I’d landed in Madeira just a couple of hours earlier, and I was already doing my first tandem paraglide flight. This whirlwind adventure set the tone for the week ahead. I took a deep breath, checked my harness for the tenth time, then ran towards the edge of the cliff. Just before I hurtled off into the abyss, the wind seized my parachute and whisked me up into the air.

When I thought about going to Madeira, a Portuguese island (actually, four islands) in the north Atlantic, I pictured wine, cake, flowers … and old people. It was filed in my mind as a pretty but dull destination, full of pensioners on package deals and cruises. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I didn’t think it was for me.

Canto das Fontes glamping site, Madeira

The reality turned out to be rather different. Yes,www.fakeswiss.com the main tourist demographic is still overseas retirees (and Portuguese honeymooners), but Madeira is starting to attract more adventurous travellers, too. For one thing, the accommodation is changing. It is no longer restricted to large, faceless hotels; I was here to visit the island’s first glampsite, Canto das Fontes. There is an increasing number of boutique hotels – I spent a night at the super-stylish Estalagem in nearby Ponta do Sol, which has recently opened a cheaper, funky sister property, Hotel da Vila. And in the capital, Funchal, there are great options for self-caterers; I stayed in a beach house in the old town, one of a collection of seafront villas (funchalcottages.co.uk).

Madeira’s hiking trails often follow irrigation canals.

Canto das Fontes is a magical place: just two tipis on a banana farm on Madeira’s sunny south coast. I got my first view of it from the air, when I soared over it during my paraglide. Owner Roberto Varela, a local entrepreneur, has restored his late grandmother’s farm, repairing the old stone walls, buying up adjacent abandoned land and building a small house. It is not a farm as Britons would know it, but a series of terraces on a steep hillside, 100 metres above the sea. The land is farmed organically and according to permaculture principles; as well as bananas there is a host of other fruits, flowers and herbs. I picked the strawberries growing up the side of my compost loo for breakfast; physalis and ferns were growing inside my shower; I snacked on pitanga, a delicious sweet-sour berry. In the evenings, we harvested limes and mint for mojitos made with Madeiran sugarcane rum. And when I got sunburnt, Roberto cut a fresh leaf of aloe vera for its soothing gel.

It is an utterly peaceful place. The tipis, perched high on the cliffside, are entirely private; from mine, I could see nothing but sea. At night, all I could hear was water: the waves below and the site’s own 30 metre-high waterfall. But it was sociable, too – Roberto organised a barbecue (with steaks from his cattle-farmer friend) and a fish supper (with octopus stew from his fisherman friend). He also arranges activities on request – and that is the second reason Madeira is starting to attract a new crowd: it offers every kind of adventure sport you can imagine.

Diving off Garajau beach

I tried scuba-diving from Garajau beach in Caniço; the clear water of this protected marine reserve is teeming with big, friendly mero (grouper) and surprisingly tropical-looking fish, such as rainbow wrasse and damsel fish. I went horse-riding in the mountains along the levadas, a unique irrigation system of narrow water channels that extend for more than 2,000km. The channels were carved by early settlers (or, more likely, their slaves), and now form an unofficial hiking and hacking network through beautiful and otherwise inaccessible countryside. Some pass through Unesco-protected pockets of ancient Laurisilva forest, which once covered most of Madeira.

Thanks to its volcanic origins, Madeira is world-class destination for canyoning – the interior is mountainous and rocky, rich with gorges, waterfalls and lagoons. Sadly, I couldn’t try it – my trip was cancelled at the last minute – but at least it’s a reason to return.

A viewpoint high in Madeira’s 1,800-metre mountains.

There are whales and dolphins just off the coast, and it is possible to avoid the more commercial whale-watching trips; I sailed with skipper João Vieira on the Ilhéu, an elegant 1946 ketch. We saw only a solitary dolphin, but João assured me they aren’t usually so shy. I also arranged a Harley Davidson tour to see more of the island. It was a blast, like riding a cross between an armchair and a rocket, and a much more exciting alternative to the ubiquitous coach and minibus tours. We went to the most easterly part of the island, bleakly beautiful Ponta de São Lourenço; into the isolated Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley); and above the clouds to the 1,818m Pico do Arieiro. Jeep tours are also a good bet, for those who don’t fancy a bike.

As well as its topography, what makes Madeira an adventurer’s paradise is its climate, which is mild year-round – even in the depths of winter, an outdoor activity break is less than a four-hour flight away from the UK. (Having said that, I have never been anywhere with such dramatic microclimates. In April, I was sunbathing in sweltering Ponta do Sol, which has the best weather on the island. Fifteen minutes later, I was driving through freezing rain and fog in the mountains, trying – and failing – to reach the ancient forest at Fanal.)

One downside is that Madeira doesn’t have any sandy beaches, apart from a couple of artificial ones. However, the nearby island of Porto Santo, part of the Madeiran archipelago, has a glorious, 9km stretch of golden sand, running along the whole of its south side. There are daily ferries from Funchal (portosantoline.pt).

Lapas (limpets) at A Poita, Madalena do Mar.

Madeiran food is also major draw. Lapas (limpets) are one delicacy, served in their shells and slathered in garlic and lemon butter – I had them first at A Poita, a family-run restaurant in Madalena do Mar. Espada (scabbard fish) is another speciality; it is served as a small plate at O Tasca in Funchal (Rua Bela São Tiago 137), followed by pudim de maracujá (passion fruit pudding). Octopus is common; I had it at on a terrace by the sea at Restaurante Sol Poente in Ponta do Sol. The local bread, bolo de caco, made with potato and served with more garlic butter, is astonishingly good. Bolo de miel, or honey cake, is delicious and robust enough to survive the journey home.

Madeira wine may be famous in the UK, but the locals prefer a more potent drink: poncha. This traditional tipple is made from aguardente de cana (distilled alcohol from sugarcane juice), honey and freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice. It is drunk everywhere, at any time of day: I was plied with it at 10am at the excellent Sunday market in the mountain village of Santo de Serra. The stallholders wanted me to try everything: a version of pork scratchings, milho frito (fried polenta) and sopa de trigo (wheat soup with chunks of pork), plus the aforementioned poncha, local wine, cider, brandy, liqueurs made from strawberry and eucalyptus …

Porto Santo Beach

Another great spot for poncha is A Venda do Andre, in the hills above the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. It is a bar on one side and a sort of museum on the other, preserving the kind of traditional village store that died out when supermarkets arrived. Here, as everywhere, drinks are served with monkey nuts and tremoços – incredibly moreish lupin beans that you bite to squeeze out of their skins.

Madeira isn’t a place for wild partying, but Funchal’s old town is great for bar-hopping. The area used to be a rundown fishing district, but it has livened up in recent years: artists have painted all the doors with multicoloured murals, and there has been an influx of bars and restaurants. It is all centred around Rua Santa Maria – O Ginjinhas, at number 33, is a typical vintage bar. Heading further east, the esplanade is dotted with churches and forts interspersed with bars and restaurants – Barreirinha is a lively cafe-bar with a terrace.

The Monte cable car and Funchal.

Around the harbour, there are developments such as the new Cristiano Ronaldo CR7 hotel (the Portuguese footballer is the world’s most famous Madeiran), his revamped CR7 museum, and a swish new design centre. The latter showcases the work of Madeiran interior designer Nini Andrade Silva, and has a Michelin-starred restaurant with panoramic views of the city and bay. I had lunch there, including a standout starter of seafood tartare on banana puree with edible flowers.

The hill village of Monte, with its lovely church and gardens, is reached by cable car from Funchal. But it is the return journey that is the most fun: a high-speed toboggan run down the steep, twisting streets, guided by two uniformed “drivers”.

The toboggan ride back from Monte.

Another unmissable experience in Funchal is a visit to the independent country of Pontinha, officially the smallest in the world. Pontinha was founded by Renato Barros, AKA Prince Renato II, on an old fort. The public are welcome to visit – and get a stamp in their passport – and the Prince is often in residence with his many rescued cats. I was granted an audience with him in his art gallery, where he makes and paints ceramic pigs. “Life goes in a flash,” he told me. “We must enjoy it.” In Madeira, that royal decree turns out to be surprisingly easy to obey.

Flights and accommodation at Canto des Fontes provided by Canopy & Stars (a tipi sleeping two from £65 a night, canopyandstars.co.uk/cantodasfontes). Accommodation at Hotel Estalagem provided by i-escape (doubles from £71 B&B, i-escape.com). Beach house in Funchal provided by Funchal Cottages (villas for two from €95 a night, funchalcottages.co.uk)

[Source : http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/jun/18/madeira-glamping-hotels-mountains-coast-camping]

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