In the Palm House at Kew Gardens recently, Mrs O and I came across a clamour of camera-clad visitors crowding a beautiful jade-green vine.
Signs explained Kew botanists’ painstaking 30-year effort to grow this magnificent plant, found only in the disappearing rainforests of the Philippines.
The jade vine, with its pendent trusses of luminous blue-green flowers, is pollinated by bats, whose habits Kew gardeners struggled to mimic. Finally, in 1995, they cracked it.
There, in the Palm House, it grows today, as spectacular as it is rare. We felt privileged to see it.
A month later, we visited Reid’s Palace near Funchal, capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira, and found the supposedly shy jade vine running rampant in the hotel’s botanical gardens.
In this little corner of the Atlantic, just four hours from Kew, it was having an absolute ball. It was so profuse that if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought it a rather beautiful weed.
The jade vine is but one treasure of the hotel’s botanical garden, begun in the late 20th century by Scotsman William Reid, who jumped aboard a Madeira-bound ship aged 14, because his doctor said he could do with some sun.
He made his money exporting wine, married an Englishwoman, bought a rocky promontory with stunning views and set about building a first-class hotel.
For the gardens, he imported tons of soil and a flair for the unusual. They thrived, and today they are an island highlight, even in a land known as the Garden Isle, where the biggest festival centres on flowers.
Reid needn’t have bothered with the soil – the rich volcanic earth means just about anything flourishes here – but I’m glad he bothered with the hotel.
He died just before it opened in 1891, but would no doubt be pleased with its current state of health in old-age, under the ownership and direction of Belmond, a luxury hotel group with a knack for rescuing and reviving historic properties.
This summer marks 500 years since two Portuguese explorers discovered Madeira. In the early 1950s, Winston Churchill discovered Reid’s Palace, writing his wartime memoirs here, the latest in a long line of visiting aristocrats, nobles and intellectuals.
Empress Elizabeth I of Austria was carried up to the hotel from the sea in a hammock, and writer George Bernard Shaw learned to dance in the courtyard.
While black and white photos speckle the oak-panelled corridors, this is no museum.
The rooms, all with balconies or patios overlooking the Atlantic, are top-class, as is the service and facilities. Food in the hotel’s Italian Restaurant Villa Cipriani is as good as I’ve tasted, including in Italy. Madeira loves its food and wine, as do I.
After a day or two relaxing by the hotel’s seawater and freshwater pools, peppered with the occasional cocktail and dip in the ocean, the hotel arranged a tour of the island’s north for us, courtesy of Madeira Tourism Board.
We glided along the well-maintained coastal roads through fishing villages, vantage points and mountains worthy of any motion picture (the director of Jurassic Park wanted to film here).
After a selection of stops to admire the local crafts, churches and clifftop views, we arrived in Porto Moniz with its series of sea-fed volcanic rock pools – perfect for a paddle.
On our return, we stopped off high in the mountains, where a Madeiran family cooked us espetada, a local delicacy comprising beef marinated in oil, salt and bay laurel from the ancient forest that still carpets part of the island, cooked over an open fire on a laurel skewer and served with fried maize (surprisingly tasty), potatoes, vegetables and roasted garlic bread.
Even Mrs O, who never eats too much, ate too much. Such was the sublime taste of it all.
The next day we were up at 6am for sunrise above the clouds at Pico do Areiro, 1,810 metres above sea-level and fully accessible by car.
Armed with warm coats, we watched sunrise, which signalled the start of a triple-peak trek for those more intrepid than Mrs O and I, who opted instead for a 4×4 journey down the mountain, through flowers and birdsong, criss-crossing the island’s famous levadas (irrigation channels) before arriving at a beautiful woodland setting where Belmond laid on a luxury champagne breakfast, complete with personal butler. Just like back home.
In the early evening we took the free hotel shuttle to Funchal, where there is a long, rich and well-documented Jewish history.
Menasseh ben Israel, one of the great figures of Sephardi Jewry, was born here in 1608. The 168-year-old Jewish cemetery is the final resting place of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, who came from places such as Morocco in the 19th century.
During the war, 200 Jews fled here from Gibraltar, as the Rock became vulnerable to the Nazi threat.
Back at the hotel, we sat on the sixth-floor balcony overlooking the bay, watching cruise ships and fishing vessels come and go, paddle boarders slowly silhouetted by the fading light, enjoying a glass of Madeiran wine as Churchill once did, cigar in-hand no doubt, and pondered how he helped to defeat that threat once and for all.
I can think of no nicer place to ponder that, or anything else.
Stephen stayed at Belmond Reid’s Palace in Funchal, Madeira, where a classic room starts from £379 per night. For more offers, visit belmond.com