Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis

Madeira View of Funchan from Hotel

Madeira has it all...

Portugal is small… really small. In fact you could fit the entire country into the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco and yet its impact on the world has been, and continues to be, huge! There is a great diversity of environments for such a small country; happily we recently had an opportunity to re-visit Madeira, one of the Portuguese islands located smack dab in the Atlantic Ocean.

Since our initial visit many years ago, Madeira has grown up and has taken her place in the ever expanding must-go travel destinations sure to delight all comers regardless of their interests; be it wine, food, culture, adventure, water sports, drop dead beautiful vistas, or just plain relaxation… Madeira has it all!

Our trip began with a flight on TAP Air Portugal out of Newark, New Jersey directly to Lisbon where we arrived after a pleasant flight to find the weather gloomy. TAP has managed to assemble its seats for human habitation as opposed to many airlines that think all humans are built less than 18” wide.  When we arrived in usually sunny Lisbon, the fog was dense and painted the sky and ground with the same brushstrokes of dove gray. When we took off for Madeira it was surreal as if before creation, when all was one until with a stroke of Biblical hyperbole the land and the sky were divided. Once we rose above the fog producing clouds, the sky above us was a bright blue and we were off for the sunny island of Madeira.

Madeira Jagged Peeks

Madeira was raised by volcanic activity millions of years ago and its jagged peaks testify to the violence of its birth. Today the high peaks reach dramatically down to the striking seascapes totally surrounding the island which makes almost anywhere you want to go on the island a cable car ride away. These did not exist years ago and it boggles the mind how locals navigated those vertical drops. Thankfully the cable cars provide access to areas not easily visited before with the added bonus of gorgeous views along the ride.

Madeira Painted Door

We spent the first day on a whirlwind of discovery, first the old town with its winding cobbled streets and alleyways where many of the wooden doors on Rua Santa Maria and surrounding streets were covered with works of art. Local artists began moving into these older areas which had become rundown and to liven up the environment they would knock on doors and request permission to paint them. Not at all like graffiti, the “Open Doors Art” project turned out to be a major tourist draw. Soon, enterprising entrepreneurs, responding to the needs of visiting tourists opened restaurants and shops and the old district was new again.

Madeira Traditional Biscotti

After sampling a few traditional foods we made our way to our first cable car ride to visit Monte Palace Tropical Garden, high over the city of Funchal, the main town on Madeira.  Our guides through the old town was Sofia Maul and for the garden tour Graça Lopes, and one could not hope for more enthusiastic, friendly or knowledgeable guides that obviously love the island of their birth.

Madeira Monte Palace Garden

Sofia regaled us with stories about the community in general, and her father in particular, who worked for the local brewery and who developed a sparkling and refreshing soft drink called “Brisa Maracujá” that is now the most popular soft drink on the island, and Graça’s knowledge of the Monte Palace Garden, including the names of most of the enormous collection of both art and flora, was awesome.

Monte Palace Madeira covers a vast area and is an indoor/outdoor museum of art within a wonderland of botanicals from all over the world. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful Botanical Gardens in the world and it would take days to explore all it has to offer, so thankfully Graça navigated us through in record time due to our limited schedule, still managing to hit many of the highlights. If you visit make sure to leave plenty of time to wander and admire this gift of both man’s, and Mother Nature’s, creativity.

Madeira Monte Palace Zimbabwe stone sculptures

The property and its palatial hotel called the “Monte Palace Hotel” had been closed in 1943 with the passing of its owner. It was purchased by José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo in 1987, with the idea of sharing his love of art and nature with the public.  He set about landscaping the enormous property and constructing buildings to house his eclectic art collection; one, a remarkable collection of Zimbabwe stone sculpture by artists internationally known. Berardo came upon many of these works in Africa displayed on sticks stuck into the earth and he has recreated this experience for us to enjoy in this unique museum.

Madeira Monte Palace mineral specimens

In another building he displays some 1,000 mineral specimens from Brazil, Portugal, South Africa, Zambia, Peru, Argentina and North America that will leave you awe struck by the variety of shapes and colors our earth naturally produces. It is a remarkable collection that José Berardo spent 50 years amassing.

Madeira Monte Palace Tile Panels

Another of his outstanding art collections are Portuguese tile panels from the 15th to the 20th centuries lining the walkways and pathways as you meander through the garden passing oriental style bridges and thousand year-old olive trees plus all manner of flora and fauna.
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But for me the highlight of the day’s events was the Monte Toboggan Ride. We had experienced this ride on our first trip to Madeira and I was looking forward to a repeat. In the day, citizens living high in the hills of Monte wanted a fast way to get to the port in Funchal. The hills are unbelievably steep and difficult to maneuver, twisting and turning their way to the port, so some enterprising soul around 1850 converted a wicker basket (a cottage industry on the island) attached wooden sleds to its bottom, planted a cushion on the seat, and invited people to swiftly transverse the steep, curvy hills. I can’t even imagine the courage of the first person to agree to this ride before it became commonplace.

Madeira Monte Carreiros

With no way to steer the sled 2 “carreiros” or sledge drivers - known by their white uniforms and straw hats - would be required to run alongside to control the harrowing descent - often exceeding 30 miles an hour - down the mountain.

Madeira Tobbogan Ride Carreiros

The runners would then have to carry the sled back up the hill while the people made their way back by horse or carried in a hammock. Over the years this service was no longer required but the tradition is enjoyed by tourists willing to take a walk (or run) on the wild side. No trip to Madeira would be complete without experiencing this exhilarating ride.

Madeira Pico do Areeiro

The next day we got a chance to really understand how mountainous the island is as we rose in the middle of the night to take a Sunrise Jeep tour with “Discovery Island Madeira” to the second highest point on Madeira at 1818 meters, Pico do Areeiro. Of course the view was spectacular as was the walking trails that bring many people to the island for an opportunity to commune with nature. There are so many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors with Discovery Island Madeira from hiking/canyoning/climbing, to water sports of all kinds. Check out their site to see all the options and explanations for canyoning, etc.

We enjoyed tasting the wines and foods; the wild nature; the charm and elegance of the town of Funchal; and the gracious hospitality of the people of Madeira… a good choice for entry on your bucket list.

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