A fantastic year-round climate and some gorgeous courses make this an island to savour…
Santo da Serra
The golfing history of Madeira’s oldest golf club – and former home of the Madeira Island Open, up until last year – goes back to the thirties, but it was in 1988 that Santo da Serra really hit its stride.
That was when two of its three nine-hole loops were built; and when you hear that the Machico and Desertas nines were designed by Robert Trent Jones it’ll be no great surprise to hear that both are excellent. Offering a fabulous mixture of quality design, sympathetic layout, conditioning and playability, these beautiful routings are just about everything you could ever wish for from a round of holiday golf, with fairways that curve round lakes and occasional forced clearances that demand your best efforts – particularly the par-3 4th on the Machico loop, which needs a 220-yard shot over a ravine to find the putting surface.
The fact that there are awesome views across the sea from the 1,000ft elevation is an added bonus, and while the newer Serras nine is a relatively tame experience, it’s an ideal morning warm-up before you tackle the main championship course.
The only problem, as those of you who know much about meteorology will probably have guessed, comes with those views: the fact is that a 1,000ft mountain sticking out of the middle of an ocean gets hit by a lot of weather, and you’ll be fortunate indeed if you manage to get a totally clear day to enjoy those views to the full.
The course at Palheiro, situated amid the Madeira hills 10km from the capital of Funchal, is the closest thing that Madeira has to resort golf – and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. While Madeira’s other golfing offerings are championship-standard golf, Palheiro is firmly about visitors gaining maximum enjoyment from their experience.
Generous fairways and greens combine with wonderful natural undulations, umbrella pines and flowers to create a truly lovely course, whose main hazards are large bunkers from which escape always seems likely. Even if you stray into the picturesque umbrella pines you’ll likely lose no more than half a shot, making it ideal for less-skilled golfers.
This pleasant design philosophy that you will recognise from many of the courses on the Iberian peninsula – the designer, Cabell Robinson, has created dozens of layouts in Andalucia and the Algarve – and after the comparative rigour required at Santo da Serra and Porto Santo (see below) this is a golf experience that will be pure pleasure and relaxation. There’s even a Michelin starred chef overseeing the restaurant, for goodness sake, and the sort of balcony views from the clubhouse that you’d normally need to take a trip in a cable car to enjoy.
How good is this 2004, Seve Ballesteros-designed golf course? Well, put it this way: we’d normally take the opportunity at this stage to say ‘if you only play one golf course on Madeira, make it this one’. But we can’t – for the very good reason that the course isn’t actually on Madeira itself but rather on a neighbouring island, Porto Santo, which is a just a short hop on a plane or a couple of hours’ ferry ride away.
What you get if you make the trip, however, is the defining golf experience of the Azores. It’s a wonderful layout that makes everything it can out of one of those sorts of locations that course designers must have naughty dreams about: dramatic clifftops, jutting ravines and craggy peaks. The course sits in the shadow of two extinct volcanoes, for goodness sake, how could anyone have ever gone wrong laying out a golf course on this terrain?
Luckily, nothing did go wrong. For all his talents as a player, Ballesteros has never really taken to course design in the same way as other eighties greats such as Norman and Faldo – but Porto Santo is probably his best effort.
The front nine gets things off to a relatively straightforward start as it plots its well-bunkered way past a number of lakes, and then the fun really starts on the back nine as that amazing landscape comes in to play, with the stretch of holes from 13 to 15 being the most memorable – particularly the par-3 13th, which demands a tee shot over a gorge to a cliff-top green.
At 7,036 yards this is a full-sized championship course (it hosts the Madeira Island Open as of this year), and though it’d be hard to justify a four-hour round-trip for the sake of a round of golf, Porto Santo as a whole is such a beautiful tourist spot that if you’ve a week or more on Madeira it comes very highly recommended.
This new Nick Faldo design in the Ponta do Pargo area of Madeira is due to open later this year, and while it’s clearly impossible to review an unfinished golf course we can state with some confidence that it shares the same sort of staggeringly beautiful setting as Madeira’s other courses. Faldo has waxed lyrical about the dramatic nature of the site – “Our plans make full use of the clifftops and headland that juts out into the Atlantic,” says the six-time Major winner – and a Golf World visit to the site last year made us suitably thrilled at the prospect of one day returning to play. Keep an eye out before you head to see if it’s open.
Seve Ballesteros is also in discussions – his health problems notwithstanding – about designing two new courses, one on Porto Santo and another on Madeira itself.
Madeira island is 13 miles across – not far off the size of Jersey – so exploring the whole place is more than possible even if you have just a few days. The beautiful north coast is highly recommended, but cycling all around the island is not: these islands grew from extinct Atlantic volcanoes, so unless you have legs of teak you might want to hire a car. If you’re in to using your feet, however, there are plentiful trails in this major hill-walking centre.
Plentiful charter flights and scheduled flights go to Funchal, with carriers including budget airline Easyjet.
They call Madeira ‘the land of eternal Spring’, and you can see why: perennial sea breezes mean that even the hottest months never truly bake you to death like they can on the mainland, and for golfers the elevation of most of the courses mean that they are cooler again. Anytime is a decent time.
Visit www. Visitportugal.com is the national tourist board’s official website, but for Madeira-specific information try www.madeiratourism.org, the official islands’ website.
Golf made simple
With the size of the island and the limited number of courses booking things direct is fairly simple, but if you want somebody to do the leg-work then agents including www.golfbreaks.com and www.golf-escapes.com can put together Madeira packages with all three courses.
Follow the Ecotourism trail
This stunning collection of islands is relatively unspoilt by man – much of Madeira itself is given over to a nature reserve, and the botanical gardens hold an impressive collection of plants. The island Porto Santo is even more unspoilt – the only inhabitation is for tourism, and it’s been very sensitively implemented.
Take in Monte
This unspoilt town is like a living museum of the island’s Portuguese colonial past, full of beautiful old churches and picturesque cobbled streets.
Local specialties revolve around fish, with the extraordinary scabbard fish – a fearsome looking creature with giant bulging eyes and vicious rows of teeth – the archetypal Madeiran dish. Other specialties include marinated meat accompanied by traditional fried corn and bolo do caco bread.