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Madeira sheds its sherry image

Madeira, the island of eternal spring, is a garden paradise. And it’s a garden that Nature herself designed a kaleidoscope of greens and blues caught between the sapphire waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the steep peaks of Pico Ruivo and Pico do Areeiro to be even more exuberant. ‘It’s the lushest, most colourful island I’ve ever seen and I’ve lived in the Caribbean,’ says Roger Still, project director at the Palheiro estate property development (see box) and a Madeiran resident.

This alone is enough to make the island attractive to British buyers with a penchant for plants and gardening. But, lately, there’s an excitement surrounding Madeira that goes beyond the green-fingered fraternity.‘There’s this traditional idea of Madeira as sleepy and genteel, almost colonial, and you can still find this side the afternoon tea, the sherry in the evening,’ says Mr Still. ‘But there’s also a very buzzy Madeira, with trendy boutique hotels and excellent restaurants.’ This new vibe is partly linked to a massive EU-funded improvement to the island’s infrastructure, which has taken place over the past few years. ‘Communications are now much easier, roads are good, there’s broadband, and a new airport terminal, so now there are a lot more direct flights connecting Madeira with other European countries,’ says Mr Still.

Enterprising Madeiran’s have seized this opportunity to widen their island’s appeal. Mark Harvey of estate agents Knight Frank has recently returned from Madeira and was impressed by just how much is on offer. ‘The island is beginning to change its image. It now has plenty of activities that’ll appeal to the young the canoeing is wonderful, for example, and you can even go canyoning, which is going down natural gorges and crevices.’ Madeira’s dramatic, tormented topography has another charm it prevents the excessive development that’s marred other stretches of the southern European coastline. ‘There’s virtually no property development, so you’re not going to be in a situation where everywhere you look there’s a construction crane in sight,’ says estate agent Linda Beaney, who markets Madeiran properties.

This, together with the island’s verdant landscape, new-found buzz, ease of access, perfect subtropical climate, low crime rate and serene quality of life, is likely to draw increasing numbers of international property buyers. ‘The second-home market so far has been fairly untested, but this looks set to change now,’ says Mr Harvey. ‘Because Madeira is part of Portugal, people feel comfortable buying there.’ Price is a great draw, too, he explains. ‘If you look at prices, you can see anywhere from €2,000 for affordable homes to €5,900 per square metre for the most expensive ones. Compare this to Spain or mainland Portugal, where prices start at €3,500 per square metre and go up to €10,000, and you can see why Madeira really has the potential to attract a medium-to high-end market.’

Mr Still confirms this growing international interest, and reports that about 60% of released apartments and villas and 80% of the villa plots at the Palheiro estate the island’s only new luxury development have been sold. ‘I’ve absolutely no doubt that we’ll start to see more interest in Madeiran property from second-home buyers.’ Even better, this rise in demand is likely to drive up capital appreciation for those who move in early at the Palheiro estate, homes have grown in value by 15% over the past 18 months, reports Miss Beaney but won’t turn Madeira into a jungle of concrete.

Parts of the island are UNESCO-designated and, in any case, the Madeirans have a sound grasp of what it takes to protect their natural heritage.

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Madeira basics

Getting there: the award-winning Funchal airport has direct flights to a large number of UK destinations, including London, Manchester and Bristol.

Where to stay: Casa Velha do Palheiro, the five-star hotel on the Palheiro estate (00351 291 790 350) or, for a glimpse of colonial, genteel Madeira, the Orient-Express-owned Reid’s Palace Hotel in Funchal (00351 291 717171).

Gardens to visit: Monte Palace Tropical Gardens for the Oriental-style gardens, panoramic sea views and works of art; the Botanical Gardens for a colourful introduction to indigenous flora; the gardens of Quinta do Palheiro for the amazing range of camellias.