Outside of Funchal, the central-south coast is the most populous region on Madeira, and it’s bustling coastal towns are great places to get a feel for the day-to-day life of the island. This is Funchal’s commuter belt, and like most of the island it’s not easy terrain. Steep volcanic ridges (known as Lombas) and flat coastal plains (or Fajas) create an incredibly undulating coastal landscape. Out of necessity, houses are built on terraces cut into the steep-sided lombas, and these traditional-style homes seem to defy gravity: testament to the tried-and-tested building techniques which began with the very first settlers almost 600 years ago.
Historically, Camara was a busy harbour town, supplying the island with fresh, seasonal fish. Over time, the commercial fishing fleets gravitated east towards the capital Funchal, in search of a higher return for their catches. The exit of the professionals provided the locals with carte blanche access to this naturally-secluded bay – with many fishing to supplement their incomes, or simply to put food on the family table through difficult times. Their hand-painted boats add a vibrant splash of colour to the present-day harbour.
The ‘Lobos’ in the town’s moniker often is mistranslated as ‘wolves’ – in truth, it’s short for ‘lobos-marinhos’, the Portuguese for sea-lions. As the first settlers explored the south coast of the island (from their original landing point at Machico), they discovered the bay was home to a colony of sea-lions – 15th century records are understandably sketchy, but it’s presumed that the human invasion sadly drove the colony across the water to the nearby Desertas Islands.
We now know the colony’s species – Mediterranean monk seals – and it’s estimate there are fewer than seven hundred individuals surviving worldwide, mainly concentrated around the Aegean sea. The isolated population here on the Desertas islands dropped as low as eight seals in the 1990s, prompting the regional government to designate the islands a protected nature reserve. The population has grown to around forty individuals today, with colonies of Fea and Bulwer’s petrels, Cory’s and Barolo shearwaters, and Caspian gulls all taking up residence on the beautifully-barren Desertas Grande.
Back on mainland Madeira, Camara de Lobos is home to the island’s largest cherry orchards and vineyards. One of our favourite local walks begins in the village of Estreito de Camara da Lobos, following a section of the Levada do Norte as it traverses the steep terraces and river valleys around Jardim de Serra and Garachicho. The levada is one of Madeira’s oldest and longest water channels – walk the trail in the spring and you’ll see the surrounding hillsides turn white as the cherry trees blossom.
If you’re visiting in early June you’ll see the other end of the process, when the lively, week-long Festa da Cereja celebrates the cherry harvest.
If you’re visiting in the summer, the Festa do Vinho in August celebrates the start of the wine harvest and can last anything up to four weeks – beginning with a ceremonial pressing of the first grapes of the harvest in the centre of Camara.
Camara de Lobos is also the source of Madeira’s most popular tipple: Poncha. Legend has it, it’s we Brits who brought the seeds of Poncha with us from India, where we’d developed a taste for Paanch: a cocktail made from Arrack, lemon juice, sugar, spices and tea. With Poncha, the tea is replaced by fruit juice and the Arrack is replaced by Aguardente de Cana, a distilled alcohol made from local sugar cane.
There are three rum distilleries on the island, known as ‘engenhos’, and they all employ a similar disregard for modern-day health and safety legislation with their bygone era, 19th century equipment and techniques. One of Madeira’s best loved cakes is made from a by-product of the distilleries – molasses, which is the main ingredient in Bolo de Melo, (honey cake).
With a traditional Poncha, the Aguardente is mixed with sugar, honey, lemon rind and lemon juice – you’ll also find variations which substitute the lemon for orange juice, tangerine, lime or passion fruit. One final key ingredient is a ‘caralhinho’ or Poncha stick – the wooden utensil used to mash the various ingredients into submission. Poncha often comes with a health warning: ‘Não beba e ande’, (‘Don’t drink and walk’).
Until very recently, Camara de Lobos was more of a day-trippers’ destination – a stopping point where Funchal tourists could sample an ‘authentic’ Poncha, en-route to the miradouro at Cabo Girao or the famous Curral das Freiras (the Nuns Valley). Thankfully that’s all set to change with the opening of not one, but two new Pestana hotels: the Pestana Fisherman Village and the Pestana Churchill Bay.
Pestana are renowned for their preservation of architecturally-notable buildings right across Portugal – rescuing ‘abandoned’, historically-important dwellings from falling into wreak and ruin. We’ve worked with Pestana for many years, and our Madeira experts Max and Paul were keen to see these latest additions to their range of hotels. Visiting our destinations and getting to know our colleagues at each hotel has always been an important part of what we do.
Arriving on a sunny December afternoon, Max and Paul had arranged to stay at the Fisherman Village. The building was originally constructed as private home (named ‘Torre Bela’), but has had many subsequent uses over it’s 150-year lifespan. Many uses adds many layers of paint and plaster – by taking the building back to basics, Pestana have revealed a number of impressive architectural features: exquisitely hand-wrought oak beams and purlins, thickset basalt walls and hefty vaulted archways.
The hotel has forty-two, contemporary-style rooms decorated in clean whites, greys and sapphire blues. Max’s room was in the newly constructed three-storey wing which overlooks the central courtyard, whilst Paul was located high in the central Torre (tower); in keeping with his VIP status here at Archipelago.
With sister-hotel Churchill Bay, Pestana have repurposed the industrial buildings which once lined the western wharf, converting the old fishing infrastructure into a thoroughly-modern three story hotel.
The décor takes it’s inspiration from the watercolours Winston Churchill painted during a visit to the town in 1950, and the spot where he set-up his canvas and easel was subsequently named the ‘Miradouro de Winston Churchill’ to commemorate his visit.
Pestana erected their own statue in honour of the war-time leader, just outside their main reception building. It became an instant Instagram hotspot – what would Winston have made of that?
Personal, efficient and informal service which made booking and travelling very straightforward and stress-free.
Thanks again for your help and organisation – this really has been one of the best holidays we’ve ever had.
More than lived up to expectations and a pleasure to deal with a small company.
First class service, nothing too much trouble, communication excellent.
Quality service from start to finish. Immediate support when problems arose.
The service was personal and the team helped me plan a very special holiday (with extra surprises along the way !).
From first contact to the compeltion of our holiday, all staff were extremely helpful and our itinerary was packed with awesome experiences.
First rate holiday, put together by a first rate company – thank you !
Very helpful staff, and the trips they organised for us were excellent with knowledgeable guides
Views to die for !
We had the most fantastic time, the accommodation was fabulous, the walks and views were to die for. Insightful tour guides that kept it fun and interesting at all times.