The Island of Porto Santo
We took the evening crossing to the island of Porto Santo. It’s an easy 2.5 hour sail from Funchal.
Porto Santo is separated from the main island of Madeira by 37 km. You can fly but local expertise says by the time you get to the airport, through security and all the other airport hoopla, it’s actually easier, a sight cheaper and clearly more enjoyable to take the Porto Santo Line. If you go First-Class which is only a few Euros more, you can relax and on the 8am sailing enjoy a decent breakfast or during the evening sailing (7pm) a surprisingly good meal at the Algas e Corais Restaurant. It was so impressive, I've included the restaurant in our Top 10 for Madeira.
Isabel knew the ship’s captain (she knows everybody), Joao Bela who invited us onto the bridge. Looking at his rather complicated nautical weather forecaster, Joao was a bit concerned about our return sailing in three days time and told us he’d let us know if things worsened. This is what I call personal service!
The island of Porto Santo was created by a string of volcanoes. In fact, the entire Madeira archipelago was volcanically produced. There's still a large hotspot underneath the waves although I don't think there's much activity now. Also part of the chain is the three Deserta islands just south‐east of the main island. These are uninhabited and a nature reserve. Out of interest, Portugal also governs The Azores, another string of islands about 1000kms northwest in a straight line towards New York. There are flights from New York and Boston along with two golf courses so I'll have to take a look there sometime soon!
Disembarking the ferry in the middle of February, you would not think it but - this little island is party-central during the summer months. Porto Santo is the place for Madeirans and mainland Portuguese to 'see and be seen' so Isabel told me (funnily enough, she's been coming here for years). But during the golf season (September to April) it’s like having the place to yourself, your own choice retreat with 18 wonderful holes of golf - and no crowds!
Pestana Ilha Dourada Hotel & Villas
Our hotel, Pestana Ilha Dourada feels brand new! It's simple, straightforward, perhaps a little utilitarian but actually perfectly adequate with a nice swimming pool, sauna and gym for a two-night stay. And it's just 5-minutes south of the golf club. There are plenty other hotels on the island but many close during the off-season (winter), saving their energy I guess for the summer hordes. Pestana Ilha Dourada is also a short walk to the beach for a morning stroll which we did along a deserted beach.
Locals have claimed for centuries that the sands of Porto Santo have healing properties. It sounds like a rather handy excuse to attract tourists but it turns out, they're absolutely right! Scientists from Norway and Portugal found that these sands are very high in calcium and strontium, which are both very helpful in the relief of rheumatism and other arthritic complaints as well as dermatological issues. In fact, there are only two beaches in the world that purport such health properties, this one and another in Japan. So, if you like cooking on a beach for hours on end, come to Porto Santo and it'll do you some real good? The prescribed method is to be buried up to your neck in health-enhancing silica and soak up the benefits! No wonder the place is so popular in the summer! If you prefer something more sophisticated (and wish to pay money for it) hotels such as the Hotel Porto Santo offer a comprehensive spa experience including their ‘Hot Sand Therapy’. We didn't try it but will next time. My right elbow's feeling a bit stiff...
Porto Santo Golf
I first played Porto Santo with Andrew Oliveira, Director of Golf at Porto Santo Golf who’s sister just happens to live in Elgin, Scotland. We only played the back 9 accompanied by a couple of Andrew's Portuguese Air Force friends so I knew what was coming. Now that I've played both halves, I'd say Porto Santo is the most challenging course on these islands. It's open to the elements, expertly laid out by none other than the late Seve Ballesteros and there are simply some magnificent holes on it.
The front 9 is a steady parade of proper golf holes with a dastardly little Par 3 in the middle - the 5th that could seriously ruin your day! It's the back 9 that's the jaw-dropper though! When I played it with Andrew and his pals, I seriously didn't expect what was to come. Water threatens the opening holes of the back half more than the front. The 12th is an interesting, uphill Par 5 with water on the right. The Par-3, 13th suddenly appears clinging to the cliffs - and what spectacular cliffs they are... such a dramatic change in topography. I'd say this cliffside section is on a par with Pebble or as dramatic as Ireland's Old Head. The 13th is tough, a 6-iron across a dip with wind doing its best to mess with your calculations. I was playing with Air Force guys and even they couldn't factor in the zephyrs!
That's followed by a do-or-die Par 4 that is absolutely thrilling. On that first round, 'scratch' Andrew went for the green or thereabouts. I didn't even think about it. It's a good 260-yard carry to terra firma with the wind swirling in every direction. You head for home on similar terrain to the rest of the course but to finish, the 18th is a superb leap across a lake with everyone in the clubhouse looking on. Porto Santo's a delight and I'd gladly play back-to-back rounds here over a couple of days. There's also a dynamite little Par 3 course which Elsa and I played on our first visit, much to my cost. That's the last time I give her 5 strokes - per hole!
As we sat sipping another glass of Douro vinho tinto, Andrew did mention there's another 18-hole course in those hills just waiting to be released. Plans are afoot and I really hope they do it! As it is, a trip to Porto Santo to enjoy its golf course and ambience is an incredible add-on that you really don't want to miss out.
The Eye of the Cat
And so to Porto Santo's clubhouse! We'd had lunch here with Andrew on the first visit and knew it was a 'bit special' so lunch it was again. And that was so good... we came back for dinner! It was our nearest restaurant! That was our excuse but actually - the food's that good!
Chef Daniel Rodriguez Mendez, otherwise known as 'Gato' which means 'cat' due to his unusually pale blue eyes, is from Uruguay and has “a real passion for cooking,” as his boss Paulina informed us. You could never tell...! Paulina and Daniel, sorry Gato, worked previously together in two excellent restaurants on the island which were no longer with us, La Roca and La Siesta. Now they are putting their considerable energies into Porto Santo's clubhouse fayre and I bet the golfers are very pleased. It has to be the best restaurant on the island!
Porto Santo Road Trip
Porto Santo is not very big so you can plan a day's touring as we did... so... worth it!
Restaurant Torres Portuguese Grill
I'm going to stop going on about food - in a minute but during our 'Road Trip' round Porto Santo we discovered another gem that really is worth driving across the island for. In the town of Camacha, Restaurant Torres has been and remains a family run business for the past 40 years. Their speciality is Barbequed Chicken although they have plenty beef and seafood on the menu too.
The grandmother was in attendance keeping an eye on things when we arrived and it seems her two sons were doing most of the work with her grandson's girlfriend serving us. It most definitely is a 'family-run' business.
The barbequing takes place in a separate 'grill hut' and out back was a stockpile of firewood as you can see below. They also have their own herb garden and at last, we found a decent salad on this trip. I'll let these pictures give you an idea of what goes on at Restaurant Torres. All I can add is - go there!