Legions of holidaymakers queuing for a trough of bottomless buffet breakfasts? Packed hotel elevators and sardine-style swimming pools. Perhaps this sort of holiday is no longer at the top of your bucket list!
How about a cosy little cottage in the country, a silky 7-iron away from the nearest fairway?
“Little did i know, the same fate awaited me”
It surprises me how little is known about the islands of Madeira. Unlike the Canaries or Mallorca in the middle of the Mediterranean, these idyllic garden isle have remained relatively obscure.
Nearly a thousand kilometres from Continental Europe and 500 off the Moroccan coast, this little Atlantic archipelago was on my radar. I knew it had golf courses and a pleasant, year-round climate but for some reason, I hadn’t quite made the travel connections. Friends that
had, had fallen in love with the place. Little did I know, the same fate awaited me!
Madeira and its neighbouring island of Porto Santo have been attracting golfers for some decades. In 2019, the y were declared the “Best-Emerging Golf Destination in the World” and for six years in a row the “World’s Leading Island Destination”. More recently, the autonomous government has been praised for its handling of the pandemic making Madeira one of the safest ‘Green Light’ destinations for 2021.
Due to the pandemic, the island’s hotel industry has been seriously impacted. At the same time, perhaps not surprisingly, private accommodation such as Airbnb, country cottages and the like have seen a steady rise in popularity . ‘Rural Madeira’ is an association that brings together country cottages, cultural encounters and healthy outdoor activities ‘far from the madding crowd’. And of course, golf!
Santo da Serra
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a more tranquil spot.”
The village of Santo da Serra is a half-hour from the main city of Funchal and only around 15 minutes from the island’s international airport. This upland area is famous for cider production with apples & pears growing well at higher altitudes. It’s also where the game of golf first teed up on these islands!
We were staying at ‘Bio-Quinta Do Pântano’, an organically certified farm encircled by flowers, vegetables, fruits, sheep, chickens and a lovely white goat. And literally right across
the fence in 1928, a swathe o f pasture was ‘repurposed’ into Madeira’s first rudimentary golf course. All two holes of it!
‘Bio-Quinta Do Pântano’ is also next door to the resplendant Santo da Serra 27-hole facility. Lounging on the Quinta’s spacious patio, you can hear the golfers chatting with the occasional cry of ‘Fore’ in the far distance. Apart from that, all is perfect peace! You’d be hard-pressed to find a more tranquil spot. I woke up during our first night and was dumbstruck b y the silence. It sounds daft but I think it was the silence that woke me! There’s a nice video on the place here.
Accommodation at the Bio-Quinta comes in the form of two self-contained studio apartments and another tw o spacious houses. The main house which w e were staying in could sleep up to 8 people. It’s self-catering but the owner, Emanuel, prepared espetadas (meat-on-the-skewer) for our first night, washed down with flagons of local cider. The alfresco dining table, he informed us, was once the original golf clubhouse bar. I thought I spotted a few old spike marks! You can also dine in style at nearb y ‘Restaurante A Quinta’, their ‘bacalhau’, (codfish done in cream) particularly palatable!
Santo da Serra Golf
The entrance to Santo da Serra Golf is only 3-minutes a way, a splendid combination of holes that have hosted the Madeira Open no less than 20 times with the lik es of Seve Ballesteros, Padraig Harrington, Ian Poulter and Constantino Rocca gracing its lush fairways.
If you’re a course geek like me, you’ll be delighted to learn that Santo’s three loops were designed by Robert Trent Jones Snr. (Valderamma, SpyGlass etc) who came here in 1991 to fashion the facility, making superb use of the area’s diverse topography. Besides some challenging holes, the site o ffers amazing views of the Desertas Islands across a sparkling Atlantic Ocean to the south or the sometimes snow-crested ‘Pico do Arieiro’ mountains
to the north.
“Santo’s three loops were designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. “
“ the village of Camacha introduced football to the country of Portugal”
If Santo da Serra introduced golf to these islands, the village of Camacha introduced football! This, in fact, was the very first recorded incidence of the game ever being played in the country of Portugal!
After attending school in England, a young Harry Hinton arrived back in Madeira bringing with him a leather ‘tub’. Needing pals to play with, the 18-year-old enlisted local lads and the first game kicked off on the ‘village green’ here in Camacha. The year was 1875!
“Hansel & Gretel would be absolutely charmed with this place”
We had upped sticks and set up camp closer to our next golfing venue, Palheiro Golf. It’s a perfectly sound idea to mix lodgings on a trip like this. I wouldn’t do it with hotels but there’s more flexibility with this style of accommodation and two or three nights in each place works out well. Plus, you can get more of a ‘feel’ for different parts of the island.
The country cottages of Casas Valleparaízo in Camacha are truly idyllic! Hansel & Gretel would be absolutely charmed with this place! Our ‘bolt hole’ had two upstairs bedrooms, a fully functional kitchen and spacious lounge, ideal for two golfing couples or four friends. There was even a neighbourhood peacock keeping an eye on proceedings.
In a cottage, in a wood, a peacock on our roof stood...
Palheiro Golf is just a short drive away, an 18-hole track that winds and weaves through its own ‘Nature Estate’ with astonishing views of the Atlantic Ocean and the city of Funchal below. Check-in for coffee before your round and take in one of the most striking clubhouse
views - anywhere!
“Take in one of the most striking clubhouse views -anywhere!”
This golf course is really interesting! The agronomy sometimes doesn’t match up to the pristine courses we’re perhaps used to but it more than makes up for its ‘rough patches’ in intricacy and sheer, shot-shaping enjoyment. The 1st is a climb and there are a few other steady ascents so I recommend taking a buggy. Palheiro isn’t long but it’s full of intrigue! The 4th is a fine example, a short, uphill par 4 with the green unseen down in the valley. Off the tee, if you hit the right ‘speed slot’, you could tumble down and onto the green. But more
likely, you’ll find one of a half-dozen defending bunkers!
At Palheiro, each and every hole has its own unique character. You could play this course forever and never get bored! After golf, take a stroll around the Palheiro Nature Estate, if you’ve got the energy but most definitely, at some point during your stay, book a dinner
at the clubhouse. The food and service are top-notch and the view, especially at sunset is simply a Madeira ‘must-do’ for golfers and nongolfers alike. New Horizons
The big news on Madeira’s skyline is there’s a new golf course coming!
Ponta do Pargo occupies the island’s most westerly tip. Back at the beginning of this project in 2008, Sir Nick Faldo visited the site four times to map out his new masterpiece. The subsequent economic collapse stalled progress but now the local government has announced the project’s recommencement.
“Sir Nick Faldo visited the site four times to map out his new masterpiece”
At the moment, it’s the cows that are tending the fairways of the new Faldo course.
We took a drive to take a look and it’s clearly going to be another visual stunner thanks to its dramatic cliffside location. With nothing between Ponta do Pargo and South Carolina, wind will be this course’s main defence. They haven’t started shaping or seeding yet, but I reckon that Madeira will have its third main island course in a couple of years - and it’s going to be a beauty!
There was only one more golfing venue to sample and this, dare I say is my favourite. From Funchal, you sail to the neighbouring island of Porto Santo in 2.5-hours aboard the ‘Lobo Marinho’ ferry leaving at 8am. Settle down in the main dining room for a great ‘Full Irish’ (or the Portuguese equivalent) and do the same on the way back, only this time for dinner - the ideal way to spend the voyage.
The island of Porto Santo is where Madeirans and mainland Portuguese take their summer breaks enjoying one of the best golden beaches in the world, the special sand renowned for its health-giving properties. Porto Santo is also where Christopher Columbus landed on his voyages of discovery, marrying the daughter of the island’s first governor and building a house on the island. You can still see what remains of it alongside a dedicated museum.
Seve’s Lasting Legacy
But it was the golf course that we’d come to discover. Seve Ballesteros laid out this venue on the slopes surrounding Pico Ana Ferreira. It’s completely different from the other two courses; more links-like with wind being a persistent factor.
“The ensuing three holes...should take their place among Europe’s best.”
The 14th at Porto Santo stands between two superb par 3s, the course’s most dramatic threesome!
The front 9 has some strong tests, long and open with a couple of peevish par 3s thrown in. You might think you have the measure of this course until you arrive at the 13th where the ensuing three holes cling to the cliff’s edge, absolutely stunning holes that should take their place among Europe’s best. Again, wind is a major factor in how you play them, especially on the two par 3s, the 13th and 15th. But it’s how much you dare to bite off at the 14th, a dogleg right that will linger long in the memory. If you play it wisely, it’s a thrill to set up a good position to take on the green. Get greedy and it’s an awkward second shot from a waste bunker back onto the dance floor.
There’s also an excellent driving range here at Porto Santo and a testing little Par 3 course. Porto Santo Golf Club also offers some of the best clubhouse catering we’ve encountered, worth booking for lunch or an evening meal. Chef Daniel Rodriguez Mendez, otherwise known as ‘Gato’ (which means ‘cat’ due to his unusually pale blue eyes) is from Uruguay and has a real passion for cooking, palatably evident in his excellent dishes.
Where to Eat
Madeira offers some exceptional meat and seafood restaurants. Dishes tend to be quite simple making use of the fresh produce abundantly available on these verdant islands. Here are the very best neighbourhood restaurants we discovered on both the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo.
1. Casa dos Salgados, Camacha, Madeira
You need to bring a bloodhound to find this place. Even from the car park you have to descend an ancient ‘Royal Road’ to an old farmstead perched on the side of a steep valley. You also have to book a couple of weeks in advance but believe me, it’s well worth it.
Caminho Mun. dos Salgados
Tel: +351 910 185 555
2. A Quinta, Santo da Serra, Madeira
On the edge of Santo da Serra, the food is simple and simply delicious especially their codfish. It’s only a few minutes walk from ‘Quinta Do Pântano’ so very handy for an evening meal.
Estrada Santo Antonio da Serra,
Santo da Serra
Tel: +351 291 550 043
Porto Santo Island
1. Teodorico Restaurant
This is another hidden gem that you simply must seek out. Again, there are no signposts but GPS will get you there. Jorge and his Brazilian partner have made this an artistic sanctum. And the food & wine pairs well with the fascinating decor.
Serra de Forante
Tel: 291 984 425
2. Torres Grill
Family-run Restaurante Torres is on the north side of Porto Santo and well worth the 15-minute drive from town. They’re renowned for their octopus dish but the grilled chicken was my favourite. You can go sophisticated inside or more relaxed on the patio.
Camacha, Porto Santo, 9400-010
Tel: 291 984 373
3. Tia Maria Beach Club
Estrada dos Carreireiros,
Campo de Baixo,
9400-139, Porto Santo
Our favourite beach club bar on Porto Santo with great salads and seafood along with the best Mojitos and chilled atmosphere. This is where the ‘digital nomads’ hang out so it must be good.
Tel: 291 982 400
For more information on accommodation and golfing around ‘Rural Madeira’ visit...www.madeira-rural.com
For general tourist information on Madeira visit the official tourism site, www.visitmadeira.pt