Travel: Portuguese island of Madeira promises a slice of inner peace
Gabrielle Fagan is transported to tranquillity by sound, sand and surf on a wellbeing break in Funchal, Madeira
IT'S sunrise and my cares seem to float away as I lie on my back on a mountain in Madeira, listening to sticks gently beating on a drum, simulating the noise of rain.
My mind and spirit are being washed by a 'sound bath' where – instead of water – vibrations produced on instruments, from gongs and shamanic drums, to chimes and shakers, aim to coax the brain into a relaxed, meditative state.
"Immersion in beautiful sounds and vibrations can clear the chakras [centres of energy within us] and soothe the body, mind and spirit," promises Emilie Mangoni, an international yoga teacher who's conducting my yoga session, finishing with the potent auditory healing experience.
The surroundings couldn't be more peaceful – an idyllic glade in the heart of the Laurissilva Forest whose origins are said to date back 20 million years.
Calm and healing experiences are what I crave and have come for. An overload of work and family problems have left me feeling low mentally and physically, and I've escaped to this island to rescue my battered wellbeing.
Unable to spare the time for a long holiday, all I have is three days to reboot my karma, which makes Madeira – a lush, beautiful giant rock in the Atlantic 400 miles off the west coast of Africa – the perfect destination.
It's only a three-and-a-half hour flight from Ireland and is rapidly gaining a reputation as being ideal for a wellness break. It was recently named Europe's leading island destination 2019 by the World Travel Awards.
I'm hoping that its sub-tropical climate, spectacular mountain skylines, crystal clear waters and sandy beaches will instantly plunge me into sun-soaked serenity.
My base is the lively, cosmopolitan capital, Funchal. Facing the sea, it's flanked by verdant mountains behind, and is in the southern part of the island.
On my first night, I'm enveloped in elegant luxury at the uber-contemporary, Vine Hotel, located in the historic centre close to the marina.
The island's winemaking history is the inspiration for the interior design. Dark, moody settings feature materials such as volcanic rock, contrasted with rich purple fabrics, while furniture has been crafted to resemble twisted vines.
There are almost too many ways to relax, with an indoor pool, solarium and fitness centre. A spa offers a wide range of treatments, including vinotherapy: a red wine bath with antioxidant wine extracts promising skin and health benefits.
After months of no 'me time', it's blissful to simply laze on the rooftop beside outdoor infinity pool, gazing out at the view over the bay. Wrapped in thick white towels after a long swim, I can feel my muscles relaxing and tension falling away.
Refreshed and more energised the next day, I take a two-and-a-half-hour sea trip by ferry to the tiny neighbouring island of Porto Santo.
It's dubbed Madeira's sandy little sister because of its spectacular uninterrupted 9km-long beach, which fringes its south side.
My first experience here is another therapeutic bath – but in sand rather than in sound.
The renowned Hot Sand Therapy (Psamotherapy) uses the island's fine, silk sand, which is renowned for its health-boosting qualities. Rich in minerals, including calcium and magnesium, it also contains a natural anti-inflammatory, strontium.
Buried up to my neck in hot, heavy sand in a wooden bathtub. I feel cocooned and totally relaxed. My sweat apparently releases minerals from the sand which my skin can absorb.
During the 30-minute session, I doze off and reluctantly awake to extricate myself and lie on a lounger, to allow the absorption process to continue for a couple of hours, before I can shower and swim in one of the pools.
Literally glowing inside and out, I leave the resort for lunch at a simple beachside cafe a few kilometres away.
It's a far cry from my normal lunchtime routine – a rushed sandwich at my desk. Here, I sit barefoot, listening to the sound of the waves and seabirds as I feast on freshly caught shellfish and finish with a Portuguese speciality, pasteis de nata (a custard tart).
I'm able to enjoy maximum time on the island sunbathing and walking beside the shore by cutting short the length of my return journey, thanks to Binter Airline's new service, which returns me to Funchal in just 15 minutes.
In the evenings, strolling through the charming Portuguese stone streets of Old Town Funchal, it's fun spotting eye-catching front doors which local artists have imaginatively painted as part of a restoration project.
What's so notable in this city is the warm, laid-back atmosphere wherever you go – day or night – as Madeira has long welcomed and cherished tourists. It's one of the most popular stopovers for luxury cruises.
My only stress is choosing which of the many bars and cafes to visit for a shot of Poncha – a local rum mixed with honey and lemon.
To gain a sense of the history of this Portugese island, there's no better place to visit than the yellow Forte Sao Tiago. It hugs the shoreline and was built in 1614 to allow the residents to watch out for pirates and potential invaders.
Within its stone ramparts nestles the Restaurant Do Forte and a gourmet dinner there by candlelight is an experience not to be missed.
Afterwards, I join locals and tourists on the fort's roof to view a spectacular fireworks show, one of many which take place throughout the year as companies compete for the privilege of lighting up the sky over Funchal on New Year's Eve.
My final two nights are spent at the Quintinha de Sao Joao hotel, which has the old-school charm of a rather grand Madeiran home, where the highly-personalised service makes you feel like an honoured member of the family, rather than a guest.
While I could have spent hours in the landscaped gardens surrounding it, and even longer in the spa where I had a super-soothing full-body massage, I don't want to miss the opportunity for more exploring.
For a bird's eye view of the city, I take a 15-minute cable car ride from the Old Town, which lifts me nearly 2,000 feet up to the parish of Monte.
It's home to the intriguing Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, which boast 100,000 plant species from all over the world. Time slips by unnoticed as I wander for hours marvelling at the quirky landscape of oriental temples, Buddha statues, and ornamental gardens.
It's all interspersed with lakes where koi carp glide beneath the surface and stately black swans glide elegantly on top, and the sound of fountains is the only noise disturbing the quiet.
My Madeiran cocktail of two healing 'baths', a generous helping of sun, sea and sand, and a dose of pampering have lifted my spirits and recharged me. My island escape – although brief – has worked wonders on my wellbeing.
:: To plan your own Madeira getaway, visit madeiraallyear.com
:: British Airways (britishairways.com) flies from London Gatwick to Funchal from £47 each-way, including taxes/fees/carrier charges
:: Forest Yoga sessions with Emilie Mangoni start from €80/£69 per person. Visit emiliemangoni.com/classes/
:: Doubles at the Vine Hotel start from €120/£103 per night with breakfast; doubles at Quintinha de Sao Joao start from €144/£124 per night with breakfast.