A taste of Madeira in the night

The subtropical island of Madeira, sometimes called the Pearl of the
Atlantic, has long held sway over the unhealthy and the elderly British. The
Anglo roots on this Portuguese island are long-standing, thanks to a royal
marriage in the 16th century.

But a more compelling reason for
Madeira’s appeal for the pale and the not-necessarily-hale is year-round
spring-like weather. Consider the photographs on the bookshelf of the fifth floor
of the island’s grande-dame hotel, Reid’s Palace – a pageant of older Brits
taking great pains to unwind. Here is a white-bearded George Bernard Shaw in
1924, getting a tango lesson from two dance instructors on the hotel’s
manicured lawn; here is Winston Churchill painting watercolours seaside, when
he came to Madeira in 1950 to try to overcome his “black dog” depression. Note
Churchill’s tweed suit and bow tie. Note the cigar clenched between his teeth.

And so, it seems, it has always
been. But, what’s this? Amid the blue rinses and the cardigans and the faded
paperbacks of Gibbon, amid the occasional cruise-ship load of Canaries-bound or
Mediterranean-bound Americans and Germans disgorged onto Madeira for eight
hours of shore leave, a sudden din. A bit of pink amid the white. It’s the
young. A younger breed of traveller is increasingly drawn to this 35-by-14 mile
volcanic island, where new boutique hotels, roads and night life are a
beguiling addition to Madeira’s age-old prime asset: spectacular scenery in the
form of dramatic sea cliffs and hundreds of miles of levadas, or irrigation
channels, that make for terrific hiking.
Unbowed by the February floods on the island that claimed 42 lives, but whose
ravages have been addressed with admirable efficacy and speed, this new
generation of travellers and revellers, though not immune to the charms of the
disco beat, is marked by a sense of adventure and an interest in nature. Madeira,
they are quick to point out, is not Ibiza.

I coupled a visit to the island, my
first ever, with three days in Lisbon, less than two hours away by plane. Once
on Madeira, I first stayed at the Estalagem da Ponta do Sol, a wonderfully hip,
James Bond-like aerie 25 minutes outside the island’s capital, Funchal. Perched
on top of one of the island’s soaring sea cliffs, the 54-room hotel is accessed
by means of an outdoor elevator that leads to a suspended catwalk .I struck out
the next day on an Estalagem-organized levada walk in a nearby village called
Boa Morte. It took only an hour on the trail running alongside the half-metre
deep irrigation channel through the hills to apprehend the levadas’ charm: They
gently wind through various micro-climates so that you feel as though your
slide projector has jumbled together pictures from several vacations. You find
yourself, by turns, amidst a lush, rain-forest-like scrum of ferns; a hushed
meeting of pines; a spray of birds of paradise; a bougainvillea-dappled high
meadow. It’s said that Madeira is the only place in the world with ancient forest
dating back to before the ice age; jacaranda trees and fuchsia are common on
the island. In short, not so Morte.

That afternoon and evening, I
decided to address Madeira’s two touristic shortcomings: a dearth of cultural
treasures, and no natural beaches. On the former front, I drove 15 minutes from
the hotel to the new art museum, Casa das Mudas, in the town of Calheta. A
huge, bunker-like series of galleries built into a cliff (a theme emerges), the
Casa was offering a Man Ray retrospective that had also been shown in Paris,
New York and the Hague. Wandering through the cavernous, un-peopled galleries,
I was equally interested in the Man Ray works and the museum’s windows overlooking
the sea.
It was the sea next. Back near my hotel, in the charming village of Ponta do
Sol, I walked across the rock beach – it appeared to be the world’s most haphazardly
curated collection of vulcanized dinosaur eggs – to the water.
 More serious ocean swimmers take a
two-and-a-half-hour ferry to the neighbouring island of Porto Santo, whose sand
beach is said to cure rheumatism, but my needs were immediate. So I got out of
the water and eased myself over to a sheer cliff wall, off of which poured a
40-foot waterfall. Having roughly the volume of five garden hoses, the water
and its mist brought out something primal in me – I wished that I was wearing a
loincloth and that I was ripping pieces of charred meat off a mastodon’s shank.
As the sun set, and the fishermen on the pier off in the distance cast their
nets, I thought, I could get used to Madeira.

Speaking of waterfalls, have you
ever been in search of a trickle and met with a torrent? Such was my experience
when, the next day, I told the chic Madeiran in his 30s who was sitting behind
the reception desk of the Estalagem that I was in search of a night-time hot
spot, and had read that Cafe do Teatro in the capital might fit the bill. Apparently
I was misinformed.

He then proceeded to write down an
itinerary of ideal club-going for me: I was to start at a restaurant and bar
called Chega de Saudade (“From, say, 12:30 to 1:30 is nice. Only locals know
it. It’s very cool”). Then Mini Eco Bar from 1:30 to 2:30, Cafe do Teatro from
2:30 to 3:30, the Copacabana disco at the Oscar Niemeyer-designed casino from
3:30 to 4, and then, from 4 until, yes, 8, the combined, hangar-like space that
contains the clubs Marginal (“This is the hippest place. Electronic music. It’s
wicked.”), Jam (“Oldies”), and Vespas (“If you have the will for it.”)
Exhausted, I thanked him, and went to my room for a long nap.

Indeed, it is a corollary of
Madeira’s appeal to a younger audience that visitors who are over the age of 45
may, at times during our stay; feel that we aren’t fully grabbing the bull by
the horns activity-wise. Paragliding? Surfing? Bungee-jumping? Marlin fishing,
mountain biking, levada bodysurfing? Here, on the island that reared the soccer
star Cristiano Ronaldo and what seems a disproportionate number of Olympic
athletes, all of these activities were available to me.

But the only extreme sport I opted
for was Madeira’s famed toboggan ride. Starting near the waterfront in Funchal,
you take the cable car called the teleferico for 15 minutes up to the village
of Monte at 1,804 feet. There, for 25 euros (about $30), you sit in a go-kart-like
wicker basket whose wooden runners are greased with lard. Two drivers, whose
boots’ soles are made of rubber tires, run alongside the sled as it coasts down
the steep hill for more than a mile; when the sled starts to spin, they hop on
it for counterbalance.
Though the ride is brisk, at its end I told one of my drivers, a cheery,
voluble, 40-something man, that I wish I weighed more, as that would make for a
faster ride. “So eat more!” he said.

Once back in Funchal, I took, as
many tourists do, a tour of the Old Blandy Wine Lodge. Here I learned all about
the island’s namesake beverage, the fortified wine with which our Founding
Fathers toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The half-hour
tour wound through storage areas and a memorabilia room, and ended in the
tasting room. When one of my tasting room tablemates – an older gentleman from
California who was a die-hard Madeira enthusiast – asked me if I shared his
passion, I confessed, “I mostly cook with it.” He looked at me slightly disapprovingly.
I murmured something about my sausage-stuffed pork loin. Silence ensued. I
nattered on, “I stuff pork with pork, and then drown it in Madeira and orange
marmalade.” The man and his wife bade their leave shortly thereafter.

I had better luck socially on my
dolphin-watching trip that afternoon. Some 30 of us boarded a small boat that
took us about 20 minutes offshore, where we had several charmed sightings of
dolphins, both bottlenose and common. I loved talking with our highly informed
on-board biologist – a bubbly and emphatic young woman named Lisia, who had
pink hearts on her sunglasses. When I asked Lisia, “Do you know where off of Madeira
the movie ‘Moby Dick’ was filmed,” she said, “No! I am ashamed! I should know
this important fact!” She added: “But I do know he was a sperm whale, which we
have in Madeira. They look very old – the dinosaurs of the sea.”

Alas, we didn’t see any oceanic
dinosaurs. But being on a boat did help me to get some perspective on Madeira’s
dramatic topography. When Joao Goncalves Zarco first sighted Madeira – around
1418, during Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery – he thought he was looking at
the mouth of hell. Casting my eye at the coastline, I realized I had absolutely
no idea what he was talking about. All I could see were the memories of the
highly enjoyable trip I’d been on. Our boat passed the distant traces of a
levada, not to mention a waterfall and a rocky beach and a few tunnels and lots
of houses on cliffs. To me it looked more like heaven.

And was I able, in the end, to
motor my 48-year-old personal engine through the nightclub crawl that had been
prescribed me back in Ponta do Sol? Reader, I was. From the intimate, clubby
Chega de Saudade, to the tented outdoor party that is Eco Bar, to the throbbing
disco at the casino, to the 1-2-3 all-moods-are-catered-to conglomeration that
is the clubs Marginal, Jam and Vespas. I didn’t make it to 8 a.m. But, so fired
up with the tom-tom beat was I that I made it to 4:30. I felt like a
19-year-old.

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