In Madeira, as in Scotland, you are never far from the sea, though there the similarity fragments like the spray of a wave. Madeira can boast a fairly benign climate year round, although it does have its off days. But sitting in December, without feeling cold, on the balcony of your hotel room around midnight, wearing only a thin dressing gown, is something that can rarely be done at home — even at the height of summer. The long light evenings of summer at home I always enjoy — the smell of cut grass, a waft of perfume from a nearby honeysuckle, the chatter and giggles drifting on currents of air from neighbours enjoying a few drinks after a late summer evening barbecue. But chances are, barring the infrequent heat wave, I would need at least a cardigan to protect against the chill of breeze and dew.
As in all island nations, and those with lengthy coastlines, boats and ships in all designs and sizes play an important role in lives. Sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing, snorkeling and scuba-diving, fishing — all sports many of those who live by sea or inland stretch of water enjoy and participate in. Since 1986 the waters at Garajau, near Funchal, have been a marine nature reserve, part of the Madeira National Park, famed for the diversity of wildlife. No fishing is allowed here but we saw plenty windsurfing activity, the speeds breath-taking as windsurfer and sail skimmed across the empty ocean that stretched to the horizon.
Fishing boats bring rainbows of colour to little harbours around the island, while the new marina in Funchal, built during the last two years alongside the extended cruise ship pier, is spiked like a hedgehog with the masts of yachts and other craft. The sizes, even of the larger vessels, contrast with the huge, dominating bulk of the cruise ships that regularly call here.
In the days when Scottish yards built ships they were smaller, more curvaceous, more sinuously feminine than today’s monstrosities with their angularity and sandwich slabs of decks and windows that resemble floating blocks of flats. Even the funnels that used to give such a distinctive shape to vessels (remember the four tall, slightly sloping ones of the Titanic as they sank beneath the waves in the film?) have been replaced with a wee red stump near the stern. And even that was disguised, on one liner we saw, by a gold coloured mesh cover as if something to be ashamed of.
Like times, ships have changed. But as a daughter of Glasgow where many great ships were built, I retain a nostalgic love of the curvaceous bow, a superstructure not top heavy but in better proportion to the hull, to the land the vessels sail past and the docks they embark from. In Funchal’s new harbour usually at least one cruise ship is berthed and while on holiday we saw a few come and go, decanting their passengers for a quick trip ashore to stretch legs, and view something other than sea before returning on board for the onward sail across yet more sea.
I have to admit I’ve never been on a cruising holiday. Apart from regular ferry journeys of twenty minutes to a few hours, crossing from the mainland to one of the Scottish islands, my only longer trips by sea have been an overnight crossing, many years ago, to Barra in the Outer Hebrides, and crossings of the North Sea when going on holiday. We used to bundle the children in the car, throw in some clothes, head for Newcastle and drive onto a DFDS Seaways ship for Esbjerg in Denmark or Gothenburg in Sweden. There was one time when the crossing was unbelievably rough (not unusual in the North Sea) when we were the only ones in the dining room. Even the Spanish waiters looked green. Usually, by the time breakfast was over, we were eager to disembark.
So I remain ambivalent about a holiday spent almost entirely at sea. Some people say it makes a change, others enthuse — like children given a treat — about the experience, the friends made, the frisson of excitement at getting dressed up and passing the salt and pepper to the great and good whilst keeping a conversation on knots going with the captain.
Cruising, I’m told, is a wonderful way of visiting and seeing something of a number of far-flung places, though on a brief trip to one or two tourist hotspots what is actually learnt about the place? To me one of the joys of holidays is poking around, getting beneath the skin of the place to find what lies beneath the gladrags and jewellery that dress it up for tourists. I like to discover a different culture, rather than the homogenised version now found everywhere.
On the other hand, cruising, I suppose, offers those of us past the agility of our prime (with our own sinuousness having become more slab-like) an easy way of seeing the world in accessible snapshots without the hassle of doing it under our own steam. Never say never. So, maybe…one day, funds allowing.