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PORTUGAL

It's Madeira, M'Dear

There's more to this Atlantic island than red wine and Englishmen

June 01, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FUNCHAL, Madeira — Here, on an odd, green island off the North African coast, are flowers in riot and rare fruits in profusion. Here is a tiny hardscrabble harbor full of fishing boats in colors so fetching that Winston Churchill, amateur painter and retired British prime minister, once came to work them into his landscapes.

Here is fresh and cheap seafood: tuna caught this morning, filets in banana sauce. Here is the birthplace of a world-famous sweet, red wine. Here are tall, ragged seaside cliffs, raked by smogless gusts, and a green mountain that juts 6,106 feet above the Atlantic. Here are cobblestone streets and narrow, heart-quickening coastal roads navigated by a fleet of spotless, yellow-and-blue Mercedes taxis. And here's the governor's big, pink mansion. We're in Portuguese territory, you see, even though this island lies nearer to Morocco than to Europe. . . .

"My God!" certain British-born readers will be exclaiming right about now. "He's sending them to Madeira! He's sending Californians to the Anglo-geriatric capital of the Atlantic! An island without beaches! He'll be lynched!"

Patience, please.

Madeira is one of Western civilization's oldest tourist destinations, arguably the first vacation spot the Europeans established outside their own continent. The first settlement there was founded by Portuguese explorer Joa~o Goncalves Zarco in 1420. Before he found his way to the West Indies, Christopher Columbus made it a regular haunt. For several centuries, the island was a required stop for seafaring Portuguese and English imperialists, who relaxed and restocked their ships on the way to and from Africa (just 440 miles east), the Americas and Asia.

With those ships acting as a distribution system, Madeira's distinctive wine soon became a requisite feature in cellars worldwide. It was drunk by Shakespeare's Falstaff and invoked in song in the 1950s by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, the British composers of the playful tune "Madeira, M'Dear." The island's wine industry perseveres today, revived after the great grapevine phylloxera crisis in the mid-19th century but marginalized by changing tastes in the global marketplace.

For the last century or so, Madeira has attracted many retired and moneyed British folk who promenade through the fragrant gardens, admire the fruit in the downtown market of Funchal, the main city, and dress for dinner. In the epicenter of this society are the hushed and handsome halls of 101-year-old Reid's Hotel, where a certain atmosphere prevails and afternoon tea service, with tiny sandwiches and all the trimmings, runs about $20 per person.

For thrills, many of these visitors taxi to a church at Monte, about three miles uphill from Funchal. There, a crew of white-suited men in straw hats awaits. In a ritual drawn from the days when wicker baskets were used to carry materials up and down the island's slopes, the men help the tourists into rickety wicker sleighs (carros de cesto), then set them hurtling down the steep street. While the tourists laugh and holler, two of the hatted men stand on the back of the sleighs like sled-dog mushers, adjusting the direction with their feet. It's silly but exhilarating. A 10-minute ride, which covers more than a mile, runs about $10 per person.

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But there is more to Madeira than tea sandwiches and wicker sleighs. The higher you ascend above sea level, in fact, the more of it you discover. This other Madeira requires sturdy shoes and a robust cardiovascular system. Though the island is just 12 miles wide and 34 miles long, its slopes and valleys are crisscrossed by more than 1,300 miles of levadas, ingenious irrigation ditches that now also serve as trail guides, leading hikers along dizzying cliff tops, along terraced crops and through dozens of tunnels cut into volcanic bedrock. The levada network is one of the few innovations on Madeira not designed with tourism in mind, but thousands of travelers come every year to exploit it.

I arrive in Funchal cranky from a late-night flight and damp from several days of rainy weather on mainland Portugal, and I do not begin as the island's biggest fan. First, I find that the Santa Isabel Hotel, my home for the next four nights, is a cheap but drab place, and my room faces one of the busiest, noisiest streets on Madeira. (If I had it to do over again, I'd stay part of the time at the Quinta Penha de Franca Albergaria, a more intimate, old-fashioned lodging in the same neighborhood, and part of the time in a higher, more rural part of the island.)

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