Often called the Garden Isle, the Portuguese island of Madeira sits in the Atlantic, closer to Morocco than to mainland Portugal. Rising to 4000 feet elevations, Madeira is the tip of an extinct volcano whose base is at the ocean floor, 10,000 feet below.
The capital of Funchal climbs up a natural amphitheater that reaches from the harbor to an elevation of 1800 feet. Jacaranda trees canopy its streets in April, hibiscus and bougainvillea bloom spectacularly all year, the protected slopes and mild year-round climate nurturing these and a dozen public gardens.
Three Garden Styles in Funchal, Madeira
Each of Funchal’s three main gardens is quite different. Palheiro is a classic English garden – not surprising considering Madeira’s long association with the British – designed in a series of separate “rooms” with different themes and decors, overlooked by an arboretum of monumental trees.
The Botanic Garden is designed to educate, laid out in a more scientific manner by environments, geography and species. It also has Funchal’s showpiece, the spectacular mosaic garden. Monte Palace Gardens are a tropical fairyland, where visitors step into a lush green world cascading through a deep ravine, sensuous and dramatic, filled with carefully framed viewpoints that reveal surprises, such as a red Japanese bridge far below.
Because each of these has elements that delight the eye and the soul, their appeal is not just for gardeners and devoted plant lovers. Any traveler will revel in their beauty, color and contact with nature. Each has its Wow! moments and its beauty spots where it’s almost impossible to resist a photo.
Palheiro Gardens: A Garden for Gardeners
Crowning a hilltop above the city with formal beds and an avenue of camellias in bloom from October to April, Palheiro Gardens began in the early 1800s when the Count of Carvalhal planted exotic trees from around the world and began the Camellia (Camellia japonica) collection. Later in the century Mildred Blandy introduced more exotics, including proteas from South Africa. She created the stunning ensemble we see today: The Main Garden, Sunken Garden, Ribeiro do Inferno, Rose Garden, and the Lady’s Garden.
Paths paved in pebble mosaics wind informally past lily pools and views down onto the city are framed by centennial trees, many of which are record holders. An 80-foot Pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsus), a 100-foot tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), a 140-foot Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and a 117-foot coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) are the stars, but the most striking are three giant New Zealand Christmas trees (Metrosideros excelsa) with their aerial roots and bright crimson flowers.
Not just a beauty to behold, this is also a gardener’s garden, with labeled species and ideas for planting arrangements and new varietals. We were fortunate to tour Quinta Palheiro with knowledgeable garden guide, Celia Mendonca (email@example.com), who could not only identify plants at a glance, but added historical and cultural depth to our experience. She told us, for example, how Captain Cook brought Europe’s first Norfolk pines to Madeira, and that they were prized for ship masts. And that New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) was used by the Royal Navy for rope making. At the foot of the gardens, stop for tea and cakes at the Tea House.
Madeira Botanical Garden
After this world-class garden, we were afraid the others would be an anti-climax. We needn’t have worried. The Madeira Botanical Garden sits in layers on a steep hillside overlooking the harbor and is dedicated in part to preserving the island’s indigenous and endemic plants. Also outstanding are the arboretum, succulents and large cacti, palms, and plants cultivated for food and aromatic use. Sections are devoted to plants from various geographical regions.
Plants are well labeled with local and botanical names as well as place of origin, but again we appreciated Celia’s knowledge of the plants, especially the fruits we would later see in the colorful city market. It was here we first encountered the island’s most unusual edible fruit, locally known as the cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa), its flavors a blend of banana and pineapple. Other curious plants include the African sausage tree (Kigelia africana) with its peculiar sausage-shaped hanging fruit and the dragon tree (Dracaena draco). Celia told us that its sap oxidizes to a red that was used to stain Stradivarius violins.
The unquestioned people-pleaser – and the reason the garden is the most photographed place on the island – is the long terrace of colored blooms and foliage plants arranged in a brilliant mosaic of geometric shapes. The patterns and colors vary as each planting matures and is replaced. At any season it’s a feast for the eyes. Most tourists view it from above for the best effect, but curious gardeners will walk the paths among the plants to identify individual species and consider how the mosaic effect is possible in a home garden or border.
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
Madeira’s premier garden is Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, where soaring trees and lush exotic plants and flowers fill a deep ravine. Pathways are lined by walls covered with a priceless collection of Portugal’s signature tiles, and throughout the gardens architectural and natural features mix to create vignettes – a red-lacquered bridge and a Tori gate glimpsed from above through tree ferns, swans swimming in a pond framed by foliage, stone lanterns, a marble dragon, faux grottos lined in porcelain, stone walls and arches.
Throughout it celebrates the long relationship between Portugal and Japan, but it’s very, very Portuguese and reminiscent of the almost effortlessly wild and romantic gardens of Monserrat and Pena in Sintra. Not that Monte is carelessly planted or arranged – paths are in just the right places and the foliage parts to frame views that seem to appear by chance but are carefully designed. There’s a profusion of foliage, but you never feel closed in and views give periodic glimpses of the pond below and the castle-like villa – or the surprise of a cherry-red modern sculpture glimpsed through the trees.
Stone walls retain the multiple paths that wind sinuously through the ravine, sloping gently for leisurely strolling while indulging the soul in the intoxicating surroundings. It’s a garden meant for relaxing and savoring. Before you leave, step into the Aladdin’s cave of the mineral museum, filled with a collection of 700 gems, crystals and giant geodes from all over the world.
Visiting the gardens in this order makes sense not only geographically – you can take the telerifico (cable car) right from the Botanic Garden to Monte Palace – but in terms of enjoyment. After your head is filled with plant names and orderly presentation of themed gardens and botanical classifications, where the attention is to the individual plants and their visual or scientific relationships, rest your eyes and your soul in the lush abandon and visual indulgence of a pleasure garden.
WHEN YOU GO:
Where to Eat in Funchal
Before entering Monte Palace Gardens, a good lunch stop is just opposite its gate, at Babosas Village Restaurant. The star dish here is local scabbard fish roasted with fresh pineapple and bananas. Tropical fruits thrive in Madeira’s climate and the cuisine is unique to the island, frequently blending the two most plentiful local ingredients, fruits and seafood. Market vendors in Mercado dos Lavradores are generous in offering sample of the fruits, which include more than 10 varieties of passion fruit.
Other restaurants to consider in Funchal are Estalagem Quinta da Ponta do Sol, accessed by an elevator and sky bridge to its cliff-top setting, and Nini Design Center Restaurant, overlooking the harbor in the atelier of the internationally recognized designer Nini Andrade Silva.
Where to Stay in Funchal
Convenient to central Funchal is the luxury Royal Savoy Hotel, with spacious rooms, ocean views and a broad sea-front terrace of swimming pools, palms, cafes and places to lounge in the sun. Just opposite is the newly opened sister hotel, The Savoy Palace, with a roof-top infinity pool and luxurious contemporary rooms and suites.
Featured image: Madeira Botanical Garden Mosaic Garden / Stillman Rogers
Barbara Radcliffe Rogers is a travel writer and book author specializing in food and gardens. She is the author of The Encyclopedia of Everlastings, Fresh Herbs and Drying Flowers and co-author of several guidebooks to Portugal. You can follow her food and travel adventures at WorldBite.