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Madeira: Rekindling roots with a paradise lost to New Englanders

There was a time when Madeira was the place for New Englanders to go to escape winter. Trade between the island off the coast of North Africa and New England was so strong that the wine named after it was a favorite on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, when our own Franklin Pierce left office in 1857, he and his wife Jane boarded a U.S. Navy frigate to Madeira as part of his European post-presidency “vacation.”

  Porto moniz

Things change. Air travel replaced sailing ships, and they started to build hotels in the Caribbean.


Back on Madeira, the British became the main tourism group, and the link was forgotten…


My plan was not to reconnect New England and Madeira, rather to take a family vacation on the island to see if it could be an alternative to the Caribbean.


To understand why, one needs only look at the map.  The Madeira Islands, an archipelago 750 miles southwest of Lisbon in the Atlantic Ocean, have a nearly perfect climate—warm in winter and never too warm in summer.


But, a quick search of internet “ideas or kids on the Island of Madeira” turned up very little. There were several English tour sites claiming that taking kids to Madeira is not a great idea. Disregarding this, my wife and I did just the opposite, survived it, and have returned to say that it is a wonderful idea.

  Wicker- Photo credit to Associacao de Promocao da Madeira

I have read comparisons to Hawaii, and while both islands have volcanic origins, warm climates, and ukuleles, Madeira is considerably closer to New Hampshire, and more affordable. That begs the inquiry how do you get there… Portuguese carrier SATA has a weekly flight that leaves Boston’s Logan Airport for the Azores (about 4 hours), and connects to a flight to Madeira (about 90 minutes). You leave Boston at 10 pm, and are on Madeira before noon the following day, local time (5 hours later). This make the kid part much easier, as it is closer than Italy, or Germany, and about the same travel time as parts of the Caribbean.


So, why take two boys, 8 and 3 to the island of Madeira? Well, for the lure of pools and sun for the first part. Then, it is Europe, with gothic churches, cobblestone streets, and palm trees. And, the entire south cost is tropical, with warm breezes, fresh bananas and a dazzling array of flowers.   The local fruit and flower market is an amazing discovery for any kid. But most of all, the kids loved the fish market, with its exotic fresh fish, such as the “espada” a long black oily looking fish with an array of sharp teeth and a mean look.



500 years Ago….

When the first Portuguese ships sighted Madeira in 1420 they thought it was the end of the earth. In the distant mist loomed a huge mass over the ocean looking somewhat like the Gates of Hell. Today, the wild beauty and drama of Madeira remain to entice the visitor. But, this Portuguese island also offers some of the most civilized accommodations. It also has an amazingly reliable climate, where temperatures on the south coast tend to stay around the mid-70’s year round, and rain is occasional.

  Bay of Funchal a general view Photo credit to Joao Paulo - T09AVH0U

Madeira’s volcanic mountains plunge to the sea. From the time of Vasco da Gama to the age of the steamship, Madeira served as a supply and fuel stop for countless sea voyages on their way to New England Ports. Madeira’s location along the trade routes to Africa and the Americas made it a strategic port for positioning the new cities, and the colonists in these new lands soon came to drink 30,000 barrels a year of Madeira wine.


Madeira is famous for the wine that bears its name and, today, it is produced in a number of varieties. Vineyards on the island were once managed by Jesuit priests.  Madeira can be a dry table wine, a sweet dessert wine, or rich after-dinner drink. Its production here has been an important feature of social and economic life for centuries. Each September, festivals celebrate the grape harvest. Madeira’s capital city, Funchal, was once the center of wine culture. On the steep terrain, grapes are grown on tiered terraces.


Madeira is special wine, that according to legend was discovered by accident… Prince Henry, Infante D. Henrique, has the first vineyards planted on Madeira. But, the table wine they produced was only moderately good. That did not stop ships from buying them by the cast, and according to the legend, one such ships forgot to had a cask in it hold, and sailed still in the hold the South /seas in heat and humidity to return to Madeira and discover the lost cask… the captain thought the heat would have spoiled the wine, but when a sail volunteered to try it, an amazing find was made.. the wine was delicious.


In 1665 English king Charles II prohibited the shipping of European goods to the West Indies and the Americas unless these goods were being shipped aboard British ships and from British ports. But, somehow Madeira was left out of this decree. Now, the American colonies had tax free access to Madeira wine. Not surprisingly, George Washington was said to drink a pint of it each day. Madeira wine was the beverage of choice at Washington's inauguration, and at the dedication of Washington, DC as our nation’s capital. The founding Father celebrated the Declaration of Independence with a toast of Madeira. The frigate Constitution was also launched with Madeira, and the Madeira vintage of 1802 was named “Constitution.”





To start our journey, we spent 4 days in the main city of                   

Funchal.  Funchal, with 90,000 people, is the cosmopolitan capital of a mostly rural island. It offers luxury hotels, a casino, seafront boulevards, and a yacht-filled harbor. Funchal has a half dozen public gardens, filled with all sorts of exotic plants, trees, and fruits. We opted for the 'Madeira Botanical Gardens' with an area of 90,000 square yards of more than 2,500 plant species, and set on hills over looking Funchal. The 3 euro entry fee led us to see coffee, pineapples, and custard pears growing, a huge variety of exotic birds and parrots, and a massive garden of every conceivable type of palm tree. But, better yet, we took the Cable Car from the harbor front to the historic village of Monte, and then to the garden.

The “sky train” offered amazing views over Funchal, which is set much like an amphitheater on the bright Atlantic. To get down there was one somewhat crazy choice. For generations, brave young men in traditional garb have guided wicker sleighs down steep streets from Monte to Livramento. It is one of the must does, although it is not as leisurely as one might think. In fact the “toboggan” of the Carreiros do Monte hurdle past cars and through turns as the town men on the back guide it from missing one obstacle to another. Somehow, the kids had no fear, and we survived the ride as have thousands before us…


Funchal also boasts an historic district, two old forts, some of Europe’s most famous hotels, and lots of family friendly eateries, where the chef was happy enough to try to turn spaghetti and butter into Mac and cheese.


Our next stop was the first human settlement on the island, the eastern city of Machico. I had never been there before, but like the new sandy beach that the city had built as part of the redevelopment of the oceanfront. But first, we had some fish to see! And to see the fish, we had to climb the mountains.


A Trip through the Mountains


Rising from sea level to 6,100 feet (or a tick lower than our own Mt. Washington), Madeira is a vertical place. In a 15 minute drive, you can go from subtropical warmth to sleet. Indeed, the island has six distinct climate zones. But, the beauty of the Madeira high country is as amazing as looking down at the ocean through a sea of clouds. You can drive to the island’s second highest peak, Pico de Arieiro, and look out on commanding views and breathtaking sunsets. Then hike the flat red plain at Paul da Serra, the remains of an extinct volcano.


The first Portuguese settlers learned to bring water from the islands moist heights to their fields through stone canals called Levadas. Today, hundreds of miles of these stone channels are a testament to their bravery and ingenuity. Running along impossible heights with endless views, the Levadas of Madeira have been transformed into incredible hiking.  They pass under waterfalls, by overlooks, through parks, and cling to mountainsides. Well marked, with good access, the hiking ranges from extreme to mild.  The Levadas remain the best way to experience wild Madeira.



Madeira’s fascinating landscape is characterized by cliffs that rise dramatically from the sea. When explorers came upon the island of Madeira in about 1420, they thought its dark cliffs signaled the gates of hell. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The steep rise creates six unique climate zones, each with its own beautiful flora and fauna that contribute to the comparison of Madeira with Hawaii.


From its earliest days as a producer of wine, the island has had a system of water channels, called levadas, which served to bring water to the vineyards. Today they also serve as a network of hiking paths that wind past waterfalls and spectacular views.



The Aquarium


The waters surrounding Madeira never dip below 64 degrees, so water sports are a year-round activity. The Desertas and Selvagens Islands are southwest of Madeira. The Desertas Islands, three small volcanic islands, are now designated as a nature reserve. They serve as the last refuge of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus), the rarest seal in the world. Another 180 miles from Madeira are the Selvagens Islands, two groups of small islands also serving as a nature reserve for some of the rarest plants on the planet. Ideal nesting conditions make the islands a perfect bird sanctuary. Boat trips can be arranged, but the numbers of human visitors are limited.


The kids had both hoped to go to Seaworld, versus Madeira… but both were excited to learn that there was a new aquarium at the Western end of the island, in Porto Moniz. Once, it would have been a long and winding drive from Funchal along rugged hills to Porto Moniz. But using the new road that cut through the hills via long and straight tunnels it took about 45 minutes to get there.  The Madeira Aquarium offers 12 natural tanks with more than 70 typical species from the sea around Madeira. A large tank at the end is hard to resist with dozen of fish of all types. More than 50 species, like the Madeira rays, stingray, crevalle jack and groupers swim about.


Better yet, the Madeira Aquarium is set in the Forte de João Batista, a rebuilt fortress from the 18th century.


From there we cross Paul da Serra, the vast central mountain plateau that looks like the surface of Mars with cattle and sheep. Descending a zig zag road, we found the coast road and were in Machico by sunset.



We found Machico a real treat, smaller, and less cosmopolitan than Funchal, it had plenty of stores and places to eat, with its pedestrian only historic district. Best of all, the once industrial ocean front has been remade into a golden sandy beach, with changing rooms and bathrooms, and a large park with playground, shops, restaurants, and an old fort, ready to be explored, and complete with a local tourist office. As the airport is a mere five minutes away, every plane approaching Madeira flew over the beach, making it fun to see the flight come in on approach. And the man-made beach was built inside the harbor so it had no real wave or undertow. But there was a big raft to swim out to - and lots of nearby cafes with fresh grilled fish and ice cream.



Madeira remains an uncrowned and authentic jewel of European charm, where a visitor can experience fine wines, mountain hiking, or city culture—or easily all three in one day.






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