Journalist Richard Webber travelled with Archipelago Choice to Madeira and enjoyed a unique experience: a tour of Madeira’s capital Funchal in a vintage vehicle. Here’s his story…
Madeira retains an old world charm and sense of tradition. These qualities – along with a pleasant year-round climate – have seduced British holidaymakers for decades. Symbols of a bygone era are all around, including on the roads, thanks to the 800 classic cars, many imported from the UK, registered on the island.
I visited the island recently, thanks to Archipelago Choice, and enjoyed a unique experience: a tour of Madeira’s capital, Funchal, in a vintage vehicle.
Brothers Joao and Paulo offer trips around the capital in their fleet of beautiful cars, including a 1960s Singer Vogue and ’30s Austin 10 Open Road Tourer, shipped to the island soon after rolling off the assembly line.
It was quite a novelty touring the capital’s narrow, steep streets in the brothers’ Austin 10. Here’s a video of the drive. With its polished paintwork sparkling in the afternoon sun, we drew admirers around every corner. I felt like royalty as people smiled, waved and stared in awe. But I didn’t delude myself too long, realising the attention-grabber was Austin’s bestselling model of the 1930s.
Madeira is a magnet for cruise ships and my classic car tour of Funchal retraced one of the itineraries enjoyed by tourists from the big ocean liners during the 1930s and ’40s.
We pulled in at Pináculo, in the east of Funchal, one of many belvederes on the island. Built in the 1930s, these strategically-located viewing platforms afford visitors stunning panoramic vistas.
I stared through a bougainvillea-draped pergola, perched 283 metres above sea level. To my right, the sweep of the bay and the city bathed in sunlight, to my left vertiginous cliffs standing tall along the southern coast.
On the horizon, I spotted the serrated outline of the Desertas Islands, shimmering in the heat haze. Among the last wild spots of Europe, these barren lumps of rock are uninhabited, save a few wardens, birds and a colony of endangered monk seal; and on Deserta Grande, the main island, venomous wolf spiders live amongst the crags of Castanheira Valley; thankfully, you won’t find such creepy-crawlies on Madeira.
Everywhere I looked was a kaleidoscope of colour; it’s easy to see why Madeira is dubbed “The Floating Garden in the Atlantic”. With a warming breeze blowing off the mirror-flat ocean, the orange-headed aloe arborescens adorning the roadside and cliff edges swayed as we drove along.
Back in the car, the 1930s suspension meant we felt every pothole, but at least the thick, leather, bouncy coil-springed upholstery did its best to cushion the impact as we continued our tour.
The brothers offer several routes in their classic cars and undertake tailor-made itineraries, too. But I’d also recommend hiring your own car to explore the rest of the island
The mountainous landscape is awash with wild, multicoloured flowers and exotic shrubs, including ever-flowering bougainvillea, hibiscus and poinsettia. Even Funchal boasts its fair share of lush vegetation with its many parks and gardens. The steeply-terraced Botanical Gardens showcase virtually every species of plant grown on the island.
Outside Funchal, roads are more peaceful with modern highways and tunnels reducing travelling time across the mountainous landscape. But take time to experience the old roads, including the coastal route which zig-zags down to Porto Moniz, a must-see destination in the north-west. At this coastal resort, where people swim in natural pools of lava rock, stroll along the promenade.
Further along the coast, Sao Vicente is enveloped by soaring peaks and worth exploring. Make sure you visit the caves, where an hour-long guided tour includes walking through the illuminated caves and watching an informative 3D film.
In the north-eastern corner of the island, Santana is a popular spot thanks to its traditional triangular-shaped thatched houses. Now listed buildings, they’re among the most photographed scenes in Madeira.
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