Madeira Meandering in a Mercedes.
First published in Road Trip Magazine, March 2018.
I opted to handle the narrow twists and turns of Madeira from the comfort of a Mercedes Vita Six with João Gomes in the driving seat.
Driving on the right hand side of the road is enough of a challenge without the added stress of the Volcanic island’s vertiginous cliff roads. To be fair, there is an excellent network of tunnels in Madeira, a sub-tropical Portuguese island, much nearer to Africa than it is to Europe, which allows you to traverse the island in less than an hour, but the best way to see the island with its terraced cliffs and impossibly blue Atlantic is via the old, steep roads.
The Mercedes-Benz Euro Vita Six seems to be the standard vehicle for taxi operators on the island. Left and right doors are controlled electronically by the driver and having passenger controlled air conditioning makes for a comfortable journey even at full capacity with seven passengers.
Taxi drivers are also happy to offer mini tours with a few stops along the way for little additional fare. Our 45 Euro for half a day seemed fair to us and was a good strategy to arrange our transport from one hotel to the other.
Banana plantations are the most common agricultural produce with wine grapes a close second. All agriculture is planted and harvested by hand and it is only once you have walked up the impossibly steep cliff paths that you appreciate how challenging this must be.
First stop on the way from the capital Funchal to Calheta is the Cabo Girão lookout with its dizzyingly high partial glass walkway from which the jagged cliffs and Atlantic fall away beneath your feet. Next is the picturesque fishing village made famous as Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite place to paint, Câmara de Lobos. The colourful fishing boats and and pretty diminutive houses are very charming. Visit the ancient church while there and meander the narrow cobbled streets.
The route to São Vicente takes us over the mountains to view the protected laurel forests. We know them as bay trees which covered most of the mountain before their aggressive removal for timber and to clear agricultural land forced them into a protected species.
Climate in Madeira is very changeable and it is best to keep your options open for weather-dependent activities. Also, on account of the altitude, the mild 21 degrees at sea level in December, their winter, dropped to below 10 when we reached the top of the mountain. It is important to have rain protection and a jacket. The levadas are a network of built irrigation channels that create an arterial network over the island. A number of hikes are available that use these levadas as guides. Among the most famous, 25 Fountains, is the one we did from our base at the Savoy Saccharum Hotel in Calheta, on Madeira’s south-west coast. The hike’s starting point, Rabaçal, looks like a hop, skip and jump away from this contemporary five-star deluxe resort hotel when looking at the map. But, like everything in Madeira, the altitude is deceptive and it took about 20 minutes for us to reach the starting point via taxi. English is widely spoken and we had no fear in arranging for the driver to collect us again later in the day. At times, the mist grew heavy and just the narrow, mossy walkway was visible ahead. Later, the sky cleared and the laurel-covered mountains hugged us like jealous lovers as we climbed down into the crevice. Strong wind the previous day meant we sought refuge in the hotel’s lavish wet spa. These facilities, included in the hotel’s premium guest package or available on a pay-by-use basis, have set the high-bar for wet spa facilities. Like the rest of the hotel’s interiors, designed by renowned interior architect Nini Andrade Silva, the spa is based on a sugar cane and rum production theme, the past mainstay of Calheta.
Earthy browns and burnished copper hues visible from the stairs give the impression of descending into the belly of a wonderful machine that will relax and renew. Sensation showers accompanied by light therapy, unisex sauna and steam facilities and jet showers, spa pools, indoor swimming pool with massage jet and waterfall fountains and a number of relaxation areas, one that is heated around a massive Himalayan salt crystal rock offers halotherapy which emulates conditions in a salt cave.
In another relaxation area, separated by gossamer thin curtains, waterbeds and anti-gravity mechanically adjusted beds that gently raise the legs above the torso are a tonic.
The Savoy Saccharum has a state-of-the-art gym and private treatment rooms for the usual face and body therapies you’d expect at a luxury spa.
This was the largest and finest such facility we have yet seen and reason enough to stay at this hotel. Sea-facing hotel rooms, also by Nini Andrade Silva, make the most of the Atlantic views with deep balconies while internal rooms look into a lushly planted green courtyard or the mountain backdrop.
Fine dining is at Alambique but we really enjoyed the lavish buffet breakfast and one of the themed buffet dinners in the Engenho restaurant. That dinner, which began with a mountain of just-steamed prawns, was one of the most memorable of our trip.
Guests on premium packages also have access to private roof-top pool cabanas.
The Savoy Saccharum is the landmark property on Calheta and directly across from the beach and marina which has a number of casual dining options. A sister hotel, Savoy Calheta Beach, is within walking distance.
The brand new Savoy Palace Resort, among the largest on the island, is set to open in Funchal this year.