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In Funchal the maid in Madeira is just a bit crazed

After the signing of the American “Declaration of Independence,” the enlightened revolutionaries, in their dandyish greatcoats and powdered wigs, symbolically celebrated the milestone event with endless rounds of Madeira—Thomas Jefferson’s favorite drink.

So I felt like it was my patriotic duty to follow suit before the turn of the calendar page–after signing my credit-card slip for pricey airfare to the island of Madeira–to down a couple of glasses, too. Unfortunately, the bottle I purchased at my local wine shop was rough stuff. I used it mostly for cooking (rarely). Clearly I had to educate myself on what constituted good “Madeira”–a favorite of frequent guest Sir Winston Churchill–before I shoved off to celebrate. On this mountainous Portuguese colony, purportedly rife with wildflowers, off the coast of Europe and Africa—indeed all by its lonesome in the middle of the ocean—I hoped to achieve a new connoisseurship.

What a great idea for an “on-spec” trip into the unknown: getting blotto abroad, on an island with “terroir,” and not on Champagne ™.

I decided to bring my “partner” and kid along: Oh what a mistake. I had no idea then what I was getting myself into: a place that sounded far away and exotic but which also had an atmosphere which hovered in the sixties year round, and a regular tourist presence of British geriatrics far older than that.

Madeira coastline


When I arrived in the capital of Funchal, I imagined that the plane had been hijacked to somewhere in North Africa. As the taxi sped along, the island seemed too large and the mountains too foreboding for this to be a small island. Vast, it appears on every world map. It is partly covered by subtropical rainforest called “laurasilva”
(a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and crisscrossed with easy walking paths called “levadas.”

Checking into our pousada retreat with a pool, I braved the deep end with a cinematic cannonball into the frigid waters, apparently meant to be looked at, not swum in, judging by its eerie emptiness. Maybe we had picked the wrong hotel? The only other guest seemed to be an elderly muscle-bound Brit who quite frankly admitted he was former SAS, plus as Irish as St. Pat.

Wheeling my goddess daughter Elizabeth, alias “QE3,” over the cobbles leading to the Old Town, she kept dropping “Barbecue” (her Barby Doll), and we would have to backtrack to retrieve her. We all soon tired of this game. Though the city was filled with flash eateries, many of them “al fresco” (fancy talk for outside) and carved out of stone, my partner insisted on getting hot dogs for Elizabeth and finding lonely playgrounds.

Not on this trip, babe.

I pointed out one restaurant with a sign advertising “fried crap,” realizing from a simple transposition of letters, funnier than Tom Cruise claiming he cured his dyslexia with a copy of Dianetics, that this might be a pretty good alternative to a cheap “seafood” joint, or “peixe” (pronounced “pesha”) as the Portuguese say in their sometimes Slavic-sounding tongue. Yachties straight out of the pages of Condé Nast and Travel + Leisure whooped it up at the pubs, while regular Madeiran workmen, tanned as sea gypsys and sporting pointy woolen hats with earflaps, wandered about vaguely moving boxes around and stopping for frequent smoke breaks.

Everywhere we went we were bombarded by “Bom Dia!”s from the friendly olive-complected “natives” who all asked me if I was German. (Americans are a rarity here.)

Madeira barrelsI was anxious to try my first “bacalhau” (a Portuguese specialty) and down a special reserve Sercial, one of the 4 main varieties of Madeiran wine. The other three are Bual, Verdelho, and Malmsey. Generally, Malmsey is considered the best and the most British-sounding.

One sip of my first Sercial and I was sunk in depression: didn’t like it, was too sour, tasted like pee—not that I’m an expert on the flavor of pee. I suppose that even during the Age of Exploration, when sailors under the command of the illustrious Prince Henry the Navigator decided to “fortify” their wine for long sea voyages to the New World (adding neutral grape spirits to the barrels), the wine was not considered top flight. This was no Port, mind you.

I changed my mind, though, when I meandered over a perpetual glass of Malmsey later at the world-famous Reid’s Hotel, while sitting on their genteel balcony overlooking a steep hill.

Two small bottles later I was still sitting there. I wondered obliquely where my partner and Elizabeth had gone, before I nodded off into a nap which, when I awoke, was apparently not really appreciated by the management. Their manner was stiff, as was the bill.

Madeira glasses and barrells


“Is that all you are going to do on this trip, get drunk?!” my partner fumed with wild Betty Davis eyes. “I want to sightsee!” So we took a taxi tour of the island, marveling at the sheer amount of stone churches and trash-strewn beaches. I could tell my significant shrike was a little disappointed.

But things perked up later when we took the funicular up into the mountains. Absolutely glorious! Surely, we had entered some paranormal rent in the fabric of the universe and ended up in the Scottish Highlands on a foggy day.

Back in town we found a nice café, filled with obvious European jestsetters, and I lined up all four Madeiras for a real tasting. Now, this was good stuff. Because of the Madeiran process of estufagen, which duplicates the aging process of a long sea voyage in the tropics (the wine is now mostly stored in stainless steel rather than oak casks), you get what you pay for. Allow for some oxidation to peculiarly taint its flavor.

Also, look for the “Finest” label (aged 3 + years) which can survive over 150 years in the bottle, making the right Madeira the longevity king of all spirits.

According to the Guinness Book of World’s Records, Madeira throws the largest New Years Eve fireworks display in the world. (This was the real reason I had come so far for a family vacay.) But I had no intention of staying on this island of incriminations to see it. Overindulgence in drink had made me sick as a sea dog and I had to purchase on wobbly chicken legs a ticket to return home a week early at a hefty price.

My partner was steaming at vacation interruptus. What kind of harpy blames someone for being sick? Needless to say, when we got back to the States, rather than having returned from a romantic retreat, we abruptly began arguing up a storm again? Splitsville? Maybe. But not yet. I realized then that no pretend patch-up was ever possible in the first place. We would merely exist solely for our daughter Elizabeth, plus remain cordial.

Walking the Levadas in MadeiraAnyway, on the bright side, my daughter very often talks about our strange trip to Madeira, and the rugged dreamscape we pushed her over in her stroller.

Like a cold slap of water to wake up in the morning, I came to a hasty decision. I ceremoniously dumped out my duty-free cooking Madeira in the sink, a fortified letdown which unfortunately now ranks as my least-favorite drink, excepting Southern Comfort. Nope, a bad memory. Not all holidays in those glossy consumer magazines turn out like wonderful paid advertorials, I’m afraid.

But I’d do (almost) anything to see those craggy brown mountains at least once again, impossibly positioned literally nowhere on a chunk of isolated isle far from the mainland and hanging ten on the edge of time.

And this next time I would do it alone and on my own terms.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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