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4 months stranded (most pleasantly) in Madeira, thanks to COVID-19 and the UK Government....

The beautiful island of Madeira is a great place to escape the British winter... but we only intended to spend 4 weeks there, not 4 months!

Short version: we found a buyer fo our home (finally) in July 2020, but the seller of our new house had to delay her sale again and again, so we reluctantly “broke the chain” and in November moved into (expensive, COVID-limited) temporary accommodation.

We'd long ago booked a few weeks in Madeira in the New Year, but we realised it was a much cheaper and more pleasant form of temporary accommodation, so we brought forward the date of our winter escape to 18th December... which turned out to be the last possible non-essential-travel date before the boom was lowered.

On 14th January the UK Government added Portugal (including Madeira) to its compulsory-hotel-quarantine-on-return “red list”. Apparently it didn't realise that Madeira is some 600 miles SW of Lisbon, way out in the Atlantic, and about 470 miles away from the nearest spot on the West African coast. It has an autonomous government, whose effective management of COVID-19 (including the Madeira Safe initiative and banning incoming flights from Brazil) resulted in only 79 deaths during the entire pandemic, up to the time in May when we were finally able to get home. Even allowing for its small resident population of ~254,000, Madeira was very much safer from COVID-19 than the UK.

We missed the only possible direct return flight (cancelled due to weather, remainder cancelled due to the “red list”), and settled down to make the best of it. Madeira, we have to say, is a great place to be stranded if you have to be, for all kinds of reasons...

(To skip to my previous post, click the chevrons >> below.)

We spent the first weeks mostly in our timeshare-ish apartment at the wonderful Pestana Carlton Hotel, with a break over the New Year at a very nice nearby Airbnb during a spell when the hotel had been fully booked.

As it turned out, the hotel (and most other tourist accommodation on the island) emptied rapidly, and we could have stayed at the hotel the whole time. The last to leave were the Germans, who normally were the main occupiers of this breakfast terrace. At this stage we could perhaps have got home using an indirect flight via Germany or elsewhere, but horror stories of Brits stranded and “treated like cattle” at the intermediate airports put us off.

A view of the uninhabited Desertas Islands (see map) from our Pestana apartment. One day, when we're back, we'll take a boat tour out there like this one...

... and a view looking right to Reid's Hotel, made famous by Winston Churchill's visit there in 1950. On this occasion the hotel, like almost all the other hotels on the island (including all the other hotels in the Pestana chain), was closed by the pandemic.

On the mostly deserted top terrace, the raptor patrol was still going...

...with this very handsome Harris Hawk. Never found out his/her name (communication barrier - with the guy, I mean!).

We walked almost everywhere. This was the start of one of my favourite exercise walks, from just opposite our hotel, heading up-hill...

...and turning right along a quiet residential street (quiet even during normal times).

...until dropping back down again to reach the Avenida do Infante, the main street back to the hotel

The same view with snow on the mountains, fairly unusual for Madeira. Very fit locals cycle up to the snow line when this happens, and then carry their bikes to reach the top!

From February onwards, this was our great new home, the Apartamentos Turisticos Avenue Park (on the top floor, right-hand two windows), which we found by walking past it.

It is located right on the Avenida do Infante, just where it starts to descend into Funchal town centre. It may be described as 3* accommodation, but it has a truly 5*+ manager, Miguel Pita, who worked tirelessly to make our stay as pleasant and easy as it could possibly be.

The apartment is spacious and better designed for practical living than any self-catering accommodation we have ever stayed at. It has a large kitchen where you could easily cook a meal for 6, and a large double bedroom (neither shown here).

The balcony looks over the Avenida, surprisingly busy with traffic and people (Funchal was nowhere near as deserted as my pics make it appear - apart from an evening curfew, there was no lockdown during our whole stay).

Here we are looking left down the slope to Funchal town centre, with the Santa Caterina Park almost just across the street. To say that this place was “well situated” would be something of an understatement!

Because of COVID and the length of our stay, Miguel (who has a history of rescuing Brits in a previous lockdown) charged us the very special price of €30 a night, including daily cleaning and hotel-type consumables. We would never, of course, expect that again. It was eye-wateringly different from the equivalent we had encountered in England, and took away most of the financial anxiety we had been experiencing.

Looking right from our balcony to the Pestana Casino Park Hotel (closed at this time, as were all the Pestana hotels apart from the Carlton).

Our favourite restaurant (see below) is just across the Avenida from that hotel...

...and looking straight out to sea, across the International Congress and Exhibition Centre.

This is Marco, the chief waiter and a person we became great friends with, outside the Restaurante Victoria, our favourite eating place in Funchal. This place gets very busy from about 1PM onwards (and would be in the evenings if not for the curfew), so Marco always reserved “our” table which is just in front of him.

Becoming a “regular” in various places, and getting to know many of the locals, was one of the major compensations for having to be here so long.

A good meal for two here usually cost €47-€60. And a great bonus was to be able to walk just a few yards to our apartment afterwards!

Further west up the Avenida, we would pass the enormous and quite new Savoy Palace Hotel. This remained open, although it must have had very low occupancy. We didn't go in here (although we would be interested to look around one day, just to see some of its interesting features), but...

...behind the Savoy is a small street running back downhill towards the port, with property on both sides being developed as part of the Savoy, including...

...the Terreiro, a restaurant with a very nice garden to sit out in (for guests of the Savoy Palace, it's reached by a pedestrian bridge from the hotel, which you can just see in the previous pic).

This became a favourite place for a light meal, or on Sunday a brunch. Like the Victoria, it would become much busier after about 1PM.

If “eating at the Savoy” conjures up expensive prices for you, a large glass of the best sangria we found anywhere (with herbs from their own garden) cost about €4.50, a beautifully cooked light lunch for two around €31 to €40, and a brunch for two on Sunday around €28.

When we return (and we will), it will be interesting to see what prices and availability are like in normal times!

Continuing west past the Savoy Palace, we would come to the Pastelaria Petit Fours, the locals' (and our) favourite patisserie. Like many places it got very busy at certain times, so we usually came early to be sure of getting a table. Coffee and a scrumptious pastry cost €4.50 to €6.50 for two of us - locals in Portugal, including Madeira, don't believe in paying Costa Coffee prices!

Outside the back door is a covered atrium with more seating for the Pastelaria, a few small shops like a jeweller's and a hairdresser, and...

...the Pastelaria's bakery. I wish I had taken a video on the occasion when the baker was twirling triangular-shaped dough to make croissants!

Also in the atrium was the back entrance to Madeira Flavours, our other favourite restaurant in Funchal and deservedly highly rated. A little more expensive than the Victoria, but well worth it.

Unlike our other restaurants, it was hit badly by the absence of most tourists, but still stayed open every day except Sunday.

Carrying on walking west until nearly at the Lido, on the way to Il Basilico (a favourite Italian restaurant on the seaside Jardins do Lido) we would pass the Pestana Palms Hotel (closed at this time for COVID).

Back at Funchal Port, the regular Porto Santo Ferry (still operating) was one of the few large ships that we saw...

...but we were honoured by a visit from the Kraken, here on an environmental campaign.

The Kraken is run by volunteers to the “Wings of the Ocean”, a French NGO which “develops actions to protect coastal ecosystems from pollution by plastics, and sensitizes the population to the causes and consequences of human impact on marine life”...

...a theme nicely reflected by this sculpture on the sea front promenade in Funchal Port.

Behind me, BTW, is a café full of people, enjoying the good weather. As I mentioned before, my pics make Funchal look more deserted than it really was.

This is how Santa Caterina Park looked when we first arrived, and for most of our stay...

...but in our last month an operation began to drain the lake for maintenance - much to the disgust of the local goose, whose easy-access ramp was turning into a diving board!

It's apparently a long and complex operation, involving removing all the wildlife to somewhere else (we never did find out to where, or how).

We were told that it used to be quicker to drain when they could simply open a valve and empty the contents directly into the sea.

Now that they can't, I wondered how they actually did the draining, but my Portuguese wasn't good enough for that!

A week or two later, mission accomplished... but we left before seeing the refilling and restocking operation.

On the cliff top at the edge of the park is the Santa Catarina Caffè Garden (an Annex to the main café, which was closed for lack of tourists), a great place for mid-morning refreshments (ridiculously cheap, as all prices here were).

The view is great, and from here there are several ways to descend to the Port or to the town centre.

A river exits to the sea here, hence the muddy water (and a dredger which is permanently moored in the Port).

Just before we left we decided to attend one of their regular Friday afternoon concert events, which we really enjoyed. The very talented lady playing was otherwise unemployed (again due to the lack of tourists, concert halls being closed)...

...and we were very happy to contribute the €28 being charged for the music and the lovely sangria and table snacks, plus something extra.

In the park is this plaque which gives another reason why we like the Portuguese people so much.

If you have read this far, you will undertand how we very much related to this.

Having had such an enjoyable and inexpensive 4 months in Madeira (mostly great weather, no car, no fuel bills...) we found these adverts which the UK Government started sending us quite ironic (and tempting).

There are so many things to like about Portugal, and Madeira in particular:

The people, first and foremost. There is (with tiny exceptions, no doubt) no yob culture, no mixing religion and politics, no distrust of science, no addiction to conspiracy theories, and (for historical reasons) a great fondness for the English. In addition, they just seem to “have their heads screwed on right”.

Then there's the climate (particularly mild all year round in Madeira), and the very low cost of living.

But, with very mixed feelings, we had to return.

In May, on our second attempt, we finally got an indirect TAP flight home via Lisbon (the first being cancelled by the Portuguese themselves, because they wouldn't fly from Lisbon to England due to COVID).

In spite of receiving inexpensive PCR COVID tests in Madeira just before our flight, we did of course have to self-isolate at home for 10 days in England, and pay for two more extremely expensive PCR tests.

It was nice to be home - but we still miss Madeira and its people.

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