Welcome to Madeira Island – a Refuge of natural beauty!
Madeira was my first international trip since BC 2019, and Madeira was the perfect adventure to kick-start my travel hibernation.
Madeira Island is a sub-tropical island of Portugal, off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese Island is off the beaten path for most American travelers, and this was my first visit to both Madeira and Portugal. Luckily, I was able to combine the island of Madeira and a night in Lisbon for a quick comparison of the mainland vs. the island.
My journey started with much angst, Thank you COVID19. I promise my story is not going to focus on COVID but, I cannot ignore it.
My experience started with filling out paperwork, getting a PCR test and, re-learning how to pack my suitcase! Funny how something I took for granted became so foreign to me.
I decided to go to the airport early, just in case! As it turned out, American Airlines was prepared and made my experience manageable and almost stress-free. At the time, requirements and restrictions for flying into or via London were complicated and changing often. So, to keep on top of everything, American Airlines had a dedicated check-in team for London flights only, which was extremely helpful. The AA representative was pleasant, patient, and very knowledgeable. She stayed calm and never sounded irritated with everyone asking the same questions over and over.
Once all my paperwork was in order, I checked in and had plenty of time to focus on the looming storm approaching O’Hare! And sure enough, our flight took off 2 hours late.
My traveling companion was monitoring our arrival time and looking for connecting flights to Funchal, Madeira. I knew there was only one connecting flight from London Heathrow to Funchal and missing it was not an option. Luckily, we were able to clear security at Heathrow and make our connection with a few minutes to spare.
Once I arrived in Madeira, I was overwhelmed with the beauty, and could not wait for the real adventure to begin.
Madeira has many names, including The Garden Island, The Island of Eternal Spring, and my favorite, The Floating Garden. Being sub-tropical the botanicals are abundant and varied. The species found on the island are from all over the world, mostly because it was a main focal point of the trade route from all over the world.
Madeira is also well known for Madeira Wine, which has been produced on the island since about the 15th century. Fun fact, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence some years ago, our Founding Fathers toasted the occasion with Madeira wine!
Our group was arranged by Ms. Ana Schuetz of TL Portfolio, a travel company, and Ms. Silvia Aires of TEMPO_VIP, a local DMC for Portugal that is represented by TL Portfolio. And representing Madeira was Filipe Fraga of the Madeira Promotion Bureau.
Tempo-VIP arranged for a private meet and greet at the Madeira Airport in Funchal and transfer by private car to Belmond Reid’s Palace, my home for the next 4 nights.
Reid’s Palace is an iconic Grande Dame Hotel, welcoming guests for more than a century. The clientele includes generations of families that return year after year. And, for good reason. The cliff-side location is stunningly dramatic and, while most guests arrive by land, for many, many years, guests would arrive by ship. Which explains the landing at sea level with dressing rooms at the water’s edge which allowed the arriving guest an opportunity to change into their resort wear before checking in. In later years a lift was added and made the hike to the lobby a breeze.
The hotel’s interiors, exteriors, and landscaping are beautifully maintained. The staff at every level are extremely attentive. Guests are greeted with a smile from check-in to check-out and everything in between. All hotel employees and guests are required to wear a mask in the public areas of the resort.
My room was light and airy with a sea view as well as a view of the pools and gardens. The balcony was spacious, and I welcomed the sea breezes each night. While the hotel is waiting for some renovations that were postponed due to the closure of 2020, they are nicely sized, the bed was heavenly, and I had plenty of closet space. The bathroom was small, with a single vanity, which is very common in an older historical hotel. It was perfect for a single traveler but, two would have been cozy. As much as the deep porcelain bathtubs are reminiscent of earlier times and some guests enjoy a luxurious soaking, I prefer a separate shower and bathtub.
As typical with traveling eastbound, and crossing several time zones, it is best to stay awake and active into the evening to ensure a welcomed night’s sleep. Our group met in the hotel lobby around 5 pm to visit another property in Funchal, Quinta de Casa Branca. Quinta de Casa Branca is a botanical paradise with stunning gardens. Our host toured the grounds with us, and we viewed a couple of the accommodations. All the hotels we visited were experiencing record occupancy and vacant rooms were limited.
Our dinner was served outside on the manicured lawn as a duo played. The food was delicious and beautifully presented. After a leisurely dinner, drinks, wine, and of course, dessert, we returned to Reid’s Palace for a well-earned rest.
Day two started with a stroll around the resort. I was going to enjoy a morning swim in one of the two pools. The larger pool is saltwater, and the slightly smaller pool has fresh water. I forgot to pack my swim goggles so I asked the pool attendant if perhaps a previous guest may have left some behind that I could borrow. But, unfortunately, due to Covid19, it was frond upon to share anything and there were no goggles.
Instead, I decided to venture down to the sea, which is a bit of a hike, about 3 floors in total. There are two sets of stairs, one set winding down with several landings where the pool attendant placed beach towels on the chaise lounges. The other set of stairs accesses a landing with the original changing rooms that are no longer in use. Finally, at the bottom of the stairs, there was a plunge pool with seawater, which was ‘refreshing’. To my surprise, there were also 3 diving boards of varying heights for the guest to enjoy as well as a large raft about 50 yards from the rocks that provided more enjoyment for the more adventurous guest.
The hotel is very conscious of the challenging stairs and there is a lift for anyone not able or willing to take the stairs. But I enjoyed the challenge and felt like I was on a stair master.
Once back at the top I joined the other guests for a traditional European breakfast buffet, which is slowly returning to hotel dining. Because of Covid19, buffets were removed for guests’ safety. Honestly, it felt a bit strange to me for everyone to be milling about deciding which of the beautifully prepared selections they would choose. Each guest was wearing a mask while up and about and after a short time, I too was enjoying a delicious breakfast.
Today’s events started with a Historical Walking tour with a local Storyteller that included a Gastronomical Experience tasting the history of Madeira through the food. And, then we met with a local chef who took us to the market and ended with a very fun Master Cooking Class. The chef being the Master cook planned a delicious meal that included some interesting vegan options, to accommodate each of our dietary preferences.
Next was a tour of an Embroidery studio in the center of the old town. The art of Embroidery is slowly diminishing in Madeira because these talented artists are aging, and the youth of the community are not interested in learning and mastering the skill. The work is tedious and requires steady hands as well as good eyesight. Attention to detail is vital.
From the fine art of Embroidery, we did a 360 about-face and explored the west side of Funchal aboard a Sidecar! Of course, the driver of each Sidecar was professional and well versed in the landscape and traffic of the city. It was great fun and I preferred not being in the sidecar but, on the seat behind the driver. The view from the seat is much better to see the city and the ocean. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would and was very comfortable on the back of a motorcycle. Our driver shared some stories of the city’s local villages around Funchal.
Once we returned to the hotel, we had time to relax, check emails and get ready for a sight inspection and dinner at Les Suites at The Cliff Bay.
Les Suites is a sister property to The Cliff Bay Resort and are next door to each other. The original Cliff Bay is the larger of the two and is favored by many generations of families that return each year for a holiday. Les Suites is brand new, modern, and much smaller in the number of accommodations. The guests at The Cliff Bay are welcome to dine at Les Suites but have limited access to the services at Les Suites. Guests at Les Suites can use the facilities at The Cliff Bay but, I do not know why they would.
Les Suites at Cliff Bay is next door to Reid’s Palace and is within walking distance into the Historical town of Funchal including dining and shopping options. Dinner was wonderful and included some local dishes, fresh seafood, and the chef is very accommodating to all dietary preferences.
I started Day 3 by checking one more time if there was an extra pair of swim goggles laying around so, I could take advantage of the beautiful pool. Not to mention a little exercise to counter all the wonderful food and wine I was enjoying. I asked a different pool attendant and lucky for me, there was a pair of swim goggles hidden at the bottom of the pool/toy chest! I was thrilled and very thankful to the pool guy and the guests that left behind the goggles! To me, a morning swim is a perfect way to start my day.
Time was flying by…our day started around 10 am with a drive to explore West Madeirense. We stopped at Camara de Lobos, a beautiful, fishing village that was a favorite of Winston Churchill and is included in his paintings. And, from there to Ribeira Brava with wonderful beaches, Cabo Girao (2nd highest cliff in the world) with a skyway glass platform with an exciting view. We stopped at Porto Moniz, which is another fishing village, and a popular place for ‘digital nomads’ (another term to describe people that work remotely).
We then arrived at Quinta de Barbusano on the north coast of Madeira for a delightful, delicious lunch in the vineyards that was prepared by the owner and his staff. The meal was accompanied by 7 wines produced at this Quinta.
Our evening included a sight inspection and tour of the historical part of Reid’s Palace as well as a typical BBQ dinner with traditional specialties on the lawn under the evening sky.
The last day in Madeira would begin with a 6 am departure from Reid’s Palace for a 40-minute drive to go above the clouds at Pico do Arieiro, 1818 meters above Funchal and the 3rd highest peak on Madeira Island to watch the sunrise! The experience is truly magical and must be included in each itinerary. The sky lights up and the clouds and sea are all illuminated with stunning colors and contrasts.
Afterward, we were treated to a light breakfast in a meadow about 15 minutes away and had a champagne toast to celebrate the beauty we witnessed.
From there we drove into the forest to learn about the “levadas” a symbol of Madeira. Levadas are man-made irrigation channels that were built many, many years ago to funnel large amounts of water down from the mountain slopes where it was in abundance to the southern part of the island. Today there are more than 50 levadas they are very popular with the locals and visitors alike to hike and explore the forests.
But wait, there’s more…our day continued with a private yacht tour and lunch to take in the island from the sea. The weather was hot and sunny which allowed us to enjoy a refreshing dip in the Atlantic Ocean. The coastline of Madeira is rocky with many cliffs as well as sand or rocky beaches.
Dinner our last evening was hosted by The Savoy Palace Hotel, a short walk from Reid’s Palace. The Savoy Palace is also brand new and had to postpone its grand opening from 2020 to this year, 2021. The Savoy Palace is one of 3 hotels that make up a group offering something unique at each. The Savoy sits farther back away from the sea, but most rooms have a sea view. You never have to leave the 3-hotel complex to get a well-rounded holiday.
Belmond The Reid’s Palace, The Savoy, and Les Suites at The Cliff Bay are all 5-star hotels in Funchal but, each has its own identity. The various amenities include a spa, freshwater, and saltwater pools, with stunning pool areas that welcome sun and relaxation, water sports, tennis, and kid’s clubs, too. And each is starkly different in style with the Savoy being the largest of the three. There truly is a hotel for everyone without compromise.
The next morning, I had time to enjoy a quick swim and then returned the swim goggles so other guests would not be disappointed and miss out on enjoying the pool(s). After breakfast, several of us had to get a COVID19 test for our return to the US. The test had to be within 72 hours of our departure. The Belmond Reid’s Palace arranged to have a nurse come to the hotel to administer the test. Two of us had to have a PCR test and the 3rd person was able to have an Antigen test. The difference is the turn-around time for results and some countries require the PCR vs. the Antigen. Also, the PCR test is more expensive – 95EUR vs. 25EUR. Because I was connecting via London/Heathrow, I was required to have the PCR version. I would get the results later that night to ensure my departure the next morning.
The flight to Lisbon was easy and quick, with no delays and we arrived at our hotel, Valverde Hotel in the heart of Lisbon just in time for a light snack.
Valverde Hotel is a member of Relais and Chateaux Hotels as well as Virtuoso. The hotel is in the center of Avenida da Liberdade, and the heart of Lisboa. The boutique property was recently renovated after opening in 2014 and is uniquely classic with very contemporary furnishings and beautiful art and antiques throughout. After a quick, light snack, I ventured out along the Avenida da Liberdade in search of a few gifts, and I was not disappointed with the options.
Dinner that evening was wonderful, and the service was perfect. Our small group challenged the local chefs throughout the week with our distinct food preferences and Valverde’s chef did not disappoint. It was an evening of laughter and toasts to our hostesses for a wonderful experience.
The last piece of the puzzle was a negative COVID test which I passed with flying colors! It was comforting to know I would not have to delay my return home. However, I do look forward to returning to Lisbon someday to explore and discover the city so many clients have loved.
The next morning, we departed the hotel very early, arrived at the Lisbon Int’l airport with plenty of time to check-in and grab a quick breakfast for the journey home. Thankfully, my flights were on time, and I arrived home happy, albeit a little exhausted, too.
In closing, Portugal is a destination with many surprises, such as Madeira vs. the mainland. There is enough variety to appeal to all types of travelers, something for everyone! What are you waiting for?