We have just returned from a short trip to Madeira. A week to get outdoors in the sunshine and walk. I've always enjoyed previous trips to Portugal but Madeira was an island that we had always dismissed as being for older folk with what we imagined were elegant hotels on graceful boulevards with an all pervading colonial ambience from yesteryear.
Initially we thought we were right about the older traveller. Although on our first day I managed to refrain from succumbing to a single senior moment, life was not so good for others. For instance, there was the lady at the airport who, upon arrival, removed my holdall from the conveyor belt in baggage reclaim and then took some persuading that the label with my name on it and the brightly coloured string around its handle meant that it was not hers.
Or, what about the gentleman who sat down in my seat at dinner whilst I was serving myself at the salad buffet? As I returned, he was in the process of drinking then spitting out in total distaste my glass of fizzy water. He was still not convinced he was in the wrong seat, even when his wife, waving a bottle of still water (fortunately it had its cap screwed on) in his general direction, called to him from another table.
Of course my turn came the following morning when I wandered into the plush restrooms off reception, emerged from a cubicle and admired the artistic handbasins rising like trumpets from the floor. I was just about to plunge my hands into one when I realised I was staring at a urinal and was in the Gents! That merited a hasty exit and a quick reminder to myself to place spectacles on my nose in future before endeavouring to decipher the indicative figure on the lavatory door.
So, clearly feeling totally at home in a seniors' holiday destination, what did we think of Madeira?
Well it is hilly, but compared to the walks we generally do in the Lake District not significantly so and only (or so I was told) on the most difficult levada walks do you need to use arms as well as legs. The sun shone warmer and with greater reliability than at home. There was an interesting variety of wildflowers on the hillsides although another few weeks and the agapanthus will be in full bloom which will certainly transform many of the places we walked. Park beds were full of Bird of Paradise flowers and Arum Lillies appeared to grow almost wild. Unfortunately there are very few species of bird on the island which is not on a migration route, but we did see the indigenous Madeiran Firecrest, similar to our own but more colourful. Typical of a volcanic island there are massive black cliffs dropping steeply to the sea and very few beaches.
Also and inevitably for a place where tourism is now the main industry, concrete has spilled over into the landscape in abundance. That colonial elegance glimpsed on some of the older buildings has given way to massive modern hotels clinging to the hills and cliffs around Funchal and what were once farmed terraces now play host to housing and shopping centres. A modern road system includes some 138 kms of concrete tunnels blasted through the rocks and even the airport runway is held up by a series of concrete pillars extending into the sea. The sea front and promenade area too are a bastion of, yes, concrete.
It is a popular stopping point for cruise ships and with several in port on Monday and Tuesday, we made sure to keep away from Funchal on those days. The rest of the island is a relieving mix of greenery and rock, and, apart from visitors, pretty much deserted with most people opting to live or stay within the perimeters of the capital.
The temperature was pleasant and when the sun overdid its work a breeze from the sea kept the thermometer in check. Eating outside, especially for lunch was very much the order of the day and although we rejected the salted cod which features on most Portuguese menus there was always plenty of alternative fresh fish.
What about all the old folk? Well most of them are super fit and clearly go to Madeira to walk up those hills or along the levadas. Also they are not so much elderly as indifferent to the lure of a beach towel, night club or all day English breakfast. Of course that could be not only the defining features of retirement but also where Madeira really gets its reputation for elegance and taste from.