It’s just one of Madeira’s quite unique attractions, and it’s great fun.

This stunning sub-tropical island, under Portuguese rule since 1400, has strong British influence from the time of the Napoleonic wars, when the Brits set up camp to help defend it against the French.

This is still in evidence in the beautiful colonial properties around it, many now converted into luxury hotels.

Although it’s often overlooked in favour of the popular Canary Islands lying to the south, Madeira’s year-round sunshine makes it a great choice for a winter break.

Local life is rich in tradition and festivities, there’s a Kodak moment everywhere you look, the food and wines are delicious and it’s a walker’s paradise.

Walk this way

The island’s spectacularly rugged scenery, formed out of its volcanic birth, is a mixture of wondrous geologic formations and colours that make walking the island such a pleasure.

I tried Vereda do Areeiro, a walk linking Madeira’s two highest peaks.

This magnificent, mostly paved route has some jaw dropping descents and ridges that tested my fitness, but it provided stunning views across Madeira’s mountain spine, and by the time I’d reached the summit I felt I’d earned that cold beer.

For a different challenge then there are the famous Levadas – an ancient network of stone irrigation channels built to transport water across the island.

Running all over lush valleys, mountains and tunnels, they provide walkers with a perfect route map across the island, so you can stroll alongside or even on top of them and just enjoy the views.

All Madeira’s walks are well marked, but if you want the safety of walking in company, plan your visit during the Madeira Islands Walking Festival, running January 12-16, 2010 (

Plenty to do

Madeira also offers a dazzling canvas of sub-tropical flora and fauna.

Check out Funchal’s excellent botanical gardens Jardim Panoramico and Santa Luzia for stunning displays.

There are some outstanding nature reserves too, like Rocha do Navio in Santana (where you might catch a glimpse of monk seals).

For something a bit different walk through 700m of lava tubes at the Volcanism Centre at São Vicente, or just enjoy countless outdoor activities.

The capital Funchal is an impressive sight.

It’s a huge amphitheatre that begins in the harbour and rises up to over 400m, so to get around there are cable cars – or you could try a toboggan, of course!

It’s a magical sight at night, especially over Christmas and New Year (see above right). It’s got plenty of shopping and a long promenade where you can gawp at the huge cruise liners as they pass by.

The lovely old town near the harbour has a mass of restaurants and bars among its narrow cobbled streets where you’ll find traditional food such as bolo do caco (sweet potato bread with garlic butter) and espetada (barbecued beef or pork skewers), and of course world-famous Madeiran wine and cake.

See the world’s biggest fireworks

Festive traditions are deeply rooted in Madeiran custom, and from mid-November Funchal’s huge bay is transformed into a giant nativity scene with literally thousands of illuminations across the capital, culminating in the biggest fireworks display in the world on New Year’s Eve.

Be sure to book early!