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LOVIN' MADEIRA IS A PIECE OF CAKE; Discover an island paradise with plenty of good food, great drink.. and a rather famous footballing son.

Byline: KIM HAUGHTON

MADEIRA, which may soon become more famous for being the birthplace of footballer Christanio Ronaldo, is still more comfortingly known as the home of a port that smells like Christmas.

A guided tour around the Old Blandys Wine Lodge in the capital Funchal is a great introduction to a country trying to dust off its oldfashioned image as a destination only for the elderly.

Visitors are taken on a guided tour around a working winery where massive vats hold 8,000hl of fortified wines.

At the end of the tour you taste the surprisingly delicious selection of the popular local tipple.

The natural harbour in Funchal is the starting point for a spot of whale and dolphin watching.

Here excited tourists board small powerboats with fingers on camera shutters and eyes peeled.

We headed into the warm Atlantic waters which are overlooked by Europe's highest vertical sea cliffs, the Cabo Girao, and the group soon spotted a tropical whale and a school of around 15 bottlenose dolphins.

The dolphins had been teasing us by swimming near the boat and then disappearing as soon as we got our snorkels on and hit the water.

As they left, they start jumping, propelling themselves almost five metres into the air, it was spectacular.

Even Lucia, the local marine biologist on board was stunned.

"You are very lucky. It takes so much of their energy that they don't jump very often," she said.

On the neighbouring island of Porto Santo, which together with the uninhabited Selvagens and Desertas make up the Madeira archipelago, there is no escaping the Ronaldo connection.

He is rumoured to have bought a plot of land overlooking the 9km of golden sand beach with stunning Atlantic views.

Squinting our eyes, we tried to see if we could make out the coast of Casablanca in North Africa, 579km west of this tiny paradise island.

With upmarket hotels, spas and a pristine golf course designed by Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros, Porto Santo makes a great detour from the main island and is just a 20-minute plane ride with SATA airlines from Madeira.

There's huge interest in alternative spa treatments, not just the sand therapy available at the Porto Santo Hotel and Spa but also back in Madeira. Chocolate spa therapy is popular at the the Jardim Atlantico Eco hotel.

It all sounds good enough to eat, but not before attempting to brave the barefoot reflexology walk around the hotel grounds, where the manager Celina walks every day.

We started off gently, over eucalyptus leaves, and soon found that we are walking over pine cones, volcanic rocks, pebbles, stones and then we were wading knee-deep in mud.

It really shouldn't have therapeutic qualities but at the end of it all our warm refreshed feet made for happy invigourated minds.

And feet will sure need a treat after a day-long trek through the levadas, an ancient irrigation system, the veins that lead straight to Madeira's heart.

Walking along a fraction of more than 1,400km of forest, hidden waterfalls and dark tunnels, we plucked wild blueberries from branches and had lunch under a canopy of laurel and oak trees as trout traveller through the narrow channels. Other activities on the island include climbing, canyoning, horse riding, wind surfing and jeep safaris.

Putting the "fun" into Funchal, there is so much to do in the capital city.

Taking a 15-minute cable car ride up to Monte (EUR 10) is well worth it. Visitors get a panoramic view of Funchal bay.

From Monte, the most exciting way to get back down is on a sledge.

Powered by the feet of two carreiros, sledge drivers in straw hats and white trouser suits, the giant wicker baskets weave their way through the narrow streets, hearts still racing with the thrill of it all as they come to a stop in Funchal.

With it's proximity to the sea, it's no coincidence that fish features on almost every menu in Madeira.

At restaurant Vila do Peixe, diners choose their fish by pointing to it rather than from a menu and my seabass was cooked to perfection, aided by a little garlic and olive oil.

For meat-lovers, the grilled beef on skewers is a treat.

Just slide thick chunks of fillet beef off the skewer and onto the plate and mop up the juices with warm sweet potato bread.

There's no better way to toast it all than with a glass of Poncha, traditionally made with rum, lemon honey and sugar.

The drink is so popular in Madeira it even has it's own Facebook page.

So much for being stuck in the past, Madeira is well and truly a 21st Century destination.

Things to Do:

Old Blandy Wine Lodge, Funchal 351 (291740110)

Funchal Cable Car (www.madeiracablecar.com)

Monte Sledges +351 (291783919)

Levada Walks: Mountain Expeditions +351 (969677679)

Reflexology Walks: Hotel Jardim Atlantico (www.jardimatlantico.com)

Places to Eat:

Adega da Quinta at Quint do Estreito for traditional beef skewers

Riso Del Mundo Rice Restaurant, pictured above, Rua de Santa Maria,for the duck risotto

Il Basilico Rua Simplicio Passos Gouveia for Italian dishes

Vila do Peixe for the freshest fish

Pe Na Agua on the beach in Porto Santo for the fish stew

What's the deal?

Kim Haughton travelled to Madeira with Topflight. The tour company has just introduced Madeira to its Winter SunProgramme, working in partnership with SATA Airlines, with full luggage allowance and direct Sunday flights to Funchal.

Topflight has an excellent range of hotels. We stayed at the five-star Tivoli Marina Hotel which is located beside the sea.

It is just 2km outside Funchal. The Tivoli Marina has a courtesy bus which runs into the capital.

Call Topflight on (01) 240 1700, your local travel agent or visit www.topflight.ie.

CAPTION(S):

Island is soccer star Ronaldo's homeland The trip down Monte in a wicker sledge driven by carreiros is exhilarating Captivating dolphin-watching
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 22, 2009
Words:990
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