Portugal’s isle of Madeira boasts a profusion of blooms and a bounty of its namesake wine

by Harvey Hagman, Fort Myers, FL

After spending the winter of 1419 on the barren, white sands of the island of Porto Santo, Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco set sail for the mist-shrouded land on the horizon. Zarco found an island of towering peaks and thick, ancient woods — madeira means "wood" — with rugged, cliff-lined coasts and, inland, abundant water.

Today cruise ships calling at the Portuguese island of Maderia anchor in Funchal Bay, but jets bring in most visitors, including my wife and me.


Portugal's island of Madiera

Our bus whisked past purple peaks, through tunnels and over bridges spanning deep gorges, then, magically, Funchal Bay appeared. Above it, white houses with terra-cotta roofs climbed the mountain valley, where one-third of the island’s 280,000 people live amid exotic gardens.

Madeira is called "God’s Botanical Gardens" and temperatures are ideal, between 60 and 70 degrees year-round. Flowers bloom cyclically — bougainvillea, hibiscus, begonias, bird-of-paradise — and fruits abound. Funchal’s name comes from the sweet, aromatic wild fennel that the discoverers found here.

We checked into our hotel, the Savoy (Avenida do Infante; www.savoyresort.com ), a classic, colonial-style hotel. This island gem has been in existence since the 1900s. Today, it has 330 rooms and, with the more contemporary cliffside Royal Savoy, shares five pools, tennis courts, golf, majestic gardens and fine restaurants. Rooms start at around $250 per night.

The town’s numerous quintas, or estates, rival Europe’s most exotic. Before us stretched glorious gardens and a wild sea.

Colorful sights

We were told that that during our April ’06 visit we must…

Portugal's island of Madiera
  • Take a wild carro de cesto, or wicker sled ride, down steep lanes to the city from Monte, an old hilltop resort;
  • Escape to the neighboring golden beaches of Porto Santo, 2 hours away by boat or 10 minutes by plane;
  • Visit the Mercado dos Lavradores, or Market of the Workers;
  • Shop for wicker and embroidery and taste the local Madeira wines, and
  • Hike the levadas (water channels).

A peaceful air hung over the town’s narrow streets and alfresco cafés as we tread over black-and-white stone mosaics called calçada on our way to the market.

At the market, women flower vendors wore traditional red caps, red vests, ruffled white blouses and full skirts. We also encountered basket weavers, fish mongers and farmers with displays of exotic fruits.

In the fish market, we marveled at red slabs of tuna, shellfish and the ugly espada, or black scabbard fish. Eel-like, with razor-sharp teeth, the delicious espada are found only here and off the coast of Japan.

We moved on to the embroidery factory, with its showroom, library of patterns and cutting room, then visited the Sé, or cathedral, which has survived virtually untouched since colonial days. Completed in 1514, it was one of the first imposing overseas Portuguese churches.

Our driver, Sergiou, delivered us to the Jardim Botânico, resplendent with desert cacti, rainforest orchids, Madeiran dragon trees, palms and a vast variety of flora. Then it was on to Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro, Madeira’s finest garden. Our last stop of the day was the Monte Palace Gardens, a lushly planted valley boasting a variety of Madeiran flora.

Historic wine lodge

We drove high above Funchal for a special dinner at Choupana Hills Resort & Spa (phone +351 291 20 60 20, www.choupanahills.com), a luxurious hideaway featuring a spectacular view of the sky, sea and mountains. We enjoyed the superb sunset as well as the fine wines and fusion cooking. Entrees here average €25-€30 ($34-$41).

Portugal's island of Madiera

In the morning we visited the exquisite Quinta das Cruzes, or House of Crosses, a stately 15th-century country house, now the museum of decorative arts. Nearby is the Museu de Arte Sacra, housed in the former bishop’s palace, offering fine 15th- to 18th-century paintings and sacred objects. Farther on is the Museu de Frederico de Freitas, displaying fine art and furniture.

We wandered through the marina, the Praça do Município, where black and white stones pave the municipal square, then ducked in to view the precious 17th-century azulejo tiles at the Convento de Santa Clara and climbed the ramparts of the restored Fortaleza de São Tiago, a recently renovated fortress built in 1614. Then we were on our way to taste fine Madeiran wines at The Old Blandy Wine Lodge (Avenida Arriaga 28).

The island’s most historic wine lodge, Blandy’s is visited by 170,000 guests annually. The Blandys are the island’s oldest wine makers and can trace their family history back to the winery’s founders in 1811.

The lodge occupies a 17th-century Franciscan monastery and is a historic monument. Many of the firm’s finest wines have been aged here since 1840.

The distinctive types are as follows:

  • Malmsey — a soft, rich, dark wine ideal with desserts.
  • Bual — a dark, rich, nutty wine.
  • Verdelho — a medium-dry tawny wine.
  • Sercial — a dry, medium-sweet amber wine.

The lodge is open 9:30-6:30 Monday-Friday and 10-1 Saturday. October brings wine harvest celebrations; the largest is in Funchal. For more information, check www.madeirawinecompany.com.

Back at the Savoy, we sampled a tasty Madeiran buffet followed by a folkloric show put on by the hotel’s costumed staff, who performed traditional pilgrimage and grape-stomping dances and played age-old instruments. Soon, all the diners joined the dancers.

Island landscapes

Our driver then picked us up for our island tour. Madeirans have transformed the steep island into staircases of small, stone-walled terraces. These poisos are fed by levadas that run through 1,335 miles.

Portugal's island of Madiera

Maintenance paths run along these levadas, which funnel the north’s plentiful rainfall to the dry, sunny south. These footpaths often lead to the quiet, inaccessible heart of the island.

Two popular walks leave from Rabaçal: one is a short 30-minute hike to a waterfall; the other is a magical 3-hour jaunt to Vinte e Cinco Fontes, or 25 Springs.

The dramatic island, 12 miles wide and 35 miles long, has magnificent mountains that rise to central peaks. Pico Ruivo towers at 6,106 feet. Nearby Pico do Arieiro’s summit can be reached by car, then hikers can trek sky-high paths through peaks to Achada do Teixeira.

Deep ravines plunge to Ribeira Brava, São Vicente and Câmara de Lobos and end at cliffs that are among the world’s highest. To call these views awe-inspiring is an understatement.

We followed the coast to Câmara de Lobos, a town often painted by Winston Churchill and a center for catching scabbard fish. Fish were drying in the sun, boats were pulled up on the black rock beaches, wives filled the streets to buy fish and the bars were full.

Banana quintas rise above it in stepped terraces. As we looked down on the green, rust and black cliffs at Cabo Girão, rainbows appeared. At nearly 2,000 feet, Girão is Europe’s second-highest sea cliff. A vast, silvery Atlantic spread out below us. The uninhabited Islas Desertas was visible on the horizon.

As we pushed on, ocean views greeted us at each turn before we swung inland and wound up toward Serra de Água, where bright shafts of sunlight and brilliant rainbows appeared amid the peaks. The mists here produce the humidity that supports the lush Laurissilva subtropical laurel forests, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Two-thirds of the island remains national park and one-fifth is covered with laurel, evergreen and ironwood that make up this rare cloudforest which dates back six million years. Rain pelted down and streams rushed past.

Purple and pink lilies lined the descending road, and whitewashed rock fences appeared as we came to São Vicente.

This quiet mountain village has cobbled streets, boutiques, bars and shops around a fine 17th-century church honoring St. Vincent. Here began our exhilarating drive to Porto Moniz.

Portugal's island of Madiera

The road, cut into sheer cliffs, passes through dripping tunnels, under waterfalls and along hair-raising narrow stretches. Powerful ocean spray splashed onto the road.

At last at Porto Moniz, we were surrounded by fields climbing the mountains and crashing Atlantic breakers. Cement paths joined rock pools, but there were no bathers that day.

We lunched on savory fish soup, espada, tuna, fried bananas, fried cornbread, flan and wine at Cachalote Restaurante. Then we wound down the flower-bedecked coastal road, through dark tunnels, to Seixal, a tiny port with whitewashed houses and tiled roofs.

At Santana, we paused to look at the town’s distinctive A-shaped houses with thatched roofs. The exterior walls were white, with doors and windows brightly painted in reds, yellows and blues.

We recrossed the island, climbing and descending, to Ribeiro Frio, the starting point for two of the best hikes along levadas through dramatic mountain scenery. We must return and hike them.

Back at Funchal, we felt like we had traversed a small continent and had driven hundreds of miles, yet we’d seen only half the island.

We dined at Quinta da Bela Vista in the grace and gentility of this restored 1844 Portuguese manor house. We enjoyed a Malmsey wine on the terrace with panoramic views of Funchal. The 5-star quinta (Caminho do Avista Navios No. 4; www.qbvista.pt ) offers modern amenities, sporting activities and fine food in a country setting. Room rates here start at around €100 ($136) per person, sharing; half board is an additional €40 per person and full board, €80.

We hope to return to hike this small, dramatic island with a continent’s-worth of attractions.

Planning a trip to Maderia

Portugal's island of Madiera

Madeira has welcomed visitors for a century and its economy is based on tourism. The islanders are naturally friendly and don’t regard travelers as intruders. They invite them to participate in their traditions and festivities.

The island has about 25,000 beds, with some 70% in 4- and 5-star hotels.

The island’s New Year’s fireworks are world famous. The Christmas season runs from Dec. 8 to Jan. 6, featuring special events, gala hotel dinners and street music daily. Villages celebrate popular saints during the summer with dancing, music, food, folklore and brass bands.

It’s easy to find city and island guides. Ask at your hotel.

For more information, visit www.madeiratourism.org or contact the Portuguese Trade & Tourism Office (590 Fifth Ave., Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10036-4785; 646/723-0200, www.visitportugal.com ).