With such a variety of attributes in one country, Portugal truly has something for every type of traveler. Thus it was no surprise that Portugal was recently named number one country destination in Condé Nast Traveler 2021 Readers’ Choice Awards. Beyond Lisbon, Porto, the Douro Valley and Algarve, there is much to discover. On the island of Madeira, a Portuguese autonomous region, with its own parliament and president, is part of a North Atlantic archipelago closer to North Africa than Europe. Madeira is easily accessible by a 90-minute flight from Lisbon. And starting November 29th SATA Air Azores will be commencing non-stop service from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport to Madeira’s capital of Funchal. So forgetting about frigid east coast winters and enjoying Madeira’s temperate climate, geographic beauty, and great hotels and restaurants will soon be even easier.
In central Funchal, walking distance to the city’s major attractions and boasting dramatic views of the Atlantic and Madeira’s red-tiled roofs, The Savoy Palace, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group is Funchal’s best hotel.
Opened in summer 2019, The Savoy has grand public spaces in keeping with the original hotel’s history, yet modernized with color and texture, beautifully designed by international renowned, Madeira-born Nini Andrade Silva. Given its location in the Atlantic, it is fitting that water is the hotel’s mainstay. An enormous ocean view main pool is its centerpiece, but there is also a children’s pool, an adults-only rooftop infinity Skypool, an indoor heated pool and direct sea access. A state-of-the-art fitness center is located on the property in a separate wing next to their signature Laurea Spa with 11 treatment rooms.
Within 17 floors are 352 luxuriously appointed rooms and suites containing some of the best bedding I’ve encountered anywhere. Particularly impressive was the gilded detailing surrounding the headboard resembling intricate embroidery for which Madeira is known. Waking up was easy with Nespresso enjoyed on my room’s large terrace with views that reminded me of my good fortune in being here. The ample desk had good lighting and comfortable seating, although focusing on work was difficult with those stellar views everywhere. Spacious bathrooms had large walk-in showers, and gold fixtures and detail work. Equally important, service at The Savoy, whether at the front desk, at breakfast at Hibiscus, or housekeeping, was pleasant, prompt and professional. Walking along Avenida do Infante towards Funchal’s center, and just before reaching the serene gardens of Parque Santa Catarina, I passed a grand, pretty-in-pink home with intricate wrought iron gates. A sweet yellow Labrador perched near the gates happily posed for photos. Later I learned it was Madeira President Miguel Albuquerque’s home and the pooch is named Ceci, perhaps one of Madeira’s best four-legged ambassadors.
In Old Town, Rua Santa Maria is known for its lovely painted doors, but this street is also the heart of lively urban outdoor cafés, bars and restaurants. At Santa Maria Restaurant’s delightful patio, naturally I tried the Madeiran mainstay Espado Preto – black scabbard with bananas and passion fruit sauce. It was wonderful and I'm glad I enjoyed it before seeing how unattractive the eel-like creature is before cooking.
At Avista Restaurant near the historic Belmond’s Reid’s Palace, the elevated, unobscured outdoor dining terrace with expansive views was breathtaking. I probably could have been served rocks and sand I was so mesmerized by the seeming suspended animation. Happily, the soft-shelled crabs, scallop risotto and chocolate fondant were as outstanding as the view.
About 40 minutes from Funchal on the easternmost tip of Madeira lies the Ponta da São Lourenço peninsula where I hiked several miles amid dramatic cliff and bluff scenery within protected parklands. Near the top, Casa do Sardinha Nature Spot Café caters to hikers. Rewarded for my efforts with local limpets – marine mollusks – in garlic butter and Madeiran tomato soup, my batteries were sufficiently recharged to take a kayak out and glide through those pristine waters.
The most memorable meal in Funchal was at The Savoy’s Galàxia Skyfood. The four-course menu under direction of the gifted Chef César Abreu paired with wines selected by Sommelier André Ferraz was as inspired as the stars overhead and the ocean view. Wagyu beef rendered my knife irrelevant, Ussuzukuri fermented fish with mango, chili and lemongrass rapidly disappeared and the Alentejo pork shoulder had me thinking of permanently moving to Madeira. It would be no surprise if Galàxia soon earns a well-deserved Michelin star.
After visiting some of Funchal’s museums and historic sites such as Sé Cathedral, one of the many great spots to people watch and have a caffeine pick-me-up, afternoon tea or Portugal’s signature pasteis de nata – egg custard pastry – is the Ritz Madeira Café which faces the municipal gardens. If that weren’t enough, the building’s exterior has walls of 20thcentury blue-and-white tiles reproducing scenes of old Madeiran life.
While meandering Funchal, I popped into Fábrica Santo António, a small factory of artisanal Maderian sweets in the same location since 1893 and still run by the original founder’s family. The traditional cakes and cookies were scrumptious, and the candies have unique flavor options like passion fruit, mango and ginger.
Just below Old Town, taking the Teleférico do Madeira provided an incredibly scenic 15-minute cable car ride up 1,800 feet to Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. Known as one of the world’s best botanical gardens, it felt like a hilly, globe-trotting adventure – no passport needed – with tiled stories of the Portuguese in Japan, amid grand Chinese gates and bridges, a plethora of swans, ducks, waterfalls, statuary and allegedly, the world’s tallest ceramic vase. There is also a museum with a compelling collection of Zimbabwean stone sculptures and significant mineral and gem exhibit. Nearby and up 74 steps the Church of Our Lady of Monte appears. By the nave of this twin-towered structure rests the crypt of Charles I, the last monarch of the House of Hapsburg who arrived to Madeira in exile in November 1921 and sadly died five months later.
A uniquely wonderful experience was the 1.3-mile toboggan ride from Monte down to Livramento. Sitting in a modified wicker basket with two guys behind steering downhill on a smooth, very steep, narrow trajectory and using only their rubber boots as brakes was exhilarating! Originally started in 1850 as a transport mode Monte to Funchal – a total of 3.7 miles – it was once described by a CNN reporter as “One of the world’s coolest commutes.” I would also add incredibly fun, hoping the cobbler receives a hefty premium in braking gratitude.
No trip to Funchal would be complete without visiting Blandy’s Wine Lodge. Of the 3.4 million liters of wine produced on Madeira, one million are produced by Blandy’s. Established in 1811, the structure was at various times a prison, church, monastery, and hospital. While many wines are produced on Madeira, only those fortified with 96% grape alcohol spirits, oxygen exposure and produced locally can claim the moniker Madeira wine. Over the years, the Blandy family has influenced Madeiran life as the family’s involvement stretched from wine to various ventures including hotels, shipping and newspapers.
The lesson learned
Funchal has pretty much everything a traveler could desire: good weather, great hotels, excellent food and a charming city center all set within a dramatic geographical environment. And then there’s the wine. In his play Richard III, William Shakespeare writes that England’s King Edward IV’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, meets his maker by drowning in a vat of Madeira Malmsey. I suppose if one could select a manner of execution for treason, asphyxiating in a barrel of Madeira wine would probably be ideal.
Written by Julie L. Kessler
Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler