Madeira: History and Culture, Nature, The Climate, Wine, Gastronomy
Celebrating its 600th anniversary this coming year in 2019, Madeira is a vacation destination both unspoiled and up-to date. Contradictions in co-existence! An off-road open-air jeep tour takes you to areas of the island untouched by time, where farming on steep slopes continues as it has through the ages. Ride the modern cable car up the mountain to visit the Monte Palace Botanical Gardens, then have a seat on a man-powered old-fashioned wicker basket taboggan sled built for two for a ride down along stone streets. Choose lodging in the style of the traditional 16th century “quintas” (farmhouse inn) such as the Quinta do Furão on a cliff top in Santana on the northeast coast or stay at the 5-star Pestana Carlton Madeira, a luxurious and charming hotel in the city of Funchal, with a Ballroom for meetings and a cocktail lounge for live music listening and dancing.
Madeira, a destination not top of mind to American vacationers, I met only one other during my 6-night stay this past May, and she had a connection to the island — her great-grandmother was born here. More popular among European vacationers, indeed my hotel registration papers called me Frau Skriloff. I’m guessing the top countries travelers represent are those covered by the daily newspaper synopsis offered in the breakfast room The Good Morning News from Germany, from England, from France.
An island belonging to Portugal off the coast of Africa near Morocco, Madeira is reached via flights from Lisbon and the stopover package via TAP Airlines gave me a chance to include that city during my trip.
Among the top reasons travelers come to Madeira: nature, the climate, wine, gastronomy, history and culture and my itinerary for Multicultural Travel News focused equally on those.
Our full-day island jeep tour withMadeira Mountain Expeditions exposed us to a range of micro-climates around the island as the jeep climbed the 1818 meter high Pico do Arieiro, the highest point in Madeira, took us through Machico, where Portuguese sailors arrived in 1419, and into Canical, passing the Museu da Baleia (Whale museum) and the vineyards growing the table wine grape variety of Madeira wine called First Love.
Throughout the day we passed fields of crops — Madeira is known for growing and exporting bananas – and our driver/guide Angelo Dias told us about sugar cane and potatoes and pointed out the mandarinas and the loquasts not to mention the (highly poisonous) Foxglove (digitalis) flowers.
Riding through the heavily forested area, the “abundant wood” that gave Madeira its name, taking in the scent of the Eucalyptus trees, I could feel us step back in time as our off-road capable jeep climbed the vertical landscapes.
What does Madeira remind you of? My well-traveled jeep tour companions asked ourselves, this being the first visit for all of us. Is it more like San Diego for its climate and spotlight on outdoor activities such as mountain biking? or Capri, an island with similar climbs? Or is it like Hawaii, another volcanic island?
Madeira is unique and deserves to be on the radar of world travelers….Vacation, business and incentive travelers! Madeira Mountain Expeditions is the #1 company for incentive travel Angelo told us and has carried out programs for companies such as Pirelli Tires, Bayer, and Volkswagen, as well as American sports doctors’ meetings.
Other forays into the great outdoors during my visit: a 3- hour dolphin watching catamaran boat ride with VMT Madeira (and we saw plenty!) and a mountain bike excursion plus Levada walk with EPIC Madeira. The Levada walks, walking paths alongside the man-made irrigation canals that criss cross the island are a popular activity and Epic Madeira offers excursions of varying levels of difficulty. They also offer something called coasteering, which I would call cliff jumping and canyoning, which I would call waterfall rappelling, but as luck would have it, (wink) I was busy the day my group did that.
Being a city girl, I’m more comfortable with the great indoors so luckily the 17-acre Monte Palace Botanical Gardens – which I was advised to allow two hours for my visit — also had a museum, featuring the Museum of Minerals. I never realized until that day, but I like minerals more than flora (but both less than fauna) as I spent a good part of my time in the Museum, which offers a close-up look at the semiprecious and precious gems in their natural settings (Plus ok, the wifi worked best inside the museums.)
Interesting fact I learned in the park museums: Darwin was an enthusiast of Madeira before he knew about the Galapagos!
Other museums I visited during my trip focused on the heritage, history and culture of the island.
- Museu de Arte Sacra – a fine collection of Flemish paintings and Sacred silver belonging to the church, in an 18thcentury building. (Museum opened in 1955). A highlight for me: the top floor watch tower with its panoramic view of sea
- Bordal Hand Craft Embroidery museum and store – Visited the museum on the top floors with a guide, learning how the beautiful designs were created, inspired by flowers and nature, and watched the women work today as in the past, using antique stamps and pattern books. They offer free embroidery lessons!: learn 6 stitches during a class offered every Thursday
- Fabrica Santo Antonio – since 1983, this 6th generation, family run factory, produces biscuits, jams, candies with the flavors of Madeira, (eucalyptus, sugar cane, fennel, among others,) cookies, and, now, gluten free ginger biscuits and almond scones. Tasted honey cakes and left with a bag of eucalyptus candies.
- Madeira Film Experience – I made a beeline for the Marina shopping center to see this 5 euro 25 minute movie about Madeira’s history. I’m a sucker for these introductory films and this one didn’t disappoint.
- Madeira Story Center – Likewise this mini museum in Old Town is a diorama version of the introductory film. Life-size figures, animatronic ready, tell the story as you wind your way along the path thru history of the island from its volcanic origins, discovery of the archipelago, to modern day. I wished I had time to end with a meal or drink on the outdoor terrace overlooking the sea and the cable car!
Of course, the not-to-be missed visit is to a Madeira Wine Museum, the product most associated with the island. At Blandy’s Madeira Wine Company, our 45 minute tour covered the history of the Blandy family, the company, the wine and famous fans of the wine, including Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Princess Margaret whose letters of appreciation were on display. Our Portuguese guide’s English was so good, my fellow tour-takers, from England were heard guessing what part of the country she was from.
Indeed, everyone we met spoke English and particularly those in the hospitality industry. The tour, of course, ended with a tasting.
The Madeira wine connection with the United States goes back to George Washington, who toasted The Declaration of Independence with Madeira wine and Jefferson also was a fan.
One small taste was not enough so one morning I joined a Discover Madeira Food & Wine walking tour from Funchal center through Old Town. In 2 ½ hours we made 9 stops, eating our way around town, trying the scabbard fish, the chocolate, ginger cookies, honey cake and drinking beer, Madeira wine and “poncha” a high potent rum drink with cane juice sugar and honey. The tour ended on the rooftop terrace of the Mercado dos Lavradores in Funchal where we had our cake and fennel tea, from the tree that gave “Funchal” its name.
Sofia Maul was our tour guide and she too spoke flawless English, in fact she was raised bilingual, learning English from her grandmother. On her tours, she noted, that while North Americans make up 2-5 % of visitors to Madeira, they make up 40-60 percent of her tour.
Madeira’s tourism official Luis Gonçalves, in the Madeira Promotions Bureau, told me about the growth of visitors from North America, an increasing part of their tourism goal of 3.5-5 million visitors per year.
Last, but by no means least, gastronomy was a highlight of the visit.
Notable meals were at these restaurants of Madeira: Restaurante Chalet Vicente, walking distance from the Carlton Pestana, (Fish soup in a bread bowl, chicken piri piri and Espetada) and Santa Maria Restaurante (Fish & prawn skewers and sushi), as well as Riso Risottoria del Mundo and Quinta do Furão for the accompanying view: and O Lagar for the folklore show and mini museum and where every table had a skewer set up for their popular espetada (beef skewers) offering.
Learn more about visiting Madeira at http://www.visitmadeira.pt/en-gb/homepage and https://www.madeiraallyear.com/en/ and the TAP Stopover offer at https://portugalstopover.flytap.com/USA/enus/stopover/about-stopover and
By Lisa Skriloff, Multicultural Travel News
Mentioned in this article:
Pestana Carlton Madeira
Quinta do Furão
Santa Maria Restaurante
Riso Risottoria del Mundo
Restaurante Chalet Vicente
Monte Palace Gardens
Museum of Minerals
Madeira Mountain Expeditions
Wine Tours Madeira
Blandys Madeira Wine Company
Bordal Hand Craft Embroidery museum and store
Fabrica Santo Antonio
Museu de Arte Sacra
Madeira Film Experience
Madeira Story Center
TAP Air Portugal