FINDING the perfect holiday destination can be difficult, writes Nick Ward.
On the other hand it could turn out to be a piece of cake.
Especially if the cake in question happens to be Madeira.
Getting there was once the exclusive right of the rich who disembarked from giant cruise liners.
Then came the airport and now, with some amazing deals on flights, even Sheffield types such as myself can afford to make the trip.
Jet2.com offers low fares, good flight times, and a generous 22kg baggage allowance to Madeira from Leeds Bradford or Manchester two days a week. Flights start from £49.99 one way including taxes.
Get off the plane following a three and a half hour flight and the first thing that hits you is the fragrance.
Bang – straight on the nose, a combination of flowers and exotic fruits. Close your eyes and you could be standing in John Lewis’s perfume department.
And there’s more.
Every inch of ground in this most mountainous place is green.
From the southern coast where you’ll find flower-filled Funchal with its restaurants, boutiques and clubs to the north where the locals terrace the mountainsides to grow an abundance of crops. This place is as close to the Garden of Eden as you can get.
And what makes it better is the standard of accommodation.
The Quintas, pronounced kinta, are large family homes which have been lovingly transformed into small boutique hotels. Together they come under the brand Quintas Da Madeira.
Each is independently owned but all share at least one thing in common – luxury.
Every Quinta retains a mother house, many still lived in by the owners.
They are each equipped with everything you would expect from a quality hotel and each is surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens packed with flowers that grow year round thanks to this island’s incredibly mild sub-tropical climate.
Rarely will the temperature fall lower than 64 degrees or rise above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, making this green and pleasant land a place that is seldom too hot or too cold.
Each of the Quintas has a touch of quality. These places are swanky but there is not a hint of snootiness which can sometimes mar a stay in such high class accommodation.
Each has something special to set them apart.
At the Alabatroz Beach and Yacht Club, just a mile or so from the airport, you might expect noise.
But the hotel is so well placed you’d never guess that planes were coming and going.
This Quinta has its own set of natural sea-filled swimming pools, as well as a standard pool and tennis courts.
Views from the room are to die for. Just yards from the sea a set of sliding doors open on to a large balcony from where you can watch dolphins and whales swim by.
And if you’re into golf you couldn’t be better placed with a number of championship quality courses on hand
With a top quality restaurant and excellent unfussy service to boot, you can see why footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, born just down the road in Funchal, stayed there on his sister’s wedding day.
On then to Funchal and the equally excellent Quinta Bela Vista – a place that does exactly what it says on the tin with views over one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
Owned by the same family since 1844, this five-star manor house is simply out of this world.
Furnished with fine paintings and beautiful antique furniture , it sits in 25,000 sq metres of stunning gardens criss-crossed by traditional cobbled paths.
Once again it boasts a top class restaurant, as does the Quinta Jardins do Lago. Home of Colombo the giant tortoise, this charming home was built in the 18th century.
A former residence of General Beresford, who was commander of the British Forces at the time of the Napoleonic wars, it retains its traditional elegance while being able to cater for the demands of comfort and convenience.
Or you could choose the Quinta de Sao Joao which sees guests returning time and time again.
Boasting classic architecture, it is elegant yet cosy and again enjoys magnificent views over the mountains. And check out the modern spa for an excellent range of treatments and therapies.
It would be easy to stay in Funchal but try to hire a car and get out and about, over stunning and well maintained roads to the north.
Driving here is easy even for us Brits not used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Motorists are courteous and careful. Unlike some of their European counterparts, they actually stop for pedestrians to cross the roads.
In the north the scenery changes. Narrow terraces are carved into mountain sides to allow farmers to grow just about every type of fruit and vegetable you can imagine.
In Sanatana you will find a number of traditional Madeiran houses.
Constructed with sloping triangular roof tops, and protected with straw, some of these brightly coloured houses are still used as homes while others have been converted into small shops selling a variety of goods.
Just up the coast is the recently renovated Quinta do Furão. With breathtaking views along the northeast coast and Madeira’s highest mountains, it’s just the place to sit in the glass-sided restaurant and enjoy a sumptuous meal and the awe-inspiring scenery.
To the west you will find São Vicente where the Quinta Estalagem do Vale makes an excellent base for exploring the nearby caves – and if you have a morning free visit Rota da Cal where you can take a fascinating tour of the limestone path and see how the once-precious stone was quarried and processed.