Paradise awaits (Picture: Nori Jemil)
Off the coast of Madeira’s capital, Funchal, the Atlantic shimmers silver as glossy black pilot whales gently break the surface before submerging, just as effortlessly.
I’m here for a wellness break, and this scene on my last day epitomises the whole experience – there’s no hullaballoo as whales sensationally leap from the ocean. Instead, they gently swim alongside us, the sea serene as a sense of calm overtakes all.
Like many busy urbanites I’ve travelled far and wide in search of relaxation. From beachside yoga in Mexico to Mediterranean spa resorts, there’s a growing demand for retreats with so many of us frazzled by life’s stresses and city living.
But Madeira’s one of those destinations hiding in plain sight, a Portuguese island I thought I knew about but somehow had never visited. Friends also seem confident about where it is, but then can’t quite pin it down on a map.
A spot hiding in plain sight (Picture: Nori Jemil)
Whale-watching in action (Picture: Nori Jemil)
Closer to Casablanca than Lisbon, its nearest neighbours are the Canary Islands. Madeira is also part of an archipelago of volcanic Atlantic isles, yet has something distinct that sets it apart. In fact, Madeira’s sub-tropical southern coast, lush topography and northern cloud-forested mountains are more redolent of Brazil or Ecuador than anywhere in Europe.
And that might be why it’s proving to be the perfect spot for those seeking rest and rejuvenation. Just over three hours flying from London, and a surprising five-and-a-half from New York, it seems much more remote, jutting out of the ocean like a verdant, uncut emerald, its green-topped crags surrounded by turquoise seas and crashing surf. It’s a heady, exotic mix.
With a year-round temperate climate, lush vegetation and an abundance of fruit, it seems as though I’ve washed up in another Eden. Given its fecundity, it comes as no surprise to find that the capital, Funchal, is so named because of the abundant wild fennel (funcho in Portuguese) growing when the first settlers arrived, while madeira itself means wood or forest – the Madeiran archipelago literally translates as islands of trees.
Lush vegetation and an abundance of fruit is apparent in all its glory (Picture: Nori Jemil)
The island is known for its greenery (Picture: Nori Jemil)
And trees are my first experience of the island. A drive up through the winding roads and cliff-hewn tunnels transports me into the green interior, where ancient laurel trees dominate the landscape. Over the next few days I’ll see more of the north, taking a joyful jeep tour with Bravelanders through thick forest to arrive at jaw-dropping coastal cliffs, the views pierced by tall spikes of colour (like the flowering red aloe vera and Echium candicans, aptly known as Pride of Madeira). Later, I’ll get to taste award-winning, low-alcohol wines and stay at the beautifully situated luxury Terrabona villas near Boaventura.
For now, though, I’m joining a small group at the Yeotown retreat, the first fully dedicated wellness centre in Madeira, and a sister to the original award-winning site in North Devon. Their mantra is ‘strong in body, clear in mind’, with an ethos to restore and replenish. Like the Devonian Yeotown, this property is strategically placed by the Atlantic, amidst breath-taking, hilly scenery, perfect for walks and cold-water immersion. Each private room and villa is furnished to perfection too.
Relaxing isn’t difficult here (Picture: Nori Jemil)
Breathwork and meditation amongst nature (Picture: Nori Jemil)
I’ve arrived a day later than other guests, and I can already sense that I’m out of sync, their hair wet from recent swims in the pool, skin aglow and beaming, having enjoyed a morning yoga class.
Kellie’s behind everything here, and greets me on arrival, flowing in white and smiling beatifically. She hands me a little brown bag containing the most delicious vegetarian lunch I’ve ever eaten, plus a scrumptious organic apple. ‘You must be hungry’, she anticipates. I wonder if I’ve Ianded in a fairy tale? She seems too kind and beautiful to be true, and has an uncanny knack of knowing what you need – later suggesting I should drink water, a nano-second before I open my mouth to ask for some.
Drinking kombucha with lemon slices, which seems to enhance the flavours of the seafood (Picture: Nori Jemil)
The recent television series Nine Perfect Strangers comes to mind, where a similarly perfect Nicole Kidman greets city dwellers who’ve come to face their respective demons in search of nirvana. I shake off the notion, and as I bite into the apple later under the shade of an enormous laurel I think again of Eden. Our forest guide seems to read my mind – there are no snakes lurking in Madeira, he happily tells me.
Olga, a Yeotown therapist, has accompanied us into the woods at Fanal, the protected UNESCO Laurissilva Forest, guiding us through calming breathwork and meditation. We find somewhere comfortable to sit amongst the roots of centuries-old trees. When she plays her violin, a light breeze emanates from nowhere, and waterfall-like tree fronds flow in harmony with her.
We open our eyes, visibly moved by the grounding yet spiritual experience. So, this is forest bathing. Somehow, I’m now at one with the rest of the group and we walk out of this enchantment and into the open sunshine, any vestiges of cynicism left behind. I wonder later if a woodland sprite like Shakespeare’s Puck has come to sprinkle us with a friendship potion? We’ve magically bonded, and what comes next is only going to strengthen it.
Returning to Yeotown for an invigorating soundbath, the resonant tones of the instruments vibrate through each of us on different levels. Then we are taken separately for our massages. The menu on offer ranges from energetic Thai to a more gentle, Hawaiian style of therapy with oils, which is what I’m signed up for.
Time for a sound bath (Picture: Nori Jemil)
Yeotown’s ethos is to nurture and nourish(Picture: Nori Jemil)
Maybe it’s the recent flight and a stressful week, but I come out of it feeling slightly discombobulated. It takes a while for me to regain my equilibrium. The others, however, emerge either bright-eyed and reinvigorated or almost somnambulant, too relaxed to remain upright.
Congregating near the pool, it feels like we’ve taken a drag on a peace pipe. One of the guests says he’ll book a daily massage once he returns home. He’s still on cloud nine the next day too, glowing like one who’s experienced an epiphany.
We dine alfresco, surrounded by candles and garlands, seated on floor cushions on the grass. By now we’re firm friends, and it’s still only my first day here. There’s no dramatic sunset tonight, but the sky is laced with layers of cloud, blending soft edged into the horizon. Talented chef Thomas brings us golden snapper cooked over open flames, garnished with leaves and herbs freshly plucked from the organic and medicinal gardens. With a pescatarian menu and fully teetotal, we drink kombucha with lemon slices, which seems to enhance the flavours of the seafood and accompanying pineapple and vegetables.
Yeotown’s ethos is to nurture and nourish, and I can’t think of anywhere more appropriate to experience its magic.
With a small population of under 270,000 Madeira still feels relatively undiscovered. ‘Hidden gems’ are a bit of cliché, but Madeira has the air of a remote utopia, or even something mythical like Brigadoon, appearing only intermittently for preservation’s sake.
Ah, now maybe that’s why so few people know where to find it!
I stayed at the newly opened Terrabona, where rates start from £1,379 for a three-night minimum stay.
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‘”Hidden gems” are a bit of cliché, but Madeira has an air of something different…