Today is an exciting day because we are seeing land for the first time in over a week! Funchal, Portugal is our port of call on the island of Madeira.
At the last minute, I decide to take a guided tour of the city because I’m afraid my leg isn’t going to hold out for walking around all day on my own. My chosen tour is called the Scenic Madeira tour, which is 3 hours long and provides some truly spectacular vistas. The price? $49.99, and yes, it’s quite a bit more than some others negotiated privately. I talked to 2 people who did the whole thing for about $20 each…actually they had about a 5-hour tour for that price…from a taxi! However they did have to give up the English speaking part, which is kind of important if you want to understand the history and culture of the area.
But here’s yet another complaint about NCL: The people who opt NOT to take their guided tour are allowed off the ship earlier than those who pay for NCL’s tours! It would seem like to me that the reverse would be true, but no! I can only watch in envy as most of the ship is allowed to disembark while we tour group people must wait, and wait in the Epic Theater for an hour. Then a man in a wheelchair needs medical attention, and so we wait some more. By the time we are on the way in our bus, it’s been almost 75 minutes. That wouldn’t be a big deal maybe if we were in port a day or two, but in this case we’re leaving Funchal in 7 hours…not how I wanted to spend my shore excursion, waiting on NCL to clear us out and off the ship.
In the event, though, the tour is good. The guide is very knowledgeable with an excellent command of English and they take us first to a scenic promontory (the second highest sea cliffs in the world) called Cabo Girao. They give us a half hour to snap some photos there, and oh my, is the view glorious! The day is brilliant, the sun is out, it’s about 75 degrees, and the view is forever. The panorama is a sweeping view of the Atlantic to the west, a World Heritage tiered farming community to the south, and the city of Funchal almost 2,000 feet below us.
One of the things that strikes you about Madeira is its size (about 500 square miles and 300,000 population) and its greenery. The local climate supports all kinds of exotic tropical trees and fruits, and so you can see banana trees marching down to the sea at lower altitudes giving way to sugar cane, then cedar and eucalyptus as you climb up the steep valley walls through a fantastic road system that by turns winds through graceful bridge spans and tunnels through the basaltic rock that comprises most of the island’s volcanic geology. Along the road you will see clean neat homes with red clay tile roofs, some painted in wild pinks, oranges, and blues, clinging to the side of the mountain in rows all the way from the port to the top of the highest peaks. The overall feeling is of a happy prosperous place that is not entirely dependent on tourism (farming is the number one industry). In short, it’s a beautiful place touched by centuries of refinement.
After taking in the view at Cabo Girao, we head down to yet another overlook before arriving in the small fishing village of Camara de Lobos, which achieved some notoriety as a holiday home of Winston Churchill. He was fond of painting the brightly colored boats and houses in the quaint fishing village, just one of many Englishmen to find the place rather appealing as a vacation spot. To this day, there are many British tourists and expats on the island. We are encouraged to sample the local Poncha, a powerful but sweet brew that isn’t really to my liking, but it is one of those things you try just to say you did it. This is still a working village even though today, with 2 cruise ships in port, it’s overrun with passengers, but all the same it is charming, which is a good word to describe the entire island.
Last we come back to Funchal, where we have a taste of the local vino. Madeira wine is a little sweet for my tastes, but they offer up a crisp dry white that is simple but tasty enough, with just a hint of citrus. I take the rest of the day exploring Funchal on foot, and am impressed by its eclectic blend of medieval churches, casinos, beautiful parks, and tree-lined roads, as well as a smattering of world-class hotels. You get the idea that Madeira has been around a long time and will endure the ages with a certain degree of grace, attaining a fine patina over the years.
I spent some time just sipping some wine and enjoying some music on a public promenade. The sun is filtered through Jacaranda trees and the park across the street sports African violets. Everything is spotless. They even have free WiFi so I can catch up on my email without paying NCL’s usurious charges. All in all, a lovely place.
We’re here on a Sunday, so many of the shops are closed. I like that actually, even though I need some Ibuprofen for my knee and could use some cheap sunglasses. It says a lot about these people that even with 2 giant cruise ships parked in their harbor, taking time with God and family is more important to them than commerce.
I’m told that a small apartment can be had up in the mountains for $175,000, and houses can go for a half million or more. The prices increase as you approach the beach, but in all honesty the beach doesn’t look all that great from a distance. It’s black sand, and it looks coarse. It isn’t very wide, and it’s flanked by a power plant at one end. Again, I did not trek down to it, but from a distance it doesn’t appear like the beach is a big deal from my Floridian perspective. Yet the island offers so much more, and the weather, which can be wet, is never humid, and I don’t think that bugs are a big problem here. It’s a beautiful place with a proud heritage, beautiful tropical foliage, warm friendly people, and reasonable prices from what I have seen ($4 for a glass of wine in the middle of the tourist area). Good show!
Back on the ship, my safe is still not working. I think I’ve had 5 people come out to look at it by now. It takes 2 on each trip: one to verify the problem, and they call an “engineer”, who tries to fix it. So far they have replaced the batteries and tried to dislodge the bolt, and it works for about 24 hours before it fails again. Each time, you the passenger must wait in the room as they work. Maddening.
I run into Reiner, Sonja, Becky, Cat, Bobbie, and Rina at some point during the night. Reiner and Sonja are the married German couple. He is a retired Electrical Engineer and she was a housewife, and now they just like to vacation. Like most Germans I’ve met, they are friendly and relaxed. Bobbie is a cute woman with a purpose: she’s hiking the entire Camino de Santiago, which is a six week religious pilgrimage, while I am only doing about 100KM myself. She too is easy going and vivacious. Cat employs Rina in her Pawn Shop and just took her along as a companion. They’re party animals and are going to spend the next couple of months joined at the hip in a quest to drink their way across Europe.
I wind up watching a thoroughly forgettable movie starring the usually funny Will Ferrell and the always execrable Dustin Hoffman at midnight. Stupid move! It’s one before I get to bed.
Another whine on NCL: You pay a gratuity that’s instantly attached to every bill. I’d rather decide for myself what to pay a waiter/ waitress, thank you.