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Magical Madeira; Following in Winston Churchill's footsteps, Debbie Murray discovers there's more to Madeira than fortified wine.

NOT many weeks had passed since the devastating floods saw torrents of rain gushing down from the mountains when we arrived in Funchal, the capital and port of Madeira.

Gardens and tree-lined promenades looked as immaculate as ever. The only evidence left behind being the remains of a collapsed bridge in the village of Ribeira Brava, which is perhaps down to the fierce civic pride of this Portugal-owned island.

From your first glimpse from the skies above the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is a visual feast - a dramatic combination of awe-inspiring mountains and hidden valleys formed 20 million years ago from a volcanic eruption.

A mild climate and year-round sunshine ensure the land is completely covered in a carpet of lush green trees, plants and flowers. The Garden Island, as it's known, is nearer to Africa than Portugal, and only 36 miles long and 14 miles wide.

Keen walkers find challenges here at all levels as you make your way through beautiful forests and mountain pathways.

Steep really does mean steep.

The tour bus got me most of the way up Pico Areerio, Madeira's third highest mountain, but I was still gasping for breath as I took in the truly spectacular view.

Surrounded by smaller peaks we looked down on the clouds and felt as though we were standing on top of the world.

At the Villa Porto Mare Resort, our four-star hotel in the centre of Funchal, the sunlounger beckoned when the sun broke through. Surrounded by manicured gardens and with the scent of beautiful flowers wafting by on the breeze, this was the perfect place to do nothing.

For the more active, the resort also offers indoor and outdoor pools, and there's a choice of four restaurants and bars. There's also a handy free bus into the city centre.

The only flatness among Madeira's peaks is in the west of the island, at Paul de Serra, a plateau.

Locals use steep terraces to make a living growing vegetables with bunches higher up. There are also hundreds of grape vines, for the famous Madeira fortified wine. Four varieties range from dry to sweet and, like most other wines, the older it is, the better.

Funchal itself has a genteel and stately air, its streets gathered around the small but magnificent Se cathedral, a 15th century whitewashed building with a beautiful interior.

Madeira's other churches, along with its museums and galleries, are also nearby.

A fantastic seafront promenade stretches the length of the bay, from which the city has grown. At the west end is the harbour and marina, while the rest is dotted with cafes and bars, ideal for coffee, cake, beer or people-watching.

Nearer sea level, the views continue to amaze. Funchal sits like an amphitheatre on the south of the island, its terracotta roof tiles a quilt of colour. Hotels line the front row, while villas and apartments further back house half of the 250,000 islanders.

In the east, the old town is characterised by narrow cobbled streets, small squares and markets, surrounded by terraced fishermen's cottages, where early settlers in Madeira once lived. Here, there's a better view of Funchal, by taking a cable car from the seafront high above the city to the hills further inland.

The car stops at the hilltop town of Monte, home to the beautiful Church of Our Lady, which sits in a dramatic position on top of a hill and accessed only by climbing tens of steps. It's worth the effort though, especially if you plan to travel back downhill from Monte the traditional way... by toboggan!

Goods used to be carried up and down the hills by horse-drawn toboggans, but this has been adapted for tourists and it's actually a lot of fun being pushed and pulled downhill in a sturdy wicker basket by men in straw boater hats!

Because it takes so long to travel by winding roads to other parts of the island, villagers live off what they grow. Chestnuts are a speciality, so the cafe here serves an excellent chestnut cake with a glass of delicious local cherry liqueur.

Another speciality is the espada (scabbard fish) which is caught at night from the deep waters off the island and available in most restaurants, either with banana or passion fruit.

For meat eaters, the espetada - a long skewer of chunks of beef - is cooked traditionally over a wood fire. And for dessert, there's Bolo de Mel, a cake made with sugar cane honey, fruits, nuts and spices, and the real Madeira cake, unlike the plain sponge British invention of the same name, so called because it was often eaten with Madeira wine.

If, like Winston Churchill, you want to capture the views on canvas, head west to Camara de Lobos, where brightly-coloured fishing boats bob about in the shadow of the cliffs. This view inspired the Prime Minister to set up his easel and paint palette back in 1950.

Churchill's favourite spot was the famous Reid's Palace Hotel, built on a prominent corner of the headland in Funchal in 1891 it still maintains a certain colonial grandeur. But you can stay much more cheaply on Madeira and still enjoy its delights - a marvellously relaxed way of life and the sense that, out in the middle of the Atlantic, you can safely ignore the rest of the world.

Travel DEBBIE MURRAY was a guest of Thomas Cook which offers seven nights' B&B at the four star plus Villa Porto Mare Resort, Funchal, from pounds 525, with flights ex-Gatwick. Departures ex-Glasgow and ex-Manchester start at pounds 519.

facts The holiday is included in Thomas Cook's Style programme (0844 4212 5870 and www.thomascookstyle.com)

CAPTION(S):

Madeira Grand Hotel, above, and, below, the harbour at Camara de Lobos. Right, the lush mountains around Nuns Valley
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 25, 2011
Words:967
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