April is the time to be in Madeira, when the jacaranda and flame trees are in bloom and Funchal’s main street is canopied in purple blossoms. I first strolled under Funchal’s jacarandas on a cruise stop. That one day on the volcanic island that rises almost straight out of the Atlantic 559 miles off the coast of Portugal was a long time ago, but the memory of Madeira’s flowers never faded. So when SATA airlines began flying there from Boston, I headed back.
This time the jacarandas were covered in bright green leaves instead of purple blossoms, but they were about the only thing that wasn’t in bloom. Brilliant red platter-sized poinsettias peered over garden fences at eye level, passion flowers and lilies bloomed, and the camellias were just bursting forth. Bougainvillea cascaded from every balcony, and morning glories climbed the walls. Bird of paradise, honeysuckle, hibiscus and a dozen varieties of lily painted the landscape. I realized then that any month is the time to be in Madeira.
After drinking in the ocean view from the balcony of my room at Reid’s Palace Hotel, I stopped at the bar for the island’s most famous drink, a glass of amber Madeira wine. It was still a bit early in the day to sample Reid’s take on the martini, the Madeirini, which replaces the vermouth with local dry Madeira.
I began my garden tour by strolling through the hotel’s own 10-acre subtropical paradise, where trees from all over the world punctuate flowering shrubs and vines and native flowers. The scene has changed very little since Winston Churchill painted here and George Bernard Shaw perfected his tango on the lawns. I resisted the temptation to do either and headed into town.
Every tourist’s first stop is the Mercado dos Lavradores, a bustling Art Deco market designed by Portuguese architect Edmundo Tavares and — along with Oscar Niemeyer’s Casino Park Hotel — one of the island’s most important architectural works. In front of the market, women in traditional dress sell flowers.
The market sits in Funchal’s historic heart, where a surprising number of buildings have survived from its 15th- and 16th-century heyday as a sugar town. In sharp contrast to the market’s architecture, Santa Clara Convent and São Pedro Church recall Portugal’s golden age. Both are lined with azulejos, the glazed tiles so common in mainland Portugal, and the convent has a magnificent silver tabernacle. The 15th-century cathedral’s ceiling is inlaid with ivory and cedar.
Madeira has a total of 14 public gardens, and I took a cable car to the biggest of them, the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. Here Portuguese businessman José Berardo has displayed his vast collection of decorative tiles from palaces, churches and private houses in a stunning garden. Alongside it an art-filled Japanese garden explores the long commercial and cultural relationship between Portugal and Japan.
Monte, the attractive village 1,800 feet above Funchal where the gardens are located, is known to generations of cruise-ship passengers for the ride into Funchal on wooden toboggans. These two-seater sleds originated in the 1850s as a way for Monte residents to descend more quickly into the city. The 10-minute ride through the winding cobbled streets reaches speeds of 30 mph, the sled guided by straw-hatted men whose thick-soled boots act as brakes.
It’s quite a contrast to the high-tech cable car I ascended on, but having passed up the ride before, I saw no reason to take it now and opted instead for another cable car. It links Monte to Funchal’s Botanical Gardens on a panoramic ride with views over the bay and the João Gomes River ravine, an area covered in a rare Laurissilva forest.
I’d seen only the capital of Funchal on my first trip, so until the ride to Monte I had little idea of what spectacular landscapes lay beyond it. Now I was hungry for more than a glimpse of the steep and soaring mountains that fill the rest of the island. Beyond the natural amphitheater in which Funchal nestles, mountains rise in deeply cut ridges to the island’s central peaks, over 6,000 feet in elevation.
This wild and ragged landscape is made even more dramatic by lakes and rushing rivers, rock outcrops and soaring cliffs that end abruptly at the sea. Most of the island is carpeted in subtropical greenery, 20 percent of it UNESCO World Heritage laurel forests now long extinct in mainland Europe. Where this land has been tamed, its steep slopes are covered in vineyards and terraced farms and orchards.
To irrigate it, in the early 1500s Madeira farmers began building waterways that bring water from mountain springs. More than 1,200 miles of these levadas carry water in nearly horizontal lines along the mountainsides, sometimes carved into cliff faces at dizzying heights. Alongside the levadas, their maintenance paths have become very popular walking trails.
The notion of exploring the inland mountains on these paths was irresistible, and I reached the first of them from a winding road that climbed out of the pretty fishing village of Camara de Lobos. The Levada do Norte led me through terraced farms into the valley of the Caixa River, and the two-hour walk whetted my appetite for more. So I signed on with Madeira Explorers to walk the Levada das 25 Fontes and discover the Risco Waterfall and a cliff from which 25 natural springs cascade into a lake.
I retired my weary legs to my hotel’s spa for the last day, where a new Reid’s Palace Signature Treatment uses locally produced aloe vera balsam and Madeira wine grape seed oil. Before dining on a locally sourced dinner of beef cubes rubbed in garlic and salt, skewered onto a bay leaf stick and wood-grilled, I sipped another local herb in the form of Reid’s Funchal Tonic. This gin and tonic perfumed with fresh fennel juice is inspired by Funchal’s name, which derives from the Portuguese word for the fennel that once covered the ground here.
By then I’d realized that I was still far short of seeing all 14 gardens but decided I didn’t really need to. With all the vineyards, banana plantations, herbs, laurel forests, wild flowers, overgrown balconies, dooryards and parks, the whole island was one big garden. I could eat and drink it as well as walk my way through it.
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