TourismThere are differing opinions as to what is the best way to fill remote islands. Some tend to view pieces of land surrounded by large tracts of water as perfect sites for penal colonies such as Alcatraz, Robben Island, St. Helena and Australia. Others of a more gentle nature build hotels and invite people to sit back and relax in the sub-tropical sunshine and call it paradise.
Long ago the getaway brigade discovered on this island a welcoming populace, a wonderful climate and an ever increasing and diverse supply of hotels and other tourist accommodation to suit every taste and budget.
Early tourists to Madeira were the passengers of the great cruise liners because Madeira was an important coaling station and excursions into the countryside were a pleasant day’s break from the rolling Atlantic.
In 1894 William Reid opened his eponymous hotel on the western edge of Funchal bay and English tea for the cognoscenti has been served there ever since. A collection of the eminent and infamous visited the island during this time, from George Bernard Shaw, who took time off to learn to dance, and Winston Churchill who painted the village of Câmara de Lobos. Madeira also welcomed its share of exiles from Napoleon who stopped off on his way to St. Helena, to Charles Archduke of Austria, the last of the Hapsburg Emperors who died, and was buried, in Monte.
On the back of Mr. Reid's success a number of other hotels followed, but beds were still limited until the opening of the airport in 1963. Today’s tourists come mostly by plane from Germany, Scandinavia and the UK to find some winter sun, peace and quiet. The summer months see a greater demand from the countries of southern Europe, where people come to escape the searing heat and their own tourist influx.
As an echo to the past, many people now arrive by ship, as Funchal is a favoured port on the Atlantic cruising routes. Recent years have seen a slow but important extension of tourism out of Funchal and into the rural districts of the island. ‘Levada’ walking, surfing, deep-sea fishing and mountaineering are some of the many reasons why people now visit the island.
What they all find in common is that with its very low ratio of tourists to local population, they have a chance to visit an island that lives and breathes another life other than being totally in thrall to the tourist dollar. On many dedicated tourist islands there is little choice between tourism and the penal colony. At least that’s what it feels like after the restricted travel space, uniformed officials, institutional food and a harrying indigenous population. On Madeira life is different and you are welcome to leave if you can pull yourself away.