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The Empire Leans Back

I've always known there was a whole class of people who see hotels as destinations. People who get the same room at the Savoy every year, trade confidences with the concierge at the Pierre, and go to Singapore exclusively to sip gin and tonics poolside at Raffles. But I was never one of them. Of course, that was before I spent nearly 24 hours flying to the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal solely to stay at Reid's Palace.

Reid's is a luxury hotel fit to be mentioned in the same breath as those other fabled properties. Winston Churchill used it as a base for painting expeditions around the island in the halcyon days after the war. George Bernard Shaw checked in, swallowing his socialist convictions; so did the poet Rilke, and members of just about every European royal family in the past century, along with assorted exiled tin-pot dictators, PM's, and MP's too numerous to mention.

Unlike my usual hotels, which have names like Tiny's and the Starlite Motor Inn (hourly rates available), Reid's has a history-- as opposed to a rap sheet. Then again, like any good hotel, it has that as well. Dr. John Adams dropped by in 1956, after being let off the hook for the suspicious death of a silver-haired English widow. Since 132 widows had been strangely generous to the good doctor in their wills, he had the money for a stay.

Among the general crush of hotel drivers, I picked out the tall man in the natty gray uniform as Reid's solo welcoming committee. He whisked me outside to a waiting cab and sent me off to the hotel. Madeira is volcanic and therefore mountainous, so almost all the roads are twisting, and they are generally traveled at great speed. This is fun in the way rides at Disneyland would be fun if you had no assurance that you would be getting off them alive.

At the hotel, past a wall and a gate and palm trees that I could dimly make out in the darkness, more uniformed men were waiting to take my luggage and point me toward the two lovely young women at the reception desk. They were pleased to see me, pleased to welcome me back to Reid's Palace, and perplexed when I explained that, actually, I'd never been there before. Still, we were all quite pleased that I was there now, at last, and they could deliver me into the hands of the new assistant manager, who would take me to my room. She was German, and slightly lost (she had, after all, been there only a week). But a maid took pity and steered us to my room, through long corridors lined with bouquets of orchids resting on florid antique tables. Once there, I drank a largish glass of complimentary Madeira, surveyed the thick Oriental rugs, dark woods, and gorgeous blue-tiled bathroom, and promptly passed out.

I devoted the next day to doing as little as possible. Great hotels are good for that sort of activity, and they take pride in offering as many flavors of lazing about as they can. Reid's, for its part, claims the following: two formal gardens; a sauna with masseuses in attendance; and a poolside restaurant and lounge. There was also a program called "Active," which started with "Keep Fit by the Pool" and included walks along the levadas (irrigation canals that weave all over the island), jeep safaris, and "Portuguese Is . . . Easy" (no, it's not, either). I preferred drinks and lunch by the pool over toe-touching en masse.

There was a good deal of flesh around the pool, most of it British or German, all of it turning slowly pink and then red and redder still in the blazing sun. I read my book and drank my drinks and reflected on the irony that most of the people sunning themselves around me had been shooting at one another only 50 years before. After a few hours I got tired of skin and irony and repaired to the tropical garden-- a well-ordered and fragrant riot of bird-of-paradise, ginger, bougainvillea, geraniums, frangipani, orchids, and palms. It was a good place to start exploring the hotel, an immense Mediterranean-style place sprawled across a cliff overlooking the sea. Inside, the flowers from the garden were everywhere, splashes of tropical color amongst overstuffed chairs and chandeliers.

Since my package included a guided tour of the island, I spent the next two days exploring, both on foot and in a spanking new Mercedes-Benz limousine driven by the estimable and way-better-dressed-than-me Senhor Freitas. "Discovered" in 1418 by the Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco, Madeira had long lived in stories as the location of the Gates of Hell. As you approach the island by air, it's easy to see why: the place is all jagged peaks and green forest, with clouds and fog that seldom dissipate shrouding the mountaintops like smoke, a tattered and infernal banner streaming in the wind.

It's also easy to see why the English-- a strong presence on Madeira after the marriage of Charles II to the Portuguese princesa Catherine of Bragança in 1662-- have waxed romantic over the island ever since they arrived. After an early fixation on the pastoral, English Romanticism became big on aeries and the cliffside sublime. Madeira, with its farms and villages clinging to precipitous terraced slopes, has these in abundance. One of the first stops on my slow and winding tour with Senhor Freitas was at Cabo Girão, just after the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. It's the second-highest seaside cliff in the world, and standing at its edge does indeed produce intimations of the sublime. It also produces ferocious vertigo, an effect not unrelated to sublimeness in literature.

An excess of this elevated feeling may explain why I missed my tour of the Madeira Wine Company and my dinner in the formal dining room. Or maybe it was the concierge's fault; it's difficult to say for certain. I dutifully made my reservations for both, only to be informed twice, when I was ready to go, that I had missed the appointed time. But the next day's high tea in the Reid's lounge more than made up for the forfeited chance to watch men in four different uniforms serve dinner in the hotel's pink and gold dining room.

Tea-- like most things at the hotel-- is something of an institution. Sitting in my linen suit, listening to Cole Porter played on the piano and Lord Something-or-other discussing his son's inability to stay out of the newspapers, was the fulfillment of an adolescent Brideshead Revisited fantasy. And later, a glass of Madeira vintage 1870, its flavor like sweet smoke, would make up for the lost history lesson. I sipped it in the bar on my last night, while smoking a cigar and watching living history dance under the flashing lights before me. As I finished my wine, I gradually realized what song the Reid's duo was playing: "At the Copa, Copacabaaaanaaaa . . ." Tradition. Living still at the Palace.

MARK VAN DE WALLE writes about art and popular culture for Artforum.

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