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Fall 2003

Azores | Madeira | Lisbon | Algarve

Madeira (1) | Madeira (2)

As we boarded our SATA flight to Madeira, we were handed lovely flowers as part of the Tourism Day celebrations sponsored by the tourist offices, airlines and hotels. Many of the passengers were carrying the São Miguel pineapples to enjoy back home. The flight takes about two and a half hours. The Boeing 747-400 had good size seats and ample leg room so it was quite comfortable. The airport in Funchal, as in the Azores, was attractive, immaculate and the luggage service was exceptionally fast.

The Madeira archipelago (named after its largest island) is made up of four islands, Madeira, Porto Santo (famous for its long golden beach), and the uninhabited Desertas and Selvagens. Funchal is the largest city of Madeira Island and is the capital of this autonomous region of Portugal. The archipelago is about 1000km from the coast of mainland Portugal and 700km from the coast of Africa. It has been known since the 14th century and was first populated in 1419.

Madeira is one of Europe's favorite tourist destinations. There are direct flights from most main European cities and it is only a one and a half hour flight from Lisbon which makes it easy to incorporate with a mainland visit. The favorable year round climate and natural beauty of rugged mountains, gorgeous greenery, natural forests, and enormous variety of plants and exotic flowers make it an experience to remember.

There is quality lodging in all categories ranging from hotels, to manor houses and rural accommodations. The majority of these are in Funchal but more and more are popping up in the interior and along the coasts. The natural gastronomy centers on fish and shellfish, but there's no shortage of wonderful beef and pork dishes. Of course the world famous Madeira Wine is a memorable start or finish to any meal.

Funchal is located in the south, the sunnier side of the island on the lower cliffs. It is the tourist center with its picturesque harbor serving as a port of call for yachts, sail boats and cruise ships. The majority of visitors arrive by plane.

We would be in Madeira 4 nights and decided to stay two nights each in two hotels. The first was the Madeira Panoramico, which is located above the city center with marvelous views. The last 2 nights would be at the Cliff Bay, which is located at the shore front.

Our corner room at the Panoramico was very large and nicely furnished with a large balcony from which we had a sweeping panorama of the city and waterfront. There is substantial closet space for the heavy packers, a/c, cable TV, safety deposit box, and a well-equipped bathroom including a hair dryer. We had a sandwich lunch at the outdoor pool snack bar and on the way visited the indoor pool, gymnasium, sauna, whirlpool, and Turkish bath. Also available are billiards, table tennis, squash and tennis. A courtesy bus runs regularly to and from the city center.
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550 meters above the city is Monte, home to the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. The Telefericos da Madeira operates modern and attractive cable cars from the city center to Monte. The comfortable, quiet ride took 15 minutes and we had a spectacular overview of the city.

The property of the Monte Palace dates back to the 18th century when it was acquired and turned into a beautiful estate. In 1897 it was converted into a hotel named The Monte Palace. Eminent guests visited regularly to appreciate the natural surroundings and the breathtaking views of Funchal. The hotel shut down in 1943 and was purchased in 1987 by Jose Manuel Rodrigues Berardo who created the present masterpiece of nature and art. Nature provides exotic plants native to various countries and indigenous plants from the Madeira forest, Laurissilva. The thousand year old olive trees are an eyeful as well the colorful Koi carp from Japan and China swimming in the two lakes. The richness of art is displayed along the garden lanes which are adorned with sculptures, pagodas, Buddhas, and lanterns. Some of the highlights are a panel of 166 terracotta glazed tiles entitled "The adventures of the Portuguese in Japan", A group of 40 panels portraying the history of Portugal, and the world's tallest ceramic vase featured in the Guinness Book of Records. The Berardo Foundation is dedicated to the preservation and protection of the fauna and flora and thus has restored and maintained this very special garden.
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After a delightful cable car ride, and hours relaxing in an exquisite garden we were ready for a little adventure. Near the garden at the lower part of the charming baroque church of Nossa Senhora do Monte is the starting spot for the Carro de Cesto. Translated it means wicker basket and indeed that is exactly what it is. As we approached we were greeted by two men dressed in traditional white outfits and straw hats who indicated that we should sit on the upholstered seat inside the basket. Fools that we were we obliged them. Each grabbed a rope on either side of the basket and proceeded to run down the steep street ahead. Let me point out we were 550 meters high and the street is a normal car and pedestrian way. They ran, they slowed, they ran, they slowed (get the picture?), they twisted the basket from side to side to avoid bumps, ruts, cars and people. They waved and shouted to friends along the way and we sat side-by-side praying. It was really okay until it started to rain and we put up our umbrella which sort of made it difficult for our drivers to navigate. They were used to this happening and managed nicely. It was a novel, fun experience and sure beats going on a roller coaster!

Friends had told us that we must visit and dine at the Choupana Hills Resort & Spa nestled high on a hillside of Funchal, which they guaranteed us would be high on our list of places to stay on our next visit to Madeira. Although it was evening the moon glow allowed us to see the beauty of the natural landscaping and the way the property is married to the mountain. As we entered the reception area, we were struck by the stunning beauty of the design. We were so intrigued we asked for a tour of the premises before dinner. Combinations of wood and stone with Asian and African influences in the decor are the major components of the smashing creativity. The taste level of the unique artifacts, from various Portuguese discoveries displayed throughout, and the choice of fabrics and colors is flawless. The subtle, elegant tones are dramatically enhanced by sophisticated lighting.

The deluxe rooms and suites are housed in bungalow style units built on pillars all with large balconies overlooking the city and the Atlantic Ocean and are surrounded by tropical gardens. The main building houses all the public rooms and the spa complex. There is a wide deck between the main building and the Xopana Restaurant that overlooks a lagoon style heated pool that looked so tempting I wanted to dive right in. The evening was clear and the sight of the city lights and the Bay of Funchal below was glorious.

The Xopana Restaurant is designed in the style of the rest of the complex, beckoning its guests to relax in the extreme comfort of the furnishings and environment. Sitting at our table we had the same fascinating views as we enjoyed from the deck moments before. Linda was in a light, fruity mood so it was a Sangria evening. The house starter was a tuna tartar and pureed avocado served in a Chinese soup spoon, a well prepared combination. Next, a lemongrass scented fish soup and a red onion soup with a touch of wine; both were heavenly.

We took a break before our main course was served and went up a wide wooden staircase to look at the Basalt Bar. It's a good thing we did not start there - it so inviting one could just move in and not be able to make it down the stairs to dinner, and one would not want to miss dinner.

My sesame coated tuna medallion with wok-fried vegetables and soba noodles and Linda's crusted lamb carre with herbs and pine nuts, sautéed spinach and roasted potatoes were a feast for the eyes and a joy for the taste buds. We did require a bit of energy for the trip back to the hotel and a chocolate fix would do it. It was called chocolate moelleux which was a luscious chocolate cake centered with warm chocolate mousse and accompanied by house made almond ice cream in a spun sugar shell; a fitting end to a marvelous meal. Our waiter was a gem, reflective of the welcoming tone of Choupana.
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As the early morning sun rose, the colors of blue, gray and pink created an exquisite harmony at the distant horizon. It was difficult to leave the balcony but the excellent buffet breakfast beckoned.

Heading west we stopped at the lookout at Pico do Torre to appreciate the overview of Camara de Lobos, a small town of fishermen and their colorful boats. Across the bay we could see the land thick with vineyards and banana plantations. Further west the Cabo Girao towers 550 meters above the ocean. This highest seaside cliff in Europe would be our next stop. Notable, aside from the stupendous views, was the sight of produce gardens at the shore far below.

This western shore route is known as Costa do Sol, full of sun, light and color. Houses dot the steep slopes and water cascades down natural channels carved from the rocks. Ribeira Brava is the place to take the road north or continue west along the coast, decisions, decisions - we had already decided we would head north to São Vincente, but first spend a little time right here. Besides it was time for a coffee break. There is a neat, small two story shopping center at the shore in the middle of town, a perfect spot for that bica and garoto (plain espresso and with a touch of milk). The seashore promenade is lined with shade trees and seating, for enjoying a picturesque break while deciding whether to go west or north.

The spectacular landscape created by mountain and luxurious vegetation is reason enough to come to this island paradise. We became acutely aware of this as we climbed to Pousada dos Vinhaticos at 634 meters and on to Encumeada at 1007 meters all the time surrounded by preserved natural forest. The brilliant, lush green of the Laurissilva Forest occupies an area of 15,000 hectares and forms a vast part of the layer of vegetation that covers the island. The forest includes large trees such as the Til, Ocotea foetens, laurel, Laurus Azorica and Brazilian mahogany. Mosses, all types of bushes, including heather and fern, are intermingled. An array of brightly colored flowers including bougainvillea, lilies, hydrangeas, magnolias, azaleas and orchids thrive in the beautiful climate and add a further dimension of brilliance to the incredible scene. As we turned around the mountain roads the sight of this beauty sprawling down the mountain sides to the valleys below was a joy to behold.

São Vincente is a peaceful, traditional village situated on the ocean encircled by mountains on the north coast. Pedestrian streets make the center a place to shop and linger in comfort. There was a marked contrast of new and old in the village shopping habit. A good size modern market was very busy while the ancient, small one up a few stairs was empty. The well preserved church is rich in art and like the village was calm and welcoming. The adjoining cemetery was well cared for with small family chapels and numbered markers adorned with fresh flowers.
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A large industrial area is being built on the outskirts to attract new business. This gorgeous north coast is beginning to be developed to attract business, tourists, and week-end guests from Funchal. The new Monte Mar Palace Hotel, in Ponta Delgada, just east of São Vincente, is a perfect candidate to benefit from this development. It sits practically in the ocean with super coastline views and easy access to the beach and there is lovely salt water pool. The lobby, lounge and all rooms and suites are large, bright, cheerful and well decorated. All guest rooms have nice ocean views and balcony except for ten, which have mountain views. If you're in the mood there are very nice health spa and recreational facilities.

We had come here for lunch but got distracted by the comfort of the place. Now it was time to eat. Appetizers of mango with smoked ham and smoked salmon with caviar mayonnaise were splendid and the size of the orders enough for main courses. This did not deter us from enjoying thick filets of pargo with creamed spinach and cheese topping. The flavorful fish, seared skin side down on a flat grill, was succulent and delicious. Fresh abacaxi (a pineapple-like exotic fruit) was a great finish. Wonderful food, gorgeous views, we were on a roll.

Our next stop would be the village of Santana, east along picturesque ancient roads and tunnels. The old footpaths down the mountains to the sea, which used to carry the cargo from boats, were visible and now used by hikers and beach goers. Just short of Santana we stopped at Cabanas as Linda was struck by digital delirium and proceeded to capture shots of the nearby village of Arco de São Jorge, where the terraced vineyards appear to plunge into the sea, and the lighthouse at Ponte de São Jorge. Her excitement built as we pulled into Santana and got our first sighting of its famous preserved colorful triangular houses with thatched straw roofs.

A bit further east a viewpoint at Faial reveals the imposing rock of Penha d'Aguia just ahead. This northern coastline is a sight to behold. The village of Porta do Cruz began to use American grapes sometime ago to make table wine which they love and drink regularly so there is very little for outside sale. They also do rum helped by their sugar cane plants. Sugar cane is indigenous to the island, as are bananas.

For dinner, we decided on the Quinta da Achada, which sits on the hills of Funchal about 1.5km from the town center. The adjacent Estalagem Jardins do Lago houses rooms and suites with modern functionality and traditional comfort and style; all face south to the gardens and sea. The Quinta was built in the 18th century and has been refurbished and refreshed without losing its original ambience. The lounges, library, and billiard room retain the wonderful collection of antiques and are conducive to total relaxation. The breakfast room has a large veranda with an exceptional 16th century wall panel. Before dinner in the Beresford Restaurant in the Quinta we strolled thru the paths of the surrounding gardens admiring the rare species and old trees. We were lucky enough to meet Colombo the giant tortoise who has lived here for the last 45 years. Nestled among the mango trees is very large semi-covered heated swimming pool with an adjacent bistro, sauna, Turkish bath and whirlpool. Tennis courts and a well equipped gymnasium are available.

It was a delightful, warm evening to tour the property and get ready for a very special dinner. The dining room is elegantly furnished with lovely paintings gracing the wall. Our waiter was accommodating, pleasant and professional. The food was exquisitely prepared and presented from the green salad to the orange ice cream pudding with Grand Marnier and the profiteroles filled with luscious whipped cream, and everything in between - like the wild mushroom ravioli with slivers of Parmigiano and sardine filets baked in aromatic herbs served on a bed of summer salad seasoned with vinegar, shallots and laurel and the grilled tuna tournedo with green tomato preserve resting on an assortment of fresh vegetables. A smooth, fruity red wine, Duas Quintas 1999, from the Douro was delicious. Our friend was right again.
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Madeira (1) | Madeira (2)

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