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Madeira, the Garden Island

Published: Wed 22 Aug 2012 at 16:11

Updated: Wed 22 Aug 2012 at 16:12

Where2 Magazine

A haven of peace for European nobility and aristocracy in the past, Madeira today seems ever more beautiful. The island’s fabulous landscape of towering mountains, dramatic cliffs, deep valleys, luxurious green forests and spectacular waterfalls forms a backdrop for countless gardens and parks while its traditional towns and villages retain a distinctly old world charm.

Favoured by the Gulf Stream, the volcanic island of Madeira enjoys a subtropical-Mediterranean climate. The island’s mountains buffer the south of the island from the worst of the strong Atlantic winds, which means that although the north can be very wet and windy and the mountainous centre is often veiled in mist, the southwest and island capital Funchal have less rain and enjoy plenty of sunshine, yet rarely get too hot – except on the rare occasions in summer when a dry wind from the Sahara brings a flurry of red sand and raises temperatures to 40°C or beyond, far above the summer norm of 24°C.

The island’s rich soil, warm, wet climate and mild year-round temperatures provide perfect growing conditions for a huge variety of sometimes extravagant trees and plants – a paradise for keen gardeners.

Madeira, whose name means wood in Portuguese, used to be entirely covered with rainforests, some of which remain to the north of the island and are designated a World Heritage Site. Funchal, meanwhile, takes its name from the abundant fennel (funcho) that used to grow there. Today instead of fennel there are gardens dedicated to orchids and other exotic plants, and parks where peacocks strut their stuff. Elsewhere on the island are acre upon acre of tiered terraces of vineyards cultivated to produce the famous wines of Madeira.

Madeira’s gardens were recognised as among the finest in Europe when Funchal received a prestigious gold award as ‘European Flowering City 2000’. But this enchanting island’s reputation was assured long before. Famous visitors and residents have included Christopher Columbus, who married the daughter of the governor of neighbouring Porto Santo. Later came Captain Scott en route to Antarctica, and then George Bernard Shaw, seeking rest, relaxation and inspiration. Madeira was also a favoured holiday retreat for Winston Churchill. In the post-war 1940s he worked on his war memoirs here and painted in nearby Câmara de Lobos, at that time a picturesque traditional fishing village.

Among many spectacular gardens, the biggest tourist attraction is the Jardim Botánico, lying 3 km (1.9 miles) from Funchal at Quinta do Bom Sucesso. After some 200 years of unfulfilled dreams, plans and hopes, the botanical garden was finally and impressively realized in 1960. Covering 80,000 m2 the gardens feature a collection of more than 2,500 plant species. An additional feature of the garden is the Loiro Park with 300 mainly tropical birds, including blue and yellow macaws, cockatoos and parrots.

A highlight of the visit should be a trip on the garden’s cable car up to the pretty hillside village of Monte, high above Funchal. The nine-minute cable car journey provides fabulous views down over Funchal, the lush green surrounding landscape and harbour. Monte, some 6 km away from Funchal, used to be a health resort in days gone by.

Today it attracts thousands of tourists keen to experience the traditional toboggan ride down the winding streets from Monte to Livramento, from where you can walk or take a bus or taxi the remaining 3 km or so to Funchal. The toboggans are large, twoseated wicker baskets that glide along on runners, pushed and piloted by two locals dressed in white and wearing straw hats.

Before setting off, have a stroll around the exotic tropical gardens of the old Monte Palace Hotel. Lakes, pools, fountains, garden architecture, terraces and traditional tiles are set among the brightly coloured plants, which range from northern hemisphere heathers to Japanese azaleas and rare giant tree ferns. Paradise!

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