaçal is also one of the areas with the highest concentration of Laurel trees, once ubiquitous on the island and now so rare they are a protected resource. The hotel’s guest relations team are also local attractions experts and will be able to arrange for tours, activities and you might even ask Joe Jardim about marlin fishing as he is one of the local champions.
We especially appreciated that everyone we encountered spoke perfect English and not once during our week long visit to the island did we ever feel at risk of being ripped off, or worse. Perhaps because of the European Union’s investment into infrastructure and Madeira being a favourite port of call for cruise liners, the feeling we had was of a warmly welcoming island and soon to be prosperous place.
Many people hire cars during their stay but the option of driving on the right hand side of the road and up the narrow and windy streets scared us off. We always found a taxi when we needed one but were surprised that Uber wasn’t available on the island.
The capital Funchal is a must see, not least because of its charming old town with its market and colourfully painted doorways but for the funicular ride from the seafront to Monte, a mountain-top village. In Monte one of the most popular attractions is to be pushed down the mountain in a rattan woven basket sledge. Like Venice’s Gondoliers, those that steer these basket sleighs down the steep, windy roads, dress in a white uniform with their iconic straw hats.
There is a botanical garden in Monte as well as an important church, shrine and fountain.
All along the coast there are villages each more charming than the next but, to our mind, anyway, none more so than Câmara de Lobos. For this quant fishing village, just 10km from Funchal, became the poster image for Madeira as Sir Winston Churchill painted it which helped to popularise it amongst the British, still regular visitors to the Island especially during the Northern hemisphere winter months when we visited.