'Stayin' at the
Savoy in Magical Madeira
of the snowiest March in New England history, imagine what a pleasure it
was to disembark from a plane on a morning that felt like the middle of
June, swiftly exit a calm and orderly airport, and find a man named Jorge
standing in the sunlight, waiting for you. He loads your bags into the
trunk of a blue BMW, and off you go on a thrilling fifteen minute drive up
and down the roads of a velvety green island with the glinting Atlantic to
the south and steep hillsides with terraced gardens and red-tiled roofs to
the north. You pass a bustling horseshoe harbor with the masts of small
craft swaying in the breeze and a single enormous cruise ship at anchor,
careen down a palm-lined boulevard, and turn into a leafy courtyard.
There you step out before a gleaming modern structure: the nearly century
old premier resort of Madeira, the Hotel Savoy.
of the Savoy is embedded in the larger history of Madeira, a volcanic
island roughly equidistant between Lisbon and Casablanca which rises four
miles high from a mountain range submerged in the depths of the sea.
Although discovered by Prince Henry’s Navigators and claimed for
Portugal in 1420, Madeira has always had a strong connection to England,
even to the extent of being offered by Portugal as part of a royal
marriage package to Charles II. The king turned it down; he needed
money, not another island. But his compatriots have long found the appeals
of Madeira with its year-round perfect climate and incomparable scenic
splendors impossible to resist, and the Hotel Savoy is, in a sense, a
little piece of England in an enchanted Portuguese garden that overlooks
the sea. While it attracts its share of German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and
Belgian, not to mention Portuguese visitors, the Savoy's tone and ambience
is distinctly British from its richly furnished Edwardian public rooms
with classical pillars and polished marble floors, to the Palladian domed
restaurant that looks like something out of Brighton, to its very name.
The lobby of the Savoy: a little piece of
|During the Second World War, England evacuated nearly 4,000
British citizens from Gibraltar to Madeira. The Savoy was filled
with English families during those fateful years, and at a recent
and emotional reunion, people recalled the heady times of living in
a swanky hotel on an Edenic island while the world was at war.
High tea was still served on the Savoy’s Lido back then, a
seafront area that had been carved out of the rocks back in the
1920’s (Madeira’s shores are largely sheer cliffs).
Reaching it necessitated a steep decline but
once accomplished, Savoy guests could not only enjoy their tea and
crumpets and sunbathe beside the breakers, they could swim in swimming
pools that used sea water or in the mild and calm sea itself to a little
island nicknamed “the Island of Love” for the amorous encounters it
A row of cabanas built to
satisfy a local by-law which stipulated a changing facility for every ten
sunbathers in a more “prim and proper” day are long gone. But they are
recalled as an architectural motif of arched porticos in an elaborate
structure under construction on the site of the Lido and extending some
26,500 square feet into the sea. Scheduled
to open at the end of the summer of 2001, the Royal Savoy Resort will be
an expansion of the Savoy complex consisting of 162 oceanfront suites and
apartments that are being marketed primarily as time-sharing properties,
along with restaurants, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a jetty for sea
bathing and boat mooring, and lush tropical gardens. A footbridge will
link the gardens of the present Hotel Savoy which rises up the hill behind
the new complex to the roof gardens of the Royal Savoy where a panoramic
lift descends ten stories to the Lido level.
Looking down from the Hotel Savoy at the
construction underway for the Royal Savoy. Resort
scheduled to open the summer of 2001
|We learned about this piece of Savoy past and future
from Lars Hansen, the Danish-born general manager as we followed him
out of the Savoy lobby through gardens and patios surrounding an
enormous free-form swimming pool, and across the footbridge. There
we donned helmets and explored the Royal Savoy in its varied states
of construction and completion.
We saw sleek model apartments with high-design furnishings
and heart-stopping views, vast spaces set aside for restaurants and
lounges, and the rocky promontory where the former Lido once stood
and where a six-ton palm tree lay waiting to be planted.
|This is Lars’ third stint at the Savoy. He began as
its food and beverage manager, then moved to hotels in the Caribbean
and China, back to the Savoy as assistant GM, and then on to the
South African hotel he had originally trained in. “I was on
holiday in a fjord in Norway three and a half years ago when the
cell phone rang,” he told us. “It was the previous owners of the
Savoy. ‘Get on the next plane,’ they said. ‘We want to have a
chat with you.’”
Construction at the site of the old Lido; the
six-ton palm tree is to the left
Together with his wife Eli and their two little
girls, Lars returned to Madeira and the Savoy. Apparently there are no
regrets. “I’ve been to
many places around the world where you feel welcome for a limited time.
But there’s the sense that when they use up your talents, they’ll put
you out, and that leads to some apprehension,” he observed. “Madeira
is different. The people are very friendly. The typical island mentality
is welcoming, ready to show the open door. For any ex-patriot, that’s
the most valid environment to work in.
“People here seem happy in their occupations,” he
added. “They don’t all want to be managers. I may say to a steward who
is doing a terrific job, ‘Let me put you in waiter’s program.’
He’ll refuse. He’s content where he is.”
Savoy general manager Lars Hansen with his
wife Eli and daughters in the hotel gardens
|Our experiences confirmed Lars’ observations.
We were taken by the consistent pleasantness and infectious
warmth of all we met. The mood of the island seemed upbeat and
happy. On the Azores, we had noticed a kind of fatalism that comes,
we were told, from living on an isolated island.
In Madeira, we saw no sign of it.
There is virtually no crime in Madeira, and the “tourist
trap” environment one confronts in so many island vacation locales
was absent as well. In restaurants and shops, on the streets, in
public parks, we never had the sense of being solicited, hassled,
Madeira’s capital Funchal, aptly named for the
fennel herb (funcho in
Portuguese) which grows wild and fills the air with the aroma of licorice,
climbs from the harbor up the embracing hillsides. It’s a busy and well
maintained little city with enough Azulejos, the Moorish-inspired, blue
and white tiles, on building fronts to remind us we were in Portugal, an
abundance of flower-filled plazas and parks, and a seafront promenade
lined with open air restaurants.
|Beyond its fifteenth century cathedral and a collection of
excellent museums, an interesting Funchal site is the Old Blandy
Wine Lodge where wines under the Blandy label are produced.
Originally part of a monastery, then a courthouse and a prison, the
complex of wooden structures and open courts was purchased by the
British family in 19th century and transformed into the
wine lodge it remains today where visitors can follow the production
process and actually see the barrels of grapes that age above
Overlooking Funchal where the aroma of
licorice fills the air
Four million liters of this historic dessert wine,
which gets mention Shakespearean plays and was drunk to celebrate the
American colonies’ declaration of independence, is still produced with
grapes grown in the western part of the island.
In preparation for wine tasting at the Old
Blandy Wine Lodge
|Produce from all over the island makes its way to Funchal’s
Mercardo, or marketplace where three levels lined with rows of
brimming stalls overlook a large square-shaped court that opens to
the sky. On the lower level, fish vendors beckon customers,
rewarding them with an elaborate choreography of scaling the long
black local fish called “espada.”
Elsewhere a profusion of calla lilies, opulent
hydrangeas, birds of paradise, an incredible variety of orchids, and a
South African bloom called king protea - that looks something like a
fuchsia artichoke and lasts as a cut flower for weeks -- vie for space
with an abundance of produce: all kinds of melons and squashes, potatoes
and beans, citruses and apples and kiwis and plums, but also custard
apples, miniature and very sweet “silver” bananas, passion fruits, and
little red vegetables that look like cherry tomatoes with wrinkled skins
and have a sour, tangy taste.
Lars had told us Madeira was resisting the European
Union’s demands for uniformity in the size and look of produce, and as a
result, the island is losing out on subsidies. Somehow we could understand
the attitude. This independent streak seemed to jibe with the optimistic
mentality that marks Madeirian life.
Historically a pessimistic aspect of Madeirian life
had been the limited number of jobs available for the local population. So
many young people were forced to emigrate to Portugal, its former
colonies, and elsewhere to find work that more Madeirians live abroad than
on the island.
Today Jose Manuel Berardo is a wealthy businessman
with international holdings, but in 1963, he was one of those emigrants.
The youngest of seven children in a family that had lived in Madeira for
many generations, Berardo left school at the age of 14 to join his father
working for a wine company. Five years later, he was on his way to
From there he moved on to South Africa where at first
he labored on the land and then got into selling food products to mining
communities. Investing his accumulating capital in the purchase of
abandoned mines, he made use of new technology to get them going again.
The boy who was forced to leave his island home to seek his fortune became
the man who today owns mines and gold refining plants as well as a diverse
collection of international investments and properties. One of them is the
It was his older brother Jorge who encouraged Jose
Berardo to return home where he has established a range of philanthropic
enterprises including an organization that supports 500 local
students. "My brother
remembered how traumatic it was as a kid to be forced to go to a foreign
place to make a living, " Jorge told us. "And so he set up this
program to help young people get skills that will make them
We were having coffee with Jorge in Monte Palace, a
four story gabled structure inspired by the romantic castles along the
banks of the Rhone. An engaging man, quick to show affection to complete
strangers, Jorge was as expansive as the light-filled country house of
spacious and high ceiling rooms up in the hilly hamlet of Monte. Though
filled with art and antiques, it was comfortable and inviting with plush
upholstery that begged the visitor to sink in.
We sat in a little yellow sunroom off the parlor and
before a garden abloom with azaleas. Below a wooded area of eucalyptus and
mimosa trees overlooked the sparkling sea in the distance. "In the
nineteenth century when this house was built, people came up to the
mountains of Madeira looking for a place that would cure
tuberculosis," Jorge told us. "Later on it became a hotel that
was managed by a husband and wife. They died, one soon after the other,
and the hotel was up for sale. That
was in 1944. There were no takers, and it was abandoned.
"More than forty years later when Jose returned
to Madeira, he took it over, restored it, furnished it with antiques,
piece by piece. He created the surrounding gardens and set up a foundation
to insure it will always be maintained.”
stroll through the vast, many-layered garden that embraces Monte Palace is
like walking through a dream. Plants, trees -- including Sequoias from
California, flowering specimens from all over the world have been
transported here and thrive in the rich volcanic soil. Walkways lined with
volcanic rock are punctuated with sculptures from ancient to modern times
and Azulejos dating back as far as the 15th century --some are a series of
panels depicting events in Portuguese history. There is a vast collection
of prehistoric plants from South Africa, a lake with black and white swans
and brilliantly colored koi fish; there are peacocks, Zen-like retreats
with bridges, pagodas, and Buddhas. And this entire wonderland is open to
A glimpse of the gardens around Monte Palace
Click to Enlarge
Although my brother and I came from a family
that was poor economically, we got strong values from our
parents," Jorge said. "They taught us what is the idea of
having things and hiding them. The point is to share with everyone,
to let everyone enjoy. That formed my brother’s philosophy: not
everyone can buy, but everyone can enjoy."
|Jose Berardo often uses the facilities of Monte Palace for special
events like the annual party he throws for the students he supports.
As one of the two owners of the Savoy, he stages events connected
with the hotel as well. Recently the European ministers were hosted on the property.
At a party for the designer Pierre Cardin, guests entered at
the top of the garden, and as they descended through the grounds to
the house, they encountered trios of musicians in period costumes
playing classical music. A lake at the bottom of the garden had been
covered with a platform turning it into a stage for a concert
encouraged his brother Jose to
come back home to Madeira
With Madeira’s excellent road system, it is easy
for the Savoy to organize and coordinate events at Monte Palace. We
reached it, however, via a direct hoist up the mountain on a cable car.
This, Madeira’s newest means of conveyance, affords the most
glorious of views. Lars had told us that the earliest tourists to Madeira
were drawn to its higher elevations which were accessed by a now defunct
railroad. The return to sea level was often accomplished by the Monte
Toboggan, a unique form of transport which still exists as a popular
tourist activity. People sit in what looks like a little settee but is
actually an open wicker basket of sorts resting on wooden runners while
drivers push the basket down the two mile steep decline from Monte to
Today the bulk of Madeira’s
tourist facilities hug its southern oceanfront coast, but the mountainous
interior with its panoramic views, charming little towns, extravagant
flora, and wealth of hiking trails some alongside abandoned canals is
getting a well deserved second look. The recent expansion of
Madeira's airport to accommodate wide-body aircraft positions the island
to enhance and transform its potential as a tourist destination, much as
the opening of the airport did back in 1964.
airport, guests arrived by sea," Lars had told us. "The big
ships would stop on the way from Southampton to Capetown and back again.
Everybody would get off the ship and come into the hotel, and everyone in
the hotel would move onto the boat. It took a week or two to get from
Southampton to Madeira. People traveled with big steamer trunks that they
put into big wardrobes.
“All through those years,
everybody was on full board,” Lars noted. “People ate six meals a day.
Hotel dining rooms were like those on the ships -- they accommodated
everybody. The Savoy's held one thousand people at a time.
“But then the airport
opened, and little by little everything changed. There are no longer the
long summer holidays; it could be a weekend break. Dining habits change;
people don’t want all those meals. They went from full board to half
board and from there to bed and breakfast. And restaurants opened up
all around the hotels. So there was no longer the need for the huge dining
Today, the Savoy’s main
restaurant is the Cupula. It is open for breakfast and dinner, specializes
in elaborate buffets, and seats a mere 250. There are other options: the
Library Garden and Terrace, and al fresco service on the patios and around
the pool –--twenty-first century dining concepts.
But not all traces of a
more leisurely and elegant past have disappeared. The Fleur de Lys remains
up on the Savoy’s eighth floor, and it was there we reserved a table for
our last night on this enchanted isle.
It was still dusk when we
arrived. From a corner table that afforded panoramic views to the south
and east, we watched the lights come on in hillside houses like the glow
of hundreds of fireflies, and the sea turn from violet to navy blue.
Candles were lit throughout the formal yet comfortable room with its
widely spaced tables and upholstered chairs.
Cecilio Martins, Fleur de Lys’ debonair maitre d',
presented us with an elaborate menu that included some local specialties
but leaned to the more classical offerings. A traditionalist in the world
of haute cuisine who’s been at the Savoy since 1968, he guided us
through a grand dinner that was not lacking in elements of nostalgia.
Following his recommendation, we began with a delicious salad of rock
lobster, a small crustacean found in the local waters, that was cooked
just right and served out of the shell. It had been a long time
since we saw French onion soup gratinee on a menu, but it is a staple at
the Fleur de Lys, and true to form, the soup lover among us had to have
it. His pronouncement: “sublime!”
A shooting flame at the other end of the restaurant
caught our eye. It Cecilio Martins preparing duck a l’orange tableside,
a dish he had encouraged us to try. Though we could not remember when last
we had this one time favorite, throwing cholesterol concerns to the wind
we decided to go for it. From our front row seats, we watched him
pour the cognac into the sauce and flambé it with dramatic flair. The
duck was crisp on the outside, succulent on the inside, and somehow so
apropos to the mood at hand. For dessert, we were treated to another
pyrotechnic performance as Cecilio prepared Crepes Suzette and tropical
Cecilio Martins, Fleur de Lys' debonair maitre d', displays his pyrotechnic artistry
Savoy’s French-born executive chef Jean Claude Boffy stopped by
our table as we were having coffee. Boffy trained in France and had
worked in some of the finest kitchens in Europe as well as the
Intercontinental Hotels in Athens and Rio, the Palace in Muscat and
the Sultanat in Oman before coming to Madeira in late 1999. He can
do everything from the Escoffier style to the more modern and leaner
styles of cuisine. Looking to the future, Jean is enthusiastic about
the restaurant to open in the Royal Savoy Resort. Cecilio, however,
wants nothing more than to continue serving in the time honored
elegant manner so typical of the Fleur de Lys.
|Like its maitre d’ and executive chef, past and future
intermingle comfortably at the Hotel Savoy. A lobby wall displays
a collection of black and white photographs that illustrate
the history of the property which began life as a private dwelling
and was turned into a 30-room hotel 1902.
Among the pictures are those of guests arriving in little
boats that took them from the ocean-going vessels to the shore,
visitors being carried from the harbor to the hotel in hammocks
slung on the shoulders of porters, Carnival Night during the
1940’s, Dennis and Margaret Thatcher honeymooning at the Hotel
Savoy in 1951, and its mid 1960’s renovation into the current
post-war modernism design.
The Hotel Savoy’s Executive Chef Jean Claude
While change has and continues to dominate the Savoy
story, for Lars Hansen, a constant theme runs through it as well which he
predicts will persist as the hotel moves into its second century: a
service-oriented ethos that pervades every aspect of its operation.
“There are 337 rooms in the hotel and a staff of 450. And I know
each one of them,” he told us. “They
are enthusiastic about their jobs and communicate that feeling to our
guests, many of whom return over and over again. Some even leave their
vacation clothes here. When they come back, they’re greeted like long
lost friends. The maid remembers them; she gives them a hug.
“As I always tell the staff, you can have a hotel
with gold chandeliers and diamonds in the floors,” he adds. “But what
it all comes down to is how people are treated. It’s the feeling of
warmth that makes the difference.”
Avenida do Infante
9004-542 Funchal, Madeira
Phone: 351-291 222 –31/39
Fax: 351 291 122 103
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights