FUNCHAL, Madeira - When I told people we were going on vacation to Madeira, it raised an eyebrow or two.
"Isn't that where they make port?"
To answer the last question first: No. Port comes from the Douro region of Portugal, and Madeira is home to its own eponymous appellation of fortified wine.
The where (and the what): Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago about 400 miles off North Africa. It consists of the island of Porto Santo, the Ilhas Desertas (deserted islands) and the island of Madeira, where the capital of Funchal is located (even though it's part of Portugal, the archipelago is an autonomous region). Our destination was Funchal, which from all depictions seemed tropical and remote enough to forget the daily distractions that we so badly wanted to abandon in exchange for some true relaxation.
But the real why of our trip: As a fan of wine in general, I was extremely curious to learn more about port's native cousin. I'd recently read the re-release of the definitive book on Madeira wine, Noel Cossart's "Island Vineyard," which author Mannie Berk rescued from obscurity and republished this year. It is arguably the world's longest-lasting type of wine - a bottle of 1850 Madeira retains a lush, smooth flavor long after being opened - and it's also survived war, epidemics, mildew and the phylloxera grapevine pest. As a history buff, I was fascinated to learn that Madeira had a strong U.S. following in the 19th century, especially on the Eastern Seaboard. I also was interested to visit a region that attracted (at different times, of course) Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and the pre-Castro Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.
We had barely landed on the runway in Funchal when my wife commented that already it reminded her of a Hawaiian island, with its waving palm trees, temperate climate and abundant sunshine. (Year-round average temperature is about 80 degrees.) The airport is fairly small but modern and is served by several airlines.
Although it's part of Portugal, you don't have to speak Portuguese in Madeira. Just about everyone we met spoke English, largely because tourism is an economic mainstay, and menus and guides were in both languages.
Back home in California, long before our trip, I'd been surprised to see a half-dozen Madeira wines prominently displayed at a top San Francisco restaurant called Frances. It's a small place that doesn't carry a lot of wine, but the restaurant's wine director told me that Madeira goes well with many more dishes than other fortified wines would. During our visit to the island, we found that Madeira wine did pair nicely with many local dishes and seafood.
But the wines and the island's unique winegrowing region are just one aspect of what the area has to offer: a beautiful coastline, fresh seafood and tropical fruit, a mountaintop toboggan ride and a vibrant nightlife scene in the heart of the city.
Lodging on the island of Madeira runs the gamut from very casual (including rooms, or quartos, in private residences) to the very elegant. Reid's Palace, a popular spot for vacationing Brits, is majestically perched atop the cliffs; this is where Churchill came to paint and write after the war, and where Shaw learned to dance. Hotel employees were a little reticent to admit that this also is where the exiled president Batista stayed after he left Cuba, taking a whole floor of the hotel for himself and his entourage for about a year.
Back to the wine: Madeira is like none other, both in the way it is made and the way it keeps. Even though it is fortified like port and sherry, its acidity makes it less sweet and gives it a very different taste. What makes the wine unique is its aging process, in which the wine is deliberately exposed to heat and air, giving it a mellow taste and color.
We paid a visit to the growing regions about an hour's drive from Funchal, where at harvest time the terraced vineyards and canopied vines created a green ceiling so dense and low that workers had to stoop as they walk along to hand-cut grapes.
Another highlight of our Funchal trip - rating right up there with swimming in the warm ocean - was taking the teleférico (sky cable car) from the heart of Funchal up to the village of Monte, which offers astounding views and - surprise! - a toboggan ride down steep streets. No, there's no snow; these toboggans have greased wooden runners and two guides whose thick boots help slow down the sleds for the sharp turns. The sleds travel a few miles, and riders can then take a taxi back up the hill or down to Funchal. For the not-so-adventurous, it's still worth the trip up to Monte - and the extra few euros to take the cable car back down.
If you go
• Madeira: Official tourism website: www.turismomadeira.pt
• Getting there: The airport in Funchal, Madeira, is served by TAP, Saba Airlines, Thompson Airways, EasyJet and RyanAir. You can fly to Funchal nonstop from Lisbon or London's Heathrow or Stansted airports. Funchal is also served from other major European cities, usually with a connection in Lisbon.
• Barbeito: Modern winery, about half an hour from Funchal, in Camara de Lobos. Spectacular views. www.vinhosbarbeito.com
• Artur de Barros e Sousa: Old-school, three-story lodge, which shows the conditions in which wine ages for years. Rua dos Ferreiros 109, Funchal. www.vinhosmadeira.com
• D'Oliveiras: Home to very old and very fine Madeiras. Rua dos Ferreiros 107, Funchal.
• Blandy's Wine Lodge: Large tasting room in the heart of Funchal with frequent tours and programs. Avenida Arriaga 28, Funchal. www.theoldblandywinelodge.com/winelodge-home.htm