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Travel: Exotic escapism without the jet lag – why Madeira is the ideal holiday for a quick fix

Only a four-hour flight from London, this Portuguese island is a short-haul getaway with long-haul appeal, says Scarlett Sangster...

The coastline of Funchal, Madeira
By Scarlett Sangster, PA

AS OUR 4WD continues to climb the mountain slopes, the tangled arms of vines and fruit trees reach out to greet us. The mist is thicker the higher up the mountain we travel, and the scent of eucalyptus become increasingly intense.

If you’re looking for a destination to escape those office frustrations, this has to be it.

I landed in Madeira after an easy four-hour flight from London Gatwick. Our first day is spent visiting our tour guide Diogo’s favourite corners of the island, from hidden coves and volcanic beaches, to craggy mountain craters and misty forests. I’d never have thought it possible to experience so many different landscapes in one afternoon.

“Wait,” says Diogo, leaping from the driver’s seat. Perplexed, we watch as he climbs the bank of the little forest road and plucks an oval-shaped fruit from the foliage. He splits it down the middle and holds it out to us.

“Banana passionfruit,” he says. “Here, taste it.” Tart and faintly floral, it’s one of the many fruits I’ll be eating straight from the trees during my visit.

Though technically an autonomous region of Portugal, Madeira island lies just off the northwest coast of Africa, blessing it with a subtropical climate and otherworldly landscape. Two thirds of the island is national park, protected by Unesco and free to grow wildly. It feels like something out of Jurassic Park, we joke, as our 4WD peaks the crest of the mountain and the fog clears to reveal panoramic views of the island below.

THE WINE IS A WINNER

If you’ve never tried it, Madeira wine is a type of fortified wine, somewhere between a desert wine and a port. It’s a slow drink between 19-23 per cent alcohol and can only be made from seven very specific varieties of grape.

I sample a glass at Quinta das Vinhas, a 17th century family-owned vineyard and hotel on the western side of the island. It couldn’t be more picturesque, with its private terracotta cottages and rows of grape vines stretching out to the sea.

Isabelle, the mastermind behind the vineyard, talks me through the science behind the flavour, running through the 70 varieties she grows, ranging from Madeiran to table grapes.

Afterwards, I dine at the hotel restaurant which serves all island-grown vegetables and locally-sourced fish. I opt for trigger fish, which comes wrapped in a fig leaf and sizzling on a hot stone.

FEASTING IS FUN IN THE CITY

Swapping the countryside for a more urban setting, I continue my journey to Funchal, Madeira’s capital. There’s plenty to see and do, from discovering the stunning Romanesque cathedral, to visiting the São Tiago Fortress, exploring the city’s many wine cellars and taking a cable-car trip up the side of the mountain to see the capital from above.

For me, food is the real highlight. With a classic, Mediterranean café-feel, Peixaria do Mercado serves fresh fish on a daily changing menu. During my visit, there’s a choice of black scabbard fish, parrotfish, red snapper and tuna.

We’re also treated to a glass of poncha, a traditional Madeiran cocktail of rum, honey and citrus juice, said to have been taken out to sea by fisherman to help them keep warm and stave off seasickness. It’s the perfect sweet finale to yet another glorious meal.

THE MOUNTAINS ARE SIMPLY MARVELLOUS

After a chilled day on land, it’s back into the mountains for a day of exploring. There are more than 3,000km of levadas running through Madeira. These man-made water channels, once used to irrigate farms, have been transformed into a network of walking trails. The 25 Fountains Walk is 4.6km long and takes about three hours to do the full circuit. That might sound like a long way, but believe me, you won’t get tired of your surroundings.

As we walk, our guide Andrei stops to point out indigenous birds, such as the Madeira firecrest, with its yellow and blue crested head, and the trocaz pigeon, nesting in the native laurel trees. It’s a walk you could easily make alone, though a guide is well worth the small fee to open your eyes to the otherwise hidden magic of your surroundings. Guided walks by MBTours (mb-travel.pt) cost €41/£38 per person.

IT’S EASY TO RELAX

Having clocked over 15,000 steps, we return to the Castanheiro Hotel in Funchal for a well-deserved afternoon in the Til Spa. It has everything you need to rejuvenate after an afternoon in the forest – an indoor pool with hydrotherapy jets, sauna, steam room and a full menu of treatments using luxury organic products.

Now feeling fully relaxed, it’s time for a final supper at AKUA (akuafunchal.pt), yet another of the island’s top fish restaurants. Seated in front of the open kitchen, we watch chefs prepare an incredible three-course menu. To start, we share a sweetened ceviche, delicately seasoned sardines and crisped cod tacos. Then onto the mains for seared tuna and an incredibly rich razor crab risotto, before finishing with a white chocolate ice cream and olive-caramel puree.

The memory of those fresh flavours lingers as I prepare to head home to cooler weather. Although small in size and so close to home, Madeira promises a sense of escapism that feels a million miles away.

HOW TO PLAN YOUR TRIP

Doubles at Quinta das Vinhas (qdvmadeira.com) start from £130 a night with breakfast.

Doubles at Castanheiro Boutique Hotel (castanheiroboutiquehotel.com) in Funchal start from £152 with breakfast.

For more information about tours and activities visit madeiraallyear.com.

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