Before becoming Prime Minister for a second time in 1951, Winston Churchill wanted to retreat somewhere ‘warm, bathable, comfortable and flowery’ where he could paint and work on his war memoirs. A friend suggested the Portuguese island of Madeira, and recommended he stay at Reid’s Palace in the capital Funchal.

The atmosphere has changed little since the hotel opened in 1891. If you arrive by boat, as Churchill did for his visit in 1950, a lift carries you up from the crystal-blue waters that lap against the hotel’s private bathing pier, bringing you to the pool level and gardens where bougainvillea cascades over the walls. Here on the terraces, the hotel once held endless dances for the elite of Britain and other Western European nations, their dusky images engraved today in the black-and-white photographs adorning the hotel lobby.

Camara de Lobos

Marking the spot: Churchill paints in peace at Camara de Lobos

The hotel was built exclusively for the upper classes, and thankfully its old-world charm has been preserved. Britons still make up 40 per cent of the hotel’s guests and some regulars arrive in September and stay until the New Year, thus avoiding much of the grim British winter.

It’s not surprising that the island is popular with the British – its wine trade was virtually monopolized by us in the 18th Century.

Down in the library, 19th Century copies of Punch are available alongside books including Dr Otto Ernst’s Kings In Exile. This is a suitable tome for a hotel that accommodated King Umberto of Italy in 1965 during his exile.

On the fourth floor, there is an empty but beautifully ornate television room, lined with green azulejo tiles. It feels like an elegant retirement home for the ghosts of the Empire.

Reid's Palace Hotel

Clifftop retreat: Reid’s Palace Hotel

Entertainment at Reid’s is certainly traditional – formal dress is still required for dinner-dances. It was at one of these dinners that Churchill was presented with an unopened demijohn of Madeira wine previously given to Napoleon, and commented that it ‘had something of the scent and fragrance of the era of Marie Antoinette’.

But it is afternoon tea that you really should sample at Reid’s – scones, pastries and finger sandwiches are served while guests look out from their British time capsule at the verdant but volcanic landscape.

According to local legend, Churchill explored Madeira in a Rolls-Royce, converting its boot into a travelling bar. Open-air dances did not really interest him – he preferred to paint the fishing village of Camara de Lobos, five miles west of Reid’s.

Blandy's Madeira

On the eastern On the eastern side of the harbour, you will find a plaque marking the spot where Churchill set up his easel. Local shops sell postcards of him at work here, cigar at his lips, hunched over a canvas, painting the cliffs. Madeira has drawn ailing visitors since the 19th Century. Many were so ill that they never made it home; they are buried in Funchal’s unassuming British cemetery.

However, you can be assured that their last days would have been filled with the intrigue and absurdities of Imperial Britain.

Isabella de Franca, a diarist in 1853, wrote of English spinsters ‘polkering around the dancefloor like clockwork automatons, as if they ran on wheels’, or sitting on their balconies with their telescopes, so that they might better gossip and spy on one another.

Visitors still return to gossip, populating the balconies of Funchal’s ‘hotel zone’. However, these days they usually arrive in better health, ready to explore Madeira’s mountains and peaceful levada irrigation network (there’s even a walking festival, organised by a Briton) and to drink in the green landscape with a small measure of Madeira.


And as Churchill himself once said: ‘A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril.’


Reids Palace

One Response

  1. Ekain

    Wow such pretty shots, I am lovnig the wallpaper in the first photo. She is so tall and beautiful – I would kill to have those long legs! And whoa, those are some amazingly high heels too. Beautiful as always DJ! I saw on Bumpkin’s post you’re off for a weekend of camping over Easter – hope you have a fabulous time! We’ll miss you!! XOXO Happy, happy Easter, beautiful!