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Have Some Madeira in Portugal My Dear

by Keith Allan & Lynne Gray

If you had been staying at Reid’s Hotel on Madeira a mere forty years ago you might have woken to one of the great, maritime sights.   After throwing open the French windows to the balcony in your room and looking out over the umbrella pines growing in the gardens below, the last in a long line of Atlantic liners - the old Queen Elizabeth – could have hove into view.   With her two funnels gently smoking in the early morning light and her white superstructure sparkling against the deep blue of the ocean it would have been a jaw-dropping sight.   By then everyone wanted to fly the Atlantic so this proud ship had been forced to retire from her regular crossings to and from New York.   All that was left now was to see out her days with a spot of cruising. 

Her 2,200 passengers would have been tendered ashore to partake in a toboggan run.   More like a basket on runners, couples lined up and climbed aboard, steered by smartly dressed carreiros in straw boaters, for a hairy journey down the steep slopes of Monte.   Then, to hammer home the wickerwork theme, makers of Madeira picnic and wine baskets, chairs and tables, would be high on the list for a visit.   They were the days when there were no restrictions on filling up the ship’s hold and many a passenger got carried away, buying enough wickerwork to stock a shop!

Gardens bursting with flowers like the Madeiran geranium, giant buttercup and spiky pride of Madeira were popular with visitors.   The sub tropical climate allowed all sorts of plants and trees to be introduced over the centuries and they did so well that many of them turned into giants – poinsettias reaching twelve feet tall and huge juniper and mahogany trees that made the most gorgeous furniture for the great houses that had sprung up on the island.   And to complete the day, dozens of passengers would have sauntered up to Reid’s, where afternoon tea was served on the terrace from where they could keep an eye on their beloved Queen Elizabeth basking in the harbour.

Go there today and nothing much has changed (except for a motorway that runs from the airport to Funchal and beyond).   A regular supply of cruise ships still call in, although, sadly, they look more like high rise blocks of flats with flue pipes sticking out of their roofs.   They just don’t cut the same dash, unless QE2 drops in with her classic liner look. 

Situated on a cliff top headland, Reid’s Palace, as it is correctly known, was built very much with ships in mind.   It was the brainchild of canny Scot William Reid who arrived in Madeira with little money but thought he could capitalise on the visiting ships by offering a high class hotel to accommodate passengers who wanted to stay on the island and enjoy its balmy climate.    He started building in 1897 but sadly died before the work was completed.   However, his two sons, William and Alfred, took over and the hotel opened in 1891.  It was an immediate success and drew the British in large numbers and during the twenties and thirties they came in dedicated packet steamers, staying several weeks at a time. 

There are several museums to visit including the museum of religious art which holds some very handsome Flemish sculpture and paintings.   Thanks to the sugar trade, started in the fifteenth century between Funchal and Antwerp, plantation owners and merchants grew so fat on the proceeds that they willingly spent some of their money with Flemish artists, who painted altarpieces for the churches.   The fish market groans with fantastic tuna and espada, an ugly, boneless, eel-like fish that lives in the deep waters around Madeira and is eaten with fried bananas.   Salted cod is another traditional dish, which is served with potatoes and egg.

The breathtaking scenery in the volcanic mountains has always attracted the curious visitor to Madeira.   And then, of course, there is the wine, beloved by kings and queens, emperors, presidents and prime ministers the world over and anyone else who takes a tasting.   One of the best places on the island to do just that is the sixteenth century friary acquired by the influential Blandy family in 1850 who turned it into a winery.   Here, in the Vintage Room, you will find Madeira wines that go back to 1908 for around $750 a bottle!   On the other hand, sit down and taste a ten year old Sercial and for $20 you can take a bottle home and each time you pour an aperitif memories of the island will come flooding back!   

Madeira is a fortified wine, like sherry or port.   Brandy is added at the end of the fermentation process and during production the wine is actually heated to copy the effect that leaving barrels of wine on board ship had after a round trip to the equator.   It gave the wine a remarkable depth and flavour.   Today it is matured in lofts heated by the sun which mimics a sea journey but without the need of going to sea!

Almost ten years ago Reid’s was bought by Orient Express Hotels.  It had become a little moth-eaten and desperately needed a few million spending on it.   That was duly done and now the latest refurbishment, just completed, has brought Reid’s into the twenty first century.   The new manager Bruno Brunner is skilfully and painstakingly leading the hotel into a new era but still retaining so much of the hotel’s original feel.

A new spa, located in a separate building near the pool area will provide a host of modern treatments and now there is a choice of swimming in fresh or salt water pools.  And seventy of the bedrooms both in the main building and in the garden have been updated.   There is a new conference and banqueting room, the bar has been renovated and the main entrance and reception area has been reshaped.

One night we drove up into the hills to a hotel set in the beautiful Palheiro gardens which are owned by the Blandy family.   Casa Velha do Palheiro was built 200 years ago as a hunting lodge and in 1997 the Blandy’s restored it and turned it into a hotel which is now part of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group.    Surrounded by ancient trees the setting is spectacular and if you happen to be a golfer you might just have found heaven, for the championship Palheiro golf course is on the doorstep.   We had been invited to dinner by the manager Celeste Monteiro Ringertz who was brimming with pride as she showed us round the rooms.   For dinner we were in the talented hands of chef Kenneth Suter.   He has cooked all over the world including Japan, California, Hawaii, Germany Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, Andorra, France and Switzerland.   Not surprisingly he visits the local fish and vegetable market for much of the produce he now uses in the kitchen and his cooking style is a mix of traditional Portuguese and a dash of something special from the many countries he has worked in.   We were very well looked after.   The food was superb and the waiters were always on hand to take care of us.   For anyone with an interest in gardening this hotel in the hills is irresistible.   You could easily spend a week exploring the fantastic plants and exotic trees all around it.   They have come from all over the world and no matter what time of year you happen to be there the gardens are always a delight.

Arriving in Madeira by ship is still the best way to set foot on this beautiful, sub tropical island.   For us it was the penultimate port of call on a ten day cruise we had taken with Swan Hellenic and while the ship had its own charms the prospect of staying at Reid’s to round off our trip was too good to miss so we jumped ship and stepped ashore just like those first visitors would have done a hundred years before.


Reid’s Palace Hotel, Madeira, Funchal, Portugal
Owner: Orient Express Hotels
General Manager:  Bruno Brunner
Telephone:  (351 291) 717 171
Website:  www.reidspalace.com

Casa Velha do Palheiro, Rua de Estalagem, 23 Funchal, Portugal
Owner:  Blandy Family
General Manager:  Celeste Monteiro Ringertz
Telephone:  (351 291) 790 350
Website: www.palheiroestate.com

Getting There:

Arriving in Madeira by cruise ship is spectacular.   The view of the island as you approach the harbour is unforgettable.   Look up and to the left as you approach and Reid’s sits high up on a cliff top overlooking Funchal and the sea.   Otherwise you can fly in.   There is an excellent airport twenty minutes from Funchal.      

What to take:

Dress up!   Dining in the main restaurant of Reid’s is always jacket and tie.   There is live music and black tie is very welcome, for dinner dances are held regularly.   Dine under the stars in Brisa do Mar or there is Italian cuisine to be enjoyed in the Ristorante Villa Cipriani a short stroll from the hotel.   Otherwise it’s lunch on the Pool Terrace.

Reid’s is very popular with British visitors but manager Bruno Brunner, who has spent a lot of time managing hotels in America, is keen to bring more American guests to experience Reid’s.   During school holidays the hotel will have quite a few children in residence.

Whatever time of the year it should be pleasantly warm.  Take comfortable linen clothes, good walking shoes and a raincoat for the occasional shower of rain.   Pocket binoculars will help you see so much more of the island.   Our favourites are Zeiss 8x30 Victory Compact.   Waterproof and so light you won’t even know you’ve got them round your neck!

Recommended reading:
Eyewitness Travel Guide by Christopher Catling.   Published by Dorling Kindersley.      

Carry My Luggage

Tired of lugging your bags and cases around airports and struggling in and out of taxis with it?   The smart way would be to send it on ahead.

Carry My Luggage will do just that.   It’s a British firm based in Lincolnshire and it really is very simple.   A couple of days before you travel they’ll pick it up from your front door and send it on to the hotel or destination you are travelling to.

We used it for our latest trip and everything worked seamlessly.   It was such a joy not to have to worry about our bags.   They were collected from our home and sent on to the hotel we were staying at in Greece before joining our cruise ship.   Then, when we left Madeira, they were collected again from Reid’s and arrived back at our home a couple of days later.  Fantastic!    It’s particularly useful if you have a lot of clothes to carry and we see it as a great plus for cruise passengers.

The service is available throughout the US.   A typical cost is $220 to send a bag weighing 20 kilos to Europe.   Check on the website for details.  www.carrymyluggage.com


Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray (keithallan@bridgestudios.co.uk) are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland onSunday and The Herald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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