Pearl of the Atlantic
With a subtropical climate warmed by the Gulf Stream, this volcanic outcrop off the coast of Africa is Portugal’s own floating garden. The early 15th-century discovery of Madeira by Prince Henry the Navigator launched Portugal’s golden age.
It was “discovered” again by the vacationing winter- weary British in the 19th century, Anglo loyalty became almost legendary, so taken were terrain terraced and farmed by gentle people; the dark, sweet wine—and “days of perpetual June.”
Dramatic peaks and a crisscross network of signposted walking paths encourage forays into the verdant countryside. A longtime favorite hike follows the old levadas—a manmade web of irrigation channels that carried water from the mountaintops down through the farms to the fields and villages below.
The 36-by 14-mile island (70 percent is national park) packs more into its chaotic terrain than most areas five times its size. A corkscrew drive into the dramatic interior up and over its razorback spine, the Serra de Agua, is a white-knuckle thriller, with rewarding views of Pico Ruivo— at 6,109 feet, Madeira’s highest mountain.
The distinguished Reid’s Palace is the undisputed queen of Funchal, Madeira’s capital, created to accommodate every visiting aristocrat’s need since opening in 1891. High on a promontory that commands a sweeping panorama of the harbor city and the craggy, verdant mountains beyond, Reid’s is enveloped in acre upon flowering acre of tended gardens, a fragrant riot of flowers, palms, and birds of paradise.
Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and countless other dignitaries and celebrities have made this tum-of-the-century hotel the roosting spot of choice. The hotel’s Les Faunes restaurant is considered the best on the island, and late-afternoon high tea—like most things at this Mediterranean villa—is something of an island institution.