The Portuguese island has shaken off its fusty image and now offers an array of hip new spas.
Madeira's natural beauty
I'm hobbling awkwardly across sharp stones, trying carefully, if unsuccessfully, to position my bare feet in a way to minimise the pain. Every step hurts. I grimace and concentrate on reaching the soft grass ahead. A few moments later, I grit my teeth and delicately navigate my way across large, hard pinecones, followed by some small black lava stones which jab uncomfortably into my toes, before wading through cold squelchy clay.
Although it might sound like an endurance test, this is actually a spa treatment. The natural reflexology walk in the gardens of the Hotel Jardim Atlántico, perched 480m up in the mountains above the town of Calheta on the south-west coast of the island of Madeira, is as popular as any of its more conventional "in-house" spa treatments. Celina, the hotel's general manager, skips across shards of gravel and bounces joyfully over pine needles.
"It's good, eh? It promotes a sense of well-being. It activates all the nerves in the feet," she says, before adding, "Come on, why so slow?" The walk - perched high on a hillside overlooking the Atlantic and surrounded by beautiful white and lilac African lilies - takes you through 17 shallow beds filled with natural materials collected locally on the island. Afterwards my feet tingle and feel terrific. However, I am in no hurry to repeat the somewhat painful experience.
Madeira, a Portuguese island 580km off the coast of Africa, has in the past suffered from a somewhat dull image, stereotyped as a drop-off point for Canary Island cruise ships full of elderly passengers. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case: the first of which is, admittedly, the large cruise ships in the capital city, Funchal's, main harbour. The island's lack of natural beaches and a dearth of cultural treasures are two other reasons why it has failed to compete with more obvious city break destinations such as Rome, Istanbul or Athens. Then, there's the absence of top music clubs which mean it fails to generate the vibe associated with the Balearics.
Nevertheless, Madeira is fighting back, and not only with artificial beaches and family-friendly hotels. Thanks in part to the newly opened Casa das Mudas art gallery, the island has launched a calendar of cultural events, and now also has some funky hotels, bars and restaurants to attract a younger crowd. The island is also capitalising on its best asset: its stunning countryside. During a long weekend on the island, in which I skipped the hard exercise and focused on the spa treatments, I was buried in hot sand, bathed in grape juice and given a traditional stomach massage with local eucalyptus oils. Not all these treatments were entirely pleasurable but they were all experiences I will not forget in a hurry.
Being buried in hot sand at the Geomedicine Spa at the Hotel Porto Santo was, like the natural reflexology walk, a great experience and something to regale fellow guests with at dinner parties and also one that I would recommend everyone try. Once. Porto Santo is a small island just 50km from Madeira and, unlike its larger more famous neighbour, it has more than enough sand. Porto Santo is said to be popular with the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovitch, who moors one of his luxury yachts off the island each summer, and the Madeira-born footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, who is believed to be keen on the therapeutic properties of the sand for treating sports injuries.
The island's fine-grained sand contains abnormally high concentrations of strontium, an element that is believed to have health benefits, particularly for rheumatism and dermatological conditions. The Geomedicine Spa opened last year to take advantage of demand for these medicinal properties. The spa is a cool, light, cavernous building where the staff wear white coats and speak in hushed conspiratorial tones. It feels like a cross between a rehabilitation clinic and a holy place. The hot sand therapy takes place behind a glass wall in a row of 12 copper coffin-like baths.
Being buried in sand heated to 40°C for 30 minutes is a strange experience. Initially the sand enveloping my body felt like a warm cuddle and I settled down for a snooze in my sand box. But within a very short space of time the soft warm sand began to feel seriously hot and heavy. I had a strong compulsion to move my arms but they were pinned down beneath the weight of the sand. I tried to wriggle my fingers and toes but, similarly, movement was restricted. The sand felt as if it was getting hotter and hotter and heavier and heavier by the minute. I dreamt about being buried alive, about paralysis and about a bee landing on my nose. I was on the point of exploding when, much to my delight, I was released and sent to begin the lengthy process of showering away the sand. Afterwards my skin felt gloriously silky soft and my legs had a pleasant tingling sensation.
The literature says that the medicinal benefits of hot sand therapy are realised after four or five days of twice-daily treatments. But if it is a relaxing spa experience you crave, rather than a treatment, I would recommend opting for a massage instead. My next stop was the über-trendy Vine hotel in the centre of Funchal. Everything about this ultra-modern hotel revolves around vines, from the decor of the 79 guest rooms and suites to the grape-based therapies in the spa.
I opted for the spa's signature "Ritual de Banho Divine", or red wine bath treatment. The hotel has taken the vine as its theme because of Madeira's viniculture history - so I was a little surprised when my therapist, Manuella, explained that the treatment was based on TheraVine products from Stellenbosch in South Africa. Nonetheless, Manuella reassured me, these grape-based products have excellent antioxidant and anti-ageing properties.
The treatment starts with an exfoliating scrub and I could feel the grape-seed extracts cleansing deep into my skin. After a shower, I am led to a Jacuzzi filled with red grape extract and oils. The jet streams vigorously massage my back and shoulders. I lie back and relax for 20 minutes - feeling a little like the Queen of the Damned in my blood-red bath. After a brief shower to wash the oily residue from my skin, I lay on the couch for the finale - the massage that includes a traditional Madeiran stomach massage.
The therapist firmly pushes down with her thumbs on a series of pressure points up the centre of my abdomen before massaging around in a circular motion alternating between clockwise and anticlockwise. In Madeira, stomach massage has been used for centuries to treat everything from constipation to heart ache. If you are neither constipated nor heartbroken, it is simply relaxing. After my treatment, I took the lift up from the dark womb-like basement spa to emerge blinking mole-like into the sunlight on the roof terrace. Here I sat beside the infinity pool watching the sun go down over Madeira's mountains.
A traditional stomach massage is also a feature of the new signature spa massage, launched this summer, at Reid's Palace in Funchal. The spa, in the old laundry at this freshly refurbished colonial stalwart, is clean, light and airy. The firm full-body massage delivered by the head therapist, Christina, was the best massage I've ever had. She really pulled and twanged the tight muscles in my back and shoulders. Christina pushed deep into the pressure points and shook away the stresses of a desk job. The massage oil was made from Madeiran grape-seed oils combined with local lavender and jasmine; afterwards a balm made from local aloe vera, camphor and eucalyptus was applied to key points. The effect of this was first to cool and then to warm and tingle. All while lying in the cliff top spa listening to the ocean crashing onto the rocks below.
A spa break may be the perfect way to experience the natural wonders Madeira has to offer but you do need to choose your treatments carefully. However, whether you choose sand burial in Santo Porto or a grape bath in Funchal, one thing is for sure, none could be described as dull. firstname.lastname@example.org