Coastal cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and palatial hotels—T+L uncovers the wild appeal of Madeira, Portugal’s secret island.
Credit: Emily Mott

There’s no road sign for the waterfall that’s falling on the road up ahead. And, frankly, I’m not sure how you’d actually prepare for this cascading natural car wash other than to simply close your eyes, grip the wheel, and hope for the best. Which is what we do when the coastal cliffside road we’re on runs into a wall of water like a heavy curtain of crystal beads. The waves below are foamy white. Windows up, we splash through. And—wipers on, eyes blinking open again—we’re on the other side, laughing. Pleased to find ourselves still attached to this verdant volcanic rock that juts up from the sea and never stops surprising us.

It’s an oddly bracing thing, driving through waterfalls. And this is an odd and dreamy island, Portuguese but far from the huddled mass of wintry Europe, alone in the Atlantic Ocean 440 miles off the coast of Africa. A patchwork of genteel gardens and tidy red-roofed cottages, lush laurel forests and steeply rising sea cliffs dramatically bashed about by an endless churning ocean. This is why we sought out an island—to feel ourselves surrounded by water and far from everything else.

Need I add that we’re utterly lost? That’s okay. More than okay, really: it’s sort of the point. Having slipped somehow off the main highway, we’d found ourselves on this little-used (for good reason) precipice of a road and survived our morning’s adventure. Somewhere we get back on track and rejoin the traffic toward Portugal’s Ribeira Brava. There we’ll catch the mountain road that bisects the island and follow it up and over its misty, jungly green middle, down again to the sparsely inhabited northern coast.

The plan for the day: to look out the window; to watch the waves smashing against another rocky cut of shore; to admire the fine-lined terraces etched into every jagged, cloud-catching slope and marvel at the effort and ingenuity required to eke out life on this vertical, faraway, half-tamed place. We’ll stop for a walk, find a seaside bar, and stand with the old, silent men there for cups of coffee and a restorative poncha, Portugal’s incendiary traditional cocktail made with the local sugarcane rum. It’s an ambitious schedule of freestyle wandering, with time built in for the occasional invigorating wrong turn.

Madeira is known for a wine most people don’t drink anymore. When violent storm flooding put the island in the news a few years ago, American viewers could be forgiven for thinking: That’s where the substitute for cooking sherry comes from. But it wasn’t always this way. Our founding fathers drank Madeira by the barrel. It was the wine used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington downed a pint every evening, so they say. I wanted to go to Madeira because I liked the idea of a place where I could do a bit of hiking, wear a blazer to dinner, and drink a noble old wine with a good backstory. Mostly, though, it was geography that drew me to it: a place at once remote and domesticated, a European island defined by its severance from the mainland.

What distinguishes Madeira from other fortified wines is the heat that’s intentionally applied to it. It’s a process meant to mimic the 18th-century discovery that a wine’s flavor could actually improve when it was left to age in barrels while splashing around in the hot hold of a ship on its way to the Indies or back. Getting here, you are again sloshed around by history, reminded by your disorientation of a long-ago time when the island stood as a key port-of-call on the trading route to faraway lands—even if it is only a quick EasyJet hop from Lisbon now.

My girlfriend, Evyn, and I arrived in Madeira on New Year’s Day. In the cold, damp, gray, hungover early morning in Lisbon, we sandwiched ourselves into the budget carrier and landed, two hours later, on another planet. The airport sits on high stilts perched over the ocean. The escalator up from baggage claim delivers you to a floor-to-ceiling window panorama of lemony, warm sun rays and gently rippled blue sea. We thawing zombies stopped and stared.

Funchal is Madeira’s main city. It at first surprises you by seeming bigger than you want it to be, sprawling upward from the harbor. Then it re-surprises you with its intimacy and charm as you leave the cruise-ship amusements by the waterside and pick your way through narrow streets paved in black and white stones.

Still shaking off the cold of the Continent and the old year, we proceeded directly to Reid’s Palace, the venerable grand hotel. The only problem with this plan is that once installed within the lush gardens and time-warp jacket-and-tie gentility of Reid’s, you never want to leave. Churchill slept here. A vintage poster advertises a mode of pampered travel unknown to the EasyJet set: “Excursions by hammocks.” By hammocks! This “floating garden” has long been heralded as an all-season refuge for a certain class of modestly adventurous, mostly British visitor.

As our room was being readied, Evyn and I had coffee on Reid’s tiled terrace. The sky was nearly cloudless, the water’s surface undisturbed by the white of any waves. Ulisses Marreiros, the general manager, welcomed us and described our luck. The week before, he said, storms had bruised Funchal. Breakers had come up over the seawall where we now looked out at nothing but calm. One of the hotel’s swimming pools had been eaten by the ocean. But sitting there, it was hard to picture nature as anything but a benevolent force.

After an acclimating nap, we ventured out into Funchal and did the things you do here. We strolled down Avenida Zarco, named for the cycloptic commander who in 1418 claimed the island on behalf of Prince Henry the Navigator. At the market we stared into the saucer-size eyes of the espada, the famously ugly scabbard fish. They are glossy black, a fangy grimace of needle-sharp, translucent teeth. We retreated to the friendlier second-floor fruit sellers and chewed fresh sugarcane and tried custard apples, tree tomatoes, and tangy pitanga, a Brazilian fruit that has adapted to the local soil. Nearly everything grows well here.

Marreiros offered to take us to a favorite spot for lunch. Doca Do Cavacas is built into the face of a wall perilously close to the whipping waves. We ate caramujos (tiny steamed sea snails) and tried the espada, good and fleshy and much less menacing defanged. Over beers, Marreiros broached the subject of the sandes de carne vinho alhos. A sandwich of piquant marinated pork, it’s traditionally served around this time of year in Portugal. There is even, Marreiros said, a special night when all the bars around the market serve the sandwiches. I’m a sucker for a pork sandwich with its own festival. We had missed December 23, when 10,000 sandwiches were sold and the blocks surrounding the Mercado dos Lavradores were redolent of pork, garlic, and wine. Alas. I pocketed the name of the shop and vowed to try the sandwich before we left the island.

Madeira is really two places, each a kind of microcosmic meditation on the meanings of cultivated and natural, speck of land versus wide-open ocean. Funchal is a port city where for centuries travelers have come and gone, leaving behind traces of what they’ve brought from elsewhere (culture, industry, vegetation, separate hot and cold sink taps) and taking away that which flourishes here (wines, sugar, crafts, the superstar footballer Cristiano Ronaldo). It is an impressive feat, a scale working model of a European city in a remote context that otherwise resembles an overgrown, hyper-verdant South American semitropics. Then there is the rest of the island: wilder, untidy, starkly beautiful.

The beauty of Madeira is you don’t have to choose. A few days at Reid’s—dressing for dinner, poolside lounging by the dragon tree—satisfy a certain nostalgia for a level of well-looked-after, slightly insular golden-era travel (minus, sadly, the hammocks). But an ocean is a long thing to cross just to tan yourself in civilized company.

Driving west from Funchal, you notice the difference almost immediately. By the time we make the hills above Calheta we pass nobody on the road. The Centro das Artes Casa das Mudas is a Modernist bunker set into a cliff. Walking through the museum is like watching a double feature with both shows played at the same time: the one on the walls (an excellent Man Ray exhibit when we visited) and the one looking out. You enter a room and see the tumbling green hills and blue sea, and it’s as if the architect has curated the natural world for your viewing pleasure.

The open spaces of the island are not strictly untouched. Nearly every corner of Madeira is, in fact, gently shaped by human hands. There are the poios (terraces), carved into even the most remote peak. Then there is the remarkable system of levadas, the irrigation channels that form a vast connective grid over the whole of the island. In addition to their primary duty of moving water, the levadas now move people: the waterlines have been conscripted to create nearly a thousand miles of walking and hiking trails.

One afternoon we drove up around the northwest bend past Porto Moniz. Stopping at a roadside stand where a couple was grilling bolo de caco (hot, round disks of chewy garlic bread), we found the trailhead for a levada walk called Ribeira da Janela. We put our boots on and followed the mossy waterway up into the hills. There is something harmonious about this: walking where the water flows. Some levadas are steep and challenging. Janela was gentle to rise but soon we were surrounded by a cool mist. The peaks in every direction were covered in a dense green shag. A soft world, far from either the city we’d left or the sun and coast we’d followed here. Around another turn, there was a familiar sight. A cold waterfall splashed down across an uneven stone path. We ran right through.

The far eastern end of Madeira looks nothing like the rest of the island. The cliffs of Ponta de São Lourenço terminate in a series of low red humps of rock that run out like stepping stones into the ocean. It’s a stark, lovely place that makes you want to run and whistle when you see it. We arrived there on our last day.

We’d driven along the twisty northern coast, sometimes on dirt roads. We’d stopped in the village of Santana and enjoyed both our lunch there and the dadaist mistranslations of the restaurant’s menu. (“Wine-like Lamb” was fairly easy to decode. “Cock of de Country” less so).

The drive took longer than we’d expected. When we finally arrived at the end of the road, the sky had pinkened, the cool air felt thin and invigorating. Trying to beat the sunset, we stopped the car and ran across the red rocks toward the sea. Someone may have been singing. The cliffs had no vegetation now, just striated layers of red and orange. The effect felt like a remake of The Sound of Music set on Mars.

We didn’t make it back in time to try the legendary pork sandwich at the market. We had meant to, of course, but meaning to also meant accepting the chance of failure, a cautionary tale about having any goals at all. And having missed out, there was reason to return some day. For now, we stood awhile at this empty, enchanted end of the island. Sandwiches missed, the EasyJet flight coming to collect us in the morning, the rest of Europe and this thing called “winter” currently in effect—it was very easy to forget all that.

Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.

Centro das Artes Casa das Mudas 37 Estrada Simão Gonçalves da Câmara, Calheta;

Cica Bar Mercado dos Lavradores, Funchal; 351/291-241-693. $$

Doca do Cavacas Punta da Cruz, Funchal; 351/291-762-057. $$

Reid’s Palace 139 Estrada Monumental, Funchal; $$$


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Reid's Palace