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A lovely island off the coast of North Africa, it's Madeira, M'Dear
By Christopher Reynolds
Jun 3, 2008 - 10:07:45 AM

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Columbus' getaway

Madeira is one of Western civilization's oldest tourist destinations, arguably the first vacation spot the Europeans established outside their own continent. The first settlement there was founded by Portuguese explorer Joao Goncalves Zarco in 1420. Before he found his way to the West Indies, Christopher Columbus made Madeira a regular haunt. For several centuries, the island was a required stop for seafaring Portuguese and English imperialists, who relaxed and restocked their ships on the way to and from Africa (just 440 miles east), the Americas and Asia. With those ships acting as a distribution system, Madeira's distinctive wine soon became a requisite feature in cellars worldwide. It was drunk by Shakespeare's Falstaff and invoked in song in the 1950s by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, the British composers of the playful tune "Madeira, M'Dear." The island's wine industry perseveres today, revived after the great grapevine phylloxera crisis in the mid-19th century but marginalized by changing tastes in the global marketplace. For the last century or so, Madeira has attracted many retired and moneyed British folk who promenade through the fragrant gardens, admire the fruit in the downtown market of Funchal, the main city, and dress for dinner. In the epicenter of this society are the hushed and handsome halls of 101-year-old Reid's Hotel, where a certain atmosphere prevails and afternoon tea service, with tiny sandwiches and all the trimmings, runs about $20 per person. For thrills, many of these visitors taxi to a church at Monte, about three miles uphill from Funchal. There, a crew of white-suited men in straw hats awaits. In a ritual drawn from the days when wicker baskets were used to carry materials up and down the island's slopes, the men help the tourists into rickety wicker sleighs ("carros de cesto"), then set them hurtling down the steep street. While the tourists laugh and holler, two of the hatted men stand on the back of the sleighs like sled-dog mushers, adjusting the direction with their feet. It' s silly but exhilarating. A 10-minute ride, which covers more than a mile, runs about $10 per person.

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