Madeira – Paradise Perfected

After visiting the mainland of Portugal, I made my way to the island of Madeira for a few days and stayed at the iconic Reid’s Palace, a Belmond property. The hotel’s tagline is “paradise perfected in a clifftop haven,” and I certainly agree.

Steeped in history, Reid’s Palace has been the hospitality jewel of the island since being established in 1836 by Scotsman William Reid. He first rented out farmhouses to wealthy invalids and then built the hotel, but unfortunately, he died before the hotel was complete.

Madeira has a year-round warm, subtropical climate due to the Gulf Stream current. The temperature rarely falls below 60°F, which makes it a wonderful destination anytime. Because of the favorable climate, the island is always green and lush with tropical gardens throughout the island. Madeira deserves its nickname, “the floating garden.”

Beth Kurcina during her visit to Madeira.

Reid’s Palace history collage.

Here’s an interesting fact about why the capital is named Funchal. When the Portuguese settlers arrived in Madeira in 1419, they were stunned by the abundance of fennel (funcho in Portuguese) growing wildly and so named their first colony Funchal.

After a short 20 minute transfer from Funchal Airport (the only airport in Madeira), you will arrive at the back side of the hotel and enter through the spectacular lobby with full view of the oceanfront beauty. The hotel cascades down the cliff side from the top floor, where you may enjoy high tea served daily and continues to the garden level with swimming pools and a spa. From there, it goes all the way down to a private sea bath and the ocean.

There are four restaurants onsite which will satisfy a wide range of palettes ranging from the Michelin-starred William Restaurant for a contemporary gastronomic experience, to the cocktail bar and pool terraces which offer casual fare, and the Ristorante Villa Cipriani which is home to fresh Italian specialties.

The hotel has four categories of rooms – deluxe rooms, junior suites, suites and presidential suites – all of which offer king size beds. Two notable suites are the George Bernard Shaw Suite and the Winston Churchill Suite. Each suite named appropriately after its namesake, George Bernard Shaw learned to tango there, and Winston Churchill came to the property to write his memoirs after the Second World War.

The Winston Churchill Suite at Reid Palace.

Although the island is 35 miles long and 13 miles wide and boasts 100 miles of coastline, please note that Madeira is not a beach destination. The shore is rocky and has many cliffs, making the island mountainous, with the highest peak being 6,100 feet.

Local residence in Madeira.

However, it does make for a wonderful blend of relaxation and recreation. One can easily rent a car for a day and explore the entire island starting from the north in Sao Vicente and head either west to Paul Do Mar, or east to the quaint village of Camacha. Frontiers can arrange an expert driver-guide to help navigate the area with ease.

You can also hop on the cable car that will take you to the botanical gardens in Madeira, and then come down the hill by toboggan! This has been a unique form of transportation since 1850. The carreiros (the Portuguese word meaning driver of a cart) wear straw hats, white pants and special shoes that will assist with the road traction and run you down the curvy hill.

A “must-visit” while in Madeira is the botanical gardens in Funchal, which opened to the public in 1960, and the area once belonged to the family of William Reid. The gardens are divided into six areas and represent the lush botany that you will see throughout Madeira,  ranging from succulent fruit trees, to indigenous palm trees, and medicinal and aromatic plants. Additionally, the gardens include a bird park, comprised of 300 exotic birds and a three-room natural history museum. The gardens are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and you can take a cable car to get there or have Frontiers arrange a private transfer.

Another unique experience that you will find on this magical island is the levadas, which are man-made rivers built on the side of a mountain, that you can hike while seeing the stunning views. There are pathways for every skill level, including easier ones for beginners who want to walk around and enjoy a fascinating outdoor experience, and more extreme journeys that can take an entire day.

Madeira is also one of the best locations in the world for dolphin and whale watching. There are about 80 species of these creatures worldwide, and 29 of these species are able to be seen in Madeira year-round. Madeira is a culinary delight. The exotic fruits – mangos, papayas, bananas, passion fruit – and availability of amazing seafood, especially the scabbard fish, will encourage you to stroll Mercado dos Lavradores, the famous farmers market in Funchal.

Another specialty is the local garlic bread, known as bolo do caco, which is sold on the street and contains a large amount of butter and garlic. You can also opt to add cheese, bacon, meat or tuna to your bread. If you are a meat lover, you will enjoy the espetada, which is grilled meat on long sticks. For an exceptional desert, finish with their famous sugar cane syrup cookies and bolo de Mel – otherwise known as honey cakes.

You can also enjoy the Poncha, which is the traditional alcoholic beverage of Madeira that comes in many versions with various fruit juices. But the base is always aguardente de cana, which is distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice. This beverage originated in the late 18th century and was drunk by the Madeiran fisherman before they went fishing to ward off flu and other sicknesses.

Based on my travels, few destinations offer such an array of recreational, cultural, historical and culinary experiences in a compact environment – but Madeira is one of them. I would strongly suggest considering this as a three-day add-on for your Portugal travels (1.5-hour flight from Lisbon) or a destination trip from London. Several airlines, including British Airways, have three-hour non-stop flights from London.

As one of my heroes and fellow Madeiran visitors, Winston Churchill, once said, “I am easily satisfied with the very best.” I think you will find exactly this at Reid’s Palace and Madeira. I invite you to uncover and experience “the floating garden” for yourself!

Some photos courtesy of the Madeira Tourism Board and Belmond Reid’s Palace.