Madeira: the island of sun, sea and eternal youth?

Madeira: the island of sun, sea and eternal youth?
Running away to a green list isle won’t solve all your problems – but it’s a good place to start, writes Qin Xie

When the first drops of warm massage oil made contact with my back, it should have been a cue for my body to instantly relax. But after months hunched over my laptop in the confines of a studio flat, the dark circles under my eyes echoing its soulless blue light, those muscles had apparently forgotten how.

Exasperated, I sank my cheeks further into the cushioned face cradle, hoping it would accelerate the process. Any minute now, I thought, relaxation will wash over me. But it never did.

That’s not to say the massage at Laurea Spa, the wellness centre inside the newish Savoy Palace Hotel in Madeira, wasn’t any good. Quite the opposite, in fact; I’m convinced that I would have melted into a puddle had I experienced another hour of it. But I was only in for a 30-minute taster as part of a wellness weekend on the Portuguese island and, well, there were only so many knots my poor masseuse could untangle in that time.

Fortunately, the joy of having a treatment in a hotel spa is that you’re free to enjoy the rest of the facilities afterwards. And inside the serene 3,100 square foot Laurea Spa, which takes its design cues from the island’s lush green Laurissilva Forest, a Unesco Natural Heritage Site, there’s everything from multi-sensory showers and hot and cold counter-current pools to your standard sauna and steam room with a refreshing ice fountain to cool you down afterwards. There are also plenty of quiet corners (just in case you want to rest your eyes for a moment).

I’m one of those people who loves to float on their back in the middle of the pool and feel weightless. And for a selfish moment I did, allowing those knots to unfurl further; but then I heard someone splashing their way into the pool and, admitting defeat, I flipped over and pretended to swim.

I might not have had exclusive use of the spa but Madeira had been working its magic behind the scenes since I’d arrived on the island a little over 24 hours earlier. Within about an hour of landing in Funchal, I was dining poolside while soaking up the sun, breaking my veg-out session only to go on a low-key stroll along the leafy levada in Santo da Serra.

The Laurea Spa

Levadas are irrigation channels that have been bringing water from the wetter north of the island to the drier south since the 15th century. Formal and informal walking trails have sprung up next to them, and they’re popular with both locals and tourists.

Levada Da Serra Do Faial is one of the gentler ones – there are no hills to contend with and it’s almost entirely enclosed by forest. And that forest is alive with fragrance, from the sinus-clearing eucalyptus to the herbaceous bay laurel. The latter is synonymous with the island’s signature dish, the espetada, where beef is skewered onto branches of the plant to soak up the smoky flavour of the charred leaves as it cooks.

Eliseu, my softly spoken guide who also happened to live nearby, knew these forests inside out. He would sweep up handfuls of herbs and point out flowers that I wouldn’t have looked twice at, explaining their medicinal properties. Soon, we were deep in conversation about food – what else, when just about everything seemed to be edible? By the time we got to the end of our short trek, I was more than primed for supper and has unknowingly undergone a mini digital detox, having forgotten to take out my phone for snaps. I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time that happened.

Suddenly I was focused on breathing in the fresh morning air, all distractions disintegrated in the deep vibrations

I had another dose of nature before the spa – an early morning session of outdoor yoga in the forests of Fanal to the north west of the island. Here was old Madeira in all its glory: the moss and lichen-laden branches of the laurel trees have become twisted and gnarly with age, seemingly untouched since the beginning of time. With wisps of fog perpetually clinging to their ghostly form, they looked hauntingly beautiful.

Despite the peaceful surroundings, it was hard to get into a meditative frame of mind. A chill persisted in the air and curious chaffinches kept trying to get onto my mat. But then my instructor Mercedes brought out her sound bowl, struck it a handful of times, and suddenly I was focused on breathing in the fresh morning air, all distractions disintegrated in the deep vibrations.

By the time I made it down the mountain for a picnic breakfast at Miradouro da Eira da Achada, a viewpoint overlooking the rugged north coast in Ribeira da Janela, I was positively refreshed. Just as well: the return to Funchal was off road, through the heart of the island, with herds of grazing cattle providing additional obstacles. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I was so tense by the time I got to my massage.)

Madeira has a handful of sandy beaches

Post-spa, I had just one more day to soak up all the joys of island life, so I headed west to Calheta. It’s a tiny town, the main strip of which you can cover in about 15 minutes on foot, but it’s home to two things of note. First, Engenhos da Calheta, one of Madeira’s oldest rum house, which still makes its insanely delicious spirit using pure sugar cane juice, squeezed out of the island-grown canes using a traditional press. I tasted one of the aged rums at 11am and its blend of honey and candied fruit notes were intoxicating, quite aside from the ABV.

Calheta is also home to one of just a handful of sandy beaches in Madeira. It’s man-made, lining the edges of a lagoon, and completely packed. I made a beeline for the town’s natural beaches instead; I may have had to hobble over some pebbles to get to the sea, but at least there was no jostling for space once I was there. Just dips in the cool water followed by the warmth of the sun, on repeat, like nature’s spa circuit.

A pre-return Covid test is essential from a green destination these days, so my beach time ended up being curbed by a dash back to the hotel for a lateral flow test conducted live on video. What a time we live in. It was negative – the chances were good on that front, given Madeira had around 100 cases of Covid altogether at the time of my visit and tourism workers had been double jabbed as a priority – and I was bundled back to the UK and left wondering if I had been away at all. For a wellness break, this was certainly no fly and flop.

Off-roading it to Funchal

But a couple of days later, while chatting to my mother on the phone, I happened to glance in the mirror and my reflection caught me off guard. I don’t know whether it was the sun, a few days of good food, or the extra pampering, but my skin had never looked so good. No blemishes, no lines, just a dewy, lightly tanned complexion. And not a dark circle in sight.

Madeira may not offer eternal youth, but I’m pretty sure I’ve discovered why it’s always been so popular with an older crowd. And now that I’m in on the secret, I’m already plotting my return…

Travel essentials

Getting there

Direct flights from the UK to Madeira are available with British Airways, easyJet and Wizz Air with prices starting from £39 return.

Cignpost ExpressTest offers Covid testing packages around the UK, including pre-departure testing with Fit to Fly certificates and day two PCR tests on return.

Staying there

Stay at the Savoy Palace Hotel where rooms start from £167 per night;

More information

For more ideas on what to do in Madeira, see Madeira All Year.