By Marty Martindale
We sailed out of Venice the previous week and stopped off in Croatia, Greece, Italy and Spain while aboard Holland America’s Zuiderdam. Our last Mediterranean stop was Funchal—on the island of Madeira, just off the coast of Portugal, ‘the pearl of the Atlantic’—that the Brits hail as a favorite for holidays. It didn’t take long to find this out for ourselves.
About mid-morning, we found a nice taxi with a knowledgeable driver, made an agreeable deal and soon found ourselves rolling along very graded, well-engineered highways passing through many tunnels cut through Funchal’s rugged terrain. The sun was bright, the air was perfect. Villages clustered near the sea had bright orange-tiled roofs which dazzled. Almost matching, bright red-orange oleanders, huge hydrangeas and fennel flourished along the roadside. Funchal was so-named because of the fennel. Madeira is a lush, subtropical volcanic island with sea cliffs rising 6000 ft. out of the sea, some of the highest in the world.
We asked to do some shopping, and our driver took us to the Forum, a suburban mall at Camara de Lobos. To enter, visitors descend on stepless escalators to the shopping below. This turned out to be a high-energy, high-style, multi-level, thoroughly modern gathering of nearly a hundred shops, 17 restaurants and cafes and a cinema. Designer goods were everywhere, manicure shops innovatively designed. In the huge supermarket, we needed to check out its flamboyant fish counter. One of the sea’s most outrageous critters, a majestically-colored, intact, conger eel stretched across firmly-packed crushed ice waiting to be sliced into steaks.
Driving to lunch, we learned Madeira exports much of her sugar, wine grapes, tropical fruit and bananas. Because their terrain is so rough, they rely on terrace planting and irrigate them with levada systems. Foods thrive at definite levels: on the lowest ground, they grow figs, oranges, lemons, grapes and cereal grains grow. In the valleys they produce cherries, apples and plums. At higher elevations, they grow their bananas, sugar cane, custard fruit, mango and passion fruit.
We soon arrived at Vila do Peixi, sister of Vila da Carne at Camara de Lobos. The large dining room of this outstanding Portuguese fish and seafood restaurant was wide open to a colorful view of the fishing bay below. John Abel de Freitas, was our host. He invited us to inspect his display of fresh fish first. The blackboard above helped us identify the fish. Portugal and even better, its coast, is prime for fish and seafood, and we knew we’d have an excellent lunch.
It seems their Limpets and Winkles, appetizers, are on the menu only on days de Freitas approves them. They also serve fresh Baby Shrimp, Black Scabbard Roe, Clams, Bilbao Pato, Octopus and Calamari. Seafood luncheon specialties included Shellfish Rice, Fish & Shellfish Spaghetti, Bouillabaisse, Cod Fish “A Velha,” and their spectacular Fresh Market Fish.
For meat, diners chose Steak on the Stone, with sauces of Black Pepper, Tomato Salsa or Cream and Fennel. Two other steaks and two vegetarian dishes rounded out the menu. Some interesting sides were French Fries with Garlic and Oregano, Sweet Potatoes with Molasses.
Madeira’s wines range from dry to a sweet one served with desserts. The island’s winemaking history started back before the 17th century. Through trial and error they learned their wine improved with unorthodox aging when they heated the wine, then exposed it to oxidation which brought about a very pleasing result. Malvasia, Boal, Verdelho and Sercial are popular with the locals.
Those interested should journey to Monte for a toboggan ride down into Funchal. These rides began in 1850. Each sled is rather a two-seater box on wooden runners. Two Funchalians clad in white with straw hats ride down with you standing on the back. Their rubber-soled boots act as brakes. It’s a 10-minute adventurous journey, and they can prove even Ernest Hemmingway lived through it.
A little less high energy is daily formal tea served at the Orient-Express’ famed Reid’s Hotel, renowned for its famed guests of the past. In addition to continental celebrities and royal family members, Gregory Peck, George Bernard Shaw and Sir Winston Churchill sought out the Reid.
When we returned to Holland America’s Zuiderdam, we knew we wanted to return to Funchal.
Immediately before us we had the excitement of a six-day transatlantic crossing.
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