Vegetarian for Life

Madeira – a trip to heaven via hell!

Posted by Tina on 12/05/16 in Articles, Life After Retirement, Travel

Tina Fox reviews a recent trip to Madeira…
We had terrible trouble getting to Madeira. Our Easyjet flight was scheduled to take off at 3.15pm on 21 April. It did not take off until 4.00pm, but that did not worry us a great deal. Unfortunately we did not arrive at our hotel until nearly 24 hours later than we were supposed to. We travelled via Lisbon because of a storm over Madeira and poor handling of the situation from Easyjet, who I do not plan to travel with again if I can avoid it! When we eventually arrived at the hotel, Quinta da Bela Vista in the hills above Funchal, we were pleased with it. We had a spacious and comfortable ground floor room and the hotel was full of antiques and very smart, set in wonderful gardens. Staff were helpful and check-in was smooth and quick. The first night’s evening meal was excellent – all five courses! First course a delicious vegetarian grilled vegetable quiche, followed by broccoli cream soup, a small but tasty pasta dish, a soya steak and finally yummy passion fruit parfait. We had been a bit worried about the vegetarian catering because we knew there was a set menu each night but we need not have done so. The chef appeared inventive and we never received the same meal twice, nor were we given omelettes or cheese dishes as usually happens. Top marks there!
The following day’s breakfast was also excellent: plenty of fruit, a wide choice of cereals and breads, cakes and cheeses. The cooked part was not great because it was egg only for the veggies, but there was so much other choice you did not need it anyway.
Throughout the course of the next 5 nights we found that the starter was usually vegetarian anyway or they just did something different for us, various fruits or green salads. The soup course was always vegetarian for everyone and we were treated to vegetable, asparagus,onion, haricot bean and chickpea in succession. When the other diners had the first course we usually had something a bit more inventive – two different and tasty pasta dishes, a lovely stuffed field mushroom, a timbale of various beans, and stuffed aubergine. The meat course for us was substituted often by soya or tofu, which I was quite surprised about because most Mediterranean countries do not use meat substitutes. These were quite good efforts and well cooked, but I preferred the more traditional foods such as the risotto we had one day. Puddings were lovely apart from one day so you always had to save a space! Fortunately the portions were not too large and we did not bother much with lunch to save some space. But I was really surprised to see a non-vegetarian establishment make such a good effort for us. I am sure they would cater equally well for vegan guests. We were offered a replacement trip on the Saturday, but having sat on the plane for so long we wanted to walk about, so we opted to visit two of the gardens in Funchal. They were accessible by the excellent and scenic cable cars (two routes – one up and one across the valley). The first, Monte Tropical gardens was good and admission included a small glass of Madeira wine to try. The garden was full of exotic and wonderful plants but also lots of statuary and interesting design. It also had an excellent museum of gemstones and of African sculpture.We filled 3 happy hours there and then headed off for a quick sandwich lunch on our way to the second gardens, Jardin Botanico, equally excellent with a wider range of plants; more educational but less formal. Even the lunch was good because they use a great deal of avocado, one of my favourites, and also do a lot of fresh juices so it is easy to eat healthily and enjoyably in Madeira. On the Sunday we had one of our included trips with a driver for the day. We toured the eastern part of the island and through the centre to the deeply hidden ‘nun’s valley’, Curral das Freiras. This is not a trip for those scared of heights but we enjoyed it. The small towns are pretty but it is the mountains and the views that are exceptional. We also went up to the highest point on Madeira, Pico do Arieiro, which was dramatic and we benefited from clear blue skies and just a few drifting clouds that we were above! It was a spectacular but tiring day and the plants are amazing: clivia, protea, strelitzia, amaryllis, agapanthus, mimosa and a host of fruit and vegetable plants and trees. It truly is a gardener’s paradise on Madeira.
We stopped for lunch at a traditional place but were less than impressed because it was mainly kebabs, which of course were not suitable for us. We had two traditional soups but we felt they were overpriced, and we were charged for the so called complimentary drinks. Not a hit, and we told the driver so because I think they take you to places where they get a back-hander or a free meal. On Monday we were somewhat disappointed – we had paid extra for a full-day garden tour but because we had already visited two gardens the driver claimed there were only two more to visit so we could only have half a day. (We later got a refund from the travel company.) It was a bank holiday so there was no courtesy bus running from the hotel and the other buses were less frequent, so were stuck in the hotel for the afternoon. The hotel had wonderful gardens but they do not take long to explore and it was not quite warm enough for the outdoor pool. We had to content ourselves with a limited meal by the pool and a rest. The next day we went on the courtesy bus to Funchal and enjoyed wandering around the town and looking at the cathedral and museums. Plenty of shops and restaurants, which are not too pricey and have a good choice for vegetarians (and everyone else). We went for Italian but generally there was quite a lot of choice, much better for example than Malta. Madeira seems really welcoming to vegetarians. The famous market is a lovely building but don’t go looking for souvenirs to take home because it is basically fruit and flowers with fish in the basement, which is very off putting: particularly because they were cutting up a large tuna when we were there. The cafes around the market are also the most expensive in Madeira so go a bit further away for your coffee fix. You can get plenty of free fruit though: Madeira grows up to 14 different kinds of passion fruit and the traders are keen for you to try them all! On the Wednesday we had another included trip, this time to the highest cliff on the west, Cabo Girao, which had an exciting glass floor. We went over the mountains through the national park to the pretty Port Moniz – beautiful, and with natural pools to swim in. We were surprised that with all this greenery Madeira supports very little wildlife – its largest mammal is a rabbit. There were very few small birds while we were there though we were lucky enough to see a couple of different kinds of buzzards and hawks. We also saw lots of cute wall lizards and a few butterflies but few insects in general – no mosquitoes thankfully! We flew back on the Thursday but because our flight was not until 8.00pm we went into Funchal on the courtesy bus for a final day. We spent some time in the lovely Santa Catarina gardens and also had another pleasant lunch. Our pick up from the hotel went smoothly, less so when we arrived at the airport, because Easyjet did not have their bag drop open so we had to queue after all. The airport at Funchal is small but clean and bright and without the high prices you normally get charged at airports. It was strange to look out to sea from the terminal because the runway is built into the ocean. Our flight was late taking off by about ½ hour but landed on time to a snowy Edinburgh. What a shock to our systems because we had not needed a jacket all week. My husband and I can definitely recommend Madeira and the hotel Quinta da Bel Vista if you don’t mind being out of town, but try to avoid flying with Easyjet if you can.


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