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Taking a Sip of Madeira

September 14, 2011 By:
Sharon McDonnell, JE Feature
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A companion says, "It's just like a roller coaster."

It was nothing of the sort; a roller coaster has a metal bar to tuck passengers securely in, and is powered by machinery. My wicker toboggan on wooden runners has no bar at all, forcing me to clutch desperately at its sides, and place full faith in the deft motor skills and sharp reflexes of two men I met one second before.

The men, clad in a traditional outfit of white shirts and pants and straw hats, are pushing the toboggan down the steep road to Funchal in Portugal from the town of Monte, using their feet, shod in rubber-soled boots, as brakes.

"Don't worry -- they are experienced. The oldest man doing this is 78 years old -- he is very fit!" says my guide, Christine, in a tone meant to be reassuring.

Cheered to find the men pushing us appear to be in their 30s, clad in immaculate white attire betraying no recent spills, I squeeze into the cushioned seat next to her.

Hurtling down rutted slopes at what seems like a 45-degree angle ("This was cobblestone until some years ago -- much bumpier!" Christine screams), dodging trucks, screeching perilously around razor-sharp turns, and at one point just a few feet behind a toboggan in front of us, I feel like I'm dog-mushing in Alaska.

Subtract the dogs, snow and stark landscape. Relocate the sled to Portugal's mountainous island -- so extremely lush with tropical flowers and fruits, glutted with cliffs and waterfalls, it's likened to Kauai -- 300 miles off the coast of Morocco. Add a famous fortified wine.

That's Madeira.

To reach Monte, I took a cable car from Funchal, which soared above a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean and landscape of palm and banana trees, terraced vineyards, orange-tiled roofs and a rare laurel forest found only in Madeira; Spain's Canary Islands nearby; and Portugal's Azores islands.

A don't-miss in Monte is the Quinta Monte Palace, whose lavish outdoor display ofazulejos, Portugal's distinctive painted ceramic tiles, portray Portuguese history from the 16th to 19th centuries, and over dozens of terra cotta panels chronicle its exploration and trade with the Far East.

There's also a museum with gems and minerals from all over the world, stone sculptures from Zimbabwe, and a Japanese-style garden on this former estate of the British consul during the 18th century.

It is now owned by the foundation of Jose Berardo, Portugal's Horatio Alger, a billionaire who left Madeira at 19 to seek his fortune in Mozambique, then a colony, and made it in mining.

Artistic Triumph 

Berardo lovingly restored the estate and created the garden. Lisbon's Museu Berardo showcases his fabulous modern art collection.

Any self-respecting lover of flowers and magnificent views owes it to themselves to visit Madeira, nicknamed the "floating garden in the Atlantic," which is a mere 11/2 hour flight from Lisbon.

Bird of paradise flowers -- resembling sharp-beaked orange birds, tinged with brilliant blue -- vivid red African tulips, delicate purple African lilies, bougainvillaea, oleander and blue hydrangeas flourish on the streets of Funchal, the capital, and its outskirts.

An especially beautiful spot is Palheiro Gardens, high in the hills east of Funchal, where an absolutely riotous mix of exotic tropical and Mediterranean-style flowers and trees flourish amid the island's mild climate.

A Flower Festival in Funchal each April features floral carpets created on the main streets with ornate patterns, elaborate floral floats and shops bedecked with flowers. In 2012, the festival will be held April 19 to 22.

Walking the levadas is a favorite pastime to admire the misty emerald-covered mountains in Madeira. These are paths next to canals that channel water from waterfalls and natural springs to farms. They range widely in difficulty, and some edge cliffs with sheer drops to the sea.

Reid's Palace is the classic grand hotel on Madeira: crowning a cliff in Funchal, set amid 10 acres of perfumed gardens, it offers a sublime view of the Atlantic, an atmosphere of Edwardian elegance, and vintage photos of guests like George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, who loved to paint here after World War II.

Built in 1891 by a Scot -- Madeira has long been a haven for the British -- it was later owned by the Blandy family, who grew wealthy from the Madeira wine trade in the 19th century, and created the gorgeous Palheiro Gardens on an estate originally designed for Portuguese royalty.

Reid's was sold by the Blandys to Orient-Express Hotels in 1996.

The only remnants of Madeira's Jewish past are the facade of a 19th-century synagogue on Funchal's Rua do Carmo, now a cafe and laundry, where a Star of David is embedded in the window, and an 1851 Jewish cemetery on Funchal's east side adjoining the Caminho do Lazareto, whose graves bear names from England, Morocco, Gibraltar, Syria and Germany, many of whom were involved in the wine and embroidery trades. For information, see: www.madeiratourism.org and www.visitportugal.com.

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