Madeira – a botanical garden in the Atlantic

- John Nielsen, For John Nielsen, luxury hospitality and tourism has been part of his life since he recalls. Having been fortunate to travel extensively during his childhood in Denmark, it was almost a natural choice for John to join the Scandinavian travel company, Spies Travels in 1983. This journey and a beginning of his career, took John to Madeira & Portugal, where he gained his love of luxury hotels. From there three years were spent studying in Switzerland, then to South Korea at Hotel Lotte, to Hong Kong with hotels including the Mandarin Oriental and Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, Hyatt Carlton Tower in London, Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, Crown Towers in Melbourne and Grand Hyatt Melbourne. Throughout the years in senior management John developed a passion for wine and in 1998 co-founded Liquid Assets Wine Storage in Melbourne. In 2006 John joined Kiwi Collection as a Regional Director in Asia Pacific and today continues to consult as well as contribute to WOW Travel. John recently completed his Master of Business with an added Master Degree in Tourism. These days John is based in Melbourne with his family, working for the Australian PGA Links company as General Manager of Hospitality. The travel bug will forever stay and with family based across three continents, there is always a good excuse to seek out new destinations and new wines.

During my travels I have had the pleasure of visiting many islands around the world. Some stand out for the natural beauty, others have great beaches, but very few offer a wonderful combination of history, luxury resorts, world-class botanical gardens and a countryside that includes mountains and vineyards.

As you arrive in Madeira, you can’t help notice the many plantations on the drive along the stunning rugged coastline towards the capital Funchal. After 20 min the main road turns and there in-front of you lies the city in almost amphi theatre. The lights on the hillsides create a stunning effect as dusk settles over Funchal.

Madeira has an area of 285 sq miles and is situated in the northern half of the Atlantic Ocean, 300 miles from west Morocco and 620 miles south from mainland Portugal. Flights from London take just over 3 hours and one hour from Lisbon. The volcanic origin of the island makes it fertile, giving it is fascinating topography of gentle rolling hills edged on to steep ravines and sharp cliffs towering above lush green valleys. The flower paradise in the ocean enjoys an excellent climate without any extreme seasonal variations.

As I walk through the town I cannot help notice the wonderful age-old buildings and the history that surrounds them. Joao Goncalves Zarco discovered Madeira in 1418 during the golden age of discoveries, when under command of Prince Henry The Navigator, the Portuguese sailors set out on their epic missions into the great unknown. Along with discovering Madeira & Porto Santo, these being the first of many discovery missions set out from Portugal’s capital, Lisbon.

A favourite destination for many northern Europeans to escape the cold winter months, it was also the winter get-away for Sir Winston Churchill, who would spend his past time painting the local scenery. Sir Winston would spend many afternoons seating on the veranda at the oldest hotel and today the best, Reid’s Palace. Today it is a wonderful hotel and is still “the” location for afternoon tea served with Madeira cake on the veranda overlooking the ocean. The hotel enjoys a stunning location facing the bay and the hotels botanical garden is a delight to visit.

As one of the “grand” hotels of Europe, the hotel is loaded with tradition. The service is warm friendly, all in all top quality and follows the style and slightly formal ambience. The pool area overlooks the ocean and has a lift to the cliffs where from a simply jump and you are in the warm Atlantic Ocean. With the Gulf Stream running around Madeira, the waters are always nice and warm all year. Food & Beverage in the hotel was fairly traditional; the breakfast buffet offers a great selection and even local sparkling wine with your fresh juice. The two restaurants are quite stunning in design, one more formal fine dining and the second an Italian. Make sure you sit outside and take in the view, but are worth a visit. The hotel bar is a must after dinner. Dance away with the back-drop of Funchal lights to the live band and gaze away after at the view, just make sure you also look at your partner from time to time…..the evening setting is magic.

Madeira is an island that must be experienced. The new road system makes it easy to drive around and visit the outer lying villages, where the true beauty of Madeira is found. The colours are sensational in the countryside. The Madeira vineyards lie high above in the hillside and close to the sea, growing the famous Madeira wine. I had the pleasure of tasting a few and wow, the older they get the more stunning the taste….the 1954 Boal was quite a thrill.

Madeira also offers delightful local food. A great mix of a deep-sea fish called “Espada served with local grilled banana’s” and the Espetada, beef brochettes, made in a wood fried oven served with fabulous garlic bread! A few glasses of Portuguese red wine or the green white wine, “Vino Verde” and you are feeling very relaxed.

As I set about to view Madeira I was taken on a levada walk. The levada or irrigation channels are located all over Madeira and were used by locals to travel between villages on foot. Today a wonderful network exists and is a must as part of a visit. Some of the walks even take you through the botanical gardens and give guided tours of the rich fauna.

The gardens are dream for any keen gardener. One of the most beautiful is was once private garden, Quinta do Palheriro was converted into a golf course and is now a public botanical garden. The walk around the golf course offers a good combination of sightseeing when the swing maybe does not quite work!

After a day on the golf course it is great to be pampered at Choupana Hills Resort & Spa. Located on the hillside overlooking the bay of Funchal, this modern addition to the hotel scene is an ideal hide-away. The resort & spa was first to the island, and now a few more have followed suit.

As I sat back at Reid’s Palace veranda with a cup of tea and admired the natural beauty, I have to admit that Sir Winston also made a great decision about where to hide and enjoy life. Cheers! I can’t wait for my return trip to Madeira.

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