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  • Candace Ahlfinger

An Island Paradise--Madeira

Madeira, Portugal is a land of paradise hidden from most Americans except from the quick stops of cruise ships.

Day 1

If you do have the pleasure of visiting for a day via a cruise ship, ride the very long, very high cable car from Funchal up the mountain to the town of Monte. On the top you can visit the Madeira Botanical Gardens, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte church, enjoy a scenic view of the city of Funchal, and then start the fun! Pay €30 to sit in a two-person wicker toboggan and jettison on downhill ride with the help of two strong and capable Madeirenses.

The ride takes about 15 minutes down winding streets before coming to a jerky halt at the station. Be prepared for the opportunity to buy a photo of yourself rocketing down the hill, but when will you ever have this chance again? At the station you can catch a taxi or walk down the rest of the mountain. We chose to walk, at least I chose to walk and my husband graciously agreed to go with me. Be prepared. The walk is steep, long, and can be slick if it’s raining. (The end of my toes hurt the next day!)

The rest of your day can be spent walking down Rua de Santa Maria and nearby streets in the picturesque Old Town and spotting the many artistically painted doors. The doors often reflect the purpose of the building or the trade of its owner, but some simply add color and interest to the narrow pedestrian street. The Se Cathedral is a great place to visit and the Mercado dos Lavradores market was a fun way to see local produce and fish and get a free restroom opportunity.

Unfortunately, cruisers miss the fantastic food that Madeira offers. I had researched the top restaurants on the island and ate at several of them and raved about all of them. I made reservations at all of them which was lucky because every one of them was full when we arrived. Each featured fresh seafood. In fact, in most of the restaurants, the waiter brought out a tray displaying the fresh catch of the day for diners to choose. Our first dinner was at O Tasco. We chose limpets (a specialty of the island), triggerfish, parrotfish, octopus, and dried tuna for a wonderfully delicious and delightful meal.

Day 2

If you are fortunate enough to stay on Madeira, there is a great deal to do. We spent one full day on a tour of the western part of the island. (You can also take a tour of the eastern part of the island, but we ran out of time.) There are many tour companies, but we chose to use a private driver, John Eusebio Gomes, who was extremely interesting and knowledgeable and priced to be about the same cost as a tour group. ( After a few minutes on the very winding roads, we were even happier that we had chosen not to drive ourselves. We started the western tour at Camara De Lobos, a fishing village that Winston Churchill frequently painted. Our next stop was Cabo Girão, the second highest sea cliff in the world at 1,900 feet. My husband, who is afraid of heights, was extremely brave and walked out on the plexiglass overhang. I have to admit that looking straight down made me a little jittery, also!

John arranged lunch in Porto Muniz at Restaurante Orca with a table overlooking the ocean and tidal-filled swimming pools. After a lunch of grilled espada, a specialty of Madeira, and a bowl of fish soup to warm us up to face the misty cold again, we were back on the road to São Vincent. The roads were winding and led us up through the mountains located in the center of island. São Vincent is the home to lava tube caves and the Volcanism Center, both of which were very interesting and worth the hour visit. The cave tour was very intriguing, especially the experiment that Madeirenses' wine producers are performing of aging their wine in the cold underground river. The gardens surrounding the caves, like everywhere in Madeira, had the most beautiful gardens and fantastic hydrangeas.

Throughout the day there were additional scenic stops to visit churches, take pictures of the fantastic views, and even try poncha which, along with Madeira wine, is the drink of Madeira.

We got back to our hotel in time for dinner at Real Canoa with salmon and steak on hot stones cooked by us at our table. The entrees were accompanied by creamed spinach cooked with Madeira wine, veggies, and rice with coconut milk. We began our meal with Madeira wine, the perfect wine for the meal. We had a great time visiting with couples on either side of us. The owner, Bruno, told us about their free shuttle, kissed me on both cheeks and gave us to the shuttle driver who was also a waiter! More kisses and we felt like family! (We enjoyed the meal so much that we ate here another evening.) Both residents and tourists are very friendly in Madeira and the island is extremely safe.

Day 3

Another day we booked a levada hike. Yes, you can rent a car and drive yourself, but after seeing the roads we were very glad we didn’t have to drive. Levadas are man-made irrigation ditches carved out of the lava basalt to carry water from the mountains to the lower areas of the island. Through the years, walks have been developed next to the levadas to make maintenance easier. We chose the Risco and 25 Fontes walks because they could be done together. We enjoyed the 9+ mile walk up and down hills and stairs, through tunnels and water, and even through mud. There are no toilets on these walks, so be prepared to visit a bush if necessary. (They do have designated "male" and "female" bushes near the falls if you can't wait!)

After our levada walk we stopped at Chocolate e Menta for batidos, fruity drinks similar to smoothies. We must have looked natural on the balcony overlooking the plaza, because cruise shippers stopped and asked if they could take our picture.

We stayed at the Belmond Reid's Palace, a beautiful upscale historic hotel. We were escorted to our room the first time, which was lucky because getting to it was very complicated. Breathtaking sunrise views (around 8:00 a.m.) were fabulous from our balcony. The breakfasts, the service, the gardens, the heated pool, everything was wonderful.

We enjoyed simply walking around and taking in the beauty of Funchal. It's a wonderfully relaxing island!We took our time exploring markets, cathedrals, and shops so that our 3+ days were not enough. There was still a tour of the eastern part of the island, more levada walks, and more opportunities to relax at the pool, stroll in the beautiful gardens, and sip Madeira wine at restaurants, However, home beckoned, so we reluctantly left this wonderful island.

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