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Mon 03 February 2020
Madeira remains the world’s leading island destination - now the golf courses are leaving their mark, writes Kevin Markham .
“I talk words to the wine every day,” said Mario, as we stood in his cool, dark wine cellar next to the beach at Faja dos Padres.
I'd talked a few words to myself only moments before, standing at the top of the cable car looking at the Atlantic Ocean and Faja dos Padres far below. This old Jesuit monastery sits on a tiny strip of land that cowers under towering sea cliffs. Today it is home to an acclaimed restaurant, vineyard, fruit plantation and rental accommodation. Our car’s sat nav suggested we 'walk from here' as we parked but I have never been one for stepping off cliffs. The cable car is the only option and it drops 600 metres almost vertically. Take a look down before your descent begins and if your stomach and brain don’t lurch at the sight of the drop you are a stronger human being than I. Talking to yourself is the least of your worries.
I should have been used to it after several days of driving around Madeira’s vertiginous roads. Like Ireland, the infrastructure has improved dramatically over the past three decades, but once you are off the main motorways you tackle climbs that appear impossible. Overload your boot and you might wonder if your car will tip backward, such are some of the ascents. It is exhilarating – and the views are outstanding – but you might notice a grey hair or two by the time your holiday is over.
It will come as no surprise that the two golf courses on Madeira (there is a third on Porto Santo) have significant elevation changes… and offer similarly remarkable views. With just three courses to choose from, the chances are that you're going to be combining golf with other things. That’s a good thing because Madeira has so much more to offer.
Remember this: The golf is good. What it lacks in numbers it makes up for in clout which explains why Madeira was voted ‘World’s Best Emerging Golf Destination 2019’ at the World Golf Awards. It was one reason for travelling here 1,500 miles southwest of Portugal, but I had wanted to visit Madeira for many years. The opportunity to see and swim with dolphins, climb peaks that rise above the clouds and sample the famous Madeira wine was a huge draw. Back then, tourism wasn’t so organised but the shiny new infrastructure and the global reach of cruise ships has firmly stamped this archipelago as a tourism must-see destination. And, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s home town, the capital Funchal is increasingly attractive to a wider audience. Little wonder that sub-tropical Madeira has been named the ‘World’s Leading Island Destination’ at the World Travel Awards for the past five years.
The hotels and restaurants in Funchal show just how far tourism has come and, as our group received a smooth and efficient tour around the Madeira Wine Company premises – including the essential tasting – it was clear that Madeira is embracing tourism in a big way. The old (American oak barrels over 100 years old are still used to produce the wine) combines with the new (flashy bar and rustic spaces) and you receive a history lesson that will actually make the wine taste better. Trust me on that.
Golf may only be one part of this tourism industry but it is growing in significance. In the first half of 2019, the numbers of rounds played on Madeira was up nine per cent. Meanwhile, on Porto Santo, direct flights from Denmark ensure that Danish golfers flock here throughout the year.
Our first course was in the hills above Funchal. It was responsible for my first grey hairs as I tackled the steep ascent. The car was a manual drive and I gripped the gear stick more tightly that I hold the mic on karaoke night. The prize at the top made it more than worthwhile.
The Palheiro Nature Estate covers 130 hectares and is home to an 18-hole golf course, the Casa Velha do Palheiro hotel, manicured gardens, ancient forest, nature trails and a spa. This luxury country house resort is tucked away in trees and tranquillity where it has been for over 200 years. There are just 38 rooms and there is an intimacy to the interior that flows from the basement, where the museum and snooker room can be found, to the second floor where our room looked over the gardens, the teahouse and the golf course beyond.
The golf course at Palheiro is a swerving, tumbling dynamo with blind shots, precipices, intrigue, endless views and many opportunities for lost balls. Playing with a local reduces the ball count but despite my friend David’s guidance, I lightened my bag by three balls. There are some almost unfair breaks and even though much of the course feels open you often won’t see where your drive… or your approach shot… ends up.
And that’s challenging when the terrain moves so much and you’re tackling small and devious greens.
There are two things to mention: the condition of the course is poor at the moment (not the greens, however) as the club switches to more eco-friendly maintenance methods. Such efforts take time and money. Personally, I found the adventure of playing here more than made up for that but I know it’s easy to quibble about such things. The second thing is the clubhouse balcony, which looks directly down on Funchal. After our round, we were the only people eating on the balcony and the setting sun turned the ocean to gold. The tourist skiffs returning from a day of whale and dolphin watching were tiny dots on this vast canvas.
As we were to discover, the food in Madeira is exceptional. Be it from a clubhouse (Palheiro and Porto Santo get 10 out of 10), hotel or local, back street restaurant there is choice and quality in abundance. David took us to Londres, one such backstreet restaurant which is popular with locals. We arrived early to find a bland, white-walled restaurant of no shape or style but fabulous food that arrived quickly and in generous portions. By the time we left there was a queue out the door. There are many traditional tastes to try: Espetada (beef on a skewer), Peixe Espada (Black Scabbard fish) and Lapas (limpets) did not disappoint. The limpets at Faja dos Padres came with garlic, lemon and parsley, while the Espetada at PortoBay Hotel came cooked to perfection on a bay leaf skewer.
Madeira wine may be the island’s famous drink export but the local beer (Coral) is particularly refreshing. There’s a traditional drink, called Poncha, but it has more in common with Poitin than the first two letters. It is distilled from sugar cane and should be experienced in small doses. Or not.
Perhaps that explains the volumes of happy young people piling on to the streets of Funchal as we headed for the Porto Santo ferry early Sunday morning. Funchal has a busy nightlife scene and the only difference between the city’s bustling waterfront during the day and the night is the age of the people.
Porto Santo is the only other inhabited island in the archipelago and a daily ferry travels between the two islands. There is also an airport but the ferry is more romantic. The golf course was designed by Seve Ballesteros, in 2004, and that was not something I was going to miss. We travelled first class on the ferry, which includes breakfast and dinner, as well as a private outside deck at the top of the ship. The views of Funchal, Madeira and Porto Santo are worth the extra few euro alone for the two-hour crossing.
Early 15th century settlers on this island brought rabbits and goats. They promptly consumed the vegetation covering the volcanic hills and, after the lush greenery of Madeira, Porto Santo felt arid by comparison. The golf course’s green grasses, palm trees and colourful golfers therefore make it easy to spot. The Danes who flock here thanks to a direct flight from Copenhagen like their bright colours and it was a sea of pink and yellow shirts and skirts on the fairways.
It is not unfair to say that this is a course where one nine shines so brightly that you almost forget the other nine. Holes 13, 14 and 15 sit on cliffs so high that Old Head of Kinsale feels like kindergarten by comparison. You are 500m up and if you know the par five 12th at Old Head, then you will be blown away by Porto Santo’s dogleg 14th. I strongly recommend that you play from the back tees on the par three 13th: The setting above the cliffs and the flag on the horizon are magnificent. It’s an astounding moment hearing the crashing waves reverberating up the cliffs. The club also promotes its 9-hole pitch and putt course but the quality is far better than that.
We travelled farther east and higher into the mountains for the final days of our trip. The PortoBay Hotel was once the clubhouse for the Santo da Serra Golf Club next door and it dates back to 1937. This 1920s white and pale blue building has been a boutique hotel for the last 20 years and it is classified as part of the region’s heritage. Black and white photographs of golfers from yesteryear adorn the walls in the lounge where afternoon tea is served.
We continued to explore the island from the north-western tip of Porto Moniz, where pools of crystal blue water are formed within the rock formations and are refilled by the tides, to the south-eastern tip where hikers strike out over clifftop walks to reach Ponta de São Lourenço, the farthest point on the island.
We were lucky with our final round of golf. At over 700m above sea level the constant blanket of green told us that there is plenty of moisture at Santo da Serra. Much of it comes in the form of dense early morning mist. There was none the day we played and the course was on full display. There are 27 holes here, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr in 1991, with each nine returning to the clubhouse set high on the hill. As at the other two courses, the views from the clubhouse are stunning and walking to reach the 1st tee on the Machico nine shows off the full joy of this golf course, as well as out to Ponta de Sao Lourenco in the Atlantic.
The Machico and Desertas nines are the main event with some strong slopes to start and finish each nine, but it is the cliffs that drop 300m alongside and beyond the 3rd and 4th holes that capture the imagination most. The valleys below are deep, with houses scattered across the hillsides.
Such rises and falls are part of the fabric and beauty of this island archipelago. Standing on those cliffs above Faja dos Padres, that was abundantly clear and the cable car descent turned out to be exhilarating… and I talk no words to describe how good the food and wine were afterwards. Perhaps the easiest thing to say is this: whether you are up or down you will always be on a high in Madeira.