Madeira is “an odd and dreamy island,” said Adam Sachs in Travel + Leisure. Discovered and settled by the Portuguese six centuries ago, it’s a place “at once remote and domesticated,” a volcanic speck in the Atlantic Ocean where you can wear a blazer and tie to dinner one night and the next morning hike into a wild, jungly landscape whose coastal cliffs are “dramatically bashed about by an endless, churning ocean.” To me, “the beauty of Madeira is you don’t have to choose.”
It took just two hours by plane for my girlfriend and I to make the leap from “damp, gray” Lisbon to Madeira’s “lemony, warm sun rays and gently rippled blue sea.” Madeira’s capital, Funchal, at first seems “bigger than you want it to be.” But a stroll past the “cruise-ship amusements” that line the port reveals narrow stone-paved streets and plenty of charm. We nibbled on sugarcane and local fruits before lunching at a waterfront café on sea snails and espada, a “famously ugly” local fish. Given the languid pleasures offered by Reid’s Palace, the grand hotel we were staying in, we could happily have passed our entire week in Funchal. But even while lounging by the hotel’s pool or sampling the old-world wine that shares Madeira’s name, we also craved time on the island’s untamed side.
In truth, much of Madeira has been “gently shaped by human hands.” Terraces have been cut into “even the most remote peak,” and a network of irrigation channels provides a ready-made trail system. One day, we followed a gentle trail that carried us into a soft green world cooled by mist and a waterfall. But wilder sights awaited us. The far eastern end of Madeira could be used for “a remake of The Sound of Music set on Mars.” Its “stark, lovely” cliffs terminate in “a series of low red humps of rock that run out like stepping stones into the ocean.” Jumping from our car, we ran toward the sea, surrounded by orange and red cliffs. The rest of Europe was knee-deep in winter. On our “empty, enchanted” Portuguese island, “it was very easy to forget all that.”
At Reid’s Palace (reidspalace.com), doubles start at $354.