Golf mad in Madeira!

Hitting the high spots on spectacular courses

Chris Miles
Fri, 4 Apr 2008

Paleiro - a stunning course

For decades Madeira has had the somewhat unfair reputation as a holiday destination for the ‘newly wed’ and ‘nearly dead’. The island will always appeal to the genteel, because of its stunning coastal and verdant mountain scenery, nature reserves, beautiful gardens and attractive capital, Funchal, a bustling commercial centre with a lot of heritage.

But now this Portuguese outpost in the Atlantic, 300 miles west of Morocco, is also trying to attract, on one hand the young and adventurous and on the other a more discerning type of visitor, offering golf as a key activity.

The island currently has two excellent golf courses - Palheiro and Santo da Serra - with a third planned by Nick Faldo Design. On the island of Porto Santo, a two hour ferry ride away, there is a relatively new Severiano Ballesteros creation (see separate review).

Palheiro is set high above Funchal, with magnificent views over the city and bay. The course is mature beyond its 15 years, in the grounds of an old estate using the undulating terrain, pine forest and mature trees to the utmost advantage.

Palheiro's 18th with the city of Funchal below

It is a challenging course for the experienced golfer, although not overly long at 6,656 yards off the gold tees and 248 yards shorter off the whites. However, it's sufficiently forgiving in the most part for the higher handicapper to fully enjoy. Long accurate tee shots are amply rewarded, but shorter and slightly wayward ones can, unexpectedly, funnel back to reasonable positions.

Few of the holes are truly memorable, but the course as a whole certainly is. It is slightly unbalanced with a 34/38 par split, but with four par-5s on the back nine there should be chances to recover your score, although you should be pleased with a par at the dogleg last, with a tree protecting the approach to the green. Unlike so many modern courses the par-3s do not rely upon length to be demanding. For example, the third drops over 100 feeth, with a hollow fronting the green and out of bounds. As for the 13th, it plays across a void to a green of limited depth.

Palheiro's 13th hole

It is a course to be savoured, not only as a test of golf, but also to enjoy its beauty, the views and the flora. While not advocating slow play, passing the 'halfway house' three times is a welcome distraction – well you are on holiday! Having finished your round, the open plan club house awaits, where it's drinks on the terrace with unsurpassed panoramic views.

Santo da Serra off the back tees on the championship 18 holes will provide a stiff challenge to any golfer. Ranked among the top 100 courses in Europe, it consists of three loops of nine holes – Serras, Machico and Desertas - with last two two, designed by the legendary Robert Trent Jones Snr in 1991. These are used for the annual European Tour event, while the former dates back to 1937.

Positioned at the highest point of the course, the clubhouse is 2,300 ft above sea levelwhere you'll enjoy breathtaking scenery and stunning views towards the Atlantic Ocean and the distant islands. However, you know that after dropping over 900 ft, you are going have the daunting climb back up – twice!

One of the caddies at the recent Madeira Islands Open told me, in rather colourful terms, that his week’s work was the hardest of the year. For club golfers, a buggy is recommended!

Santa Serra clubhouse

As tournament layouts go it's not that long at 6,826 yards, but the greens are fairly difficult. They're undulating, although not too severe and pretty fast. The yellow tees take over 500 yards off the length and don't especially dilute the challenge.

Most holes offer recovery from a wayward tee shot and for good players a lot of birdie opportunities. A panorama of the course shows a lot of trees at the lower level, but actually only four holes have a Woburn-like feel and these are relatively short with placing of the tee shot much more important than length.

As I discovered playing with Scot Gary Orr in the pre-tournament pro-am, two holes are real ‘risk and reward.' The par-5 3rd and the next, a par-3 demand aggressive approach shots over deep ravines. They're only for the brave or foolhardy, although both holes offer a bail out area.

Tour action at Santa Serra

Because of the elevation, another factor which can come into play here is the fickle weather. During the winter months you may be unlucky with a spell of low cloud, rain, winds and lowish temperatures, while down on the coast it can be fine!

The original Serras course is somewhat shorter, on less severe terrain and consequently less demanding both physically and mentally. It's not in quite as good a condition but still a reasonable test of golf for the mid/higher handicapper.

Madeira is a holiday destination in which to enjoy some excellent golf, rather than somewhere to go for a pure golfing holiday. I have been before and will go again. Besides golf, there is wonderful sightseeing, some serious or not so serious walking, beautiful gardens, whale and dolphin-watching, jeep safaris, game fishing, excellent eating out (for fish, especially) as well as sun bathing and the usual pool-based activities . Beaches though are few and far between.


Most UK regional airports offer flights to Madeira and it takes about four hours to get there. It's a sub tropical all year round - mild in winter, but occasionally wet and somewhat cooler especially at altitude – so be prepared! Being so far out in the Atlantic, summers are warm, but rarely with very hot spells, unlike the Canaries, for example.

The island’s accommodation is diverse and generally of a high standard, catering for most tastes, including the world renowned Reid’s Palace; boutique hotels like the Choupana Hills with its exquisite cuisine; umpteen 5 and 4-star international style hotels, usually with spa facilities, many of which are located near the Lido about two miles from the centre of the city.

There are the traditional Quintas, like the Bela Vista. These are havens of tranquility, old manor houses with modern facilities, set in acres of gardens. Both golf courses have quintas attached.

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