Sat. Dec 10th, 2022

Portugal’s Madeira island is shaking off its image as your grandparents’ vacation destination. (Though they’re still welcome, of course, and hotels in Funchal are still serving high tea.) Interesting independent restaurants and small hotels are sprouting up around the island—especially outside the capital city.

Maybe it’s because of the nonstop flights from New York that launched last winter, putting the island within easy reach for all sorts of people. Or, some say, it’s because Madeira’s push to market itself to digital nomads—including the creation of a Digital Nomad Village in the town of Ponta do Sol—is attracting the right sorts of travelers.

Célia Maria da Silva Pecegueiro, the president of the municipality of Ponta do Sol, says the move has brought a good kind of tourism and helped the town evolve. She likes seeing nomads having morning yoga classes on beach, and says that they have a noticeable positive social and economic impact. They tend to be high earners and high spenders and take more of a protective interest in their temporary home bases than the short-term tourists.

She told me this over a meal of seaweed-based dishes at A Paróquia restaurant, whose menu was recently redesigned by consulting chef Pedro Mendes, who also sees the new, temporary arrivals as a good thing. They’re generally open to dishes centered on seaweed—something he recently focused a cookbook on—and vegetarian food, which he has become increasingly interested in making.

But really, Madeira’s cool-ification comes down to the ideas and daring of its local creators, whether Portuguese mainlanders like Mendes or island natives like André Diogo and Octávio Freitas (more on them later). Mendes is also consulting on the restaurant at Estalagem Ponta do Sol, a hotel that has long been respected for its clifftop location and style—it’s a member of Design Hotels.

Madeira’s tourism board took me there three years ago for the sunset at dinner. I still remember how gorgeous the sunset was, but the food? Not so much. (It was probably the usual fried black scabbard fish with banana, decent but forgettable.) The new menu is a big step up, with that black scabbard fish in a much tastier and more unusual ceviche and plenty of plant-based dishes, like roasted vegetables with quinoa, and moussaka of black beans and vegetables with yogurt sauce, alongside the expected animal proteins. The menu is one of those with hieroglyphs to designate what sort of dietary requirements each dish satisfies.

It’s a menu that’s more in line with the vision of hotelier André Diogo, who opened Estalagem 22 years ago. The oldest part of the hotel, now the reception and a bar, dates from the late 19th and early 20th century, when Madeira was a center of sugar production. The buildings were the owners’ house and plantation office. Along with those traditional buildings and the 70 much newer, minimalist rooms (stylish enough to land the place membership in Design Hotels), there are large-scale artworks spread around the hotel, and each summer he organizes a festival of a dozen or so concerts with some of Portugal’s top musical names.

While Diogo’s project is cultural, Octávio Freitas’s is agricultural. As the head chef of one of Madeira’s major hotel groups, Freitas is used to overseeing the food made for some 700 rooms’ worth of people. His passion project—which he calls “my heart, my dream”—operates on a much smaller scale.

Opened two years ago and a few miles away from Ponta do Sol in the town of Calheta, his Socalco Nature Hotel (the name means “terrace” in Portuguese, a reference to the landscape architecture) has eight standalone houses and ten rooms smack in the middle of vineyards and organic gardens (which are themselves often mixed together—sustainable agriculture in practice). While some are compact and a bit tricky to reach, they’re comfortable and serene, and one has the bed nestled into a natural grotto.

Freitas’s aim is to combine rural tourism, a gastronomic studio (read: restaurant) and farming into a single experience. Motivated guests can get their hands dirty with farm chores, join the chef for cooking classes—or watch those classes in bed, as the scenes from Freitas’s show kitchen are live-streamed into guests’ rooms—or get involved in the vineyards.

In the end, most guests are happiest to involve themselves with the super-fresh food while seated in the dining room. Breakfast is far above par for the island, lunch can be simple sandwiches or salads, and dinner is where things really shine. The menu changes every day but generally begins with house-made long-fermentation bread, and continues with three courses and dessert, focused on products from the garden, local fishermen and nearby farmers.

Freitas calls it a restaurant with rooms—“the main course is to sleep here”—and a nature hotel on the ocean. That’s not wrong, but it leaves out a final element of what he has put together with Socalco.

All those vines everywhere? They aren’t merely decorative. Freitas planted them only in 2020, but with Madeira’s subtropical climate, things grow fast. During my visit, in July, he celebrated the release of his first vintage, a dry white (on an island that’s known for the sweet stuff), called Galatrixa, after for the islanders’ misspelled slang for lagartixa (“gecko” in Portuguese, as in the cute little lizards all over the property).

The wine’s aroma is redolent of bananas, the main crop on the island and the plants that anchor the steep hills. But the flavor is far more complex, volcanic, oceanic and mineral, but also floral and tropical. It’s above expectations for a first release of a wine, especially one from such young vines.

Freitas is rightly proud of it. It might not win any awards, but it’s clearly a calling card for the new Madeira, a product from an island that’s reinventing itself.

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