Madeira: more than just a wine.

After the south of France, the next stop on my grand tour of following V on his business trips was Madeira. Madeira is a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, part of Portugal but closer to Africa. It’s famous for its eponymous wine, but it’s really a remarkable place beyond that.

The steep cliffs of Madeira seem to rise out of the ocean – which I suppose is what really happened, since the island was formed from volcanic explosions millennia ago. The island is lush and green. People grow banana plants in their backyards! And bananas show up in the local cuisine in unexpected locations.

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The feats of civil engineering – long tunnels through mountains, cliff-hugging roads, an airport built on stilts above the ocean – required to enable modern society on this remote island are quite impressive. And the natural beauty is just stunning. It’s not easy to get to from America – you’d have to fly to Portugal first and then on to Madeira – but those in Europe should definitely visit, and even if you live in the US you should consider it!

The capital of Madeira is Funchal. Its houses are capped with the characteristic Portuguese red roofs.

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Its steep hills make driving a challenge! I was happy to have my automatic rental car which was just powerful enough to make it up the steepest hills. Each day the downtown fills with visitors from cruise ships. The cobblestone streets feel like old Europe, but with a subtropical climate.

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In the hills above Funchal lies the botanical garden. It offers impressive views of the city and the ocean beyond. Its roughly cobblestoned, steep paths meander through vegetation from all over the world. My favorites, of course, are the colorful tropical species. And I can’t forget the hydrangeas. The manicured gardens are lovely as well.

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I walked along the coast near our hotel and saw the cliffs of Madeira rising straight up from the ocean. There are black sand beaches, natural pools enclosed by lava rocks, and regular old swimming pools but with a beautiful backdrop.

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In the middle of Funchal there is a food market, in one sense a typical traditional European market but with the twists of exotic fruits and dried peppers as well as massive sides of tuna.

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I went for a fantastic hike out to the very eastern end of the island. Looking out over the ocean it truly felt like you were at the end of the world. I was reminded of a line from a postcard from Cuttyhunk Island, off the coast of Massachusetts: “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” My guide book apparently was confused about the difference between “miles” and “kilometers” and the purported 8km hike turned out to be 8 miles. It was sunny and rather hot and I did not bring sufficient water for the excursion. The windswept scenery was beautiful, though, and the local salamanders snacking on the remains of hikers’ lunches were amusing.

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I also drove high into the hills to the town of Santana, known for the quaint traditional house with steep thatched roof and brightly colored paint.

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I then hiked to the highest point on the island, Pico Ruivo, because, duh, obviously I’m going to hike to the highest point on the island.

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Although it was a sunny day in Funchal, the microclimate phenomenon of Madeira meant that the mountaintop was cloaked in fog and mist. So, therefore I had no stunning views from the top but instead a profound sense of accomplishment. Can you take a photograph of a sense of accomplishment?

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(I did have some lovely, ethereal views from about halfway up.)

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At night V and I reconvened for dinner after the day apart. During my mini-vacations someone actually has to do some work to pay for our hotel room. We tried the Madeiran delicacies of limpets, which are similar to mussels and like mussels are delicious in melted butter, and espada, a fish that lives very deep in the ocean and apparently is a source of gastrointestinal distress for yours truly. Unfortunate, as it’s quite tasty.

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I saved up the island highlights for the final day, when V was able to spend several hours sightseeing before our flight back to mainland Europe. A report on that excellent excursion later this week!

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