400 miles off the coast of Africa and just a short hour-long flight from Lisbon, the Portuguese island of Madeira shimmers in the Atlantic. A longtime wellness destination for Europeans who sailed to the island to recover in the warm breeze amidst botanical gardens, Madeira has been welcoming holiday-goers long before Portugal’s recent tourism boom. One such visitor was a fourteen year old boy named William Reid, a Scotsman who came – then stayed – building a vacation-rental business and ultimately, the Pink Palace that bears his name today.
Full of old world glamour and timeless elegance, Reid’s Palace still presides as the grand dame of Madeira, welcoming visitors to the island for over 100 years. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean it is an ode to a bygone era yet also poised to attract a new generation of travelers once its current transformation is complete. Carefully updating the property without (hopefully!) alienating its most loyal clients, Reid’s has slowly been undergoing renovations bringing a new look to their lobby, the Michelin stared restaurant “William”, and the iconic pool deck, with plans to update their suites and bar in the near future. The facelift still pays homage to the property’s storied past, with countless photographs of past guests at play lining the walls. Among those featured are George Bernard Shaw, innumerable royals, and Winston Churchill – who stayed while writing his memoirs and loved to paint in the neighboring fishing village of Camera de Lobos.
I am a huge fan of Belmond’s collection and have had the privilege of experiencing their legendary hospitality in Peru, Italy, Brazil, and England. So after Lisbon, I eagerly accepted an invitation to visit Belmond Reid’s Palace and rendez-vous with my London-based friend, Robyn, for a little weekend getaway. While I usually prefer to be up early exploring, seeing every site, and tasting every dish a destination has to offer, our hotel was so magical and we had so much catching up to do we barely left the property. So this post is much less a guide to Madeira than it is an ode to Belmond Reid’s Palace. I hope you don’t mind.
Each morning we’d come down for a heaping breakfast with towels tucked under our arms then continue past the pools down to the sea decks by the water’s edge. Reading, napping and gazing at the hypnotic waves were on our to-do list each day, punctuated with little dips in the sea pool when it got too hot. These rocky sun bathing decks were the highlight of our time on the island. Pairs of loungers tucked along the craggy cliffs – each with a bit of privacy and sweeping views of the sea. I certainly love the beach clubs that dot the Mediterranean but this spot seemed extra special.
While we were perfectly happy relaxing at the hotel we did venture out to town for lunch one afternoon. A quick jaunt in the shuttle landed us in the historic center of Funchal, which is part colonial outpost and part fishing village. Stopping through Mercado dos Lavradores is a must to experience the flower, fish, and fruit market. We had the best time at the first fruit stall on the right after the flowers, where the gregarious vendor educated us on the many varieties of passionfruit (all delicious – we sampled six!) and Madeira’s exotic Monstera fruit, which tastes like a pineapple-banana hybrid. We gathered up our favorites to bring back to the beach loungers later that day. Just north of the market is a tiny sandwich shop, A Preferida, filled with older gentlemen lined up at the bar chatting over lunch or a beer. Everyone only spoke Portuguese so we sampled several sandwich fillings and settled on one that (we think) was grilled tuna on a toasted bun. IT WAS DELICIOUS. Bellies full we wandered the town’s tiny streets. Funchal has several notable churches but my favorite was the unassuming 15th century fisherman’s chapel, Capela Do Corpo Santo, whose plain stone floor and rough hewn pews were a stark contrast to their alter which was wallpapered with gilt paintings.
I love hours spent lingering over afternoon tea and of all the teas I’ve attended (across 6 continents) the one at Reid’s Palace is tops. (Robyn compared it to tea at the Ritz – the gold standard.) From the spectacular terrace overlooking the hotel’s botanical gardens and coastline to the unlimited sandwiches, scones, and sweets it was beautifully done and a must-do whether you’re staying at the hotel or not. It’s the corner of the hotel that the property’s storied past really comes to life and I’m almost certain I saw Winston Churchill with his ubiquitous cigar guffawing at a neighboring table.
Of course, much of the fun of afternoon tea is dressing the part, and this seersucker dress (draped like a sarong!) hit just the right note. Looking over the images in this travel diary I have a serious thing for blue and white seersucker (like this bikini) and the unusual neckline and big bow at the nape of the neck help make the casual fabric stand out at this summer’s garden parties and barbecues. (It also comes out of the wash nearly wrinkle free if you hang it to dry – a major plus for a vacation dress!) Cinch it with a belt for an extra bit of polish.
Part of the old world elegance of Belmond’s Reid Palace is that almost everyone dresses up for dinner. (You can find my blog post about this amazing skirt here.) We walked over for sunset at Restaurant Villa Cipriani on our first night and returned to order the very same meal the next night – fresh bruschetta and delicious lobster pastas paired with bright Portuguese wines from the Duoro Valley. The very first image in this travel diary is of the cliffside view from our table at Villa Cipriani (named for Belmond’s sister property in Venice!) and I’m sure you can guess we returned as much to watch the sun soak the Pink Palace in golden hues as we did for the food. On our last night the hotel invited all guests to complimentary cocktails in the piano bar, which was an unexpected highlight as guests mingled over glasses of Madeira and champagne and waiters swirled past our table with beautiful canapés on their arm. Later we ordered dinner up to our room and ate out on the balcony, chatting late into the night about fond memories and future plans as the lights of Funchal twinkled below us.
Thank you to my friends at Belmond for hosting us. You always make our visits so special!
Photos of me by Robyn Thompson (thank you Robyn!) , all other photos by Stacie Flinner.