Portugal is getting plenty of attention these days and for good reason. Plenty to see, good weather, great food, and hospitable locals amid intense natural beauty all make for a memorable travel experience. It is also an excellent value when compared to other European countries. The word is clearly out as Portugal was recently named number one country destination in Condé Nast Traveler 2021 Readers’ Choice Awards.
To be sure there’s much to enjoy all over Portugal. Recently I added the island of Madeira to an Autumn Portuguese sojourn. It was a truly great decision.
The island of Madeira, a Portuguese autonomous region with its own parliament and president, is geographically closer to Morocco than Europe. However, it’s easily accessible by either a quick 90-minute non-stop flight from Lisbon, and starting November 29th, SATA Air Azores will be commencing non-stop flights from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to Funchal, Madeira’s charming capital city. Wanting a romantic interlude after working overseas for several weeks, my husband joined me on Madeira. We were duly rewarded with a romantic interlude in the oceanfront town of Calheta on Madeira’s dreamy west coast, just 35 minutes from Funchal, but another experience altogether.
The Saccharum Hedonistic Design Resort in Calheta rests high atop a hill where a former sugar cane mill once produced this former mainstay of Madeira’s economy and is a short stroll from the quaint marina and sandy Calheta Beach. Saccharum’s public spaces and hallways have subdued hues of earth tones standing in total contrast to the crisp blue skies and cobalt ocean vistas that surround the property at every turn. When we exited the elevator to our floor, it seemed there were no room numbers. Unusually, they were illuminated on the ceilings. A unique, quirky touch of internationally renowned, Madeira-born Interior Designer Isabel Maria Andrade Silva, affectionately known as “Nini.” It’s almost as if she’s saying, “Don’t look straight ahead, also look ALL around you, above and below, as there’s so much to see.” As it turned out, this would be our guiding principle during our stay where every corner of the hotel, every location by each of its three outdoor pools, bars and restaurants, and indeed all of Calheta, offered up a view that appeared as suspended animation over the indigo blue abyss.
Saccharum’s 243 rooms and suites are spacious, starting at 400 square feet, have top-notch bedding, flat screen televisions, Nespresso makers, kettles and stocked mini-bars. Many have balconies larger than my first east coast apartment. Walk-in showers have Molton Brown products while the bathtub in our suite had floor-to-ceiling windows taking advantage of the marvelous views and was the largest I’ve seen at any resort anywhere in the last decade. It could easily have accommodated five tall people. A state-of-the-art fitness center with scheduled fitness classes and spa made wellness and bliss obtainable.
Dining on Madeira generally and in Calheta specifically is a very happy affair. Lengthy meals are made from locally sourced produce, abundant fresh seafood, flavorful meats and of course, great Portuguese wines.
The Socalco Nature Hotel known for its rural tourism concept is set at the apex of a Calheta bluff with utterly dizzying views. Here proprietor Chef Octávio Freitas shares his love of farming and Madeiran regional cuisine and creates a nightly four-course set menu containing much of his own bounty in his gastronomic studio. Warm beet soup with salmon blini, snapper with fava beans, tasty lamb lollipops and dessert of panna cotta and Madeira cookie that tasted like Christmas were our evening’s delight.
Calheta’s culinary pièce de résistance was the wine pairing Signature six-course dinner at Saccharum’s Alambique under the direction of talented Executive Chef Raul Ferreira. We were wowed by the delectable, glazed shrimp in Kadaif pasta with avocado ice cream, sweet potato cappuccino soup, and rockfish tenderloin with crusted pistachio. Following a Gin & Tonic palate cleanser, a mouthwatering duck leg in massaman curry with chestnuts arrived. A tropical fruit pavlova in mascarpone cream ended a glorious artisanal meal.
If you can tear yourself away from Saccharum – not an easy task – renting a car is a great way to see the island that measures 32 by 14 miles. However, contra to the American “size matters” concept, due to the vertical nature of the island and the extremely narrow roads sometimes appearing to lead nowhere, here you will want the smallest car you and your six-foot passenger can fit into. Think Smart car or Yaris.
Heading north we drove to Porto Moniz, a remote coastal village famous for its natural lava rock pools and dramatic ethereal scenery akin to a lunar landing. Though only about 25 miles away, it took nearly an hour and was worth every minute. Though a cloudy day in the north, the waters were still a balmy 70 degrees. Nearby is Seixal beach, the only black sand beach on the island and so distinct from the towering emerald green cliffs and mighty waterfalls in the area.
Wine of course is central to Madeira and there’s over 1,200 acres under vine with both red and white varietals, producing not just the fortified sweet wines but also some fine table wines. At Quinta do Barbusano, a boutique producer near São Vicente established by proprietor António Oliveira in 2006, we tasted several bottles of his bounty. Personal favorites were his 2015 Ponta do Tristao, a perfect marriage of Portuguese Verdelho and German Arnsburger grapes and an excellent 2017 rosé, Tinta Negra Aragonez, that is much darker in color and fuller bodied than most rosés. Closed Mondays.
Surrounded by water, the enormous Saccharum Spa continues this hydro theme with a heated indoor pool, Jacuzzi, Turkish bath, ice fountain and sauna. A skilled masseuse detoxed me of three weeks of global gallivanting and nearly made me forget my name. My husband had the same great masseuse. Fortunately for him, he remembered my name.
The lesson learned
One could easily stay in Calheta several days simply enjoying Saccharam, its amenities and nearby quaint marina with its bars, restaurants and maritime offerings – whale and dolphin watching, day and sunset sails and deep-sea fishing. It’s also a great base for other island jaunts. Saccharam Hotel will appeal to both millennials seeking an uber cool vibe, yet at the same time late baby boomers will be blissfully happy to have traditional hotel amenities and services in a stunning geographical setting.
If warm Madeiran hospitality, excellent service, and inspiring food with a plethora of activities all set in one of world’s most eye-candy physical locations sounds inviting, you’ll certainly want to answer Calheta’s call as you meander Madeira.