olo de Mel. These three little words meant absolutely nothing to me until last week. This little treat, which I found on the island of Madeira, encapsulated all the misconceptions I had about this jewel of an island off the North African coast. Call it the icing on the cake if you will. Mention to anyone under pensionable age that you’re heading to this little Portuguese island and you’ll probably receive an expression signalling disbelief. “You’re too young to be going there… Madeira only caters for silver haired holiday makers doesn’t it?” Not my words but those of Helen, our ageist next-door neighbour. Helen’s perception, like some stereotypical views, is partly based on truth. Since the 1970s, this verdant oasis has been building an enviable reputation as a luxury retreat for the more mature traveller. Blessed with incredible scenery, Madeira is now a popular year-round holiday destination with a near perfect climate. But with many hotels built in the 1970s and 1980s now in need of major renovation, some hotel operators have embarked upon ambitious rebuilds to attract a new type of holidaymaker. Through avantgarde design, new ultra-modern hotels are specifically targeting the more lucrative ‘young professional’ sector. Take the five star Melia Madeira for example. Built in 2008, this uber minimalist spa hotel somehow manages to blend the most modern design elements with the rich history of the local area. Even more traditional luxury hotels such as The Cliff Bay have been renovated to attract younger guests. The Cliff Bay’s ‘Il Gallo d’Oro’ restaurant (Madeira’s only with a Michelin Star) has become THE place to dine for young and old alike. With new investment, the demographic of the typical Madeira tourist is slowly changing. But there lies Madeira’s dilemma. How does it attract a younger crowd without cutting corners on the tranquillity for which the island has become so famous? The tourism planning chiefs in Madeira appear to have all the right answers. On an island where there are far more locals than tourists, the pace of life is still controlled by the needs of the local population. For example, most night-clubs only open at weekends because the local population is at work or studying during the week. This serves as the perfect deterrent for any holidaymakers seeking the excesses of a more hedonistic resort. So they go elsewhere. That said, serious investment is being funnelled into providing activities for a younger, more adventurous market. Adrenaline junkies can head to Ribeiro Frio within the Laurissilva Forest for a day of canyoning. Jeep safaris are becoming popular too, especially to inaccessible parts of the island such as Fajã dos Padres; home to Cabo Girão which is reputedly the second
highest cliff in Europe The Atlantic Ocean provides its own thrills. Learn to surf in Jardim do Mar or dive beneath the waves and swim alongside Madeira’s resident Manta Rays with wingspans of up to 25 feet. In these plankton-rich waters, dolphins, whales and turtles are spotted regularly. Madeira and its sister islands are now being marketed on their subaquatic merits too. Despite this investment in ‘adventure tourism’, the authorities have gone to great lengths to protect the island’s biggest asset from mass tourism. Madeira’s National Park, the Parque Natural da Madeira encompasses nearly two-thirds of the territory of the island. Designated as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, the Park includes protected landscapes and a variety of nature reserves which provide a home for unique flora and fauna. At just 35 miles in length, Madeira’s diminutive size belies its exquisite beauty. With its own microclimate and a lush green interior, the scenery is more akin to an island in the Eastern Caribbean. When you think that Madeira lies just 300 miles from the arid conditions found in the Canary Islands, the contrast couldn’t be more distinct. It’s no surprise that some people refer to Madeira as Portugal’s emerald isle.
Hotel operators have embarked upon ambitious rebuilds to attract a new type of holidaymaker. With avantgarde design, new ultra-modern hotels are specifically targeting the more lucrative young professional sector Whatever your age, to visit Madeira and not spend a day walking along one of the irrigation channels or levadas which crisscross the island’s lush green interior, would be a grave mistake. Your efforts will be rewarded with stunning views across the island’s lush interior. The exercise ultimately means you can justify a few indulgences when you get back to your five star hotel. Try a glass of fortified Madeira wine or a slice of local cake perhaps. Bolo de Mel is considered to be Madeira’s oldest dessert. This little cake is a little slice of heaven traditionally made with molasses instead of the now popular honey. What’s more, it bears absolutely no relation to Madeira Cake, which is actually a wholly British invention from the 18th century! In Madeira it seems, you really can have your cake and eat it. Enjoy the tranquillity of a less frenetic destination but still harness all the perks of modern five star accommodation and a growing portfolio of activities for the more adventurous. If you’ve written off Madeira in the past, it’s time to give it a try.