I’ve already urged you to think about Portugal for a vacation, but now I’d like to build on that thought by suggesting that when you do go to Portugal, think about spending a few days on its lovely island of Madeira. Just a short hop (about 1.5 hours flight time) from Lisbon by any of the regular daily flights, the capital city of Funchal offers the broadest spectrum of vacation assets. There you will find a wide range of hotels, shops, restaurants, and festivals, as well as wonderful beaches, sailing, and water sports.
On one trip, we reserved a room in a small hotel owned by the famous Savoy Hotel next door. When we arrived, the smaller hotel (now demolished and replaced with a more upscale one) had overbooked its rooms. So, they put us up at the Savoy in a room that cost $375 per night as opposed to our other booking at about $80 a night. This was certainly just a lucky break, but it makes our memories of Madeira even fonder.
Wherever you stay or visit on the island, count on warm and cordial natives. The Portuguese include some of Europe’s most welcoming and helpful people, in our experience, and they make visitors want to return to their lovely country to see them again!
The Savoy has been expanded, rebuilt, and refurbished and now has three hotels on the island. The Savoy brand has always meant great service whether you stay at the top-tier or lower-tier facilities. From the Royal Savoy, the walk into the center of Funchal is effortless, and along the way, you will find a wide choice of local restaurants. Patronize these for delicious and less expensive meals than you will find at any hotel.
If you have a car, drive beyond the capital city to the outskirts, including Camara de Lobos, the island’s second-largest city, where Winston Churchill used to like to come to do his watercolors and escape London’s rain and fog. There is also a bus that can take you there along Funchal’s main road. In the mountains, you can see elegant villas where the Portuguese and other European jet-setters have settled for great vacation getaways.
A Toast to Time and Tradition
Madeira, of course, has a wonderful sweet wine named after it, as well as a broad selection of local wines, ports, and cordials. There is even an annual Wine Festival every September. In fact, there are a lot of festivals and events on this island, which boasts the most spectacular fireworks display in the world.
Madeira wine is more than a beverage; it’s a portal to the island’s very soul. In its amber depths, history swirls, resilience shimmers, and passion ignites. Each sip is a journey through time, a tapestry woven with sun-kissed grapes, volcanic terroir, and the secrets whispered by generations of winemakers.
Let’s rewind. Imagine the ancient vines clinging to Madeira’s volcanic slopes, basking in the Atlantic sun that paints the grapes with a kiss of sweetness. Witness the skilled hands of farmers, their techniques honed over centuries, nurturing these precious fruits. Feel the ocean breeze infuse the grapes with its salty whispers, a unique touch that sets Madeira apart.
Now, step into a traditional “armazém” cellar. The air hangs heavy with the silence of ages, sunlight filtering through dusty windows to bathe the ancient barrels in a golden glow. Each vessel, crafted from centuries-old wood, murmurs tales of vintages gone by, whispering secrets of heat, cold, and slow, patient transformation. Here, time is not a tyrant but a gentle accomplice, coaxing hidden complexities from the grape and transforming it into liquid poetry.
Raise a glass of Madeira to the light. Watch the amber liquid dance, catching the sun’s reflection like a captured flame. Take a hesitant sip, then another, letting the symphony of flavors unfold on your palate. The initial sweetness gives way to notes of caramel, toasted nuts, and dried fruit, each swirl revealing a deeper layer of complexity. Hints of spice, a whisper of smoke, and the unmistakable tang of the sea – these are the echoes of Madeira’s terroir, its essence bottled and brought to life.
But Madeira’s soul extends beyond the confines of the glass. Visit a local family-run winery, immerse yourself in their story, and learn the intricate dance of cultivation, harvest, and aging. Watch the pride in their eyes as they share their craft, a legacy passed down through generations. Savor a traditional poncha, a potent local elixir that blends Madeira wine with honey and lemon, a taste of the island’s spirit in every sip.
So, raise your glass once more, not just to a delectable wine, but to the land that birthed it, the passion that nurtured it, and the stories whispered in its depths. With each sip, toast to the resilience of an island sculpted by fire and wind, to the spirit of a people bound to their vines, and to the timeless heritage that flows like liquid poetry in every drop of Madeira wine.
Beyond the Tourist Trail
Forget the sun-kissed beaches and postcard panoramas; the true allure of Madeira lies veiled in its hidden folds. To grasp its soul, you must shed the tourist skin and venture into the island’s vibrant tapestry, woven with whispers of tradition and untamed beauty.
Santana’s Triangular Symphony
Nestled amongst emerald slopes, like playful dominos tumbling down a green canvas, lies Santana. Here, brightly painted triangular houses, their colors echoing the wildflowers, stand testament to centuries of island life.
Step into a “casota,” as these unique dwellings are called, and savor the warmth of a wood-fired oven, the aroma of freshly baked bolo do caco bread, and the stories etched in the faces of its inhabitants. Learn the rhythm of their lives, where the clinking of cowbells mingles with the melodies of “cantigas” echoing through the valleys.
The veins of Madeira run green with water carried in the ancient levadas. These intricate irrigation channels, carved by human hand and time, snake through verdant valleys, whispering secrets to moss-covered stones and whispering pines.
Lace-up your boots and embark on a levada stroll, letting the gurgling water serenade your journey. Breathe in the crisp mountain air, feel the sun dappling through the canopy, and marvel at the sheer engineering prowess of these silent arteries of life.
Fiesta’s Fiery Heart
When darkness paints the sky, Madeira’s vibrant spirit erupts in its local fiestas. Lose yourself in the infectious rhythm of traditional “chimarra” violins and the intoxicating beat of “tamborin” drums.
Taste the smoky char of espetada skewers sizzling over glowing embers while the aroma of bolo de mel cakes mingles with the laughter of locals. Let the energy of the community embrace you, sway to the pulse of ancient stories, and feel the fire of Madeira dance in your soul.
Starry Secrets on the Boca do Inferno
Escape the twinkling city lights and head for the rugged cliffs of Ponta do Pico. Hike through the scented juniper bushes as the night unfurls its velvet cloak, studded with a million diamond stars. Stand at the edge of the Boca do Inferno, a volcanic chasm where the ocean roars and spits in defiance. In this raw spectacle of nature, feel the island’s primal energy whisper ancient tales of creation and the awe-inspiring power of the unyielding earth.
These are but glimpses into the kaleidoscope of Madeira beyond the tourist trail. Seek out the hidden waterfalls plunging into turquoise pools, explore the grottoes of Seixal, or dive into the vibrant coral gardens of Garajau. Attend a workshop on Poncha, the island’s potent cocktail, or learn the art of Bordado embroidery, each stitch a whisper of tradition.
Madeira’s soul is not found in selfies and souvenir shops but in the moments you share with its people, the stories etched in their faces, and the rhythm of life that beats beneath the postcard perfection. So, venture beyond the familiar, embrace the whispers of the unknown, and allow Madeira to unravel its hidden charms one breathtaking step at a time.
A People as Warm as the Sun
But the true magic of Madeira lies in its people. Their smiles are as bright as the island’s flowers, their hospitality as unending as the ocean. They take you into their homes, share their stories and songs, and offer you a piece of their sun-soaked souls. In their eyes, you see the resilience of those who have tamed the sea, the wisdom of those who have nurtured vines for generations, and the joy of those who live life to the fullest.
Madeira is a tapestry woven with threads of sun, sea, wine, and welcoming souls. It’s a symphony for the senses, a playground for the adventurous, and a sanctuary for the weary. It’s an island that whispers promises of rejuvenation, of reconnection with nature and self, and of a taste of life, slow and savored, like a sip of its aged Madeira.
Whatever time of year you choose for your visit, Madeira’s sweet and constant climate will provide you with sunny skies, ocean breezes, and temperatures perfect for vacationing.
And the people are divine, so your enjoyment is all but guaranteed. Give Madeira a try!