Madeira is best enjoyed in beautiful surroundings

Stay away from Funchal and head inland for the best of Madeira

We took a spring holiday in Madeira this year. It was awful. We thought we might stay at Reid's Palace, the island's most famous "fine hotel". But after a quick look at the website, my husband announced he'd rather stay at home in the rain than be forced to stay somewhere where he had to wear a tie for supper, and where the highlight of his trip was to be a weekly dinner dance.

So, informed by the Madeira Tourist Board that the Cliff Bay Hotel down the road had views that were just as good but was also perfect for children, we went there instead. Big mistake.

The Cliff Bay is a standard five-star hotel think "international" restaurants, long brown corridors and reams of identikit rooms. And child friendly? Not really. As my mother pointed out later, the clue's in the name. The Cliff Bay was perched on a very high cliff and the railings around it were just the right size for a small child in need of a challenge to squeeze through. Fine if you are on business not fine if you are on a family holiday.

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Worse, it is, like Reid's, on the edge of Funchal. Funchal has a perfectly nice Lisbonesque central square. But the rest of Madeira's capital is no more than a mildly upmarket version of Torremolinos, sewer smells and very bad waterfront restaurants included.

That's not to say that the Cliff Bay was a bad hotel. When the small child was sick, in a matter of hours they got in an elderly doctor to prescribe bottles of useless medicine; when she was not sick, no one seemed to mind the fact that she liked to try everything on the breakfast buffet and then pile it up uneaten on our table in a one toddler yah boo sucks' gesture to the global food crisis; and some of the many, many old ladies in the hotel were very nice to us. It's just not somewhere I'd visit again.

However, I am going to Madeira again. For starters it is one of the few places you can get to, short haul, in the winter and be pretty sure of warmish weather. A mere three hours short enough for the pensioners on the plane to still think your children are sweet, but also just 500km off the African coast.

And away from the sea it is also quite lovely. In the mountainous landscape of the interior you'll find acres of ancient forest filled with "laurel, eucalyptus, mimosa and holm oak", as well as sublime gardens, says Cond Naste Traveller. "Agapanthas, amaryllis, nasturtiums and exotic succulents grow wild along the footpaths, and formal gardens of orchids, proteas and camellias thrive."

Better still, you'll find the Quintas da Madeira. These are a group of fabulous 19th-century manor houses all perfectly renovated to be small hotels. No identikit rooms here. We visited (green with hotel envy) the Quinta da Bela Vista, set on a hill just above Funchal and filled with perfect English antique furniture, and then the Casa Velha do Palheiro, which belongs to the Blandys (the biggest makers of Madeira wine). With 37 rooms, sensational gardens and perfectly presented food, it is, says Cond Naste, "comfortable, unpretentious and elegant". Everything the poor Cliff Bay is not, then.

Holiday in Madeira: the best places to stay

Estalagem da Ponta do Sol

Best for value, says Cond Naste Traveller. Stylish rooms, great gardens, two pools, doubles from €100

Quinta da Bela Vista

Best for tradition and charm. It has 89 rooms, mainly filled with repeat visitors. Doubles from €208

Casa Velha do Palheiro

Near Palheiro golf course. Great for non-golfers, too, who get it to themselves all day. Doubles from €195

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.