Portugal Trip 2018 (4): Madeira – island of eternal spring (and fortified wine, Coral beer and black scabbard fish).


I’ve prefaced the travel narrative of our visit to Portugal (which has been backdated) with a series called Focus on Portugal, which provides background on a European destination that’s scandalously little known to Americans. Previously: “A rainy day’s Port lodge crawl in Vila Nova de Gaia, and an inaugural Francesinha sandwich.”

Madeira’s most famous native son is Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, perhaps the greatest footballer (for Americans, “soccer” player) there ever was.

Dicing with death in Cristiano Ronaldo’s birthplace, Madeira – island of soaring peaks, perilous drops and scary roads

The Real Madrid player’s home has more than its fair share of jaw-dropping scenery, but from narrow, unfenced hiking paths and roads to teetering boulders and Europe’s most dangerous airport, it’s not for the faint-hearted

Landing at Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport is not for the faint-hearted. Strong crosswinds result in two aborted attempts, but just when it looks like we’ll have to detour to Lisbon, the plane suddenly thumps onto the runway. Next to me an elderly lady smiles serenely throughout the entire white knuckle episode. It turns out she’s an old hand.

“I used to come here on the flying boat in the 1950s,” she says, with a glint of nostalgia. “We were well strapped in because you would hit the water with quite a bump. Then little rowing boats ferried us ashore.” Sometimes I feel I haven’t lived.

The Portuguese island of Madeira attracts an older, predominantly British clientele who lend the capital, Funchal, the genteel air of a Miss Marple mystery. Silver-haired sightseers stroll around parks and gardens discussing the relative merits of fuchsias and begonias, pausing every so often for a refreshing cup of tea. Heritage hotels hold dinner dances and bridge evenings – even Winston Churchill once stopped by, looking for somewhere “warm, bathable, comfortable and flowery” to paint and work on his memoirs.

I saw the bronze bust of Ronaldo at the airport recently named in his honor; it’s a selfie magnet, although I agree with criticism of the likeness. It reminded me of the M*A*S*H episode when the bust of Colonel Potter looked exactly like the Korean sculptor.

At any rate, EasyJet flights to Funchal from Porto (and back) are cheap. We decided to spend a one full day and a night on Madeira island, flying back to Porto on Saturday morning. It was barely enough time to scratch the surface, and I predict there’ll be another visit in the future.

8 Things to Know About Madeira Island in Portugal (Huffington Post)

I visited Madeira island for the first time last year and it was not at all what I expected. I anticipated a touristy beach destination and was so pleasantly surprised to find an island full of culture, amazing hiking possibilities, and delectable gourmet food. Here are eight things I learned about Madeira on my first trip.

A lovely room awaited at the Hotel Quinta da Penha de Franca.

The view from our balcony.

We set off for an orientation stroll on the ocean side of downtown Funchal, which climbs up the steep slopes on the island’s south side. Overall it was a warm, sunny day, but dark clouds often hovered above the mountains to the north.

Elsewhere I’ve posted numerous photos of the public art on display in the restaurant district of the old town.

The walking tour continued.

Madeira has a brewery, too.

The Madeira Brewery (Empresa de Cervejas da Madeira or E.C.M) is a brewery in Madeira. The main brand is Coral Lager. The company is the biggest producer and drink distributor in the Autonomous Region of Madeira.

Coral is a golden lager on the light side; nothing wrong with that, as it is properly rendered for the style.

Next up was a sampling of local wine and nibbles at the Made in Madeira shop.

This brought us to Blandy’s.

The Blandys are unique in being the only family of all the original founders of the Madeira wine trade to still own and manage their own original wine company; 200 years of of fine wine production.

The principle behind Madeira is similar to that of Port. The difference might be described as a conscious and intentional stewing of the finished product. It sounds counter-intuitive, and tastes absolutely delicious.

Make mine a Malmsey.

During the 1600 and 1700s, wine often spoiled and needed to be fortified (by adding a little brandy) to survive the voyage at sea. At the time, the island of Madeira was an important provisioning point for journeys to the Americas and the East Indies and shippers would load up on Madeira wine on their way to England and the Americas. The casks of Madeira wine would be heated and cooled as the ships passed though the tropics. Shippers noticed how the wine’s flavor deepened and became better and called this sea-aging “Vinho da Roda.”

Diana remains an aged Tawny kind of gal, but she enjoyed the Madeira tasting.

Having opted to live decadently and dine at the hotel’s restaurant, eventually we retreated to the bar for quality outdoor beverages.

I was aware of Super Bock’s Stout, but didn’t realize until it was too late that Coral has one, too.

I was not going to leave Madeira without dining on black scabbard fish prepared with local bananas.

In Madeira, the black scabbardfish is considered a regional delicacy. Fishermen from Madeira Island use specialised deepwater lines to catch these black scabbardfish. The is also found in some areas of mainland Portugal waters (mainly Sesimbra) and in the Azores (although much later than in Madeira). In Madeira, one of the main localities that are dedicated to the capture of this species is Câmara de Lobos.

No other dish served here in Madeira defines the Madeira’s cuisine closer than this fish.

Here’s a composite photo of my meal, and the appearance of the fish.

I’m the first to admit that a black scabbard fish tastes far better than it looks. It was delicious.

Halfway through dinner, roaming dancers and musicians stopped by to offer a carnival serenade. Cheesy, but well-received by the British retirees who made up the bulk of the diners.

On Saturday morning, we walked 100 yards to the bus stop and caught the regular shuttle back to Ronaldo’s airport.

Madeira deserves much more time than we were able to devote to it. There’ll be an encore.

Next: Portuguese professional basketball.