We can’t make up our mind.  One minute it’s Hawaii then Tahiti, the American West, no it’s vaguely European……Madeira exists in a strange dreamlike state.  As unteathered as it is from Africa as it is in our mind.  The island speaks to all of our bipolar moods.  Incredible surfing, Canyoneering in the waterfalls that seem to sprout everywhere, a solid yachting community, a vaguely bohemian vibe in those you meet on the winding roads.  Then its a change of tack and its dressing up for dinner, staying in sumptuously elegant hotels, eating some truly magnificent meals, and touring vineyards that produce the islands name sake wines.


But it’s the landscape that is the draw and that has us falling in love all over again with every new vista. We approach the island from the sea:  impressive, green and majestic, lit by the setting sun and even more beautiful as it rises from the North Atlantic. We make out its curves drawn without the aid of a compass, its peaks so high they tear through the clouds, the lush green of the laurel forest, a humid, subtropical canopy.


There is no plan for the day.  We let the landscape dictate the flow as it does the waterfalls that seemingly teem from every crag and hillside.  We look out the Rover window; to watch the waves smashing against another rocky cut of shore; to admire the fine-lined terraces etched into every jagged, cloud-catching slope and marvel at the effort and ingenuity required to eke out life on this vertical, faraway, half-tamed place. We stop for walks,  finding a seaside bar, and stand with the old, silent men there for cups of coffee and a restorative poncha, Portugal’s incendiary traditional cocktail made with the local sugarcane rum. It’s an ambitious schedule of freestyle wandering, with time built in for the occasional invigorating wrong turn.  We do love our wrong turns.



incendiary poncha


Madeira is really two places, each a kind of microcosmic meditation on the meanings of cultivated and natural, speck of land versus wide-open ocean. Funchal is a port city where for centuries travelers have come and gone, leaving behind traces of what they’ve brought from elsewhere (culture, industry, vegetation, separate hot and cold sink taps) and taking away that which flourishes here (wines, sugar, crafts, the superstar footballer Cristiano Ronaldo). It is an impressive feat, a scale working model of a European city in a remote context that otherwise resembles an overgrown, hyper-verdant South American semitropics. Then there is the rest of the island: wilder, untidy, starkly beautiful.




The beauty of Madeira is you don’t have to choose between the ever so proper and the wild. A few days at Reid’s—dressing for dinner, poolside lounging by the dragon tree—satisfy a certain nostalgia for a level of well-looked-after, slightly insular golden-era travel. But an ocean is a long thing to cross just to tan yourself in civilized company.


The timeless luxury of Reids

This is an odd and dreamy island, Portuguese but far from the huddled mass of the continent, alone in the Atlantic Ocean 440 miles off the coast of Africa. A patchwork of genteel gardens and tidy red-roofed cottages, lush laurel forests and steeply rising sea cliffs dramatically bashed about by an endless churning ocean.  On leaving town this all becomes so apparent. The isolation, the green hills that tumble to the cerulean sea, that end of the earth feeling……


  We drive up around the northwest bend past Porto Moniz. Stopping at a roadside stand where an older couple grills bolo de caco (hot, round disks of chewy garlic bread), then its up into the  Ribeira da Janela, following  the mossy waterway  into the hills. There is something harmonious about this: walking where the water flows. Some levadas are steep and challenging. Janela is a gentle rise and we are soon surrounded by a cool mist. The peaks in every direction covered in a dense green shag. A soft world, far from either the city we’d left or the sun and coast we’d followed here.  A perfect dream like state for us sleepers awake.


2 levdada 1

Following a levada to higher ground


Ribiera de Janela