Tidewater Traveler - January 2011


George W. Sellers


After six days crossing the Atlantic Ocean with no land in sight – at all – you might expect that I would be on deck, welcoming the first glimpse of terra firma. But the reality is that I have slept through the early morning arrival and docking at the tiny island of Madeira, located off the northwest coast of Africa, about 500 miles from Morocco. The dot over the letter “i” in the name of this Portuguese island consumes more space on the paper than does the mark that represents Madeira on a map of this eastern Atlantic region.
Known as the Pearl of the Atlantic, one must wonder, how did it get here? Do islands like this just float in from somewhere and settle down on the surface of an ocean, thousands of feet deep? Not exactly. It seems that shortly before our ship arrived – about five million years before – a massive volcano erupted from an undersea mountain range. Not unlike many Pacific islands, the volcanic cone grew until it protruded above the ocean’s surface and then for the next few million years was worn down and eroded by the natural forces of wind and water. The result – a great port of call for the Disney Wonder cruise ship! And – a great place for the Portuguese fishermen and farmers who call Madeira their home.
Time to grab a quick breakfast, camera, binoculars and a light jacket and then board the bus (yes, the tourist bus) for an overview tour of the island. The ship is docked within the Bay of Funchal, and within view of the capital city of the same name. Our bus departs Funchal to begin a steep and winding ascent.
Remember that volcanic cone? We are creeping along crooked, narrow roads headed for a point somewhere along the steep rim of the caldera where the mountain overlooks the ocean. The ride of about thirty minutes brings us to a lookout point on the west coast known as Cabo Girão.
Gently approaching and peering over the makeshift safety (?!?) rail convinces me that this is another of the world’s many natural features that cannot be adequately shared through a photograph. Oh sure, I snap a few pictures of the beach and vineyards that are more than 1,900 feet below, at the bottom of this sheer cliff. Some claim Cabo Girão to be the second highest sea cliff in the world. At the moment, ranking is not an issue – this is truly impressive and relatively un-commercialized except for a few tables set up by local entrepreneurial crafters.
With the sea ahead of me, the view to my left is of the seaside fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, which will be the next stop.
With some time for a cold drink and a stroll through the steep cobblestoned streets of the small village, I find Câmara de Lobos to be a genuine working town. I see no sign that anyone in town has anticipated the arrival of tourists. For the locals, it is business as usual with an occasional stare as if to say, “Where did you people come from?” It is like I would imagine it to be if someone dropped a bus load of tourists on Hooper’s Island.
The town is quite natural and wonderful! From the seawall I see the massive cliff to the north, Cabo Girão, from which I had viewed this little village about twenty minutes ago.
Strolling back past small shops (shops for locals, not touristy stuff) I reach the edge of a boatyard. A cove reaches well into the town and at the head of the cove is a boatyard where fishing boats are dragged from the water and rest on their sides.
Not thinking too much about it, I stroll into the boatyard (no fences – no signs) to get a closer look. I am fascinated by the fish skins that have been stretched across frames and hung to dry (or cure) in the sun. After a few minutes I notice a group of fishermen not too far away, gathering around a table, maybe playing cards. I notice that they are keeping very close watch over me and the others who have come into the boatyard. I know that I offer no threat to their livelihood, but I realize that they do not know that, so I meander away from the boats and the skins toward the other side of the boatyard and am confronted by a long set of steps to get back up to street level.
I am not the first person to have climbed these steep, rugged, hewn-stone steps to reach the Estrada João G Zarco, a narrow cobblestone street that overlooks the fisherman’s cove and boatyard. The steps arrive beside an unpretentious building where a modest sign identifies it to be Churchill’s, and a plaque indicates that Sir Winston himself adopted this location as a retreat where he could enjoy painting and culinary arts. The building now houses a famous fish restaurant, Churchill’s.
Another twenty minutes on the bus and I step off to begin a stroll through the beautiful Funchal city park known as Santa Catarina. The park features miles of walking paths, a beautiful lake and diverse plant life, along with great views of the Bay of Funchal. I take the short route through the park to reach the town center of Funchal, where I am pleasantly surprised to find the annual Madeira Flower Festival in full swing.
The streets are packed with people awaiting the beginning of the children’s parade. From some of the local folks I learn that the celebration lasts four days, with beautiful displays of tropical flowers, floral carpets and music. They tell me the best parts of all are the parades starting with the children’s parade and climaxing with the festival’s main parade, when hundreds of flower dancers accompanied by huge floral floats parade through the main streets of Funchal.
Before the parade begins I have just enough time to walk half a block down the street to sample some famous Madeira wine at the local Wine Lodge. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Madeira wine was considered a luxury. It is still Madeira’s most important export. Following the parade, the ship is within walking distance and the stroll brings a pleasant end to a fascinating day.
Among cruise lines that list Madeira as a port of call are Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line. These lines and others typically include Madeira as a stop while on trans-Atlantic repositioning cruises.
A repositioning cruise is usually a twice-a-year occurrence: in the spring many ships are moved from their wintertime Caribbean itineraries to work in the Mediterranean for the summer; and in the fall they return to the Caribbean. Repositioning cruises not only offer unique itineraries, but quite often their rates offer excellent value.
May all of your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel website and travel planning service www.SellersTravel.com.