In Churchill’s footsteps

Madeira: Roger Ratcliffe reports from a small island full of old world charm and memories of its most famous visitor

The private balcony of the Sir Winston Churchill Suite at the old colonial-style Reid’s Palace Hotel looks out over the Atlantic Ocean through palms and terraced gardens, and you can picture the old boy sitting there on a warm evening puffing meditatively on one of his signature Romeo y Julieta cigars.

In the sumptuous hotel’s parquet-floored hallway there is a photo of Churchill and his wife, Clemmy, taken on that same balcony one night before dinner, when they were holidaying on the sub-tropical island of Madeira in January 1950. Today, if you book the rooms in which they stayed and look at where they stood for their photograph, you will find that nothing has changed.

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On the surface very little has at Reid’s Palace, judging by the old photos and posters in the hotel shop. However, Churchill wouldn’t have had a clue how to use the satellite TV or MP3-playing stereo with which the Churchill Suite is now equipped, although he may well have wanted to try his hand at the shoot-’em-up computer games in the children’s playroom downstairs.

He first holidayed on Madeira about 1900, when he was in his twenties, and half a century later he returned for a fortnight when he was leader of the opposition during the post-war Labour government led by Clement Attlee.

He arrived on the liner Durban Castle with his wife, his daughter Diana, two secretaries and two Special Branch bodyguards, and spent most of his time painting the beautiful fishing village of Camâra de Lobos with its harbour full of brightly coloured skiffs. The spot where he set up his easel most days is now known as Churchill’s View, and it’s no surprise to find a local bar and café named after him.

On other days he simply wandered around Funchal, the island’s sprawling capital, apparently greeting well-wishers with his famous V sign.

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Clearly the island had an energising effect on Churchill. Prior to his arrival he had suffered a bad bout of ‘flu and there were murmerings about his ability to lead the Conservatives. Shortly after going home to England, however, he fought a General Election and the holiday had so recharged Churchill’s batteries that he cut Labour’s majority from 146 seats to five, paving the way for his return to Downing Street the following year at the age of 77.

The guest book at Reid’s Palace Hotel is something of a Who’s Who of the 20th century. Captain Scott stayed here in 1901 on his way to the Antarctic. George Bernard Shaw learned to master the tango in its ballroom. Most of the crowned heads of Europe and the Middle East have also been Reid’s guests, as have many of Hollywood’s stars.

The hotel is as elegant as ever. And although the Portuguese-ruled island has long had a reputation for being – how to put it delicately? – a favourite destination for people of advancing years, Reid’s and its neighbouring five-star hotels on the clifftops above Funchal now seem to be popular with young families.

That’s because Madeira has become far more than just a sun destination. The island is immensely appealing to easily bored people like me who have an almost clinical phobia of beach holidays. Madeira’s spectacular mountain scenery, which turns out to be unexpectedly accessible considering how vertiginous it looks when viewed from the coast and from the approach to Funchal airport, has so many fascinating nooks and crannies that it’s hard to take in everything in one holiday.

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Another surprise is that a good pair of legs and healthy lungs are not actually pre-requisites for enjoying the landscape. Funchal is home to a fair number of Jeep Safari operators which specialise in taking small groups up into the dense forests which cloak the jagged peaks. These have been going for decades, and more than half a century ago Churchill is known to have taken one of them to a viewpoint overlooking a breathtaking valley called Curral das Freiras (the “Nuns Refuge”).

Some of these Jeep tours will take you higher still, setting you down within a relatively easy stroll to the top of 6,000ft Pico do Arieiro, Madeira’s third-loftiest summit. This often puts you above the island’s layer of puffy cotton wool clouds, which is usually a good 2,000 feet lower, and the panorama is so stunning that I heard a couple of visitors complain about the memory cards of their digital cameras becoming full.

And these aren’t even the most memor able views on Madeira. If there’s one experience that is unforgettable it is walking the island’s levadas.

Levada is Portuguese for “to take”, and on Madeira it basically means conveying water from the north of the island, where there is lots, to the fertile crop-growing south where water is less plentiful. In England we have water mains, in Madeira they have levadas. This vast network of channels is accompanied by good paths originally constructed for the levadeiros, or maintenance men, to keep the water flowing. The paths follow the contours of the mountains and so the gradients are easy, and because the paths are mostly surrounded by trees they offer cool walks even in searing heights of summer, and every so often there is the most awesome leaf-framed view.

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Besides walking the levadas, Madeira visitors have two must-do’s. First is the Monte toboggan run, described by Ernest Hemingway as one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life. Take the cable car up the steep hillside above Funchal, climb into a wicker basket mounted on polished metal runners, and set off with two straw-boatered carreiros guiding you on a quarter-mile helter-skelter ride back down the slope.

The second is to go dolphin watching just offshore. Within sight of Churchill’s private balcony on the cliffs above Funchal, a hundred or more spotted dolphins soon come leaping and smiling around the boats that take visitors out .

Getting there operate flights to Funchal, Madeira, from Leeds-Bradford Airport and Manchester Terminal 1. To book visit

Reid’s Palace Hotel is one of several exclusive five-star hotels on Madeira included in Jet2holdays’ Indulgent Escapes brochure. For more information visit or freephone 0800 408 0740.

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