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Endearing Madeira Island Combines Heart-Stopping Transit With Idyllic Wine Country

Diana C. Gleasner Special To Travel

Travel changes folks. Sometimes you do things you didn’t even know you wanted to do. Careening down precipitous cobblestone streets in a wicker sled falls into that category. It’s one of the things tourists do in Madeira.

But, hey, it was fun. And when would I get another chance, I asked myself. Since the answer was “probably never,” the decision to hop aboard was easy. Also, it’s not dangerous, and the steering “carreiros” are quite handsome in their all whites with straw hats. They were also “dashing” as they trotted alongside, reining in the sled and saving us from a wild plummet.

I loved Madeira. It’s a lush floating garden fragrant with exotic blossoms basking in year-round summer warmth. The sapphire sea glints with splintered diamonds of sun. Madeira wine is revered the world over, and now when I taste it, I can envision those terraced emerald hillsides where the wine grapes grow.

What’s not to like? Well, the roads for one thing. The tumultuous terrain dished up by some ancient raging volcano has made the going rough. You see a map of this little 14-by-36-mile island, and you think you’ll zip on over to the other side and take a dip in the Atlantic.

Not quite. What you’ll do, at less than 20 miles an hour, is tortuously switchback your way up mountains, crawl along the edges of cliffs and ride the brakes down near-vertical descents into deep valleys. I recommend exploring by car, but be sure that car comes complete with a local driver. Otherwise, you’ll be so busy trying to survive the scenery, you won’t get a chance to look at it.

If this all sounds too complicated for a vacation, Madeira offers a lovely alternative. It’s called “levada walking.”

Amble beside a network of irrigation canals known as “levadas” for an up-close-and-personal view of this luxuriant island. Take a short cab ride uphill, and you can do the entire walk downhill. After a couple days in Madeira, you’ll understand why the concept of “downhill” is so crucial.

There’s a reason Madeira is Europe’s oldest tourist hangout. Here Churchill painted idyllic seascapes of boats bobbing in sheltered coves. The Brits prescribed a dose of Madeira sunshine to sustain them through a hard winter. And the cruise trade, from Columbus on, saw this as a near-perfect R&R destination before and after epic voyages to Africa, the Far East and the New World.

But Madeira has more than a pleasant climate and good looks. Trade between Portugal and Flanders, beginning in the 16th century, brought significant collections of Flemish art that enrich island museums.

Stately manor houses and historic churches line the streets of Funchal, the island’s seaside capital.

Be sure to take a guided tour through Madeira’s oldest working winery, housed in a 16th-century Franciscan monastery in the heart of Funchal.

Once you’ve tasted a quality Madeira wine, you’ll understand what all the fuss is about. Remember, this is the wine used to toast both George Washington’s inauguration and the Declaration of Independence.

Today tourism is the main business of Madeira. More than 40 percent of Madeira’s hotels boast four or five stars. The island cuisine, both basic and sophisticated, takes freshness for granted.

Flower sellers, dressed in traditional garb, offer enormous tropical blossoms at the city market, where a staggering variety of fresh produce and fish is on display. Funchal’s lively waterfront pulses with energy as folk dancers perform at outdoor restaurants and visitors join in the festivities.

While there’s lots of fun in Funchal, there are plenty of sights out in the countryside. You’ll want to stop at Camara de Lobos, the tiny fishing village where Churchill set up his easel, and Cabo Firao, the second highest cliff in the world. We enjoyed wandering through Santana, a small community known for its brightly colored triangular houses with thatched roofs.

In Camacha, weavers turn out every kind of wicker work imaginable. Curral das Freiras (meaning “corral of the nuns”) is an isolated village tucked into the crater of an extinct volcano where nuns once hid from the pirates.

After strolling through several flourishing gardens, we declared the Botanical Garden with a spectacular view of the Bay of Funchal a clear favorite.

But let us not neglect history.

Our wicker sled on wood runners, they claim, was the first form of public transportation in Madeira. Easy on the fossil fuel supply, the sleds rely solely on gravity with an occasional tweak from a couple of aerobically fit young men who don’t mind hitching a ride once under way.

Invented by a gentleman who quickly tired of the steep walk from his mountain home to his sea-level office in Funchal, the wicker sled enabled him to get to work in short order. In Madeira, the sleds are still in daily use, if only by tourists.

Well, someone has to keep tradition alive.

MEMO: See related story under the headline: Wine witness to notable toasts

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Madeira is a small island 360 miles west of Morocco and 535 miles (1-1/2 hour flight) southwest of Lisbon. There are also direct flights to Madeira from London, Paris and other main European cities. Travelers can take major U.S. airlines to Newark, Boston or Kennedy/New York, then board a TAP-Air Portugal flight to Lisbon, then change planes again to Funchal, Madeira. On Thursdays and Sundays, TAP-Air Portugal has nonstop flights to Funchal from London. Round-trip fares begin at $1,220. When to go: Temperatures average 61 degrees in January, 72 in July. The island, which attracts many cruise ships, gets most of its rain in March, April and October. Tourism peaks in April, August. Where to stay: In Funchal, for luxury and tradition, Reid’s Hotel (telephone (800) 237-1236 or 011-351-91-700-7171, fax 011-351-91-700-7177) has 168 rooms and three restaurants on 10 acres. Rooms for two begin at $245-$290 for most of the year, higher in weeks before and after Christmas and Easter. The Quinta Penha de Franca Albergaria (telephone 011-351-91-229-087), with 40 rooms on its original property and 33 more in a newish waterfront addition, is an intimate place despite megahotels on three sides. A 15-minute walk from central Funchal. Double rooms run $85-$115 from May through October. On the north coast, consider the 2-year-old Cabanas de San Jorge Village (Sitio da Beira da Quinta, 9240 Arco de San Jorge, Madeira; telephone 011-351-91-576-291, fax 011-351-91-576-032), on a bluff with a Big Sur-type view. Doubles about $47, including breakfast. Where to eat: In Funchal, Restaurante O Tapassol (Rua D. Carlos I No. 62, Zona Velha da Cidade; local telephone 225-023), features seafood and island specialties; dinner entrees $5-$14. A few doors down, Restaurante Sao Jose (Largo do Corpo Santo No. 11-13; telephone 223-214); entrees $5-$11. Along hotel row, Quinta Palmeira (Avenida do Infante No. 5; telephone 221-814) has higher prices but a handsome patio setting; entrees $11-$17. For more information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 590 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10036; telephone (800) 767-8842 or (212) 354-4403, fax (212) 764-6137.

See related story under the headline: Wine witness to notable toasts

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Madeira is a small island 360 miles west of Morocco and 535 miles (1-1/2 hour flight) southwest of Lisbon. There are also direct flights to Madeira from London, Paris and other main European cities. Travelers can take major U.S. airlines to Newark, Boston or Kennedy/New York, then board a TAP-Air Portugal flight to Lisbon, then change planes again to Funchal, Madeira. On Thursdays and Sundays, TAP-Air Portugal has nonstop flights to Funchal from London. Round-trip fares begin at $1,220. When to go: Temperatures average 61 degrees in January, 72 in July. The island, which attracts many cruise ships, gets most of its rain in March, April and October. Tourism peaks in April, August. Where to stay: In Funchal, for luxury and tradition, Reid’s Hotel (telephone (800) 237-1236 or 011-351-91-700-7171, fax 011-351-91-700-7177) has 168 rooms and three restaurants on 10 acres. Rooms for two begin at $245-$290 for most of the year, higher in weeks before and after Christmas and Easter. The Quinta Penha de Franca Albergaria (telephone 011-351-91-229-087), with 40 rooms on its original property and 33 more in a newish waterfront addition, is an intimate place despite megahotels on three sides. A 15-minute walk from central Funchal. Double rooms run $85-$115 from May through October. On the north coast, consider the 2-year-old Cabanas de San Jorge Village (Sitio da Beira da Quinta, 9240 Arco de San Jorge, Madeira; telephone 011-351-91-576-291, fax 011-351-91-576-032), on a bluff with a Big Sur-type view. Doubles about $47, including breakfast. Where to eat: In Funchal, Restaurante O Tapassol (Rua D. Carlos I No. 62, Zona Velha da Cidade; local telephone 225-023), features seafood and island specialties; dinner entrees $5-$14. A few doors down, Restaurante Sao Jose (Largo do Corpo Santo No. 11-13; telephone 223-214); entrees $5-$11. Along hotel row, Quinta Palmeira (Avenida do Infante No. 5; telephone 221-814) has higher prices but a handsome patio setting; entrees $11-$17. For more information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 590 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10036; telephone (800) 767-8842 or (212) 354-4403, fax (212) 764-6137.

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