The Big Blue
Travel+Leisure India|October 2021
On Madeira, a lush dot of Portuguese land, the North Atlantic has shaped every aspect of life for centuries—the economy, the gastronomy, the infrastructure. Nina Caplan explores the cliff-top eyries and beachside towns of this gift from the sea. Photographs by Rodrigo Cardoso
Nina Caplan

IN 1419, WHEN PORTUGUESE seafarers happened on an uninhabited island in the North Atlantic, around 800 kilometres off the African coast, they were awed by the dense covering of greenery. Even today, after 600 years of human encroachment, their amazement is easy to understand. The variety of flora is astounding: groves of local mahogany, bushy stands of indigenous lily of the valley, and a laurel forest, the largest surviving relic of the vegetation that covered much of southern Europe at least 15 million years ago. Those first men who arrived on the island called it Madeira—the Portuguese word for wood.

But those 15th-century sailors were perhaps indifferent to what struck me most forcibly when I first visited this summer: the insistent presence of the ocean. Madeira—the largest island in an archipelago of the same name—is so steep that even inland, when I walked through a vineyard or dined on a hillside, bright water framed the view. In the capital city, Funchal, on the southern coast, hotels, and restaurants take full advantage of a vista that never gets boring. But at ground level, strolling along sidewalks decorated with traditional cream-and-black mosaics, I was still distracted by gaps between buildings that offered to shift glints of blue. The Atlantic affects the climate, wildlife, and food. Those sailors, I thought, should have called their discovery mar—the sea.

My interest in this place pre-dates my realisation that it was a place. My father used to sing a sly English music-hall ditty, “Have some Madeira, m’dear,” so when I grew older, it was the wine I wanted to try. Still, it turns out that there is no better location than Madeira in which to drink Madeira. The wine and the place are as intertwined as their common name suggests. Every boat trip, swim, and breathtaking mountaintop walk, as I inhaled the salt and admired the azure tint of the waves, reminded me that the Atlantic has shaped this wine’s existence. And the wine, the principal export of Madeira for more than 400 years, has profoundly changed its homeland’s destiny. As our hiking guide, Otilia ‘Tilly’ Câmara, put it, “Madeira was born from the sea.”

We were high in the hills at the time: Câmara was leading us on a glorious hike along with one of the levadas, the manmade irrigation channels that direct water from the forested mountains in the north and west to the dry southern slopes. It was so peaceful, walking alongside this small, orderly stream, framed by walnut, apple, and pear trees. We passed an older woman in a headscarf, who carried a pail of leaves to use as mulch, and felt terribly remote until we realised the closest village was just two minutes’ walk away.

FOR CENTURIES, right up until the advent of air travel, almost everyone stopped in Madeira. Columbus briefly lived on the island. Captain Cook paused for supplies, sailed on to Rio de Janeiro and Tierra del Fuego, and wound up planting a British flag in eastern Australia. On the way to America and the West Indies, traders and explorers bought barrels of Madeira wine and discovered that it doesn’t just survive an ocean voyage, it improves. The acidity endures, and the nutty, caramel flavours deepen. In an era when a wine that travelled usually arrived as vinegar, this was incredible. And Madeirans grew rich on their wine’s resilience.

At Blandy’s Wine Lodge, part of a 16th-century Franciscan monastery that takes up an entire block near the Funchal waterfront, my husband, Craig, and I walked through beamed rooms, their wood dark with age, where the wine matures in barrels so old that Blandy’s employs four in-house coopers to handle the ongoing repairs. Past a small museum and a stately row of giant wooden vats, we arrived at a tasting room. “We have nearly four million litres of Madeira wine ageing here,” explained Chris Blandy, CEO of his family’s business. He casually opened 2002 Sercial, made from one of the five Madeira grape varieties. It wasn’t sweet, although there were toffee and stewed-apple flavours, as well as a lemony acidity. It wasn’t old either. Unlike other wines, Madeira lasts almost indefinitely. There are surviving Madeiras—rich, bittersweet, utterly drinkable—that were made around the time John Blandy arrived from England to found the winery that bears his name. And that was in 1811.

Perhaps I was sentimental, but the whole of Madeira seemed to have a versatility, a willingness to consider different ways of doing things, that might be a legacy of the inhabitants’ historic reliance on visitors. There were the venerable and modern styles of wine; hotels like Quinta da Casa Branca built-in repurposed quintas, or manor houses, and ultra-contemporary resorts like Les Suites at the Cliff Bay. At Casa de Pasto das Eiras, an unprepossessing shed in the hills east of Funchal, I tried espetadas, skewers of tender beef grilled on an open fire and hung on metal hooks at each plate. This was quite the contrast with the modern dishes at Kampo, a seriously hip Funchal restaurant with an open kitchen and a poured-concrete bar. We ate sophisticated versions of Portuguese specialities such as a savoury bola de Berlim doughnut, which is usually sweet but is here filled with chorizo and mushroom and topped with powdered sugar.

FROM THE CITY, we glided by cable car into the hills, above terraces of the tiny, sweet local bananas, above flights of precipitous stairs leading to whitewashed, orange-roofed houses, whose residents must have excellent thigh muscles from all that climbing. At Pátio das Babosas, an airy hilltop restaurant, we stopped for lunch—grilled local tuna with milho frito, cubes of cornmeal fried with herbs; lapas, chewy, tasty limpets served in their frill-edged shells with butter, garlic, and a cascade of lemon—and gazed out over the slopes. It was distinctly cooler up there—clouds cluster around these mountains, then condense into rain that is channelled elsewhere via the levadas.

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