As our 4X4 climbs 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.
I land in Madeira after a four-hour flight from 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 mountains and misty forests. “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.
If you’ve never tried it, Madeira wine is a type of fortified wine, somewhere between a dessert wine and a port. It’s a slow drink, between 19 and 23% 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.
Isabel, the mastermind behind the vineyard, talks me through the science behind the flavour, running through the 70 varieties she grows. 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.
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 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.
For me, food is the highlight. With a classic, Mediterranean café feel, Peixaria do Mercado serves fresh fish. 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 fishermen to help them keep warm and stave off seasickness. It’s the perfect sweet finale to yet another glorious meal.
After a chilled day on land, it’s back into the mountains for a day of exploring. There are more than 1,800 miles 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 2.8 miles long and takes about three hours.
As we walk, our guide, Andrei, stops to point out 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 worth the small fee to open your eyes to the otherwise hidden magic of your surroundings. Guided walks by MBTours cost £38.
Having clocked more than 15,000 steps, we return to Castanheiro Hotel in Funchal for a well-deserved afternoon in the Til Spa. It has everything you need to rejuvenate – 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, 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 on to the mains for seared tuna and a 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.
Though technically an autonomous region of Portugal, Madeira island lies just off the north-west 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.
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 info visit madeiraallyear.com.
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