“Faster!” I screamed. I was flying down a mountain road in a sledge (a wicker toboggan), pushed by two men in straw boaters and jaunty white outfits. They looked like Venetian gondoliers, but I wasn’t in Italy; I was on the Portuguese island of Madeira. The steep tar road was slick with rain and though the ride was less than two miles long, it felt endless. Using the rubber soles of their boots as brakes, the sledgers straightened the toboggan by standing on its wooden runners; but we were zigzagging from side to side, and it looked as though we would slam into the stone wall at the side of the road at any moment. Finally, I arrived safely at the bottom of the hill, wet, grinning, and exhilarated.
Sledging wasn’t always a tourist activity in Madeira. Wealthy people who owned summer villas on top of the island’s Monte mountain used to be hauled up and down in a hammock slung with a pole and carried by two men. Later, the transportation mode changed to a wooden cart pulled by two bullocks. In the early 19th century, sledgers took over by pushing a wicker toboggan with waxed runners. Today, residents drive to their homes on top of the mountain and sledging is solely a tourist activity.
It isn’t the only reason visitors go up the mountain. Monte’s summit offers unending panoramic views over Funchal, Madeira’s capital. Unfortunately, it was raining when I ascended the mountain—the last thing I expected on an island known as the Hawaii of the Atlantic. But I was told that Madeira has six distinct micro-climates, and you can experience four seasons in a single day plus rain or sun, depending on where you are.
Among the reasons I’d come to Madeira were that it has mountains everywhere you look and gardens wherever you walk, and all the locals speak English. Though the island remains mostly undiscovered by Americans, it has long been popular with European vacationers. Located 750 miles from Lisbon in the middle of the Atlantic, it has 99 miles of coastline. You don’t come for the beaches, though, because Madeira’s shore is all rocks and cliffs; you come for the sun, culture, history, blossoming gardens, and delicious fresh food, including tropical fruits of all kinds.
When I arrived at the summit of Monte, it was too grey to see anything, but there were so many great views of Funchal from everywhere else that I really didn’t care about the view. At the summit were the Monte Royal Palace Gardens, where I strolled past rushing waterfalls and exotic tropical plants and trees. I also visited a Japanese Garden where black geese swam and giant Koi fish rose to the surface, hoping for food. My guide Alexandra pointed out an olive tree that was over 2,000 years old and then an Angel’s trumpet flower. “You make a cup of tea out of three of those and you can kill someone,” she said. “It’s cheaper than a divorce.”
I entered two galleries, part of the Royal Gardens, with more than 2,500 Zimbabwe sculptures and an exhibit with over 800 dazzling minerals and gems, some in rocks the size of washing machines. In a gift shop, Alexandra pointed out bottles of poncho, a Madeiran drink made with distilled alcohol, sugar-cane juice, honey, and lemon rind. “People get really drunk on it,” she said. She fingered a beige woolen cap with earflaps. “The farmers wore this hat in the fields,” she said. “When they came home, they’d pull down the flaps to avoid the wives’ questions.”
The last thing I wanted was ear flaps, because I didn’t want to miss anything that Alexandra, a walking (though not necessarily reliable) encyclopedia, was saying. According to her, for example, Columbus was Portuguese, not Spanish, and the Santa Maria was built in Portugal. Statues of pigeons and plaster heads on the red-tiled roofs are symbols to protect the home, an idea that came from China, with whom the early Portuguese traded. The same symbols can be found on Chinese pagodas.
We ate lunch at Faisca, a restaurant in the mountains where each table’s center has a small hole that I initially assumed was for a candle. We munched the most gobsmackingly delicious garlic-butter bread I’ve ever tasted, round like a pizza but much thicker, like country bread. The waitress arrived with fist-sized chunks of beef on a long metal skewer that she slipped into the hole in the middle of the table. Aha. The meal was delicious, I told Alexandra. “Americans eat plastic food at the Embassy,” she replied, explaining that the “Embassy” was her word for McDonald’s.
The check arrived on a plate decorated with a painting of a rooster. In Portugal, you find roosters not only on plates but on pitchers, statues, thimbles, scarves, baby clothes, moccasins, and T-shirts. According to legend, in the 17th century, someone stole some silver and the townspeople blamed a pilgrim who was on his way to Spain. Sentenced to hang, the pilgrim demanded to see the judge. Taken to the judge’s home, he pointed to a roasted cock on a dining table and said it would crow if he was innocent. Sure enough, the roasted rooster stood on the table and crowed. The pilgrim was freed and roosters have since been considered good luck.
About the only place I didn’t see a rooster was at Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel, where I was staying. The 127-year-old hotel, the oldest in Madeira, is perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the Atlantic and has long been a favorite of the well-to-do and famous. George Bernard Shaw learned to tango during the weekly dance classes (still held today) and Winston Churchill painted and wrote his memoirs here. The hotel evokes a more gracious, less-hurried era, and I could have easily sat on my terrace for hours, gazing out at the Atlantic and the establishment’s tree-filled acres of subtropical gardens.
Unlike other older hotels, which can be musty, this one has done some posh renovating, but happily the daily afternoon tea on the terrace is exactly as it might have been a century ago, presented by white-gloved waiters on a silver tea service. I indulged in an array of finger sandwiches and sweet pastries while sipping champagne and then Reid’s own brand of tea.
The word “madeira” means many trees, and while walking through Reid’s gardens was most relaxing, walking on a levada was like strolling through an al fresco museum of trees. Levadas are Madeira’s original irrigation channels and they date back to the 15th century. There are 860 miles of levadas built onto the side of the mountain, perfect for hikes ranging from easy to super-steep. Some trails go downhill and through farm fields; others wind through forests of laurel trees, cling to mountainsides, or pass under waterfalls.
Alexandra led me down the paths of an enchanted forest with ferns and dripping moss. As we walked through narrow canyon rock gorges dappled with sun, the only sounds we heard were our feet crunching the earth and somewhere below, a goat’s bell ringing. The men who’d constructed levadas on dangerous steep cliffs were not afraid of heights, she said. Some of them later emigrated to New York City and helped build its skyscrapers.
Even more famous than the levadas is Madeira wine, which dates back to the 15th century. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin drank it to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Somewhat more recently, the British comedy duo of Flanders and Swann wrote and recorded an often-quoted song called “Have Some Madeira, M’ Dear.”
This fortified wine is produced from grapes grown on the island’s steep hillsides, and can be served as an aperitif, dry for meals, and sweet as a digestif. On a Blandy’s Wine Lodge tour in Funchal, I learned that Madeira bottles do not need to lie down—and that they stand upright more steadily than I did after a wine tasting followed by lunch paired with Madeira at the Lodge’s Wine Bar.
I was still tipsy when I checked into my new hotel, Quinta da Casa Branca, where the general manager explained to me that “quinta” means farm. “The quintas of Madeira are our heritage,” he said. Since the 18th century, Quinta da Casa Branca has been owned by a Madeira wine producer, originally a farm with vineyards and later, a banana plantation. Today, the lush property includes the original manor house; a new wing with a soothing spa; two outdoor swimming pools (one for adults only); an arboretum; a banana plantation; avocado, mango, and passion fruit tree orchards; and fragrant flowering gardens.
My accommodation was the 1,829-square- foot Pool Villa, originally part of the owner’s home with a plushy living room, gigantic terrace, and an enormous private garden for sunbathing and watching the birds and butterflies. Dinner my first evening here was in the hotel’s well-appointed restaurant, where I asked about the origin of a magnificent tapestry and a beautiful painting, and about the gooseberry sauce on my Duck Magret. The next morning, a letter arrived at my door with details about the tapestry and painting and a small container of gooseberries, plus a map that showed where in the garden I could find the gooseberry trees that had produced the previous night’s sauce.
After breakfast, I wandered through the streets of Funchal, past benches painted with brightly colored flowers and real flowers hanging from pots on the lampposts. The sidewalk was made of white and black stone tiles arranged in swirling patterns. I meandered through the ancient “old city” where the narrow streets were cobblestone and every door had been hand-painted by an artist, each in a different style.
On the way back to my hotel, I walked through a park and entered a small pavilion filled with books in many languages. A sign in English read, “Take a book, leave a book.” I smiled. The first Portuguese ships that spotted Madeira in 1420 thought it was the end of the earth. I just thought it was the living end, thanks to sledging, magnificent gardens, luxurious accommodations, levadas dripping with moss, delicious fresh fish, and even free books in a public park. The title of the song “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear” delivers good advice, but an even better recommendation would be to drink the wine while also visiting this unforgettable island.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS:
Known as the Hawaii of the Atlantic, Portugal’s Madeira is a 286-square-mile island that has nearly 300,000 residents and attracts more than three times that many tourists every year. The culturally rich island, whose capital is Funchal, boasts ancient volcanic mountains with magnificent ocean views, green forests, vineyards, and flowering gardens everywhere. Located in the Atlantic Ocean, 750 miles southwest of Lisbon and 310 miles west of Morocco, it is part of the Madeira Archipelago, which also includes the sparsely populated Porto Santo and the uninhabited Desertas and Selvagens.
Madeira boasts a mild Mediterranean climate, with average daytime temperatures of 73 degrees Fahrenheit in summer (August is the hottest month) and 61 degrees in winter, making it an ideal year-round destination. On the south coast, which is always sunny, temperatures stay in the mid-70s year-round with occasional precipitation (so pack a rain jacket or umbrella). The north is misty and cooler.
Private jets land at Funchal’s Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport, which has a 9,124-foot runway that has been extended over the sea. You can also take a 90-minute commercial flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Funchal. TAP Air Portugal offers the most such flights plus fully flat business-class seats and Michelin-starred dining service.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
No visa is required for Portugal. Currency is the euro and the best exchange rates are at ATMs, which are found everywhere. Bring smart casual dress for afternoon tea and dinner, but everything else is casual. Pack sneakers or comfortable walking shoes for the cobblestone streets. Your trip will be more carefree if you have a guide, car, and driver.
Traveler Report Card
Funchal’s elegant Belmond Reid’s Palace Hotel (A) sits on a clifftop with 10 acres of subtropical gardens, 123 rooms, and 35 suites, including two Presidential suites with oceanfront verandas. There are three swimming pools; a spa; a fitness center; a hair salon; tennis, snooker, and dance classes; two nearby golf courses; and four restaurants, one with a Michelin star and one poolside. Prices per room (including breakfast) are about $520 to $2,950.
The serene Quinta da Casa Branca (A+), a former farm and banana plantation from the 18th century, features gardens with more than 260 species of flora, an arboretum, two swimming pools, a spacious gym and spa, two restaurants, and a terrace bar. The 49 guest rooms include five suites and a pool villa, all with private terraces or balconies. Rooms are $210 to $760.
At the Dining Room at Quinta da Casa Branca (A+), I had outstanding smoked salmon with juniper berry caviar followed by sea bass over razor clams. The rustic 8111 Bistro and Wine Bar at Blandy’s (A) served up a tasty lunch with paired Madeira wines that ended with Madeira-soaked pear. Overlooking the pool at the new Med at Porto Bay Hotels and Resorts (A), I had excellent pasta with fantastic Portuguese wine, a 2013 Olho de Mocho. Most romantic was dining al fresco at Riso Risottoria del Mondo (A+), a hidden gem next to the Atlantic where chicken liver and puffed rice had me salivating for more. For the most authentic Portuguese fare, try the country garlic bread and skewered beef chunks at Faisca (A). At Reid’s Palace, where dinner at Ristorante Villa Cipriani (A) is in a private garden, the just-caught Branzino was perfect.
Options include golf, levada walks, wine tastings, diving, whale and dolphin watching, boat tours, canyoneering, biking, scuba diving, and deep-sea fishing. A cable-car trip up Monte mountain is a must, as are a visit to the Monte Palace Royal Gardens at the peak and, for the adventurous, a sledge ride back down. Seasonal events include a flower festival two Sundays after Easter, a wine festival in September, one of the world’s largest fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve, and a rollicking carnival in February.
At mountaintop Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, the loudest sound is a waterfall. In smaller parks throughout Funchal, the only thing you’ll hear is birdsong. Even at the Saturday market stalls, sound is minimal. Best for me was my levada walk, where I heard only a slight rustle of leaves and a goat’s bell.