Madeira: The Pearl of the Atlantic - My Family Travels

Usually I would not be excited if there were clumps of dirt on my food. Not so in Madeira. Dirty food was actually a good thing. Well, in the case of bananas anyway. At breakfast in a café on the northern coast a big dish of fresh fruit sat on each table, and the slim miniature bananas were so fresh that the skin still had small clumps of dirt on them. And they were the best bananas I had ever tasted.

Although Madeira had much in store besides the mouth-watering array of familiar and exotic fruits, the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmer’s Market) was the best way to start each morning. Pyramids of oranges were stacked with great care, along with small purple and green blobs that turned out to be seedy passion fruit, green and spiky custard apples with a pale yellow flesh reminiscent of pineapple, and big round grapes the size of golf balls. After a swoon-inducing morning shopping trip and meal, there was plenty of sugar coursing through my veins to provide the energy for the other delights of the island.

Spiky orange and purple Birds of Paradise flowers seemed to grow effortlessly, in addition to swaths of hibiscus, symmetrical camellias and orchids of all shapes and colors. Familiar palm trees fluttered in the breeze next to stumpy dragon trees, with long, unforgiving spikes fanning out from their thick branches. The climate is mild year round, with summer temperatures in the low 70’s and winter lows falling a mere ten degrees. Despite the island’s diminutive size of ten by thirty miles, interior mountains climb to over 6000 feet.

For a Minnesotan visiting in the month of February, when arctic winds were howling and the skies were dumping snow back home, it really did feel like a slice of tropical paradise. Simply seeing green grass would have been astonishing enough.

The Portuguese first inhabited the island in the fifteenth century, and it remains in Portugal’s control today. Despite it’s ownership, Madeira is closer to Africa then Europe, located just 360 miles off the coast of Morocco. Close enough that autumn storms whip up dust from the Sahara and deposit the find red grains over Madeira and it’s neighboring islands, only one of which is meagerly inhabited (Porto Santo, former home of Christopher Columbus, population: 4500). The balmy climate is in large part due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, with water temperatures nearly as steady as the air.

Just twenty years ago the island was barely known to outsiders, with an accompanying lackluster economy, but with tourism all of that has changed. High rise hotels have rapidly spread in the western part of Funchal (foonshawl), the island’s biggest city, and gradually the narrow winding roads that take hours to drive are being bypassed by tunnels burrowing straight through the island’s interior. Although patience is needed for the 20 mph roads, the scenery is much more spectacular than the darkness of a straight and slightly inclined tunnel. Along with these developments has been a massive influx of tourists, most notably from Great Britain, Germany, and the Portuguese mainland.

I began my eleven-day trip by spending a few days in downtown Funchal, a vibrant and busy city. The streets were narrow and the cobbles so uneven that walking and stumbling along while weaving through traffic took some concentration, but the long seaside promenade made up for the lack of sidewalks. The city was compact enough that it made more sense to walk rather than jump on one of the bright yellow city buses that constantly whirred by. The harbor housed everything from small fishing skiffs to big catamarans and a jetty for docking major cruise ships en route to the Caribbean. When the sun shone, which it frequently did, tourists and locals alike strolled and smooched their way along the seafront, the ocean breeze calm enough to be of little notice.

A few days after arriving I took a bus to the small northern village of Porta da Cruz. Located right by the water, the only sounds to be heard were the crashing waves and the church bell tolling every hour. Rain and fog are constants on the northern side of Madeira. The ocean waves pounded in uninterrupted from Greenland and the Arctic. To both the east and the west massive cliffs lined the shore, plunging hundreds of feet into the churning water. A narrow waterfall was draped over one cliff like a ribbon, serving as a backdrop to a small bay that bustled with surfers trying to catch a wave when the swell was just right.

Content with the coastal paths and the jaw-dropping view from my balcony, I happily whiled away several peaceful days in the village. When I decided to travel west to the town of Sao Vicente, 25 miles away, I discovered my guidebook was serious about the slim availability of public transportation in the remoter parts of the island. It took 6 hours and 5 different buses to travel the very short distance. And the length of the journey felt heightened by the excessively gloomy weather. As the first bus climbed up from the village, towering mountains in the island’s interior stood stately amongst the clouds with a fresh coating of deep snow. It looked like a chunk of the Alps had been plunked down in the middle of a tropical island. Even the bus driver took his eyes off the crazily winding road to stare. Later I found out that it was the most snow the mountains had received in 20 years. Down on the road it was merely damp and cold. I spent a good deal of time huddled under the bus stops trying to stay out of the pelting raindrops while I waited for the next bus to inch me towards my destination. In an effort to be economic I stubbornly ignored the taxis that slowly circled around the bus stop hoping to pick up a fare.

After a few days in Sao Vicente, the perpetual rain began to dampen my spirits, so I jumped on a bus back to the capital (luckily this only took one hour). After a few short tunnels we emerged on the southern coast, the sky clear of clouds and everyone walking about in T-shirts and sunglasses. It was good to be dry again.

The next day I found myself happily situated on the bow of the old and creaky motorsailer Girvao, as we headed out of the harbor and into the open sea, which was choppy in the late afternoon swell. We spent most of our time under motor power, the main sail flapping languidly, due to the falling winds and the chance to follow a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Although the girl at the ticket booth had assured me that seeing dolphins was very common, I had expected just a few glimpses of fins peaking out of the water far in the distance. But the experience turned out to be magical. The dolphins seemed to welcome our company, as we slowly hummed along next to a group of nine or ten. They leapt out of the water just a few feet away, on both sides of us, their backs gracefully curving against the arc of their jump. As I perched myself out on the bowsprit, I peered down into the water, and one swam directly below me, its body big and gray, skimming through the shimmering blue depths. With each leap dolphins are breathing through a blowhole on the top of their head, and their breath sounds like the gasp of a swimmer sucking in a lungful of air. When several jumped at once the air was filled with the slurping sounds of dolphins breathing. Eventually the dolphins drifted out to sea, and we turned back towards shore, beginning the slow journey back to land. As the sun fell towards the horizon, the light slowly shifted from white to gold.

After returning to the harbor I walked along the jetty where passing sailors have painted small pictures, creating a long, patchwork quilt of color and artistry on the plain concrete. Each picture gives a glimpse into the sailor’s journey and mindset. Some showed boats sadly stuck on a shoal of rocks, or boats in full sail slipping through vibrant sunsets, while still others were so old and faded you couldn’t tell what story they told. I met an Italian named Jimmi who was photographing them in the evening light. “These are treasures,” he said. “They should be preserved so future people can see them”. And so should Madeira. It truly is the pearl of the Atlantic.


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