I have just arrived back from 5 nights at the Casa Velha do Palheiro. This was my first stay and I am already planning to book another, longer visit in May. As I was looking for a restful, beautiful and indulgent place to stay, this was just perfect. At 52, I was definitely on the young side, as the majority of the visitors seem to have retired some time ago. There were, however, a couple of young families, and visitors who seemed to be mainly there for the golf course rather than the spa or gardens. Having stayed in big, lively spa hotels in Malta, this was exactly the change I was looking for. The service was impeccable, yet extremely friendly. Staff in other parts of the estate, such as the clubhouse and the tea house, knew my name and my room number on the day of my arrival, without having to introduce myself. The food served at dinner was extremely beautiful and delicious, in the style of The Dorchester Hotel in London. The location had breath-taking views and was surrounded by a immaculate golf course and the famous botanical gardens. The only sound, other than the occasional gardener, was the singing of birds, and the whole place was filled with the scent of exotic flowers that bloom year round. If you are looking for a little gentility, with afternoon tea served in the library and your bed turned down at night, this is definitely the place to go. Expect a slow pace - no nightclub, no karaoke, no group activities, no rowdiness or drunkenness. It isn't that it isn't friendly; people just give you your space and don't intrude if you want to curl up on a sofa and relax with a book, or sip a Pimms in the bar before dinner. Nothing seems to be too much to ask there and, if you don't feel like visiting the island or wandering round Funchal, you can just float away in the spa and forget all your troubles.
You should be aware that the hotel is a fairly long drive up from the coast - around 10-15 minutes - although there is a free shuttle service. You can of course hire a car to get around Madeira if you're not alarmed by narrow, single-track roads, precipices and the occasional rockfall and even having to drive through a waterfall at one point on the main road. The Palheiro Estate seems to have its own micro-climate that is a little cooler than the lower lying areas because of the altitude, so bring layers of clothing. February can be extremely warm in the sun, to the point of burning, but you will also find wet and windy days. It is not unusual to experience cold, biting winds up on the central plateau of the island, then blazing sunshine, with pouring rain in-between, all in the space of a couple of hours. If you are choosing the hotel for its extra facilities, be aware that the gym is very small; more like an exercise room. Then again, you are likely to have it all to yourself. If you want to swim lengths, choose a season that you can use the outdoor pool. The inside pool is lovely but not suitable for serious exercise. While I was there, I had the sauna, Turkish bath and the pool to myself as the other visitors were either playing golf, out visiting the island or relaxing elsewhere. Bliss!