Buyers warming to the sweet taste of Madeira
When in 1950 the septuagenarian politician Winston Churchill asked for somewhere “warm, paintable, comfortable and flowery”, the perfect retreat was Madeira. Sitting off the north-west coast of Africa, the Portuguese island offered a subtropical climate, lush botanical gardens and tea dances at the elegant hotels of its historic capital, Funchal. It was, as the saying goes, a place for the “newlyweds and nearly deads”.
Sixty-eight years later, the British are the most prolific visitors to Madeira and its sister island, Porto Santo – making up 31 per cent of arrivals. Tourism on the archipelago is no longer just about tasting madeira (the island’s famous fortified wine) or gentle hikes, but increasingly about water sports, mountain biking and ultra marathons up and down its cloud-shrouded green peaks.
Madeira’s lack of sandy beaches and lively resorts may have kept it off the radar of British property hunters seeking a cheap place for winter sun – they tend to head to the Canary islands 300 miles further south. But 600 years after it was discovered by the Portuguese, its softer vibe and dramatic beauty are beginning to be more widely appreciated.
“We have seen an increase in demand from wealthy buyers, who are primarily attracted by the climate, safety and the quality of life, but also the tax benefits,” says Lina Ramos of Portugal Sotheby’s International Realty. Historically, many Madeirans have migrated to Venezuela and South Africa for work but several thousand have returned recently and bought property. Other buyers are from Norway, Ireland, England, France and Germany.
Being part of stable and increasingly fashionable Portugal is clearly part of the appeal. In 2009 the Portuguese government introduced tax incentives for part-time residents (the Non-Habitual Resident Scheme, or NHR), and this also applies to Madeira, as does the Portuguese property purchase process and Golden Visa programme that offers non-EU investors a residency permit when they buy a property worth €500,000 (£445,000) or more.
One British couple who have one eye on retirement there are Hayley Davis and Colin Watts from Derbyshire, who bought a four-bedroom apartment in the east coast village of Santa Cruz 18 months ago. It’s close to the international airport, from which direct flights (around three-and-a-half hours) arrive from various UK regions.
“What I like about Madeira is that you are never far from the sea as it’s small, yet incredibly diverse,” says Davis, 48. “After a couple of health scares we decided to seize the moment and buy a holiday home, and we got an incredible deal with a bank-repossessed property for £120,000. It’s the penthouse in a four-storey block, five minutes to the sea. We have been out about 12 times already and love it so much that we are looking for a second property as an investment. The island’s stuffy reputation is a bit unfair.”
Santa Cruz is east of Funchal and most buyers will either buy in the capital, which is gaining some stylish boutique hotels, or in the villages of Calheta, Ponta do Sol and Câmara de Lobos along the island’s sunnier southern coast, according to local agent Michael Mendes of First4You Madeira.
“Although it’s cheaper, hardly anyone wants the north as it’s much colder,” he says. The small fishing villages sitting at the bottom of giant cliffs are now within half an hour of Funchal, thanks to the numerous tunnels built through the mountains to replace dozens of arduous switchback roads.
It’s around Ponta do Sol that local agent and developer Nelio Mendes is building some contemporary villas for an “educated and discerning” array of 50-something British, Swedish and Swiss buyers. “Below the banana line [the point below 1,300ft where it’s warm and the fruit will grow] this area offers the best weather in the EU, and 90 per cent of buyers want to be there,” he says. “There are mountain and sea views, and it’s calmer than in the city.”
While they could choose an old farmstead ( quinta) or second-hand villa for around €500,000, many buyers do not want the hassle of renovation and not all resale homes are of good quality. Mendes’ bespoke villas are only built in prime locations, and are constructed using high-quality workmanship. They start from around €400,000 for a three-bedroom villa, yet some strikingly modern designs with living roofs and infinity pools go up to €1.7million, and are the work of David Challinor of Brighton-based C-architecture ( justmadeira.com).
“I came to Madeira on holiday after never realising it existed and found it is surprisingly sophisticated,” he says. “The Portuguese are incredibly warm and welcoming and at carnival time it’s fantastic.”
Funchal’s mosaic-tiled streets erupt into a riot of colour during February carnival, the April flower festival and also New Year’s Eve, when 10 cruise ships in the bay let off thousands of fireworks as part of a huge party. Local football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo will usually head back home from his Madrid base (he owns a popular hotel on the seafront, the CR7) and it’s rumoured that Madonna came for the festivities, too. Maybe Madeira really is throwing off its fusty image.
Ponto do Sol, on the south-west of the island, left; a fourbedroom home with swim-up bar in Santa Cruz, €375,000 with Sotheby’s International Realty