Enjoying a visual feast

A levada in a forest
A levada in a forest
Sara Gohl  is determined to be an inspiration to her son. and below,, Sara, Robin, and husband Richard in France before her cancer diagnosis, in 2015

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Not many weeks had passed since the devastating floods saw torrents of rain gushing down from the mountains when we arrived in Funchal, the capital and port of Madeira.

Gardens and tree-lined promenades looked as immaculate as ever. The only evidence left behind being the remains of a collapsed bridge in the village of Ribeira Brava, which is perhaps down to the fierce civic pride of this Portugal-owned island.

From your first glimpse from the skies above the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is a visual feast – a dramatic combination of awe-inspiring mountains and hidden valleys formed 20 million years ago from a volcanic eruption.

A mild climate and year-round sunshine ensure the land is completely covered in a carpet of lush green trees, plants and flowers. The Garden Island, as it’s known, is nearer to Africa than Portugal, and only 36 miles long and 14 miles wide.

Keen walkers find challenges here at all levels. Some hotels organise walks, with levadas (mini canals once used for traditional irrigation) graded from easy to challenging, as you make your way through beautiful forests and mountain pathways.

Steep really does mean steep. The tour bus got me most of the way up Pico Areerio, Madeira’s third highest mountain, but I was still gasping for breath as I took in the truly spectacular view.

Surrounded by smaller peaks – from this height, merely hills – we looked down on the clouds and felt as though we were standing on top of the world.

At the Villa Porto Mare Resort, our four-star hotel in the centre of Funchal, the sunlounger beckoned when the sun broke through. Surrounded by manicured gardens and with the scent of beautiful flowers wafting by on the breeze, this was the perfect place to do nothing.

For the more active, the resort also offers indoor and outdoor pools, and there’s a choice of four restaurants and bars. There’s also a handy free bus into the city centre.

The only flatness among Madeira’s peaks is in the west of the island, at Paul de Serra, a plateau and perhaps the only place where you see cows grazing. Other cows on the island are housed in individual sheds to stop them falling down the steep farming terraces.

Locals use the terraces to make a living growing vegetables: sweet potatoes and cabbages in abundance lower down, with banana plants bursting with bunches higher up. There are also hundreds of grape vines, for the famous Madeira fortified wine.

Funchal itself has a genteel and stately air, its streets gathered around the small but magnificent Se cathedral.

A fantastic seafront promenade stretches the length of the bay, from which the city has grown. At the west end is the harbour and marina, while the rest is dotted with cafes and bars.

Nearer sea level, the views continue to amaze. Funchal sits like an amphitheatre on the south of the island, its terracotta roof tiles a quilt of colour. Hotels line the front row, while villas and apartments farther back house half of the 250,000 islanders.

If, like Winston Churchill, you want to capture the views on canvas, head west to Camara de Lobos, where brightly-coloured fishing boats bob about in the shadow of the cliffs. This view inspired the prime minister to set up his easel and paint palette back in 1950.

Essential information

A levada in a forest and, inset, Porto Mare hotel in Funchal

· Debbie Murray was a guest of Thomas Cook which offers seven nights’ B&B at the four star plus Villa Porto Mare Resort, Funchal, from £525, with flights ex-Gatwick.

· The holiday is included in Thomas Cook’s Style programme (0844 4212 5870 and thomascookstyle.com).

· Thomas Cook’s Madeira travel guide, £4.99, is available from 01733 416 477 and thomascookpublishing.com