Grape escape

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am

It's fitting that on an island renowned for its fortified wine, I'm lying in a bath filled with it, the purple liquid making islands of my knees and lapping at my chin like I'm some kind of goddess. True, these grapes - or more precisely grape skin and vine-leaf extracts - aren't the varieties found here on Madeira. They're pinotage grapes from South Africa's Stellenbosch wine region, where 'vinotherapy' was born, but it all ties in rather nicely.

Whether you imbibe it or bathe in it, wine is part of the Madeira experience.

Although many travellers have heard of Madeira, few can point to it on a map. This could be because of its relative isolation from its mother country, Portugal. Covering 741 square kilometres, the island, part of an archipelago of the same name and the birthplace of footballing great Cristiano Ronaldo, sits in the Atlantic 600 kilometres west of Morocco and 850 kilometres southwest of Portugal.

It was discovered in 1419 by Portuguese explorers, whose ship had been blown off course. Instead of navigating the west coast of Africa they came upon this 'pearl of the Atlantic', with forests, exotic flowers and wildlife, perched on steep black volcanic slopes. The word 'madeira' means wood or timber in Portuguese.

The island's year-round mild climate suited Portuguese settlers and soon the island's fertile volcanic soil was turned into farmland. The settlers' hand-tilled vineyards, on small plots of land called poios (terraces), still cling to the mountains.

Like most fortified wines, madeira is topped up with grape brandy to keep it from spoiling. What makes the wine unique is its maturation process. It is warmed gently, traditionally by the heat of the sun. This method was discovered by another quirk of maritime fate. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Madeira's wine was sold along trade routes in the Americas and Asia. When an unsold shipment was returned to the island, wine producers agreed the taste had improved markedly during the voyages in temperate climes.

At The Vine Hotel, in Madeira's capital, Funchal, I'm immersed in the wine theme. The sensual, burgundy-lit 'vino spa' has a treatment menu featuring a grape-seed facial, which uses crushed grape seeds to lift impurities from the skin, grape-seed extract for rehydration and grape-seed oil to add sheen.

Upstairs, the guest floors are decorated in colours that reflect the four stages of wine production: green for spring, burgundy for vintage, brown for autumn and grey for winter. On the rooftop, one of Funchal's best restaurants, Uva (Portuguese for 'grape'), looks out onto a purple-tiled infinity pool.

The colour theme may be overdone but the effect is memorable: an apparent waterfall of wine disappearing over the edge of the building. It's a good vantage point to survey Funchal, a pretty city with a permanent population of 100,000. The view spans terracotta rooftops, cliffs and cruise ships docked in the port.

When torrential rain hit in February, the ensuing floods and mudslides killed more than 30 people and caused devastation across the island. In the higher parts of Funchal and in the mountain village of Serra d'Agua, recovery work is still being carried out, but evidence of the tragedy is hard to find elsewhere.

A walk around the old town reveals teetering ter- races with wooden shutters and crumbling roof tiles, old churches with birds' nests in their spires and wonderful mosaic footpaths, reminiscent of those in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.

Another way to see the city is by cable car, which transports tourists from the harbour across town to Monte, the highest point in the city. The best way down is by an altogether different route. Basket sledges, once used to ferry people and goods down the city's cobbled streets, are now a thrill for tourists, who can take the two-kilometre, 10-minute ride from Monte to the suburb of Livramento.

Back on static ground, the history of Madeira's wine is documented in Blandy's wine museum. A quick lesson reveals the four main grape styles in ascending order of sweetness: sercial, verdelho, bual and malvasia, or malmsey. You don't have to walk far for a taste test. Funchal's restaurants routinely serve verdelho accompanied by steaming rounds of bolo de caco, delicious wood-fired garlic bread. Seafood is another mainstay but, rather than the Portuguese favourite of bacalhau (salted cod), Madeirans prefer espada (black scabbard), a meaty - and spectacularly ugly - deep-sea fish.

Madeira has gained a reputation as a walker's paradise, with 2,500 kilometres of criss-crossing trails. About 200 of the trails, spanning 1,500 kilometres, run alongside one of the island's other great treasures - the old levadas, irrigation channels that take water from the mountains to lower-lying agricultural plots.

Portuguese settlers dug the first levadas about 500 years ago. They are still used for irrigation although their main purpose now is to provide access to stunning mountainous scenery and protected natural areas, such as the laurisilva (laurel) forest, a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the world's rarest forests.

Despite the floods, only one or two levada walks are off limits to tourists. The hard part is deciding which trail to take. One day I'm walking along the cliff-hugging ledges on the southeastern tip of the island; the next I'm under the canopy of the laurel forest. Tomorrow, I'll have my head in the clouds on a summit walk from one marvellous mountain peak to the next.

At the end of a day's walking, there's nothing as restorative as afternoon tea served on the balcony of the wonderfully colonial Reid's Palace Hotel, overlooking Funchal harbour. Braver souls can take a dip in the sea baths of Porto Moniz, where a breakwall softens the blow of waves that have been carving the black rock for centuries. Then, of course, there's red-wine bathing. Just don't drink the bathwater.

Getting there: Lufthansa Airlines ( and British Airways ( fly from Hong Kong to Madeira, via Frankfurt and Lisbon, and London and Lisbon, respectively.