Explore Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith
Unveil the exceptional world of Belmond with our online magazine. Read on for great ideas, features, tips and more…
Unveil the exceptional world of Belmond with our online magazine. Read on for great ideas, features, tips and more…Now
Explore Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith
Cape Town Art Buzz
Food & Wine
A Table with the Chef
Go with the Flow
Hidden oasis of Cambodian charm
The Lowcountry Oyster Festival
Mary Berry's Take on Tea
Food & Wine
A Cocktail on Track
Top-Tier Tennis Getaways
Wander through Madeira's wonders
Best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith tracks the trail of his No 1 Lady Detective on an adventure-packed literary safari with Belmond.
What better prospect can there be for any author than this? Ahead of me lie six days with 16 readers of my Botswana novels—not in the usual setting of a bustling literary fair, but in the very country where those books are set. We shall be together on one of the few great adventures that are left in a shrinking world—a real safari in Africa’s most beautiful and unspoilt wilderness. But this is no ordinary safari—this is, as far as I know, the world’s only literary safari. This is the third time I have undertaken it—the last two occasions were memorable and I have every expectation that this will be so too.
The journey—and excitement—begins
Alexander McCall Smith
The excitement starts at Maun, the place from which most Okavango safaris are launched. Our plane descends towards the tarmac and I see that it has been raining. That is a good omen in Botswana—to arrive in the midst of rain is a sign of good fortune. The ground has been dry for months and the land is crying out for water. After the first few showers, the dust will be settled and the earth will suddenly turn green as plants spring back into life. This is a good time to be here.
My wife and I arrive a day before the rest of the party, to give us a chance to settle in and prepare for their arrival. In Maun we are greeted by Belmond’s regional environmental manager, Onx Manga, one of the tallest men in town. His presence is immediately reassuring, as is that of my guide of many years, Mighty, who is also at the airport beaming with that wonderful smile that Botswana gives its visitors.
We take off again for Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge, the most northerly of the Belmond lodges. It is a flight of some 50 minutes, across a landscape that is unimaginably broad. Down below us is a seemingly endless expanse of trees. If one looks carefully, the first sight of game might be had—usually of elephants among the trees, tiny dots from up here.
And then we are there, touching down on the bare ground airstrip, to be met by the characteristic safari vehicles that the lodges use. A singing welcome awaits us—one of the nicest touches that Belmond lays on. I am back in Botswana, and I am content.
Touchdown among the elephants
The main party arrives this afternoon. They are a friendly group, coming from all over the world, but all united in their enthusiasm for the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books and the heroine of that series, Botswana’s Mma Ramotswe. For many of them, this is their first experience of Africa, and I can imagine the thrill when we go off on our first game drive and see an abundance of elephants. From the camp in the evening, elephants are also to be seen, making their way out of the trees to the waterhole directly in front of the lodge. Where else in the world can one get so good a view of elephants in the wild? If there is such a place, I have yet to hear of it.
Savute lions come up close
If there are safari gods, then they are smiling on us. Today we find lions that obligingly carry on with their leonine lives right next to our vehicles. There are two males and a gaggle of cubs. For some members of the group this is their first sight of a lion in the wild, and it is a very special moment. The lions look the part: rippling muscle under tawny skin, impressive manes, and those very special lion-eyes that see you but at the same time do not see you. I could look into them for hours—at a safe distance.
Chasing leopards and wild dogs
It is a short hop from Savute to Khwai River in a small plane. Once we are there, more drives reveal more of the abundant game that lives in this part of Botswana. Leopards are spotted (of course they are) as are wild dogs. It is a great privilege to see wild dogs, as these animals are particularly endangered. They are a long way from our domestic canines, with their powerful, exaggerated jaws and their extraordinary hunting skills. Operating with military efficiency, these dogs chase their prey in a long spread-out line, with a fresh dog coming up from behind to take over from a lead dog once the latter becomes tired.
A highlight of this lodge is the boma evening. A boma is a circular stockade of wooden poles creating a meeting, or, in this case, dining area. The boma at the camp is lit with lanterns and has a log fire in the middle. A semi-circle of tables is provided for a meal consisting of delicious local dishes. Then comes the dancing and that wonderful African singing that brings a lump to every throat. I find it hard to believe that the staff of every Belmond lodge includes such a good supply of singers, but it does. This is because singing is at the heart of Botswana’s culture. You learn to sing when you are a child, and you sing all through your life.
Drifting through the Okavango Delta
Mighty escorts the guests
Eagle Island is the jewel in Belmond’s Botswana crown. Now we are in the Delta, that astonishing slice of land where the great Okavango River and its streams spread out and slowly drain away into the Kalahari sand. I have visited Eagle Island on many occasions in the past, and indeed it is here that I base one of the Mma Ramotswe novels, The Double Comfort Safari Club, the seventh title in the series. In that book, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi visit the Delta and sort out a rather tricky problem involving legacies and identity. In the course of their investigation they meet none other than Mighty, our guide and one of Botswana’s finest trackers, who helps them in various ways. I often put real people into my books, and it has given me great pleasure to have included Mighty in the cast. He signs books for visitors, who are usually rather pleased to meet a real character from the series.
Mighty is an old-school guide. He knows everything about the bush, from its smallest to its largest inhabitants. He knows all the trees and the birds that sit on their boughs. He can tell you simply by looking at the ground what animals passed by, and when. In my view, Mighty represents what makes Botswana the place it is: decency, friendliness, and love for the land. I feel privileged to count him as a friend.
Mighty takes us out on the water and on this trip, an evening cruise, we see something that reduces us all to silence – a massive hunter’s moon rising like a red ball above the horizon. The moon is closer to earth today than it will be for the next 83 years. We watch it float up over the mopani trees and are all aware that we have seen something precious and memorable, and seen it in a very special setting.
Beneath the velvet night sky
It is eventually time to leave Eagle Island and set off on our journey home. We have a final dinner together and I read to our guests a short story I have recently written. We talk about the books and the characters in them. And on our last night in the African bush, we think about how fortunate we all have been to experience this week of friendship and delight in this magnificent part of Africa. Will I do another literary safari next year? asks Jody, who has accompanied us on Belmond’s behalf. I look up at the sky, at the field of stars that stretch across the velvet African sky, and give the only answer I can possibly give.
by Alexander McCall Smith. Photographs of Alexander McCall Smith: Chris Watt
Alexander McCall Smith has lived and worked in Botswana, where his No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books are based. The series has sold more 20 million copies in English alone and has been translated into 40 languages. His next literary safari for Belmond is from 20-26 September, 2017.
A dramatic new art display at Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel draws attention to the plight of South Africa’s bees. How can we help to halt the threats to their survival?
Some of our planet's most impressive animals are under threat. The rhino. The panda. The tiger. But the extinction of a much smaller and less obviously impressive species will have catastrophic consequences for our entire ecosystem.
Bees across the world are disappearing at an alarming rate due to various factors including pesticides, foulbrood disease, colony collapse disorder and often simply loss of habitat. This places a third of the food on our tables at immediate risk. In the long term it also threatens the existence of all fauna and flora.
"We lose the bees, we lose everything" is the title of an art exhibit installed recently at Cape Town’s iconic Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. The arresting triptych features large scale illustrations of the familiar faces of extinction, created entirely out of dead bees to underline this important message.
Creating the artworks for display using actual bees to make the designs.
To realise the display, thousands of dead bees from infected hives around the Cape were collected, dried, sorted and carefully crafted onto canvas to spell out the message and draw the supporting visuals.
Says Paul Strappini, Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, the agency that created the pieces: "The work needed to be visual, visceral and authentic to make an impact. We decided to use the bees themselves to carefully craft pieces that use the bodies of our subject matter to underline the severity of this issue. In this way, our very cause became the ink in our pens, the typeface for our words and the paintbrush for our design."
Importantly, Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel is also playing a role in helping rebuild the local bee population. The hotel's rooftop hives are home to well established colonies of the Cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis), a species unique to the region and currently under threat.
Apart from keeping the beautiful flowers in the hotel's extensive gardens in bloom, these hardworking bees also provide harvested honeycomb for the Chef's Table, a rare treat for food-loving guests.
The good news
You do not need to be a beekeeper to help save the bees. Nor do you need a massive flowering garden. No matter where you live, there is something you can do to aid their survival for future generations.
Pull up a chair and discover the magic that goes into a gourmet menu. Chef’s Table options are unique dining experiences that pull back the curtain on our kitchen’s secret tips and tricks. We speak to three of our chefs to find out what makes this a dinner to remember.
For those seeking to escape the standard restaurant experience, the Chef’s Table lets you get up-close-and-personal with each dish. Sit beside the chef as he creates a menu from the day’s best produce, explaining the culinary and cultural importance of every ingredient.
What's Cooking in Cape Town
Planet Restaurant Executive Chef Rudi Liebenberg on left
In the culinary heart of Cape Town sits Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, one of the city’s most iconic retreats. Though famed for its star-studded Planet Restaurant and unmissable Afternoon Tea, this grand dame also offers an unconventional dining experience within the kitchen itself.
You’ll be invited to your seat in an alcove, complete with an oversize mirror affording a complete view of the culinary action. You can chat to the chefs as they work, asking them about the inspiration for each recipe. “You see, hear and smell the experience before you taste it,” enthuses Executive Chef Rudi Liebenberg.
“When we first started, it was daunting to have eyes watching your every move,” he explains, ”but as the experience evolved each personality in the kitchen began to shine as they told their individual stories. It sparked a sense of pride, and gave everyone ownership of the dishes they were presenting.
“Nothing we do is rehearsed. When a guest sits down, they can look forward to a true, raw, organic experience. We are cooking food that is close to our heart and soul. We experiment and we play.”
Mayan Magic, Served Fresh
El Sol Restaurante
From the traditional thatched roof of each building to the hammock swaying lazily outside every room, Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa is true to the Mayan spirit. This authenticity spreads through to the cuisine on offer. Whether the tortillas that Tia makes from scratch every morning for the breakfast quesadillas or the mezcal cocktails Freddy concocts at his beachside bar, every mouthful is a true taste of Mexico. The latest addition to the culinary roster, the Chef’s Table, is no exception.
Depending on the number of participants, guests are invited to dine at El Sol Restaurante or within the resort’s atmospheric wine cellar. Executive Chef Gabriel Kolofon, in a unique twist, will create a stunning six-course menu where each dish features one key ingredient. This adds a sense of narrative to the gastronomic evening.
“It is an exciting and unique experience, one of the best options we offer,” Chef Kolofon tells us. “It’s a challenge to create unique flavours and techniques, while always using the best products and traditions of Mexican cuisine. We also always pair every creation with the best Mexican wines. There’s a sense of responsibility behind every dish, the idea that there is a piece of history still to be told.”
The Sizzle of Rio
Hotel Cipriani Restaurant
A shining gem on Rio’s most famous beach, Belmond Copacabana Palace has long been a beacon for those seeking an unforgettable dining experience. The award-winning Hotel Cipriani Restaurant always leaves a lasting impression, combining the best Brazilian ingredients to create spectacular Northern Italian cuisine. Set in an alcove in the kitchen, the Chef’s Table lets you get behind-the-scenes on this culinary icon.
Take a seat, and anticipate a true taste adventure through the flavours of Rio. The menu is an ever-changing creation, drawing inspiration from the local ingredients that are best each day. Each dish is also paired with carefully selected wines.
“For lovers of gastronomy, it definitely is a must-do experience,” Chef Nello Cassese says. “Our guests love to see the interactions that happen in the kitchen, how the dish is setup, and to take home some insider tips from the chefs themselves. They get to discuss the recipes and hear what inspired the flavour combinations. Guests are already expecting a lot, but we relish the chance to exceed their expectations.”
by Daniel Hayden
Counteract the rising tide of online distractions with a digital detox—slow down, take time and unwind.
How do you start the day? I wake up, and almost immediately, I reach for my phone. I check emails, then Facebook, then Twitter. From then on, I'm on the Net. Back home in the evening, the last thing I do is check my messages before going to sleep, my brain still whirring from all the day's information and online interactions.
We are losing our capacity for sustained attention and absorption. We find it harder to get lost in a book, in a film, or in nature. We can't just enjoy a beautiful view, we have to post it on Instagram. We can't simply listen to a concert, we need to share it, to prove to others what a good time we're having.
What can we do, if we feel we are increasingly stretched thin, if we struggle to concentrate? We can log off with a digital detox—control our use of the internet, so that it's the tool and we're the master, rather than vice versa as is increasingly the case.
Earlier this year, I decided to go cold turkey—and signed up for a 10-day Vipassana retreat at a monastery in a snow-covered forest. Everyone handed in their phones at the start of the course, as well as reading tablets, wallets and passports. We also took a vow not to speak to anyone for the entire time, and to follow the schedule of ten hours’ meditation a day.
It was very hard at first. But gradually, my mind calmed down, I became less bothered by negative thoughts, my attention began to gather and strengthen, and I grew increasingly focused. Psychologists believe the more we are absorbed in an activity, the more we can enjoy it. As I walked through the woods, each crunch of my boots on the snow sounded crisp and delicious. Every bird song seemed miraculous.
Of course, one doesn't need to go on a retreat to switch off the chatter and find rest and recuperation. We all have different ways of disconnecting. Just taking the time to go for a walk in nature can help you shift your consciousness and expand into a calmer and more open mindset. A 2015 study by Stanford University found that a 90-minute walk in natural surroundings reduced 'rumination'—a type of anxious self-preoccupation.
The poet William Wordsworth was the great prophet of walking-as-meditation. He strode around the Alps, the Lake District and all over Britain, covering an estimated 180,000 miles on foot by the time he was 65. Walking in nature, he said, helps us enter 'the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness'.
Psychologists today call this state 'flow'—we become so deeply engaged in an activity, such as reading, cooking or playing the piano, that we forget ourselves and lose track of time. It's profoundly refreshing and rejuvenating.
One of the most reliable routes to 'flow' is through the arts—we see, hear or read something beautiful, and in that rich pleasure we forget ourselves. Sometimes, at a concert, you can feel the moment when the audience are rapt, their attention fully fixed on the performance. We get 'lost' in a good book, 'transported' by a marvellous play or film. It's a holiday from our usual preoccupations.
Personally, I find flow by playing tennis. For 90 minutes or so, I close out everything else in my life and concentrate on the 78 square metres of the court. The less distracted I am, the more I focus on the game and trust my body—and the better I play.
A friend of mine, meanwhile, treats bath-time as a solemn ritual. He light candles, pours oils in the tub, puts on his favourite music, and then soaks for an hour or more. This elaborate daily ceremony is his way of letting go.
One of the simplest ways to slow down is to calm your breathing. Try inhaling to a count of seven, and then exhaling to a count of 11, then repeating the cycle six times. Feel different? Slowing the breath decreases the heartbeat, which relaxes our autonomic nervous system and helps us to unwind and recuperate. Some of the most relaxing activities, from yoga to singing, work in part by helping us to intensify our air intake and to uncoil.
Meanwhile, many of my friends are actively choosing to limit their internet usage, and some even eschew it altogether one day a week. They tell me it helps them feel less scattered, more present, and more at ease.
At the end of the Vipassana retreat, on Day Ten, we were solemnly handed back our phones. We sat there, greedily plugged in like babies at the breast. I ran my eyes eagerly over all the unanswered emails, tweets and Facebook messages I had received over the previous days. And then I realised—I had missed nothing at all.
by Jules Evans
Belmond offers infinite ways to slow down and disconnect. From Belmond Royal Scotsman’s new spa car, offering lavish treatments among spectacular landscapes, to garden walking meditation at Belmond Napasai in Thailand, discover a wealth of original and surprising activities.
Belmond reveals its 2017 edition of ‘The List’, a month-by-month guide to our ultimate must-do experiences for the year ahead.
Whatever your travel aspirations for this year, let us help you plan your next unforgettable adventure.
Belmond Hotel Splendido
Belmond Andean Explorer
Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel
Belmond Road to Mandalay
A lavish redesign of Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor has intensified its authentic Khmer atmosphere. Think languid tropical gardens, opulent suites and evocative artworks—spiced with contemporary Cambodian style.
Set beside a tree-shaded river at the gateway to Angkor Wat, Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor is a world apart. Just steps from Siem Reap’s vibrant urban buzz, it echoes the style of the great temples themselves. A wooden walkway, suspended over a beautiful fish pool, leads from the dynamic city into a realm where peace and serenity descend.
It is often after dark when guests arrive. The richly panelled lobby, with its exquisite Khmer artworks, glistens in the subtle light. The magic deepens as you turn and glimpse the swimming pool for the first time. Surrounded by luscious plants, the glimmering water is guarded by a majestic sandstone lion that recalls the leonine sculpture at Angkor’s temple of Phnom Bakheng.
The hotel’s recent redesign has distilled this exotic, evocative ambience. Interior designers, landscapers and a specialist art curator all came together to pay homage to the legendary temple complex, while adding an innovative twist.
Lush gardens and shimmering silks
The tropical gardens, always a highlight of this intimate residence, have been refined and calmed. Tangled jungle has been tamed, to re-emerge as sumptuous planting among clipped hedges that frame a series of “garden rooms”. As guests stroll around they come upon delightful touches such as the decorative pool. “We sought to create an almost ceremonial space,” says landscape architect Chatchai Petcharad. “A still, tranquil body of water leads the eye towards an elegant statue suggestive of a ‘devata’ temple custodian.” Elsewhere, flower and bead motifs, typical of Khmer-style Siraphorn statues, inform the circular topiary.
The resort is now an all-suite hotel, with spacious new guest rooms including a Deluxe Poolside Suite that opens onto an alfresco terrace with views across the gardens and pool. Vast windows let the light flood in; bathrooms have been transformed into lavish sanctuaries with freestanding tubs and decadent showers.
Colour is key, with strong gold and umber accents conjuring up the stunning costumes of the Apsara dancers who make Siem Reap evenings such a visual delight. Details such as handwoven, jewel-coloured silks, Khmer wood panelling and trays crafted by artisans add to the genuine sense of place.
Cambodian art in One Bedroom Poolside Suite
Contemplate Cambodian art
A vibrant new art collection adds adds excitement and surprise. Curated by leading Phnom Penh-based art historian Roger Nelson, it highlights contemporary Cambodian creativity. As he explains, the works “juxtapose the country’s dynamism and originality of vision with its deep links to the culture of the ancient Angkor temples.”
Every suite features a unique artwork by one of Cambodia’s most celebrated living artists. The stunning new meeting room is adorned with a series of photographs by leading Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang, of dancers from the Sophiline Arts Ensemble in scenes from “Bend in the River”, a dance based on a popular folk tale.
The adjacent library features newly commissioned paintings by Siem Reap-based artist Roeun Sokhom. “His works sparkle with designs drawn from a magical traditional practice known as the ‘yantra Khmer’,” says Nelson. “These mysterious designs feature special prayers and incantations, written in the beautiful Khmer script but based on words derived from the historic Sanskrit language.” Nelson also curated the library books, choosing a selection that showcases the arts, culture, history and landscape of Cambodia and surrounding countries.
Dine from tuk tuks—and explore
The hotel’s restaurants, too, have taken on a new lease of life. Pop-up buffet stations arranged on tuk tuks add a fun new touch to fine-dining Spice Circle’s Cambodian and Khmer cuisine. Ember offers a fresh indoor/outdoor experience, highlighting the chefs’ skills with a show kitchen, pizza oven and organic Asian menus with a Latin twist. Light tapas join an enticing new list of cocktails in the Martini Lounge.
To complement the refreshed resort, new bespoke activities whisk guests to the Cambodia beyond the temples, including themed local dining tours and helicopter trips to the Cambodian-Thai border. Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor has never looked more beguiling—or offered so many opportunities to experience the rich culture all around.
by Julia Pearey
Packed with health benefits, reputedly an aphrodisiac and a wonderful accompaniment to champagne and cocktails... Head to the 34th Lowcountry Oyster Festival in Charleston and celebrate the culinary triumph of this miraculous mollusk. Held on Saturday, January 29—the midwinter point when the oysters are most delicious—the event is hailed as one of the best in the Southeast. Anticipate plenty of tasting opportunities, a host of exciting contests and a full roster of live entertainment.
A cooling drink at the end of the gruelling Inca Trail inspired Jaclyn Colloton, winner of our “Belmond Moment” Writing Competition. She takes up the story...
My friend and I stumbled through the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu after four days trekking the Inca Trail—and dragged our hiking boot-clad feet to the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. We were tired, dirty and hot. A man in a crisp uniform rushed to open the door for us, and greeted us warmly despite our exhausted, bedraggled state. His welcome came as a wave of relief.
We stepped into the lobby and the door closed behind us. The heat of our time on the trail evaporated from our skin as the cool air enveloped us, and we were overwhelmed by the silence after the press of people outside. The lobby was a true reflection of its name—a sanctuary. We were escorted inside to relax and to take the weight from our weary legs.
As we melted into the plush couch, another wonderful and smiling member of staff offered me something that I will never forget—a glass of lemonade.
Not just any lemonade, this was special. Maybe it was because of the way that I was feeling. Maybe it was because I had just spent four days on a hiking trail. Maybe it was because the taste was truly heavenly. Regardless of the reason, that drink stays in my mind as being remarkable.
As she brought the glass toward me I saw that it dripped with condensation and clinked with ice. The drink itself was slightly pink and cloudy with pieces of fruit floating in it. When it touched my lips, the crisp citrus flavour mixed with the sweetness of sugar and a tang of some unknown fruit exploded on my tongue. I tried to merely sip it but I simply couldn’t stop.
“Slow down!” my friend whispered. But it was too delicious. For the time that we sat there, the lady was so attentive that my glass never emptied. The kind smile she gave me every time we passed the glass between us made the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge my personal sanctuary.
by Jaclyn Colloton
Belmond guests were invited to share their special “Belmond Moment” in our Belmond Writing Competition, 2016. Jaclyn Colloton wins a stay at Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice. The mystery ingredient in the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge lemonade is the airampu Andean cactus.
What does Afternoon Tea mean to you? “It’s a lovely break in the afternoon, trying different teas from a china cup and saucer,” rhapsodises Mary Berry, the much-loved doyenne of British baking. “It’s a wonderful excuse to share with friends. Make it a treat.” Gather your nearest and dearest and discover the joys of Afternoon Tea within the art deco carriages of the Belmond British Pullman train. Join one of our classic trips, or be enchanted by Mary’s own menu on 5 February 2017.
Take a sip of ‘Chaos’. One of the most iconic cocktails of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, just three ingredients conjure over 200 flavour elements. Discover the recipe, and get to know more about the man who created it.
“The 1920s are at the heart of what we do,” explains Walter Nisi, the Bar Manager of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. From the rich blue fabrics to the gleaming gold details and the sleek baby grand piano, it takes a dazzling personality to truly shine amongst the glamour of the train’s bar car ‘3674’. Walter doesn’t disappoint. “It was the Golden Age of cocktails. Prohibition was causing Americans to escape to Europe in search of the best drinks, and creativity flourished on the continent.”
Walter first joined the celebrated train in 2008 as a barman, and became the Bar Manager in 2014. Two of his creations have gone on to become the train’s most popular. The ‘Guilty 12’ is a loving homage to the Agatha Christie novel ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, intrinsically tied to the train’s romantic history. Twelve mysterious ingredients each represent one of the culprits in the novel’s plot.
The second is ‘Chaos’, a martini-style cocktail that is made up of only three ingredients that collectively offer over 200 different flavour elements. Monkey 47 gin provides 47 types of botanical extracts. A dash of Green Chartreuse provides almost 130 elements, and a final few drops of Boker’s Bitters add 30 more. The resulting pearlescent concoction looks simple and elegant, belying the exciting, flavourful punch it packs. “That’s how the cocktail gets its name,” explains Walter, “the mix of flavours is so intense, it feels like it operates on the law of Chaos.”
When it comes to mixology, Walter is a true creative artist. Whenever the train is chartered, he will personally call the party to talk about their favourite drinks and create something unique. “I’m driven by curiosity, an eagerness to make something new and exciting. This is not your typical bar, so we don’t want guests to have a typical bar experience.”
There is no denying that Walter takes a lot of pride in his work, but that pride is driven by his passion. When questioned on the best part of his job, there is no hesitation in his answer. “It’s not a job!” he chuckles. “I don’t want to sound too classic, but to do what you love every day? It’s not a job, it is a passion. Nine years have gone so fast, and I feel very lucky.”
by Daniel Hayden
Looking to brush up your serve? We’ve picked our five most enchanting spots for a match, combining picture-perfect scenery with expert tuition to offer the ultimate in tennis vacations.
As the first spring flowers burst into bloom, now is the moment to shape up for the new year on inspiring walks among Madeira’s rugged peaks and sparkling levada waterways, says Christopher Somerville.
Madeira lies like a jewelled ship in the sea. That’s the impression you have as you approach this mountainous Atlantic outpost of Portugal by plane or by boat. Volcanic action and copious rainfall have moulded the island into a dramatic tangle of peaks and ravines, the dark lumpy rock draped in a thick coat of green vegetation, the sea cradling the island and reflecting light into every nook and cranny. It’s a wonderfully enticing sight for walkers, who gaze at the mountains and the lush valleys and can’t wait to pull the boots on and explore.
Madeira's flowers are world-famed, not just in spring but all the way round the calendar. 'The Island of Eternal Spring' has benefited over the centuries from its geographical position as a stepping stone and staging post between the Old and New Worlds. Visitors were constantly coming and going. Many left behind tokens of their journeys to the ends of the earth in the form of exotic seeds and plants, which have flourished in the rich volcanic soil.
A gourmet menu of year-round walks
The Madeiran climate stays warm all the year round. The landscape is made for hiking, but you’ll need a raincoat. There’s a reason why this magical island is so green and full of flowers—plenty of ‘sweet, refreshing rain’, especially in the winter months. People are friendly, and almost all of them speak English. Every mountain slope and river valley is painted with a glorious palette of flowers, even as early as January. And you can reach most corners of the island on foot along a network of beautiful paths.
Once you’re settled in and ready to play, it’s a question of choosing from a gourmet menu of walking options. If you’re a fitness freak or an explorer with energy to burn, those high peaks will call you up and away. If you simply want to saunter through the gardens and parks of Funchal, capital town of the island, there are dozens of short, flowery strolls. And for those who are after something between those two—a bit of a challenge, a few miles to shake off the sloth and get the blood moving—the levadas lie in wait. As for which walks it’s safe to do on your own—that, of course, depends on your level of fitness, your experience, and (most importantly) your head for heights.
Bubbling springs and snaking streams
The best advice, whatever your level, is to head for the hotel desk and engage a professional guide for your first walk. He/she will introduce you to fascinating snippets of Madeiran history, culture and wildlife, and will also be able to advise you on what’s safe and what’s not. The situation changes all the time, especially in the winter. Madeira is an Atlantic ocean island of steep volcanic mountains, and when the rain falls, it falls on sloping ground. The bubbling springs are soon filled, and often come pouring exuberantly forth across the mountain roads and through the valleys. They can cause landslips, leading to road closures and path obstructions. The guides know all about such happenings, so it’s a smart move to make full use of their excellent local knowledge.
As for those levadas… most visitors to Madeira end up on a levada walk, sooner or later. Everywhere you go in the island you hear of these ingenious man-made irrigation watercourses that writhe like snakes along the green hillsides. Most of Madeira's levadas were built after the war, hand-cut and tunnelled through solid basalt by men pickaxeing and hammering the rock while suspended at the ends of ropes or leaning out of giddily swaying wicker baskets. The banks of the levadas were planted with agapanthus lilies, belladonna and hydrangeas to soften their appearance—an early form of amenity landscaping. The islanders boast of the levadas’ beauty, of the enormous extent of them—nearly 1400 miles in all, in an island less than 40 miles long. And you learn all about the head for heights that you need if you are going to tackle one of the narrow maintenance paths that follows the tortuous windings of a levada.
Two selected scenic trails
The walk from Ribeiro Frio to Portela along the Levada do Furado is a classic example, a 4-hour hike on easy gradients, wriggling through a narrow gash in the mountainside, then a succession of little tunnels hacked out of the rock. These are followed by the most dramatic section of the journey, a reeling ledge between forest and sky with a majestic view wheeling slowly by: swooping green ridges and slopes falling away to the red roofs of Porto da Cruz on the north coast of the island, overhung by the stark bulk of Penha de Aguia, the Rock of the Eagle, and bounded by the blue Atlantic. It’s an extremely narrow path, clinging to a sheer cliff face in places, with only a rickety fence between you and a thousand-foot drop. Vertigo sufferers, or anyone unsteady on their legs, would find the walk impossible. But for fit walkers with a head for heights, the Levado do Furado and its like offer one of the world’s most memorable hikes.
The other great Madeiran walking experience is to be found along the paths that thread the Ecological Park of Funchal, sited up in the mountains behind Funchal among dense plantations of eucalyptus and acacia. These forests, planted on Madeira's south-facing slopes in the early 1900s for the wood-pulp industry, were smothering the island's native laurisilva woodland. Now they are being felled, and new paths opened that take you wandering among heathers, ferns, Madeira lilies, til tree, cow's tongue, mimosa, bay trees, laurels, bilberry and a dozen other aromatic components of laurisilva, the original maquis-like forest of Madeira. To walk here in the sunny green woods that trickle with water, ring with birdsong and smell like an exotic herbarium is surely to have a little foretaste of heaven on earth.
by Christopher Somerville
Ask Belmond Reid’s Palace for advice on the many walking routes accessible from the hotel, and to arrange an expert guide. Planning ahead? The Madeira Nature Festival (3-8 October, 2017) features guided levada walks among the many outdoor activities in this natural paradise.