Portugal has elbowed its way onto the A-list of European destinations of late, but fans of the cuisine, culture and world-class wines in this intriguing hot spot can find that and more beyond its Continental borders on Madeira.
Technically part of Portugal but located off the coast of North Africa, Madeira is gaining traction as a foodie destination in its own right, and would-be visitors can find out what the fuss is about via a number of new products and attractions.
Discovering Madeira, for example, a local tourism company, unveiled a 2-plus hour Food and Wine tour in the city of Funchal that includes nine stops, 11 food tastings and six drinks along the way. Highlights include visits to restaurants, a farmers market and a grocery store with everything from seafood to chocolate, along with tastings of wine, poncha -- an alcoholic drink made from sugar cane and fruit juice -- and coffee.
Along the way, participants will learn about architecture and culture from experienced local guides, and the tour is priced under $70 per person.
The company also offers full-day wine tours, picnics in the vineyards and a range of other excursions.
Also new on the food scene is the reopening of A Gruta, a cave-like restaurant that had its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s and had been closed for 35 years. The renovated eatery offers traditional local cuisine and views of the Bay of Funchal.
Looking for more opportunities to sample food and culture? The Our Lady of Monte festival, which takes place this year on Aug. 14 and 15 in the Funchal district of Monte, brings locals into the street in full force, lured by food and drink stands, colorful flowers, candy necklaces and music and dancing all night. The festival is capped with a religious procession through the streets with huge candles and wax figures on the 15th.
Of course, there is more to culture than food and wine, and the island offers a wealth of other activities on land and water. For example, visitors can hop on two- and three-hour guided boat tours to see the more than 20 species of whales and dolphins that swim along Madeira’s coast.
The best season for successful whale- and dolphin-watching runs from April to September, while sea lion tours are available year-round.
Hotels on the island are available in a wide range of price points, from budget to luxury, but most fall in the four- and five-star category.
The 172-room Royal Savoy Hotel Madeira, an extension of the 100-year-old Hotel Savoy, for example, offers several swimming pools; private access to the sea, gym and a sauna; as well as panoramic views.
The 158-room Belmond Reid’s Palace features sweeping gardens overlooking the Atlantic, heated outdoor pools, four restaurants and one bar, a lounging terrace, a spa and tennis courts.
Several new high-end properties are opening this spring, including the Pestana Churchill Bay and the 352-room Savoy Palace.
As for air access, TAP Air Portugal is offering new one-stop service to Funchal from San Francisco and Washington, along with existing nonstop service from Boston (on TAP and SATA Air Azores), New York-JFK, Newark and Miami.