Madeira’s lush, natural landscapes offer the perfect setting for a restorative, post-lockdown wellbeing break, discovers Mary Ann Haslam
I awaken to an echoing chime, my senses returning to my surroundings; I can smell the minty, herby scent of eucalyptus and chamomile, while the sound of a gentle piano concerto floats overhead. I’m in a darkened, candle-lit room – and I have just had the most blissful massage in what feels like for ever.
Stepping outside, my therapist, Joana Camacho, leads me to a circular relaxation area with fawn loungers. My eyes are drawn to a huge lamp installation in the centre, depicting the twisted boughs of the Laurisilva Forest of Madeira, which covers some 20% of the island. This is the inspiration for the impressive 3,100-square-foot Laurea Spa at the recently launched Savoy Palace (savoysignature.com) in capital Funchal.
Nature takes centre stage, from the botanical-print walls to the soothing green illuminations in the spa area itself, which features waterfalls that reference Madeira’s lush landscape. Even the skincare products from Australian brand Sodashi are 100% natural, vegan and cruelty-free.
Aside from the 11 treatment rooms, visitors will do well to take their time in the spa, which includes Turkish baths, a halo therapy room, Himalayan salt room, sauna, hot tub and heated indoor pool. For clients seeking a little more luxury, booking a treatment at the champagne and nails bar should do the trick. Masks are not required in-treatment or within the spa and, as part of Savoy Palace’s Covid policy, there is a limit of 10 people in the gym and 25 people in the spa at any one time.
Sipping my tea, a special blend called Lady Laurea – again a homage to the island’s ancient Laurisilva Forest, which was given Unesco status in 1999 – I relish the feeling of serenity. After months of lockdown, this is just what the doctor ordered.
You would be forgiven for not immediately thinking of Madeira when it comes to a wellbeing escape, as it is more well known for its gastronomy and outdoor pursuits. However, this Portuguese archipelago has a storied history of wellness – in the 18th century, it is said that British doctors would advise their patients to travel here, as it was thought the island’s mild climate could ease illnesses such as tuberculosis.
Simply stepping foot on Madeira and taking in the natural splendour of its verdant mountainsides filled with banana plantations leading to the azure sea will be enough to rejuvenate anyone, but the addition of the Laurea as the island’s only destination spa should help it appeal further to clients seeking a wellness getaway that’s off the well-trodden path.
Joana Dias, account manager (Nordic Countries, UK, IRE, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) at the Madeira Promotion Bureau, comments on the island’s wellness offering. “[Guests] are not only looking for a place to get some sun, but [they] really need to relax after the stressful past 14/15 months, so with Madeira being an all-year-round destination, and so close to the UK, only three-and-a-half hours, [the island] can be that whole wellness hub [for guests] to get the ultimate mental detox.
“I always say that Madeira is more than a destination – it is a place to discover, a place to relax [and] it is definitely a place to get in touch with nature.
“What we have here is concentrated diversity – there is so much to see and do. And wellness can play a big part in that.”
One activity renowned the world over for boosting wellbeing is yoga – and an early-morning session on Calheta beach with instructor Freddie Valente-Perfeito, a former lawyer of seven years, turns out to be an invigorating start to the day.
Freddie reveals she became an instructor in 2015, travelling in India and Nepal before the pandemic forced her to return home to Madeira. Since becoming a qualified teacher, she says she has noticed more yoga instructors on the island, indicating the increasing popularity of the movement there.
It’s hardly surprising, as yoga in a studio or at home just isn’t the same as a class on the beach, with the waves gently tumbling on the shore and the sea breeze lightly blowing, as if it was the breath of the island slowly inhaling and exhaling with me while I perform my sun salutation.
Thanks to Madeira’s numerous natural landscapes, from the coast to the beach and the mountains to the forest, it is very easy for clients to be at one with nature here.
A day’s 4x4 tour with True Spirit allows visitors to truly get to know the island inch by inch. Our journey starts in Ponta do Sol, our base, on the south-western coast and takes us 1,250 metres high to Lombo do Mouro – where magnificent vistas of craggy peaks and fluffy clouds, blown in along the trade winds route, await. It’s blustery up here, but the views over the valley feel soul-nourishing.
En route to Porto Moniz, a pretty municipality on the north-western point of the island, we stop for lunch at Restaurant Sea View. As the name suggests, the eatery overlooks the Atlantic Ocean as well as natural lava pools, the jewel in the crown of the town, formed from volcanic rock over the past million years and filled with natural sea water. Another great place to swim in lava pools, and one locals tend to frequent, is in Seixal, whose rock archway creates a dramatic ambience in which to swim.
Alternatively, if clients are keen to explore on foot, there are about 2,500 kilometres of levada walks – trails alongside irrigation canals that were built as long ago as the 16th century in order to bring water from the rainy north to the south so crops could grow.
Dining in Madeira is an experience in itself and it seems relatively easy to eat healthy and nutritious meals, as much of the produce is sourced locally, while there is always a choice of fresh seafood. However, epicureans will enjoy the unique concept of The Wanderer (thewanderermadeira.com), an eight-person capacity restaurant in central Funchal headed up by chef Selim Latrous and his three-strong team that aims to make guests feel as if they are entering a friend’s house for dinner.
Selim is possibly one of the most unique characters I’ve ever met. After becoming disenchanted with his digital marketing career, he decided to become a chef with no formal training. And rather than working under someone, he created his own restaurant so he can be his own boss.
“I cook with my nose. Most of the dinners we’ve served here I have not tried. I change the menu every week because I always work on new recipes,” he says.
His passion for pairing flavours shines in the outstanding five-course dinner he prepares, entitled “Homecoming” – befitting of our last night on the trip.
It is then that I pause and realise that the island certainly has all the right ingredients for a wellbeing break. And, just like Madeira’s verdant vegetation that flourishes from the volcanic soil and warmth of the sun, I feel revitalised after spending just a few short days in this idyllic place.
Book it: Mary Ann stayed at 1905 Zino’s Palace in Ponta do Sol (1905zinospalace.com) then Hotel Caju in Funchal (hotelcaju.com). For more information about travelling to Madeira, visit madeiraallyear.com
Smarter: Madeira is being widely praised for its response to the pandemic and was one of the first destinations to offer free PCR testing on arrival or departure, ensuring it remains safe but welcoming to tourists. Some 258,656 vaccines have already been administered, with 58.5% of the population vaccinated with the first dose and 43.4% with full vaccination.
Better: If mobility is a challenge for some clients, they needn’t go far into the mountains to get their dose of nature. Suggest they visit the Botanical Gardens in Funchal, which offers golf buggies for €2.50 each way to enable all visitors to enjoy the leafy tranquillity (visitfunchal.pt).
Fairer: Not only does True Spirit offer fantastic tours, but the organisation has launched a carbon-offsetting partnership with the Ecological Park to replant trees. The tour company is also Biosphere-certified, meaning it has made a commitment to protecting the environment in which it operates (adventuremadeira.com).