(Christmas lights twinkle as we sail from Funchal, Madeira)
ABOARD THE SEABOURN ODYSSEY – Yesterday was our only port day on this trip. We visited Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira. The last time we visited Funchal, on another transatlantic crossing, I was feeling unwell and did not go ashore.
Chet went then and participated in an excursion that included a gondola ride to the hill station of Monte and then a ride down the hill in a so-called wicker “toboggan” that is directed by men who run down alongside it manipulating the steering ropes. I had been sorry to miss that adventure – unique to this city – so thought I might try it this time. But Chet informed me that he thought it too dangerous and so steered us to a more sedate island tour.
Madeira is the largest of five islands which together form a far-flung province of Portugal, which lies some 600 miles away. It is located 350 miles from North Africa. The climate is quite moderate, at about 70 degrees for most of the year, thus it is a popular vacation spot for Europeans.
Funchal itself is a small, charming harbor city of about 265,000 residents. The rest of the island is quite mountainous. However, the climate is so good that over the years, determined workers have created a series of spectacular agriculatural terraces which are watered by miles of irrigation channels that have now become popular hiking trails.
Our tour took us first to the summit of the third highest mountain in Madeira – Pico do Arieiro – at 1,818 meters. The scenery here was stark and dramatic and offered great views of the city. From there we traveled to one of the four golf courses on the island for tea and cake. Clube de Golf Santo de Serra is the home of the Madeira Island Open, a tournament on the PGA European Tour. The 27-hole layout was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. (I so would have loved to play it!) Our final stop was back in Funchal at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge, an elaborate complex of tasting rooms for Blandy’s famous Madeira wines.
Madeira’s best known wines are Sercial, golden and dry; Verhelho, slightly sweeter; Bual, fragrant and semi-sweet, a dessert wine; and Malvasia or Malmsey, a sweet after-dinner drink. We sampled the latter but didn’t really care for the heavy, fortified taste. However, we noted that many in our party purchased small bottles as souvenirs.
Chet and I opted to stay in town for a few more hours. We first enjoyed a lunch of espada with rice and salad accompanied by a local beer called Coral. Also known as the scabbard fish, espada are caught only near Madeira. (Some hours later, my new-found friend Eileen showed me pictures of espada that she had taken at the fish market. They turn black after being caught and are pretty darn ugly!)
We then ran a few errands in the La Vie shopping center. Here I picked up a few items from the pharmacy and scored that local olive oil that I was hoping to find as my personal souvenir.
Early in the day, a representative of the local tourist office was on board the Odyssey and when I went to her for a map she directed me to the shopping center, showed me where the ship shuttle would be found and cued me in to the fact that the city was having a Christmas market. So as soon as we were finished with the errands, we headed to Avenida Arriaga, the main shopping street. There were lots of cafes, of course, but further on it was lined with booths selling all manner of Christmas crafts and local foods and drink. There was also a large nativity display and locals wearing period costumes.
This was the perfect place to sample poncha, a popular local drink combining fresh fruit juice with flavored rum and to try the famous Madeira fruit cake while talking with local craftsmen. We discussed some very unusual fruit at a produce stand and then walked to just a block away and caught a shuttle bus back to the ship.
The climate of Madeira is quite mild and is conducive to luxurious plant growth so there are flowers and exotic plants everywhere. There are several botanical gardens in the area and these are popular with visitors. Our day in Funchal seemed much too short and I hope to return. Next time I will take that gondola ride to Monte and then spend some time wandering through those wonderful gardens.
As we sailed away from Funchal at dusk, the Christmas lights all around town began to twinkle giving us a fitting send-off for our next nine days at sea.
December 10, 2016
Photos by Cynthia Boal Janssens