Michelle Chenery reports on a trip to Portugal’s pearl of the Atlantic, hosted by Uniqueworld and the DMC, AbreuStarting early from Heathrow and flying TAP direct to Funchal, Madeira’s chief city, we arrived in time to still have half a day’s activities. The ground staff of the DMC Abreu greeted us. Maria da Graca Luis, from the Regional Ministry of Tourism and Transport, gave us a rapid insight into the island as we travelled to our base, the 5-star Melia Madeira Mare Resort and Spa. .
This is a property with 220 rooms, 16 premium suites, eight master suites, and two executive suites. They all have private balconies, most with views over the ocean. There are a total of five meeting rooms as well as a ballroom, the smallest being able to cater for up to 14 u-style and the largest up to 90 for a reception. The 323sqm ballroom can seat 180 delegates for a banquet.
The hotel has five restaurants, with a cuisine to suit every taste.
We enjoyed an afternoon of relaxation and were then escorted to The Vine Hotel. This was something of a surprise as it is located within a shopping centre. Its first floor reception area is of a slick and stylish design with cobblestone floor and wall features. The seating areas look as though they are made of stone but, in fact, are soft to the touch, each floor having its own colour scheme related to the seasons. There are 79 rooms over 5 floors, ranging from a standard room of 30sqm to suites up to 83sqm.
We were then able to taste some of the local traditional tipple which is called Poncah. It is a Madeiran honey and lemon drink, based on white rum, usually freshly made using a wooden hand implement. It certainly had a unique taste.
Our next call was at the internationally famous hotel, Reid's Palace, a deluxe member of the Orient Express group.
Set on the cliff tops overlooking Funchal and the Atlantic, any window on this property begs to be looked out of. Dinner was served in the main restaurant with panoramic views over the ocean. We were treated to fantastic dishes of freshly caught fish and local wines. Then a fado group appeared, the singer blasting out her unique vocals throughout the restaurant. She certainly had no need for a microphone.
The following morning we headed into central Funchal, to the local market, where ladies in traditional dress can be found selling flowers outdoors and indoors, alongside fresh fruit and vegetables. It was all a vibrant mix of bright colours. Some of the fruit were the most bizarre I have ever seen. Then there was the fish market. This is not for the squeamish as the fish are being washed, gutted, sliced and diced before your very eyes. But it makes for a very authentic experience.
Just outside the market is the old street of Santa Maria, where local artists have painted and customised the majority of the doors. We walked round the most famous of the city’s sites. Our final stop was Blandy's Madeira Wine company. Where we enjoyed a guided tour, with insights into the history of the company, how the wine is produced, matured and we finished, of course, with a sample or two of the unique Madeira wines.
There are several ways to make to make it down the hill back to the town centre. We took the adventurous way, for which Madeira is rightfully famous. We slid in the traditional wicker toboggans. These were originally introduced to take the more wealthy folk into town many years ago. You basically get pushed and pulled down the hill at certain points by two men who have complete and utter control over your speed direction and how much they decide to skid as you go around corners. Really good fun, a little hair-raising at some points, especially when you see a car heading up the road as you are sliding and travelling at quite some speed towards it, but that just makes it that little bit more exciting and interesting. I do recall hearing screams from some of the other baskets along the way.
The next port of call was Vidamar Resorts Madeira, with an ocean-front setting, surrounded by landscaped gardens and palm trees. A very modern hotel with two glass-clad buildings housing guestrooms and meeting facilities. It has a total of 300 spacious rooms all ocean facing, with an abundant use of natural daylight throughout. The resort has over 2000sqm of meeting space, consisting of seven multifunctional rooms, the smallest able to host 100 banquet style, the largest up to 420.
Adjacent to the resort is the Vidamar Congress Centre which has two flexible spaces that can be divided into six separate rooms and an Auditorium which seats 396. The complex has the largest spa facilities I have seen to date, an entire floor with numerous different treatment rooms and several pools, I'm glad we had someone from the hotel showing us around as I could have quite easily got lost in there.
Dinner that evening was served at the Quinta da Bel Vista Hotel, a small 5-star luxury property and World Travel awards winner of Portugal Leading Boutique Hotels of the World. Offering a total of 89 rooms, comprising two penthouse suites, five junior suites, 20 Deluxe rooms, 22 Superior rooms and 40 Garden View rooms, all with free internet access. The hotel features antique furniture, part of the owner’s private collection, giving a grand, opulent feel to every room, lounge and corridor. We were hosted in one of the private dining rooms for dinner and were served more of the great food from the area, as well as local wines to accompany every course.
Ample outdoor space makes it possible to host receptions and cocktail parties, whilst two further meetings spaces can seat 250 theatre style and 200 for a banquet.
After lunch we were loaded into jeeps for some off-road action through the mountainous regions of the island. The open-topped vehicles allowed us to get the full impact of the area, visually and also when the odd low-lying branch of a tree appeared from nowhere.
Later that day the group visited the Hotel Pestana Casino Park and Congress Centre, designed by the world-famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer. There are 379 rooms with views over the ocean, gardens or mountains, including 20 suites, a presidential suite and 18 junior suites. The hotel and Convention Centre together have 20 meetings rooms, ranging from 96sqm up to the 576sqm Auditorium that can seat 628 delegates theatre style.
Our farewell dinner was served in the 400-years-old Sào Tiago Fortress. It stands at the entrance to the harbour, where defended the bay from pirates. We enjoyed cocktails up on the roof with stunning views of Funchal and the ocean. We were then shown to the restaurant where a young lady in period dress escorted us to our table. The food was excellent and memorable. I doubt if I'll ever be served a cold stone with sorbet on top surrounded by blue jelly again in my life, unless of course I return there. The evening was rounded off with all the diners out on the roof to watch a firework display over the bay. It was part of the annual Atlantic Festival.
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