Madeira's charms worth the climb

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Cable cars carry passengers quickly and scenically between downtown Funchal and the suburb of Monte, 1,800 feet above.
Cable cars carry passengers quickly and scenically between downtown Funchal and the suburb of Monte, 1,800 feet above. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin

The travel agent and I held hands, and our breath, for a madcap ride down a mountain aboard what was essentially a wicker basket for two, mounted on wooden runners with no brakes, unless you counted the rubber-soled boots worn by the two tobogganers controlling this conveyance.

But we soon got the hang of sledging, Madeira-style, just in time for the end of the 10-minute, 2-kilometer journey.

We had sampled the tourist version of a 19th-century transport system for moving quickly from Monte, Madeira, a suburb 1,800 feet above Funchal, down to that port city at sea level. The tourist version is half the full trip.

The ride was part of an agent fam sponsored by Air Europa, Melia Hotels and New York's Picasso Tours, and the agent who bravely shared my ride was Tatyana Laskavaya of Travel Selection in Wheeling, Ill.

Travel agents begin their short and fast journey in a wicker toboggan down a Madeira mountain.
Travel agents begin their short and fast journey in a wicker toboggan down a Madeira mountain. Photo Credit: Julie Sino

Madeira is a busy port where a half-million cruisers arrive annually, and sledging is on the list of available excursions.

Our group arrived by air, landing on Madeira's award-winning runway. There aren't many of those, but the world's engineers applauded a runway extension that is a bridge built over reclaimed land at the fringes of the Portuguese island.

In fact, there are several examples of dramatic bridge engineering on Madeira, all dictated by the terrain. The island is the top third of a volcanic massif, which explains shorelines that are cliffs and valleys that are impossibly deep.

All of which is to say that Madeira, a sun-and-sea destination in the Atlantic west of Casablanca, Morocco, has more to offer than sailing, surfing and swimming and is worth visiting for several days for those interested in any combination of its attractions as well as the sun-and-sea aspects.

• With its hills and several mountains, the tallest exceeding 6,000 feet, Madeira is noted for walking tours with varying levels of difficulty as well as outdoor activities ranging from ambitious to extreme, including abseiling, canyoning and rock climbing. The Funchal-Monte cable car is a less strenuous alternative to review the terrain.

• The island, home of Madeira wine, offers wine-focused touring. Our group's visit to the historical Blandy's House of Wine was a cross between a museum tour and a tasting. Hosts boasted that America's founding fathers toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira wine.

• Given the year-round mild climate, "anything" grows on Madeira, our guide said, which helps explain the numerous gardens and exotic flowers, good fodder for garden tours and the plethora of exotic fruits at the farmers market in Funchal. (Also, those rubber-soled boots are sold there.)

• Madeira offers a dose of history and culture, too, starting with Funchal's downtown, where narrow streets are dotted with eateries and unique street art. Also, there is a cathedral, several forts and museums as well as island traditions for embroidery and A-framed houses.

Flowers and wine are celebrated in annual festivals, and Madeira is famed for its New Year's Eve fireworks display, which has been called the world's largest.

The tourism infrastructure includes five-star resorts such as our host, Melia Madeira Mare, which offers spa services, fine dining and a pool overlooking the Atlantic.

Another host, DMC Madeira, organizes for individuals or groups a full range of outdoor activities, garden tours plus sightseeing in Funchal, across the island and at sea, the latter for dolphin- and whale-watching. 

To look into Madeira travel planning, contact DMC Madeira director Linda Ramos at [email protected] or [email protected], or contact Daria Bushueva, Picasso's tour department, at (212) 741-0033 ext. 3122.

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