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Madeira: A top-notch golf destination that needs to be taken seriously

Madeira: A top-notch golf destination that needs to be taken seriously

Clive Agran discovers glorious golf and magnificent wine on a trip to the Portuguese island
 

Although it lies a few hundred miles off the west coast of Africa, in many ways Madeira is not unlike the UK, which perhaps partly explains its popularity with British tourists. Coming from an island, we love other islands and around this one the sea is a lot warmer. Indeed, the pleasant year-round weather is a major part of Madeira’s appeal.

We’re lucky to be able to fly there as finding a spot flat enough to land an airplane on its rugged and rocky volcanic landscape proved problematic but, with the help of some impressive engineering, Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport, to give it its full name, receives flights from across Britain and around the world. If you don’t fancy flying, countless cruise ships stop over at the pretty port in downtown Funchal.

There’s more impressive engineering to admire on the 25-minute ride from the airport into town and all over the island in the shape of decent roads and countless tunnels. Unfortunately, when it comes to courtesy and consideration, driving would appear to be one significant activity where any positive British influence isn’t apparent.

But there are other, possibly more important areas, where we have evidently played a constructive role. For example, in the design and lay-out of the numerous glorious gardens where the fertile volcanic soil supports a brilliant range of colourful and sweet-scented plants.

Elegant country houses are scattered about the steep hillsides enjoying panoramic views. Some have been tastefully converted into comfortable hotels such as the five-star Casa Velha Do Palheiro.

Sepia photos of King Carlos playing tennis confirm its regal connection and its magnificent garden, tea-house and croquet lawn hint heavily at British influence, which is further fortified by the adjacent golf course.

Not unsurprisingly, Palheiro is a hilly 18 holes where flat lies are rare and straightforward putts even rarer. Although not everyone does, you can be forgiven for taking a buggy. The path the buggies follow incorporates stretches of cobbled track originally used by men carrying goatskins of wine from the north of the island to Funchal.

The journey took a couple of days and the full skins weighed 70kgs; well, they did at the start but schlepping heavy bags in the hot sun is thirsty work and so they were frequently significantly lighter by the time they were deposited at their destination

Built upon what was formerly the grounds of a Duke’s country estate, the course retains an aristocratic vibe. Where once they hunted deer, they now go searching for rare birdies. Designed by Cabell Robinson back in the early 1990s, this delightfully quirky course demands precision rather than power.

The tight opening stretch eventually gives way to more forgiving holes but you can never afford to completely relax for fear of tangling with tropical plants and broad swathes of pretty Agapanthus.

If you don’t want to spoil a good walk by having to mis-hit a ball every so often, Madeira is endowed with dozens of wonderful hikes of varying lengths. Many follow the route of levadas, which are old irrigation channels hewn from the rock some centuries ago by slaves and convicts.

There are nearly 2,000 miles of these weaving through lush forests, alongside ravines, next to waterfalls and amongst spectacular scenery.

Always rather suspicious of so-called micro-climates, I have to confess that Madeira proved me wrong. While the sun might be shining at sea level, it may well be raining up in the hills and so it’s as well to check the forecast before setting off on the 20-minute drive from Funchal to the lofty and lovely Santo de Serra, which is precariously perched over 2,000 feet up on the eastern end of the island.

The original course was created on this spectacular clifftop site overlooking Machico Bay way back in 1937 some 520 or so years after Portuguese navigators first stepped ashore on what was then an uninhabited island.

Robert Trent Jones Snr came along in 1991 and totally re-designed the course and created three nines. Almost certainly because they afford the best views of the sea, the Machico and Desertas nines are marginally more popular than the mountain-facing Serras nine and the combination of the first two produced the course that has hosted the Madeira Open no fewer than ten times

Although golf is arguably the UK’s greatest gift to the world in general and Madeira in particular, there are others, not least of which is magnificent Madeira wine.

As with port in mainland Portugal, Brits have made a significant contribution to the production and development of this popular tipple.

The Blandy family, who own the Palheiro course, have played a pivotal role and a tour around Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal is fascinating. Provided the cork is replaced, Madeira doesn’t go off in the same way regular wine does when opened and it ages much better.

Consequently, remarkably old wines dating back to the 18th century can be bought with confidence as they are guaranteed to taste good. And the Blandy family have also aged pretty well so that today the sixth generation are running the show.

Just in case you were wondering, Madeira cake is only indirectly connected to the island as it was developed right here in the UK to accompany the wine.

Wandering, possibly weaving, around the Old Town district of Funchal after visiting the Wine Lodge, you should focus on the charming, narrow, cobblestone streets and quaint buildings. Fish is a favourite in most of the restaurants and if you fear you might be sobering up too quickly, a traditional ‘puncha’ containing, amongst other things, brandy and lemon juice, should keep you cheerful for a few more hours.

Madeira

Provided you’re not the envious type, strolling around the marina admiring the multi-million dollar yachts is a pleasant way to kill time as is a ride on the cable-car that lifts you nearly 2000 feet up the mountainside. Although there’s no snow at the top, you can toboggan back down the steep streets on a wicker sled guided by two ‘gondoliers’’.

There is a choice of transportation to the only other inhabited island in the Madeira archipelago, Porto Santo. You can take a 20-minute flight in a turbo-prop plane or sail over in two-and-a-half hours on a regular daily ferry.

Either way you’ll arrive on a wild, craggy, remote, narrow and wonderfully atmospheric island that is surprisingly full of fascinating curiosities, not least of which is a truly stunning sandy beach that stretches for miles and attracts summer visitors from the Portuguese mainland and beyond.

Apart from the spectacular beach, perhaps the greatest attraction on the island is the glorious Seve Ballesteros designed course, Porto Santo Golfe. It takes you on a thrilling roller-coaster ride through gorgeous scenery with jaw-dropping views down to the rocky coast below. Its wow-factor is right off the scale.

For the three years from 2009 to 2011, it hosted the Madeira Open when the ever-present wind will have given the pros plenty to think about as they gently climbed from behind the beach to the cliff-top and back down again.

Rumour has it that another nine holes are soon to be built near the summit, which will further enhance the appeal of this already impressive facility.

Further evidence of Madeira’s genuine claim to be taken seriously as a top-notch golf destination is emerging on the west coast of the main island where the Ponta do Pargo golf course project that was abandoned in the early 1990s, is being revived. Designed by Sir Nick Faldo, it is scheduled to open next year.

Find out more here about the Madeira Golf Passport.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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