The finest in Madeiran hospitality
BRIAN BERKMAN explored this island paradise and found much more than fine wine and embroidery.
Lodge in Funchal for the finest Madeiran hospitality
The English have had a long tradition in Madeira, the volcanic Portuguese Island in the Atlantic. Although part of Europe, it is just 700 km from the African continent. The English name most associated with Madeiran hospitality is William Reid’s. He had the foresight to build a hotel on a rocky and dramatic outcrop, called Salto do Cavalo – The Horse’s Leap – overlooking the Bay of Funchal.
Today that hotel, Reid’s Palace, owned and operated by Belmond, remains the symbol of hospitality excellence. In what was a major PR coup at the time, Reid’s secured the patronage of Sir Winston Churchill, riding the cusp of his post-war popularity, and that visit arguably put Madeira on the tourist map. Although the Churchill Suite, one of two premier suites at Belmond Reid’s Palace is the actual room that Sir Winston and Lady Clementine stayed in, the furniture at the time of their visit was borrowed from the other wealthy families as the owners of Reid’s were still in the process of decorating the hotel. Edmund Erskine Leacock also lent Reid’s Palace his Rolls Royce for Sir Winston’s use and frequent painting trips to the nearby Câmara de Lobos, the picturesque fishing village that Churchill liked to paint.
Leacock built a splendid home, Quinta da Casa Branca, the white house, along with a Botanical garden and agricultural plantings of banana and vineyards. Today this too is an exquisite hotel.
South Africans have a great affinity with Madeira in that most of the Portuguese people living in South Africa came originally from the island. Then, under a punitive dictatorship, poor economic outlook and, as one local told me, Madeirans were used as cannon fodder in the war as the Island was so far from the Portuguese mainland its people were thought politically dispensable. Many fled in search of a better life. Today, especially because of the support of the European Union, Madeira is a wholly different place and not least because of the network of tunnels that made the use of the virtually impassable cliff paths a thing of the past. In fact, you can whizz from one side of the island to the other via the tunnels in under under an hour.
Breakfast at Reid’s, served at the newly refurbished poolside terrace, is a culinary highlight with fresh cheeses and local pastry delicacies not to mention home-cured gravlax and superb charcuterie.
Even in mid winter, when we returned to the island for a second visit, the climate was mild with an average 21 degrees. As a sub-tropical region, this island is subject to very changeable weather which may include early morning rain and then many hours of afternoon sunshine. With its 123 rooms and 35 suites, Belmond Reid’s Palace is so much the icon of fine Madeiran hospitality that even the transport official welcoming us at the airport noted it was the “best place to stay”. Aside from an easy and gentle service style, each Maderian we encountered spoke English well. As tourism is the islands’ mainstay, it is fully geared to dealing with visitors. At 126 years of age, Reid’s Palace is a similar age to The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, another Belmond property, and both properties are painted in a gentle pink hue. Afternoon Tea on the balcony of Reid’s has been an institution since the early days. Both Villa Cipriani, the standalone Italian restaurant at Reid’s and William, named after the hotel’s founder, are recommended in the Michelin Guide and William has been granted one Michelin star.
We loved our garden facing room in the original building which has higher ceilings than the newer rooms and there is a tidal pool as well as direct Atlantic access. We very much enjoyed swimming in the two pools, one salt water the other fresh water, both heated to 25 degrees. The 10 hectare gardens at Reid’s are wonderful to get lost in or to whittle away at the hours on one of the benches overlooking the bay. As a resort hotel, the kid’s facilities are top notch and the tennis courts, gym and spa are available for guest use. Along with revitalised pool-side dining, the main reception area at Reid’s has been moved to make for a more spacious, light-filled area but regular guests will appreciate that the mahogany key pigeon-holes have been retained as a feature.
The gardens at Quinta da Casa Branca are also a highlight and, like at Reid’s, trees and shrubs are marked with descriptive labels. What is most notable about Quinta da Casa Branca is the juxtaposition of the historic Manor House, the former family home of the Leacock family, with a modern glass and timber 43 roomed hotel. If you like the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rhoe you will be in your element here. The green marble Garden Pavilion, in which a n exquisite and sumptuous breakfast is served, sits like an emerald at the top of the garden. There are five vast and elegant suites in the Manor House as well as The Pool Suite, a stand alone villa in a traditional Maderian style but I liked the contemporary chic of the rooms which opened onto the garden and the all-marble bathroom. As an intimate property the focus here is on each guests’ needs. Public areas include the reception area, a raised glass box with blonde timber and classic furniture pieces, the comfortable library with its deep couches and high-back chairs and a small but perfectly formed gym, steam room and sauna turned on by prior arrangement. And, as is expected from a Small Luxury Hotel member, cuisine in the elegant Manor House restaurant is as refined as it is delicious.
Wherever it is that you stay in Funchal, the Madeiran capital will entice you to come back for more.