9 June 2016 by Francesca Brown
We chat to Wexas Travel Destination Specialists Francesca Brown, Belinda Gillings and Debbie Mayger about their recent trip to Porto and Funchal. Here we find out what they got up to and what they thought of these two enchanting Portuguese cities.
Day 1: Welcome to Porto
On Thursday afternoon we arrived at Porto airport, where we were met by Philipe, a representative from the Porto and Northern Portugal Tourism Board. Smartly dressed and driving a BMW we began the trip in style. He drove us to the Carris Ribiera where we had time to check in and drop off our luggage before we headed back out to explore the city. Our first stop was Foz where we enjoyed a refreshing glass of rosé on the terrace of a local beach bar, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. After that we went to the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by the renowned Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira and set in the beautiful landscaped grounds of the Serralves Estate.
We were then taken to Casa de Musica (House of Music) in the centre of town, a very impressive building and unlike anything else in the city. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, it's a really interesting building both inside and out and well worth a visit. We were given a tour by a really knowledgeable and enthusiastic member of staff who showed us around the building, including the main concert hall, which is supposed to be one of the best in the world acoustically. We also got to see the second concert hall, which is incredibly versatile; the stage and chairs could be moved in and out of the room so it could be used for a whole range of concerts and events. Even more impressive, and important, is the suspended bar behind the main concert hall, which has great views of the venue on one side and the city on the other, and the rooftop restaurant, which also boasts superb city views. For anyone visiting with kids, there's also a room where the little ones can be supervised whilst their parents watch the concerts - a great way of introducing children to music without trying to make them sit still, and silent, for an hour or more.
After the tour we went back to the hotel to freshen up before taking a taxi to the historic Pousada de Porto, located just outside of town on the banks of the beautiful Douro River, where we were taken straight through to the dining room to enjoy a delicious three-course meal.
Day 2: A day on the Douro
On our second day we took an hour-long cruise on the Douro River, for which we had a huge tourist boat all to ourselves; one of the perks of working in the travel industry. There was a running commentary in various languages available via headphones, but we chose to sit with our guide Filipe, and he pointed out things as we went along, which made it more personal and interesting. Fortunately we'd been lucky with the weather. It was a beautiful sunny morning and it was absolutely glorious sitting on the boat, lazily travelling up and down the river. We went up river almost as far as the Pousada de Porto, before turning around and heading back towards the sea. This was one of the highlights of the trip and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to my clients. The trip was so serene - although we were lucky to have the boat to ourselves - and almost every turn of the river held a new photo opportunity.
Later on, after visiting the Yeatman - one of Porto's finest hotels - we walked to Taylor's Port Lodge. After a fascinating tour, where we learned how the grapes are grown in the vineyards of the nearby Douro Valley, and how the Port is made and stored, we sat outside on the terrace in the gorgeous Portuguese sunshine and sampled rosé port, served with ice and orange peel, and admired the breathtaking views of the city's old town from the Gaia side of the river.
Our wine tasting experience taught us that there's far more to Port than a brown, boozy liquid drunk at Christmas time with cheese and biscuits. Taylors are leading the way with trendy new varieties, like the rosé port that we enjoyed, and Chip Dry White port, another surprisingly refreshing summery number.
After the port tasting it was time to enjoy a magnificent lunch at Taylors - another of those travel agent perks - so we moved inside to the restaurant where we sampled a fantastic menu of traditional Portuguese fare, consisting of a de-constructed sausage starter and an interesting dried, then rehydrated fish for the main. We spent the entire lunch in fits of laughter with our convivial hosts, leaving little time for our planned walking tour of Porto that afternoon!
Porto is a stunning city, not only due to its magnificent riverfront setting, but also for its myriad of historic buildings and two Eiffel bridges (one by Eiffel himself and one by his apprentice). The entire setting is just perfect and so picturesque, and it's a very green city too. Furthermore, the sea is surprisingly close, making Porto not just a great city break destination, but a pretty good beach one too. During our tour we picked up a few interesting facts, including one to delight Harry Potter fans the world over. J.K. Rowling moved to Porto during the early nineties to teach English and spent a few years living in the city. Filipe took us to an old bookstore with a unique staircase, which split and wound back on itself a few times; the inspiration for the Hogwarts moving staircase in the Harry Potter films? Well, just maybe.
After the tour we grabbed our luggage and a taxi and left for the airport for our flight to Madeira. We arrived into Funchal just after midnight and were whisked away to the comforts of Reid's Palace.
Day 3: Fabulous Funchal
After a relaxing night at Reid's Palace and a hearty breakfast, we made our way to downtown Funchal for some sightseeing. The annual flower festival had just finished, and there were still some market stalls to be seen, with some quite beautiful displays, adding to the colourful scene.
The main square and promenade was lined with jacaranda trees, which were in full bloom, so it was really very pretty, and pleasantly lacking in the usual tourist tat. After a quick look around the city's impressive cathedral we headed straight to Blandy's Wine Lodge for a tour and some wine tasting - see the pattern emerging. Then we wandered through the local produce markets and through the old town, ambling down Rua de Santa Maria where local artist have been commissioned to paint all of the doors on the street, creating a very colourful and quirky scene. This is also where many of the locals go in the evenings, when all the many restaurants and bars overflow onto the narrow cobbled streets, creating a really nice and very Mediterranean atmosphere. From the waterfront we got the cable car up to the Botanical Gardens, enjoying spectacular views over all of Funchal and the harbour. Although we had no time to properly explore the gardens, they did look well worth a proper visit. Instead we had a quick look at another of the city's beautiful churches before making the decision to take the toboggan back down the hill. I'm not sure what we were expecting, but a wicker basket with a seat and two locals in boater hats pushing it down the steep road (narrowly avoiding parked cars and using their feet as brakes) wasn't it! Never the less it was great fun, although not for the faint of heart!
Then it was onto the Cliff Bay Hotel, where we were treated to a lovely lunch at their poolside restaurant, followed by a lazy afternoon before more eating and drinking in the evening at the super-cool Vine hotel, where sat outside at their wonderful a-la-carte rooftop restaurant and enjoyed a fantastic dinner accompanied by great views of the harbour and ocean beyond. Once again we were very lucky with the weather (sunshine all the way) and totally spoilt on the food front.
What was your highlight?
Francesca: My highlight was sitting on the terrace at Taylor's Port Lodges with a glass of dry white port and tonic and enjoying the beautiful views of the city. Also, the Junior Suites at Reid's Palace in Madeira were a real highlight.
Belinda: An early morning swim in the saltwater pool at Reid's Palace and enjoying a port and tonic in the sunshine, with stunning views of Porto was pretty special too.
Debbie: Sitting on the terrace at Taylor's enjoying the stunning, and our amazing dinner at the historic Pousada de Porto. In Madeira, my highlights were my room at Reid's Palace and the amazing fine dining dinner at The Vine Hotel in Funchal.
What would be your tip for this holiday?
Francesca: Make sure you have lunch at Taylor's Port Lodge and enjoy a glass of port on the terrace.
Belinda: Even if you're not staying at there, treat yourself to dinner at UVA at the Vine hotel in Funchal, Fine dinning with panoramic views over the city and harbour.
Debbie: Try the Port, even if you don't think you are a Port drinker!
Why should you travel there?
Francesca: Porto makes a great city break with lots of excellent places to eat and drink, while Madeira has some excellent hotels with great facilities in a beautiful setting.
Belinda: Porto is somewhere a bit different for a city break; not your usual Barcelona, Paris or Rome. The port tasting is highly recommended! Madeira has some stunning scenery and some really great hotels.
Debbie: Porto's setting is hard to beat, right on the riverfront but also close to the sea. Madeira has some fabulous hotels, something for everyone and is a true year-round destination.
Did you have any disappointments?
Francesca: There was nothing disappointing about the trip and I'd have no hesitation in recommending it to my clients.
Belinda: My only disappointment was not having longer to enjoy the destination, particularly in Madeira it would have been nice to see more of the island particularly the interior where there are some lovely scenic walks you can do.
Debbie: No disappointments at all - the entire trip was amazing!